With these verses John Wesley began his sermon “Of the Church.” By choosing these verses to give his vision of Christ’s community on earth, Wesley made clear his intention to hold his fellow believers to a high standard. Indeed, Paul’s words call for a commitment that requires more than fallen and frail humanity can achieve on its own. As the body of Christ, we are called to live above the normal expectations—or even the wildest dreams—of Adam’s unredeemed sons and daughters. We are called to live as those who have been redeemed by God’s grace, and whose model is the Savior. Christians are urged to live lives worthy of Christ’s sacrifice (Eph. 4:1; 2 Thess. 1:5, 11). We, the church, are to be humble, gentle, patient, hopeful, faithful, and forgiving. We are to bear with one another in love.
As Christ’s beloved, we must see each other—and the whole world—through Christ’s eyes (2 Cor. 5:14-16). We are to offer a respectful and tolerant welcome even to those we might find unlovely or argumentative or obstinate or fearful. And we are to offer that welcome with a genuine love that forgives and encourages and offers gracious correction when needed (1 Thess. 5:14; 1 Pet. 1:22). We are to live this way, daily, through times of concord and times of lively disagreement. At the core of who we are, there is “one body and one Spirit... one hope... one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all” (Eph. 4:4-5).
Indeed, we in Christ’s church often fall victim to the shameful belief that we are our own and that the church is ours to control. It is not.
This being true, it seems that as Christians we are supposed to live impossible lives. Were it not for God’s enabling Spirit, the New Testament standard for life in the church would be impossible. Indeed, we in Christ’s church often fall victim to the shameful belief that we are our own and that the church is ours to control. It is not. To be the church, its members must always remember that the church belongs to Christ. Selfish, private, and divisive standards must not be permitted to prevail. Instead, we must struggle against our own limited desires and perceptions and strive to embody the standards Christ has established for his people (Rom. 14:10-12). For example, we must reject the death-dealing power of fear or the urge to think of ourselves as the sole or chief authority on God’s designs for his kingdom. Instead, members of Christ’s body must demonstrate humility, gentleness, and forgiveness. They must forbear one another and be filled with shared Christian hope for the kingdom’s consummation. Unless unity characterizes Christ’s body, we who are its members can make no legitimate claim about loving God (1 John 4:20-21). Unless we love our sisters and brothers in Christ, we walk in darkness, sully Christ’s name, and lose our witness to the world (2:9-11).
What Is Church?
The New Testament makes clear what being the church means, what it means to honor God and own his plan to redeem creation. The features of the church largely describe what is expected of Christian character. But the New Testament also gives attention to early organizational patterns meant to preserve unity. We hear of presbyters (elders) and overseers (from the Greek episcopoi, also translated “bishops”), both of which meant the same thing (Acts 14:23; Phil. 1:1; Titus 1:5-7; 1 Pet. 5:1). Paul and Barnabas, for example, appointed presbyters or elders over the churches of Lystra, Antioch, and Iconium (Acts 14:23). Later, Paul instructed Titus to ordain presbyters in every town where a church had been established (Titus 1:5). Elders or presbyters were the pastors or ministers of the congregations, chiefly responsible for the pure ministry of the Word. There were also deacons, ministers of benevolence, whose responsibility was to minister to the needs of widows and orphans and to distribute food and goods among needy members of the church (Acts 6:1-6; Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:8). Paul describes the qualifications for each office in 1 Tim. 3:1-13 (cf. Titus 1:5-9). Common to requirements for both offices was a love for the church and a possession of stellar faith and integrity as shown in all relationships.
The early Christians were not known for their beautiful buildings or impressive programs. Their defining interest was to tell the story of Jesus and their own stories of redemption. Of course, the early church had its problems; it was comprised of persons who, under difficult circumstances, were learning to be Jesus’ disciples.
