Even as the doctrine of Christian Perfection helped define the Methodists and explained what we’re about, it’s not widely preached or taught in our churches today. There’s also been a lot of debate and disagreement among Wesleyans over this doctrine. In the late 1800s a series of splits occurred within the Methodist Episcopal Church between those who saw perfection as a gradual progress and those who believed it came with or immediately followed conversion. Since then the United Methodist Church has been somewhat wary of this doctrine.
Even today it’s greeted with either tilted heads or deep sighs most the time it’s mentioned in church. Just the other week Mark Tooley wrote about his fears on the implications of Christian Perfection. I’ve found people on both sides of the theological spectrum are frightened by this doctrine for different reasons. Conservatives fear it goes against their understanding of original sin or total depravity, while liberals fear the doctrine is too charismatic or Pentecostal.
I believe that properly understood as Wesley articulated and preached it with the same personal humility as him these dangers will be avoided. I am more afraid of what will happen to us as a church if we continue to avoid talking about Christian Perfection. Always facing forward and seeking to reform, not only of some parts, but all parts of our lives toward God is what fueled the growth of Methodism in Britain. It’s what made us one of the chief forces against the slave trade. It led circuit riders to spend over three quarters of the year traveling miles between towns, staying wherever someone would take them in, for barely enough money to pay for the horse they road in on. Perfection drove us to do amazing things and challenged false assumptions: that some men were meant to live off the servitude of others, that only men were called to ministry, and that the poor had only themselves to blame for their poverty. Whether we saw evil in the form of a man beating and chaining another man or an entire global economy built on the backs of slaves, there was a time when we spoke out without fear. We only moved forward and didn’t let anything stop us in our tracks. If only we would try again to be the church that made the powerful tremble and brought the Gospel to the most unexpected places, rather than the church everyone wants to have a beer with.
Imagine for a moment want would happen if we began teaching Christian Perfection again. Imagine if our sermons and Sunday School lessons reinforced this belief every week in every congregation. Imagine if every person attending conference came every year “going on to perfection.” What great wonders would the Holy Spirit be free to conceive in our sanctuaries and mission sites across the world? Would the conversations change from talks about how to survive or which place gets which cuts, to conversations about where we go next to offer the Gospel and God’s grace? Instead of telling ourselves that there are problems in the world too big for us to solve, would we start asking “what is the most we can do to offer the world a glimpse of the Kingdom?”
In 2008 the General Board of Global Ministries launched a new campaign. Original called “Nothing But Nets” it’s now called “Imagine No Malaria”. Yes, the United Methodist Church envisioned eradicating a global disease that’s been around longer than civilization itself and claims the lives of about 1 million people a year. When the campaign started some said it couldn’t be done. Others thought it wasn’t really the church’s job. Still others thought it sounded nice, but that asking United Methodists to give $75 million when tithing nation-wide was dropping was crazy. But still some looked at the campaign and realized, “this is where the Spirit is leading us.”
Even the name itself, “Imagine No Malaria” calls upon us to leave behind our current anxiety and cynicism toward the future and look with hope toward the great possibilities that lie ahead. This campaign from its inception has been facing forward. And look at the results. Already they have raised $62 million dollars, 82% of their overall goal. They provided over 2 million nets and maintained over 300 clinics to treat the disease along with training over 11,600 health workers. At all points of prevention, treatment, and education the United Methodist Church is moving at full speed toward eradication. Something about this campaign struck a cord with people in the church.
Now imagine if every new ministry, fund, or program at the local church, annual conference, and global church level followed the lead of Imagine No Malaria, by not stopping to ask “can it be done?”, but only “what needs to be done?” Imagine if we returned to Wesleyan discipleship by not only asking people to join our church or remember to tithe, but challenge them to offer their whole lives, all their gifts, all their experiences, and all their relationships to God. What if we started asking people again (in more modern nomenclature, perhaps) “how is it with your soul?” One disciple is worth a 1,000 church members.
“Are WE going onto perfection?”
If we are not moving forward, we’re falling back whether as individual Christians or an entire church. I, for one, think we’ve spent enough time “back-tracking”. It’s time to look ahead again.