A little about myself to begin. I am a young elder in the church. I am seminary trained and have an M.Div from one of our finest institutions. I served at a church as associate, worship, and youth leader 5 years before attending seminary. I converted in from unbelief.
The revelation that ultimately led me to Christ and kept me in the church was our emphasis on the poor. Growing up in an underprivileged community with parents struggling with addiction, seeing the way God in Christ identified with the last, lost, and least was the revelation that convinced me of the validity of the Gospel. I had originally thought that God probably loved and preferred the religious and robed. Seeing Jesus prefer the company of "unlettered" fisherman, those with disability and disease, the poor, the average ordinary folks found on the outskirts of the kingdoms - the marginalized - was the ordained epiphany that the God of the universe loved me and I was not cursed or rejected because of my socio-economic status. It was quickened in my heart that Christ would be here with me, and, in fact, was already as he loved all but had a preferential option for the poor.
B. T. Roberts affirmed this epiphany of mine making it a foundational principal and distinctive of the Free Methodist Church, which helped me to continue in the tradition of my conversion. Roberts famously says:
"But for whose benefit are special efforts to be put forth? Who must be particularly cared for? Jesus settles this question. ‘The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up,’ and, as if all this would be insufficient to satisfy John of the validity of his claims, he adds, ‘and the poor have the gospel preached to them.’ This was the crowning proof that He was the One that should come. In this respect the Church must follow in the footsteps of Jesus. Thus the duty of preaching the gospel to the poor, is enjoined by the plainest precepts and examples. If the gospel is to be preached to all, then it follows, as a necessary consequence, that all the arrangements for preaching the gospel should be so made as to secure this object" (The Doctrines and Disciplines of the Free Methodist Church. 1872. Published by the General Conference, Rochester, NY, pp. x-xi.Roberts did not merely believe this to be true, but began organizing his burgeoning movement almost singularly around this one principal. The early Free Methodist Church had two umbrella distinctives that acted as guiding forces for the movement. The earliest Books of Discipline state it this way, "All [Free Methodist] churches are required to be as free as the grace they preach. They believe that their mission is two-fold – to maintain the Bible standard of Christianity, and to preach the Gospel to the poor” (ibid, p. ix). I fully accept the "Bible standard of Christianity" and lament regularly our compromise on holiness and sanctification in its entirety. Much could be written on our Holiness roots and the significance of the 'radical' (radix) way we approached society. But this letter is about the marginalized and underprivileged. One distinctive of our early tradition was entirely devoted to our identification and work with vulnerable populations. Later in the document the definition of "preaching the gospel to the poor" is expanded by the original Wesleyan "General Rules" for all who would enter the movement, "It is expected of all who continue in these societies, that they should continue to evidence their desire of salvation, secondly, by doing good… as far as possible to all [people]. To their bodies, of the ability which God giveth, by giving food to the hungry, by clothing the naked, by visiting or helping them that are sick or in prison. To their souls, by instructing, reproving, or exhorting all with whom we have any intercourse…” (ibid, pp. 31-32). Preaching the gospel to the poor meant, FIRST, meeting their felt needs and second discipling them into the faith.
This was our shared movement. This is our earliest expression of the faith handed to us. And this is the legacy for which we are called to represent, spread, and pass on.
And I have sat in many meetings which have encouraged us to remain faithful to the church in hopes that a fresh expression of this movement would ignite our church again. Not a dead formalism or a traditionalism, but living expression of the movement in which we find ourselves today. The problem as I experience it is that the earliest movement had theological distinctives which had real, boots-on-the-ground expressions to mobilize the people. We want the people mobilized, we want the movement, but I am concerned that we have bypassed the spark that ignites the gasoline - enfleshed distinctives.
As we all know, and have regurgitated many times, the Free Methodists began out of a series of freedoms for the very least of these. We wanted freedom for slaves. We wanted free seats so the poor could fully participate in God's church. Many wanted freedom for women to participate at any level of the church to which God would call her. We wanted freedom of worship. And freedom from secret societies that met politically to undermine the work of God and keep the oppressed class down. Even our rather extreme stance on alcohol and clothes were meant was ways for us to identify with and be hospitable to the poor. THESE FREEDOMS caused an irreconcilable difference between us and our mother church - the Methodist Episcopal church - the two largest issues being freedom for slaves and free seats.
But the point that I think that is missed in our self-congratulatory telling of history is the Methodist-Episcopal history of slavery and opulence. There could be whole books written on Wesley's concern for his growing movement's move to the middle-class and the loss of grace and passion that caused. We can easily read about American Methodism's historic rise and decline because of the comfort and deceit of wealth - and it's continued decline today. But I think the point will be made best by looking at slavery. Our own Marston recounts the history well, where essentially our mother church refused to take a stance on slavery because there were too many members on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line. IT WASN'T THAT THE METHODIST CHURCH WAS PRO-SLAVERY, but their refusal to adopt a position of justice which ultimately led to it's own splitting and our rejection. Marston says:
"It is a sobering observation that the church took no vigorous, consistent, and unwavering stand against slavery compromise during the entire period of organized Methodism's history up to the out-break of the Civil War. The cautiously prudential and pragmatic approach to the slavery issue failed. Two divisions had occurred... And the same consistent policy of compromise had a bearing on the final separation from Methodism of those who in 1860 organized the Free Methodist Church" (From Age to Age A Living Witness, p. 160, copyright 1960).The mother church's failed attempt to say anything meaningful and just on an abhorrent system of inequality and slavery that would have been fully in-line with the 1784 Methodist Rule to deny membership to slave-holders not only failed as a policy of compromise but led to the division of the church and the birth of Free Methodism. Their initial distinctive gave way to geographical political opinions, and the Kingdom suffered because of compromise to the world.
