A Perspective on the Ecclesiology of John Wesley -- By: W. Joseph Stallings

Journal: Ashland Theological Journal
Volume: ATJ 045:1 (NA 2013)
Article: A Perspective on the Ecclesiology of John Wesley
Author: W. Joseph Stallings

A Perspective on the Ecclesiology of John Wesley

W. Joseph Stallings*


The ecclesiology of John Wesley is both simple and complex, and is at once both mutable and unchanging. It is simple in that it is at one level a quest to rediscover and re-implement the foundations of the true primitive and apostolic Church. Wesley simply wanted the Church of his day to be as much as possible like the Church of earliest origin. Likewise, his ecclesiology is complex in that he came to understand over time and through powerful existential experience that the reality of the Church is profoundly missionary and pneumatic in nature (cf. Acts 1–2), and therefore required the ongoing development of contextually responsive methods to perpetuate its evangelistic endeavor. Furthermore, as to mutability, the missionary focus—coupled with the necessities of practical divinity—compelled Wesley to take certain “extraordinary” actions for the sake of propagating the Christian Gospel. In this vein, although he tried valiantly to carry out the missio Dei within the institutional parameters of the Church of England, Wesley came to believe that ultimately nothing was truly ecclesially “sacred” except the seeking and saving of lost souls (cf. Wood 2007, 84—“You have nothing to do but save souls. Therefore spend and be spent in this work.”). And, yet, at its very constitution, the Wesleyan theology of the Church was ultimately rested upon two mighty pillars set absolutely and uncompromisingly in (Anglican) stone. It was from these two inseparable and immovable cornerstones—the Word and the Sacrament—that sprung forth every extension and missional adaptation of Wesley’s ecclesiological divinity. Throughout his entire life, Wesley held strongly and without deviation to Article XIX of the Church of England which states: “The visible Church of Christ is a Congregation of faithful men, in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly administered according to Christ’s Ordinance, in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same” (cf. Oh 2008, 256). In August 1785, referring to Article XIX (above), Wesley affirmingly wrote: “Here is a true logical definition, containing both the essence and the properties of a church” (Jackson 1996, 13:254), i.e., Word and Sacrament are the functional “marks” of the Church (cf. Snyder 1996, 74). While he learned out of missional necessity to adapt his functional ecclesiology to meet changing circumstances (Oh 2008, 125), it was because of his powerful belief in the tandem significance and efficacy of both Word and Sacrament that Wesley adapted: the Word had to be proclaimed in every p...

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