While the church in the twenty-first century may properly long to embody the vitality of the New Testament church, this can’t be done by simply re-creating its organizational structure and practices. In some parts of the world the church continues to be persecuted in ways similar to the early church. In other world areas the church faces no physical persecution and is no longer a small segment of the population (more than two billion people claim Christ as Lord). In all parts of the world the church must, in the power of the Holy Spirit, rise to the challenges of a twenty-first-century global society. Organizational needs differ from place to place. Such differences are minor when compared to our universal identity as members of Christ’s body. John Wesley’s appeal to Eph. 4:1-6 reminds us that we are children of “one God and Father.” Whatever our incidental differences, the church, Wesley insisted, is composed of “all persons in the universe whom God has so called out of the world to entitle them” to achieve the measure of faith Paul describes in Ephesians. Wesley adds that Paul’s description must apply to the church in all its dimensions, whether the universal church, a denomination, a local parish, or the Christian household.1
In line with Wesley’s counsel, the Church of the Nazarene, as one example of a Wesleyan denomination, recognizes the church to be “the community that confesses Jesus Christ as Lord” and “the covenant people of God.”2 It is “the Body of Christ” called by the Holy Spirit to worship God and to live in unity and fellowship. This includes living in mutual accountability and serving the kingdom of God as one identifiable organization within the universal church.3 Church membership includes “all spiritually regenerate persons, whose names are written in heaven.”4 Christians are providentially permitted to live in fellowship with and minister through voluntary associations such as the Church of the Nazarene.5
Neither the biblical mandate for the church, Wesleyan theology, nor the Church of the Nazarene Manual requires uniformity in all matters of thought and practice. As the New Testament makes clear, the church’s unity resides in its confession of Jesus Christ as Lord of all and in a love that builds up the body of Christ. As Paul told the Roman and Corinthian Christians, there remain many subsidiary differences that must never be permitted to rise to positions of primary and divisive importance (Rom. 14:1-23; 1 Cor. 1:10-17). “The kingdom of God is... righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. The one who thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and has human approval” (Rom. 14:17-18).
What Is Essential to the Faith That Unites?
From the beginning, the church universal has shared a small, but nonnegotiable, set of convictions: there is one God, who is almighty Creator and Sustainer, merciful, just and loving. There is one Lord, Jesus the Christ, Son of God. There is one Spirit, fully God and among us. There is one Lord, one faith, and one baptism. There will be a final judgment. We are to serve one another in love, live in harmony through the Holy Spirit, and share the gospel with all who have ears to listen. Aside from these central convictions, little else was required for membership in the church. Christians came from all parts of the known world; some were Jews and some were Gentiles. They spoke different languages and ate different foods. And they were admonished to allow for incidental differences while giving attention to what is essential to the faith (Acts 15:1-35; Rom. 14:20).
John Wesley, while constrained by the demands of a quickly industrializing England and organizational limits imposed by his role as a priest in the Church of England, was completely in line with the spirit of the early Christians. He relied upon Ephesians for his definition of the church as a faithful band of humble and loving believers who speak and live the gospel of Jesus Christ. Methodism was a church renewal movement, an attempt to reinvigorate the Church of England, which had too often become lost in political alliances and service to the socially privileged. Wesley wanted the Church of England to recover the true measure of Christian faith and practice. This would consist not of social rank, particular forms of worship or political power, but of transformed life and faithful service in Christ’s name for God’s glory.
Again, as one example of the Wesleyan family the Church of the Nazarene embraces a succinct and generously inclusive body of beliefs required for church membership. Failure to support these doctrines invites confusion and discontent. Its defining doctrines are believed to be “essential to the Christian experience.”6 Members believe (1) in the Triune God; (2) that Scripture, inspired by God, contains all truth necessary to faith and Christian living; (3) that humanity is fallen and sinful; (4) that those who finally reject Christ and the salvation he offers will endure eternal separation from God; (5) that Christ came to redeem all persons and that those who accept him as Savior will rejoice eternally in his presence; (6) that believers can in this life live in such obedience to Christ that they are freed from the desire to sin (entire sanctification); (7) that the Holy Spirit is with believers and works with and through them; and (8) that final judgment will occur after Christ returns.7 These doctrines are not novel in Christ’s church; they continue to be instruments of transformation when embraced with conviction.
