Monday, July 02, 2007

Real Christians

One of the remarkable things I've come across in reading about the life of John Wesley is that, even while he still saw Methodism as a movement within the Anglican Church, Wesley was frequently criticized as "gathering churches out of churches." Wesley's reply was something along the lines of, "You don't really think all the people on the Church of England membership roles are Christians, do you?"

That is, Wesley saw his task as finding nominal Christians and prodding them on to becoming "real Christians" (his term).

There's a lot of bickering that goes on in many Christian circles over who is a "real Christian" and who isn't. Certain conservatives point fingers at liberals and say they aren't real Christians because they don't believe in the inerrancy of the Bible. Some liberals point fingers at conservatives and say they aren't real Christians because they don't put enough emphasis on compassion.

Wesley's idea of a "real Christian" probably seemed a lot like that to his contemporaries, but he had a very sound basis. For Wesley, a "real Christian" was someone who had been converted to saving faith by the work of the Holy Spirit.

A nominal Christian might be someone who tried to live a good and moral life. He might go to church and receive the sacraments regulary. He might even be very zealous in his practice and preaching of Christianity. But, said Wesley, if this person hadn't been the beneficiary of the work of the Holy Spirit converting him to faith, he wasn't yet a real Christian.

This is very sound in theory, though I can't imagine how it could be anything other than contentious in practice -- and it was. And yet there's something breathtaking, even in reading it as history, about someone being willing to stand up and say, not everything is right in our churches.

I've referred before to David Tiede's maxim that "The Holy Spirit is a disruptive influence in the Church," and I see this as yet another application of that truth.

Imagine if someone were to go around in your average Lutheran congregation suggesting that not everyone in the pews every week really knew Jesus. Such a person would quickly find themselves pointed toward the door. But wouldn't it be true?

I'm reminded of Kierkegaard's parable of a fire in a vaudeville theatre, where the only person who know about the fire is dressed in a clown suit, and the more frantically he tells people there's a fire, the more everyone laughs.


Chris said...

My wife has accepted a teaching position at a Methodist seminary. We are excited to learn from and about the Methodist tradition. I think that their emphasis on Christian living, on sanctification, will be a good complement to our strong and at times overly-exclusive Lutheran emphasis on God's saving action. Sure, God saves, but then what? Perhaps the Methodists could help us out with that question.

Pastor Eric said...

But if a Lutheran is not ready to cross over to the Methodists then they should read a good dose of Bonhoeffer. Too many Lutheran sitting in our pews are "cheap grace" professing Christians.

I have suggested that not everyone really knows Jesus but only knows about Jesus (maybe I haven't suggested it hard enough because no one has shown me the door yet). I guess sometimes I feel like the one in a clown suit trying to announce something serious.

LawAndGospel said...

Take the time to read Real Christianty by William Wilberforce, the man whose life was documented in the recent movie "Amazing Grace." He talks about cultural Christians, people who say they are Christians but do not develop any faith roots, and compares them to people who strive to develop a genuine faith.

Andy said...


I expect that the cross-cultivation will be good. I feel like we're at a point in Church history where a massive synthesization is called for. Our denominations have mostly outlived their usefulness, but they're full of great insights.


You're absolutely right about Bonhoeffer. He is the cure for nominal Christians, and his message is always relevant. Of course, Wesley and Bonhoeffer are coming from different places and have different goals. I think Bonhoeffer's better in as much as his concern is about response in the present moment, whereas Wesley seems to be hung up on attaining holiness. Wesley's strength, I think, is his emphasis on God's role in the process.


Thanks for the recommendation. As it happens, I just today came across a note about a letter Wesley wrote to Wilberforce in support of Wilberforce's political actions on slavery.

toujoursdan said...

I went to a Wesleyan university (sponsored by the Nazarenes, Salvationists, Free Methodists and Wesleyan Church.) I think you can find as many nominal Christians there as you can in any Lutheran church.

While I appreciated the doctrines of sanctification, when I saw them in practise they always boiled down to maintaining purity codes (no drinking smoking or swearing and no sex before marriage, etc.) and forms of works righteousness like who goes to Bible studies most regularly and volunteers for the most mission trips. I also saw a race to the bottom in who could find the most restrictive definition of what a real Christian was ("Well they don't drink, but we don't drink or smoke, so we are more 'real' than they are.")

When I finished university, I really didn't have a sense of what being a "real" Christian meant.

I am not a Lutheran what I have always appreciated from the Lutheran p.o.v. was that it is God's saving action and that it may not be the same for everyone and that "nominal" Christian in the pew next to me may be the "real" Christian willing to make great personal sacrifice for Christ when the time arose.

When I am honest with myself, there are times when I am a "real" Christian and when I am not and circumstances when I am a "real" Christian and when I am not. I don't ever see myself as ever being entirely "sanctified".

Diane said...

I like what pastor eric says, it's true not everyone in the pews knows Jesus, but only Jesus knows...when you try to figure out who has had the HS convert them, I mean how do you do that?
People would go nuts wondering...

I still like my uncle's story... when the Pentecostal man kept asking him, "How do you know you're saved?" i.e. some experience... he said boldly, "Because Christ said so!"