The Right Hand of Fellowship

Calvinist? Arminian? Charismatic? I’ve always had a hard time calling myself anything other than Christian. Those other labels are sort of like subgenres in music: it’s all jazz, but then there’s swing, bebop, free jazz, and a dozen other expressions of the form. We need the labels to help distinguish the diversity within the unity, to discuss the merits of each expression, and to help maintain the larger distinctions between jazz and, say, death metal. But unfortunately such labels often do more harm than good, when near-sighted watchmen get the idea that their subgenre is actually the only valid expression and thus build unnecessary barriers to fellowship. John Wesley saw this tendency in human nature when he founded the Methodist movement, and so he made a point of not holding the Methodist gatherings on Sundays so that they would not be viewed as an alternative to the Church of England. In the following excerpt, taken from Character of a Methodist, Wesley brilliantly answers questions about the movement he founded, showing just as much concern for the unity of the faith as he does for its reform. The last two paragraphs are the best.

The distinguishing marks of a Methodist are not his opinions of any sort. His assenting to this or that scheme of religion, his embracing any particular set of notions, his espousing the judgment of one man or of another, are all quite wide of the point. Whosoever, therefore, imagines that a Methodist is a man of such or such an opinion, is grossly ignorant of the whole affair; he mistakes the truth totally…

Neither are words or phrases of any sort. We do not place our religion, or any part of it, in being attached to any peculiar mode of speaking, any quaint or uncommon set of expressions…

Nor do we desire to be distinguished by actions, customs, or usages, of an indifferent nature. Our religion does not lie in doing what God has not enjoined, or abstaining from what he hath not forbidden. It does not lie in the form of our apparel, in the posture of our body, or the covering of our heads; nor yet in abstaining from marriage, or from meats and drinks, which are all good if received with thanksgiving. Therefore, neither will any man, who knows whereof he affirms, fix the mark of a Methodist here—in any actions or customs purely indifferent, undetermined by the word of God…

“What then is the mark? Who is a Methodist, according to your own account?” I answer: A Methodist is one who has “the love of God shed abroad in his heart by the Holy Ghost given unto him;” one who “loves the Lord his God with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his mind, and with all his strength.” God is the joy of his heart, and the desire of his soul; which is constantly crying out, “Whom have I in heaven but thee? and there is none upon earth that I desire beside thee! My God and my all! Thou art the strength of my heart, and my portion for ever!”…

If any man say, “Why, these are only the common fundamental principles of Christianity!” thou hast said; so I mean; this is the very truth; I know they are no other; and I would to God both thou and all men knew, that I, and all who follow my judgment, do vehemently refuse to be distinguished from other men, by any but the common principles of Christianity—the plain, old Christianity that I teach, renouncing and detesting all other marks of distinction. And whosoever is what I preach, (let him be called what he will, for names change not the nature of things,) he is a Christian, not in name only, but in heart and in life. He is inwardly and outwardly conformed to the will of God, as revealed in the written word. He thinks, speaks, and lives, according to the method laid down in the revelation of Jesus Christ. His soul is renewed after the image of God, in righteousness and in all true holiness. And having the mind that was in Christ, he so walks as Christ also walked.

By these marks, by these fruits of a living faith, do we labour to distinguish ourselves from the unbelieving world from all those whose minds or lives are not according to the Gospel of Christ. But from real Christians, of whatsoever denomination they be, we earnestly desire not to be distinguished at all, not from any who sincerely follow after what they know they have not yet attained. No: “Whosoever doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother.” And I beseech you, brethren, by the mercies of God, that we be in no wise divided among ourselves. Is thy heart right, as my heart is with thine? I ask no farther question. If it be, give me thy hand. For opinions, or terms, let us not destroy the work of God. Dost thou love and serve God? It is enough. I give thee the right hand of fellowship.