The Wesleyan tradition is awash with misunderstanding. This is, in large part, because people of faith are just as skilled at talking past one another as anyone else. Take the “Social Principles” of The United Methodist Church. They are invoked, quoted, yanked out of context, and referenced in passing to argue this or that theological assumption. Yet how did we end up with something so provocatively termed “social” principles anyway? We should not despair if we conclude that the very meaning of the word “social” deserves its own sustained reflection.
Those who embrace the term “liberal” like to quote John Wesley when it comes to the Social Principles: “The gospel of Christ knows of no religion, but social; no holiness but social holiness.” These words, drawn from a preface to sacred hymns and poems, are often portrayed as an endorsement of structural analysis and action. Wesley’s original concern was simply directed toward caring relationships and the practice of love. Conservatives (and others understandably committed to accurate interpretation) delight in exposing this progressive license. Wesley did not speak as a proponent of systemic revolution, but then again, a holiness that must be relational cannot excuse twenty-first-century individualism. Those who allow contemporary cultural assumptions to drive their ethical conviction will not “get” John Wesley.
So what does it mean to have social principles grounded in Wesley’s kind of “social holiness”? In brief, it means embracing authentic and just relationships. This is a vision of holiness that is both intensely personal and prophetically systemic. On another level, the question asks what it means to be human as God would have us be truly human. Pious individuals who isolate themselves from others will never see the face of God. Activists who lose identity in collective forces will never know themselves. Those open to the tender and terrific power of God, along with the gifts and needs of others, will find divine intimacy and the deepest self.
I like the way a nineteenth-century admirer of Wesley captured this dynamic. He described three ways of knowing and loving. The first he termed “companionship.” There is nothing wrong with companionship. It is a step toward living in real community. Yet it can be lived as a matter of convenience – simple proximity to one another. Companions might interact with depth, but they also can merely exist in and around a common environment. The second way of knowing and loving, according to this writer, is “partnership.” In today’s language, this may seem like a fairly developed way of being in relationship. It might even indicate an intentional cooperation for the sake of common goals or ends. There is nothing wrong with partnership. However, I would suggest that our contemporary culture has viewed this kind of “partnership” with inappropriate reverence. It may come as a shock to people of faith, but life is more than forging relationships in order to achieve common goals. If life is a gift, then it will always be more than an achievement. Partnership is fine and can result in admirable cooperation, positive change, some degree of intimacy. But it cannot reflect the deepest things of God. For that, according to this nineteenth-century writer, there is real “fellowship.”
Fellowship is not constructed for mutual benefit or common aims. It is entered into out of love, a decidedly non-calculating perspective. For people of faith, this gets at the heart of the incarnation, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. God did not strike an agreement with humanity for mutual benefit. God gave of the self, and in the process gave us our true selves. In fact, the writer who proposed three ways of knowing and relating says of fellowship: “each becomes to the other, as it were, another self.” Another self! That’s relationship at its most profound level.
This is the kind of “social” Christianity John Wesley embraced. It is an, admittedly, high standard. Yet it is also a marvelous promise of the ways we can be with and for one another in Christ-like fashion.
The Social Principles of The United Methodist Church have their own integrity and must be examined thoroughly on their own terms. However, before we even enter the text of these guides, we ought to pause and consider what it means to have such principles characterized as “social” commitments.