And let me be brutally honest. Slavery is widely regarded as a social evil now, but not because it has always been that way. The FM stance was a radical stance. I can make an argument from scripture for the allowance of slavery. I can make a better argument for slavery than a flat-out rejection of something like homosexuality (which we piecemeal together scripture to take a stance on). The FM rejection of slavery was a bold theological stance with very real political consequences and actions.
This last election cycle ending with the election of Donald Trump yesterday reminds me a lot of what happened in Methodism's history in the USA. Article after article, blog after blog, FM leaders did their best to compromise politically in hopes to keep a unified church moving forward for Kingdom purposes. In appeasements to our more conservative brothers and sisters, we dared to make moral equivalencies to Trump's vile behavior, words, and policies to Clinton's emails and her, somewhat sexism-fueled, assumption the she is untrustworthy. Am I advocating that we should endorse candidates? Absolutely not. I understand the legalities in that issue. And Clinton has her own policy hopes that are not in line with Gospel issues like war-mongering, coup inciting, drone-dropping, business-class elitism, entrenched government mind-set, and abortion (to name a few). But of the evangelicals who voted, reportedly 4 out of 5 evangelicals voted for Trump - a campaign literally ran on words, behaviors, and policies that promoted racism, misogyny, and, most-importantly, a jeopardized future for the poor - essentially against all the freedoms we are trying to promote. We didn't want to denounce one without seeming like we were endorsing the other, so we made moral equivalencies to try to compromise and appease. And 80% of our folks who voted did so for him. Our rural geophraphies had more bearing on our politics than any theology or distinctive. That is the sign of a broken church - American or otherwise.
And I saw your blogs calling us to a higher citizenship. They called us to prioritize our Christian relationships with followers of Jesus in other countries over that of our own national interests. I think you tried. But I think the trying appealed too much to an ethereal, theological, disassociated praxis without continually pointing to the hills we should die on. I do not understand what it means to lead and co-lead a national and international movement of believers. I understand that our work is more than the election cycle of the United States. This letter is not meant to suggest we should become entrenched in national politics (though our history surely provides ample precedent). No, my only suggestion is that if we want a movement, a movement that encapsulates our earliest movement and reclaims our distinctives to effect real Kingdom change in our world, I think we have to coalesce around real, boots-on-the-ground issues affecting our communities. I bring up the election because it seems as though we have thoroughly lost our distinction and have become generic evangelicals. Again, our geographies inform more than our theologies - our is race more determinative than our worship. These coalescing issues, then, would have to stem from our distinctives and be a driving force for our work. A positive example now would be our work with Kevin Austin, Rick Reynolds in Seattle, or Eden Reforestation.
If we want a movement like the early Free Methodists, it will not come from theology alone. It will not come from emphasizing the Kingdom alone or our other worldly citizenship. It will not come from compromising to the point where we have over-spiritualized everything and take few stances on real-life things for fear of offending our brothers and sisters who find our distinctions outdated and non-essential. We need gospel-driven, distinctive-enfleshed directives to coalesce our movement around. Otherwise we are generic evangelicals trying to carve out our space on the broader scene when "evangelical," especially after this last election, is becoming more of a liability than an asset. If you think I am wrong, consider B.T.'s final words of the introduction in the BoD, "We do not wish any to subscribe to [the FMC] unless they believe it will be for the glory of God and the good of their souls… it is of the greatest importance that those who come into this organization should be of one heart and one mind" (BoD, 1872, p. xii). At some point our distincitves should make us distinct from others. And I think justice for the poor and marginalized, our founding distinction, is the hill to die on.
So why don't we have statements and directives on enfleshed distinctives like:
• black lives matter
• creation care, environmental stewardship, and global climate change
• a stronger stance on immigration and the inclusion of Muslims
• stronger declarations and directions on the equality of women
• Standing Rock and First Nations support
• Predatory Capitalism
• Police Brutality
• Non-violence and war and military participation/spending
• citizen's united
• the cost of education
We passed a very strict, politically reactionary stance on homosexuality moments after its acceptance in the Supreme Court? Why not stances on issues that are more in line with our distinctives and affect our everyday life? I will marry maybe three couples this year. Hopefully we are working with the poor and minorities everyday. God knows they feel their oppression daily.
Ultimately, I feel as if we have compromised for a very long time. The division in America is the division in our church. The same division is present among our clergy. I am sure you must feel it. I even believe that you sympathize a great deal with what I am saying. Our past is the best way forward. I am working for that locally. Hopefully we do so collectively.
I write this not as an outsider trying to change the insiders. I write this as a team member to my team leaders who I dearly love and would fight along side of any day. You have loved me and welcomed me and championed me. I respect you with great awe and reverence. I am here. I am with you. I am for you.
Blessings as you lead and work. I am with you and for you, committed to the cause and captured by the theological articulation. We are poised for greatness in the Kingdom. Let's just be about what we have said we're about.