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Tuesday, February 1, 2011

A Debate: Wesleyan Insights

Continuing the discussion of the relationship between Word and Table in worship, we turn to insights from the preacher and founder of the Methodist movement, John Wesley. We are privileged to have Jeff Rudy share with us today. Jeff is a good friend, college classmate, and a Wesley scholar. He has a great blog you can read here. If you are on twitter, I highly recommend following him - @wesleyanrudy

Wesley and “High-church Evangelicalism”

John Wesley and the early Methodists offer a unique historical paradigm for the relationship of the Word and the Table in worship. In some sense, however, it’s not all that unique in that his perspective is highly shaped in the Anglican tradition in which he was raised and remained his entire life. The ‘via media’ spirit of the Anglican theological tradition is partly evidenced by the tradition’s high placement of both ‘Word’ and ‘Eucharist’ in its worship design. Wesley promoted this even in the midst of the Methodist revival where preaching became very prominent.

There became such an emphasis on conversion and inner religion in many Methodists that it came to a conflict that headed up at Fetter Lane. Many had emphasized conversion and inner religion so much that they said that grace could not be mediated through any external means but was/is done by God directly to the heart of the believer. What was required of the hearers was merely to ‘be quiet’ and ‘wait’ on the Lord. Though Wesley agreed on the principle of needing to ‘wait on the Lord,’ he disagreed that this necessitated a ‘quiet’ (or utterly passive) stance. There were two kinds of ‘waiting on the Lord’: active and passive. Wesley opted for the former because this is the command of God. The problem he saw was that these ‘quietists’ were reacting against an abuse of something and instead of correcting the abuse, they ran in the complete opposite direction. Too many were using the ‘means of grace’ as ‘ends.’ For Wesley, the ‘means’ were always to serve as channels of grace with the end toward loving God and neighbor. He nuanced his position in his sermon ‘The Means of Grace.’ In the introduction to that sermon, Albert Outler suggested that Wesley here embraces a sort of “high-church evangelicalism,” a unique perspective, both then and ever since. In most ‘evangelical’ churches and traditions, there is often less importance on the Table, that it is really just a memorial service of sorts, and that the Word via the sermon takes center stage in the worship service. It is the common perception that in most ‘high-church’ traditions there is lessened stress on the Word as the Table takes center stage. The uniqueness of worship in the Wesleyan traditions is that there is a heritage that elevates both the Word and the Table to prominence.

In Wesley’s sermon, he conveyed that there are ‘ordinary’ (cognate of ‘ordained’) channels of grace; that God conveys prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying graces through the means that God established and commanded us to do, as we ‘wait on’ God. Those ‘ordinary means’ are: 1. Prayer (private, family, and public); 2. Searching the Scriptures (reading, hearing, and meditating upon it; this would include the sermon or homily, in my estimation); 3. Partaking of the Lord’s Supper. The means themselves have no inherent power, but with and because of the presence of the Spirit they do convey grace. Put differently, God sends grace to us through them by the Spirit. Therefore, Wesley’s conclusion was that “All who desire the grace of God are to wait for it in the means which he hath ordained; in using, not laying aside.” To strengthen the case for the Lord’s Supper, in particular, he offered: “Is not the eating of that bread, and the drinking of that cup, the outward, visible means whereby God conveys into our souls all that spiritual grace, that righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost, which were purchased by the body of Christ once broken and the blood of Christ once shed for us?” (Note that each Person of the Godhead operates herein.)

Wesley developed his case for partaking of the Lord’s Supper at ‘every opportunity’ for many years and this culminated in his late sermon ‘The Duty of Constant Communion,’ which he published in 1787, when he was 84 years old. His case is that partaking of the Supper “constantly” is a command from God and a benefit to us. Though he acknowledges that “constantly” doesn’t appear in the Scriptural command, his argument is by inference that if it is a command, shouldn’t we obey at every opportunity? Furthermore, there is a benefit of partaking in obedience: we receive forgiveness for our past sins and strength to pursue holiness. In other words, in partaking of the body and blood of the Lord, we are not only pardoned, but also enabled to “leave our sin.” “As our bodies are strengthened by bread and wine, so are our souls by these tokens of the body and blood of Christ. This is the food of our souls: it gives us strength to perform our duty, and leads us on to perfection.” This notion helps us see that Wesley was serious about “constant communion.” Nothing was of more importance in Wesley’s theology than the doctrine of Christian perfection (or sanctification). That he would make such a statement that this means (the Lord’s Supper) “leads us on to perfection” indicates that we should partake at every opportunity since the pursuit of perfection is an ongoing process.

Another note, and this is where I think Wesley’s voice speaks most pointedly to the debate that Jonathan has framed: I would be remiss to not mention that Wesley highly valued the primitive church and since we find the early Christians partaking of the Supper ‘constantly’ it stands to reason that we should follow in that practice. In ‘The Duty of Constant Communion,’ Wesley appealed to Canon II of the Dedication Council of Antioch (AD 341), which said, “If any believer join in the prayers of the faithful, and go away without receiving the Lord’s Supper, let him be excommunicated, as bringing confusion into the church of God.” Furthermore, Wesley read the New Testament texts on the Lord’s Supper (from the Gospels and 1 Corinthians) as the early Church practicing ‘continual remembrance’ of Jesus’ sacrificial death.

Finally, as Karen Westerfield Tucker has pointed out in her chapter “On Wesley’s Emphasis on Worship and the Means of Grace” in the Cambridge Companion to John Wesley, Wesley would go on to add ‘prudential’ means of grace to his ‘ordained’ list (see above). Among the ‘prudential’ means of grace are participation in accountability groups and visiting the sick (i.e., works of mercy). To me, this invokes what Webber described many years later (as Jonathan pointed out in the original post on this series) as the Fourth Fold. The “First Fold” of Webber’s paradigm (Gathering) can also be seen in Wesley’s means of grace in terms of his view of ‘conferencing,’ or spiritual conversation with other Christians (i.e., fellowship), which he also included in his list of the ‘means of grace.’ So if Wesley were to converse with Webber on this matter, I think the former would prefer to couch the debate/discussion in terms of the ‘means of grace,’ with special emphasis on the ‘ordained’ means: prayer, Scripture (Word), and the Lord’s Supper. We ‘use’ the means of grace as just that: means to the end of communing with God. As Wesley asserts, these means “must conduce to the knowledge and love of God.” 


  1. And interestingly enough, most Wesleyan groups including my own(United Methodists) have lost the importance of "Word and Table" going together. Too often Communion is just tacked on to the end of the service without a natural flow. I once served a UM Church that celebrated the Lord's Supper every Sunday. At first I thought I wouldn't like it, now I find myself missing it. Of course the questions remains, as an elder in the church, what am I going to do about it?

  2. very nice and informative article. And thanks for sharing this to us. I will look forward to your other posts.
    spiritual insights