In The Holiness Revival of the Nineteenth Century, Melvin E. Dieter discusses the tension that developed as the holiness revival progressed amongst its Methodist adherents over “come-outism.” This term referred to Methodists who left (or came out of) Methodism to pursue a purer form of holiness fellowship or association. Dieter argued that there were many Methodists who were advocates of the importance of holiness and who felt that it was essential that this movement stay connected with Methodism. In fact, some seemed to have seen this connection as crucial to Methodism’s future vitality.
Dieter goes on to discuss a parallel debate within Methodism over whether entire sanctification was Wesleyan. According to Dieter, “critics of the revival often had charged that the preaching of the Christian perfection which became characteristic of the revival was un-Wesleyan because the context of American revivalism tended to create significant variations from Methodism’s standard teachings of the doctrine” (256).
Interestingly, though, this argument was actually not all that persuasive or effective. Dieter argues that the holiness movement was “so closely identified with traditional Methodism and Wesleyan doctrine and life that Methodist opponents of the revival were forced to distance themselves from Wesley and the standard authors of prevailing Methodist theology to resolve the struggle with the holiness elements within the church” (256). In other words, those who opposed the holiness revival recognized that they could not win the argument by appealing to Wesley’s authority, so they looked for other sources of authority, and even a new heritage.
The Methodist Episcopal Church and the Methodist Episcopal Church South, then, shifted strategies. Instead of looking back to their heritage and the tradition that they were living out of, they looked forward “to the new and greener pastures in more modern teachers and theologies” (256). And so Dieter argues:
The legacy of entire sanctification, with whatever modifications may have been made to it during the course of the American deeper life revival, was now being surrendered, in large part, to the holiness movement; it had become difficult for the tradition to survive within its original Methodist Episcopal Church and Methodist Episcopal Church South home. (256)
Oddly, or perhaps hopefully, the MEC and MECS did not entirely officially abandon its connection to the doctrine of entire sanctification. For example, this morning I verified that the historic examination questions for admission into Methodist ministry are included in every MEC Discipline from 1884 until union with the MECS and Methodist Protestant Church in 1939. These are the very questions that are asked today of every person who presents themselves for ordination in the United Methodist Church as an elder or deacon. The second, third, and fourth questions are: Are you going on to perfection? Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life? Are you earnestly striving after it?
Yesterday, I asked the students in my United Methodist History class if any of them had ever heard a sermon preached on entire sanctification or christian perfection. Not one of the nineteen students present had. As United Methodists, we seem to be living in a strange tension. In many ways we seem to have surrendered the doctrine of entire sanctification to other Wesleyan holiness groups, while still officially holding to the teaching in our doctrine and Book of Discipline. Or perhaps we have not surrendered the doctrine, just our commitment to teaching and preaching it. Somewhere along the way the very thing that Wesley believed to be one of the very reasons God raised up the people called Methodists became an embarrassment to later generations of Methodists.
I wish more ordained United Methodists would become uncomfortable with the fact that they have publicly affirmed their commitment and expectation that, by God’s grace, they expect to be made perfect in love in this life. United Methodists should not become familiar with this teaching only if they go to seminary. It should be preached in every Methodist pulpit, as the result of every UM pastor’s wrestling with what Wesley did and did not mean by “perfection,” and their efforts to present this to their parishioners in a way that they can understand. May we reclaim this “grand depositum” that God has entrusted to those who faithfully live out of the Wesleyan heritage.