Is the “Open Arms” approach to membership based on the cultural standard of self-actualization or a biblical standard of self-denial? This was the question that came to me in the middle of Sunday morning’s sermon on Mark 8:34-38.
Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.
What seemed to me like a warning shot across the bow of the ship was the order in which Jesus expressed following him. First – self-denial, Second – cross bearing, and third – following. I began pondering the ordo salutis. Is there significant biblical evidence to call people to Christ in the order Jesus sets out in Mt. 16:24, Mk 8:34 & Lk 9:23?
My first thoughts were of the closing verses in Luke 9. The call of Jesus to these three disciples was blatantly to self-denial and cross bearing. The call was up front with no apology and with no room for negotiation.
“As they were walking along the road, a man said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus replied, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”
He said to another man, “Follow me.” But the man replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”
Still another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say good-by to my family.” Jesus replied, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.” Luke 9:57-62
The calls of Peter, Andrew, James, John and Matthew reveal that they left everything to follow Jesus.
As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will make you fishers of men.” At once they left their nets and followed him.
When he had gone a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John in a boat, preparing their nets. Without delay he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him. Mark 1:16-20
After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth. “Follow me,” Jesus said to him, and Levi got up, left everything and followed him. Luke 5:27-28
Not only is this seen in the original calls, but it is reflected in the words of Peter, “We have left everything to follow you!” Mark 10:28.
In the Free Methodist Church, during recent years the prevailing thought has been that our “Code of Christian Conduct” has served as a fence to define who belongs. While this may be true of those who slipped into legalism, it surely was not the original intention of either John Wesley, or of B.T. Roberts. Classes were formed to “separate the precious from the vile.” This was not done as a means of keeping the people from joining the societies. It was to make a clear distinction between those who were leaving all to follow Christ, and those who were half-hearted in responding to Christ’s call. The intention was to keep people of one mind in following Christ from being infected by those who were apathetic. It was exclusive in function, but only as it served to help those who were committed to following Christ (see “A Plain Account of a People Called Methodists”).
My concern today is not that we are exclusive – hardly a doctrinally or practically exclusive FM church could be found in North America today. In my observation of the church the problem has not been an exclusive spirit. On the contrary, I have observed not only hundreds of our people who don’t know our distinctive characteristics, (primarily the doctrine of entire sanctification and a mission to reach the poor and disenfranchised) but a growing number of clergy who have a soteriological praxis that rarely reflects the reality of Jesus’ practice (denial, cross-bearing and following).
Recently the chorus has been, “We do not want to make entrance into the FM church more difficult than entrance into the body of Christ.” The corresponding unasked question is, “Do we want to make is less difficult?” The obvious answer is “no,” but is that what the current trend signifies? It is not uncommon in our churches today for people to be “converted” by raising their hands or signing a card. Too often we call for a commitment without explaining the cost.
Since prerequisites for following Jesus are self-denial and cross bearing, how does a practice of easy entrance into membership reflect this? When in the current membership scenario does the pastor call for greater commitment? When do we promote a significant “cost” factor to following Christ? What the FM current membership covenant appears to assume is that discipleship is preceded by salvation. What is the scriptural foundation for the assumption? How do reason, experience and tradition support it?
Sometimes it seems we have adopted a sales pitch approach to following Christ. We show all the benefits and hide the cost. Not only does this not seem to fit the pattern of Christ, it seems to lack basic integrity. Jesus didn’t have a hard time with tough requirements for entrance into the kingdom. How do the difficult sayings of Jesus fit into our current membership practice?
“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’”
“Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
Historic Methodism viewed the high accountability of the classes not as fences to keep people out, but as “method” to lead people to Christ. It was in fact a form of self-denial and cross bearing that preceded conversion. It was a matter of order that flowed from the gospel.
While the 1995 General Conference change to an open membership did not change the fact that for years there has not been a system of accountability in the FM church, it did take away the remains of what was once the heart of Methodism. “Self-denial first.” This was in fact, the reason for the derogatory name, “Methodist.”
In light of (1) our lack of practicing high accountability, (2) our officially accepted view of membership without self-denial, and (3) our addressing the minor issues of membership while overlooking the major issue of accountability, it might be appropriate that we drop the “Methodist” from our name, as in fact, many of our churches are doing.
What we have attempted to do is to address a spiritual problem with a structural fix. We might be more effective (and scriptural) if we structure for self-denial. At least we will be following the example of Jesus. Instead of using “Methodism” (by that I mean the structured system of accountability) for the advancement of the kingdom, we have abandoned the methodology.
I personally do not mourn the shift in focus on membership. I mourn that we are not addressing the real problem, a problem that has existed for several generations…salvation without discipleship, membership without accountability, and grace without cross bearing.
One rationale for the shift in our membership is that it was time we moved from being an order to being a church. Conclusions have been drawn from the history of Methodism as an order within the Church of England. Many consider John Wesley to have died an Anglican priest. In fact, I have been in Episcopal churches that celebrate John Wesley’s impact on the church on England. Wesley, however, was not afraid to start little groups (called Societies) for those who were sincere to follow Christ. Entrance into those societies not only required a desire to flee the wrath to come, but an adherence to a very specific code of conduct.
My fear is that while Free Methodism is “growing up” out of an order and into a church, we are not sufficiently poised to allow the formation of Methodist societies again. I fear we will fall deeper into the pit of bifurcating salvation and discipleship. We are in need, not only as a church but also in the larger culture, of the sectarian influence of historic Methodism. Are we afraid to carry that banner – the banner passed onto us from our founders? If we are, then surely God will raise up another people to do His work.
You will find in this book the doctrines and form of government of the Free Methodist Church. We do not wish any to subscribe to it unless they believe it will be for the glory of God and the good of their souls. We have no desire to build up simply a large church; but we do hope that our societies will be composed, exclusively, of those who are in earnest to gain heaven and who are determined, by the grace of God, to live up to the requirements of the Bible. It is of the greatest importance that those who come into this organization shall be of one heart and one mind.
Free Methodist Book of Discipline
May we, by the blessing of God, be enabled to hold inviolate the heritage received from the fathers. Amen!
E.P. Hart – Reminiscences of Early Free Methodism – p. 259