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John Wesley's Teachings on Ethics & Society are a Treasure Trove of Pastoral Advice
One of the people I credit with mentoring my journey toward retrieving the historic Christian faith is Thomas Oden; you could say I've become something of a fanboy. Known for his paleo-orthodoxy persuasion—which sees the essentials of Christian theology in the historic ecumenical consensus—he is one of those special sages I pay close attention to.
So two years ago when he revised and extended his work on John Wesley I began acquiring them all. I figured if Oden sought to systematize this great Protestant's theology, then I would greatly benefit from this font of wisdom. And I have.
Oden's goal with his four volumes is to make Wesley's thoughts accessible to nonprofessional readers today. His final volume is the most practical of the four, because it gets at the heart of how a Christian should behave.
His latest volume, John Wesley's Teachings: Society and Ethics, gives us teachers and practitioners a sturdy guide to advising our people how to navigate the choppy waters of the moral and ethical life. From society to economics, politics and theology, this final volume will serve pastors particularly well as we strive to do what Wesley strove to do: Shape holy people.
Wesley's Social Ethics
Wesley's major contribution to ethics was in the area of character building through communities of accountability. He wrote extensively on such perennial social ethical issues as character, virtue, justice, obligation, purpose, duty, and consequence.
While his ideas were significant in and of themselves, Oden argues his contribution to the practice of these were far more significant. And the manner in which he sought these ethics to be practiced were in small face-to-face communities. “Wesley was intent on actually cultivating communities of faith through which the holy life could be nurtured. He offered wise counsel for living the good life he taught.” (28)
Throughout the United Kingdom Wesley deliberately built such communities and wrote “The Rules of the Band-Societies” to govern such groups. Oden explains, “‘Bands’ referred to those who covenanted together to be honest to God and with each other. A band was voluntary, and it was small, because it sought a level of intimacy not possible in a large group.” (28)
The ultimate goal of these groups was the holy life, because, as Wesley quipped, “To be happy is to be holy.” How could one be admitted into these bands that cultivated such happiness? Wesley wrote, “There is one only condition previously required in those who desire admission into these societies—a desire ‘to flee from the wrath to come, to be saved from their sins.’” (48) Repentance which led to faith and salvation was the prerequisite.
You could say Wesley was the original small group ministry guru; he was a man ahead of his time.
Wesley's Economic Ethics
After outlining Wesley's contribution to social ethics, Oden turns to how that ethic might impact accountability in the economic order, made personal in finances—how we gain and spend money.
Accordingly, Wesley's ethic "is less interested in speculative theories of economic order than in wisely using the resources we have been given and earned. We are given these resources by the creator and are called to improve them through our imagination, reason, and effort." (59)
Oden reminds us that Wesley was teaching a very specific group of people about economic accountability, poor Methodists who were "industrious and willing to learn the habits of responsible work and reasonable gaining and spending." They were also "supporting their families by means of ordinary labor and according to commonsense rules of fairness." (59)
Here’s an example of such ordinary, commonsense teaching:
Gain all you can by honest industry. Use all possible diligence in your calling. Lose no time. If you understand yourself and your relation to God and man, you know you have none to spare. If you understand your particular calling as you ought you will have not time that hangs upon your head. (64)
Wesley's Political Ethics
Oden makes clear “there is little evidence that Wesley was a ‘political activist’ in the modern sense of being actively engaged in influencing legislation or administrative law.” (109) That doesn’t mean he didn’t have anything to say to the political order, however.
Wesley’s focus on the reformation of the heart in character and habit naturally led to public policy questions. As Oden writes, “People whose hearts have been redeemed have a capacity to make the realm of legislation, law, jurisprudence, and political administration healthier.” (109)
His teachings touched each of these aspects of the political order in ample measure: Wesley was a moral reformer largely concerned with the poor, demoralized, and dysfunctional neighborhoods; during the American Revolution Wesley sought a way of peace between American aspirations and British law; most significantly he was an ardent, lifelong opponent of slavery.
In 1774 Wesley penned his “Thoughts upon Slavery,” in which he established careful moral arguments in response to the dehumanizing practice. In turn, he significantly influenced the abolition movement, especially among American Methodists.
“Wesley did not mince words,” Oden asserts. “He spoke with pastoral concern for the souls of those who were engaged in slave trade…Wesley overtly sought to influence public policy, not on partisan political grounds, but on strictly moral grounds. He thought the hearts of the traders and planters had to be changed one at a time. His words went directly to the heart to those most responsible.” (170)
Wesley's Theological Ethics
Finally Oden turns to Wesley’s understanding of the Christian life itself. And for Wesley, the foundation of Christian ethical teaching was none other than Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. Through thirteen teaching homilies he sought to define the particular ethical nature of the Christian’s life.
The underlying root in this ethic is summed by Oden: “The Christian life is the fruit of justifying faith. It arises not as a result of an idea but in response to an event: God’s grace made known in the cross and resurrection.” (179)
In Wesley’s words, the Sermon was a “stable doctrine” that acted as “a summary of the Christian life, beginning with repentance and proceeding through justification to perfect love.” (179-180) It was the ethical foundation to the kind of life that God desires of his children, the kind of life that’s blessed in which the Christian is living in full enjoyment of and accountability to God.
Formally, I am no Wesleyan, but after making my way through Wesley's theology I have a greater appreciation for this tribe who bears his name. Not only did Wesley leave virtually no philosophical ethical and Christian moral issue untouched, he taught them in a way that prioritized the complicated life issues of the farmer, cobbler, millworker, and factory worker—his audience was "small communities of those seeking to live a holy life grounded in grace," as Oden writes. (16)
We pastors and other teachers would do well to follow Wesley's lead in helping our people navigate the moral and ethical life. This volume is a good place to start.
Jeremy Bouma (Th.M.) is a pastor with the Evangelical Covenant Church in West Michigan. He is the founder of THEOKLESIA, a content curator dedicated to helping the 21st century church rediscover the historic Christian faith; holds a Master of Theology in historical theology; and writes about faith and life at www.jeremybouma.com.
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