Language about the church that the apostle Paul, John Wesley, and many others use is distinctively countercultural. It is broad enough to leave space for manifestations of the free and wonderful works of God.
Language about the church that the apostle Paul, John Wesley, and many others use is distinctively countercultural. It is broad enough to leave space for manifestations of the free and wonderful works of God. Sin appears in many guises. Christian love appears in many forms. Each can be recognized if we will live close to Christ and in fellowship with the body of believers.
Living and speaking the gospel are often decided by a complex interplay of cultural, linguistic, and personal factors. Yet we recognize those lives spent in genuine service to God and humanity, even when we do not speak the language, understand the customs, or recognize the songs being sung. Love is easy to spot, welcome is easy to feel, and forgiveness is wondrous to experience.
What Is Unity?
We are enjoined by Scripture to make “every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3). This mandate rests upon faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and depends upon Christian character rather than any secondary beliefs Christians might have. The “unity of the Spirit” enables Christians to stand fast against slander, to suffer the loss of friends and family, and to endure poverty and the seizure of goods. “Unity in the Spirit” includes commitment to each other because of our prior commitment to the Lord. Jesus teaches us that those who are poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, the righteous, the merciful, the peacemaker, the persecuted, and the pure in heart will be called “great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:3-19). All these entail a specific quality of relationship between persons. They reveal character and testify to virtue. We should not overlook the fact that Jesus’ promise is not made to the smartest, to the best debater, or to the one who, based upon human wisdom, decides who should or should not be admitted to the body of Christ. God knows our understanding is imperfect at best and tragically flawed at worst. He warns us not to judge another’s heart or status before him. The Lord has given us two commands: to love the Lord with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and our neighbor as ourselves—including those who might not fit our preferences for friend or neighbor. Everything rests upon our willingness to follow the Lord’s commands (22:36-40).
John Wesley was deeply anguished over conflicts between the Church of England and the Methodists. He urged Christians to take to heart Jesus’ rebuke of his disciples when they proudly announced they had forbidden someone to cast out demons because the man did not belong to their group. They did this even though the man was acting in Jesus’ name. Jesus’ response startled the disciples and alerted future generations of Christians: “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:39-40). Jesus’ admonition must be taken seriously. He has warned us not to hinder his servants just because they do not serve God in ways we approve. Instead, Jesus defends the outsider who faithfully performs deeds in his name. How much less, Wesley asked, should we who share a common faith disqualify each other over secondary matters? In Wesley’s sermon “A Caution Against Bigotry,” he warned against having “too strong an attachment to, or fondness for, our own party, opinion, church,
He urged his followers to recognize the faithful witness of others, even when they do not agree on all matters that seem essential to us.
and religion.”8 He urged his followers to recognize the faithful witness of others, even when they do not agree on all matters that seem essential to us. Perfectly faithful Christians might disagree about some aspects of morality, how God’s grace works, and how best to worship.9Wesley pointed back to the New Testament church where unity was endangered because of disagreements over all manner of insignificant things. Observing Wesley’s warning, contemporary Christians ought not to require uniformity of thought and action in matters not essential to the gospel. Unity in love is required.
Likewise, in its description of “Christian character,”10 the Church of the Nazarene has offered guidance about how to live in unity. Members are enjoined to love God and neighbor, treat everyone with courtesy, and support other Christians. They should do what is good, support the church financially and by regular and devoted participation in worship services. Add to that avoiding all forms of sexual misconduct, avoiding “quarreling, returning evil for evil, gossiping, slandering, [and] spreading surmises injurious to the good names of others.” Members are further counseled to be honest in all circumstances and to “abide in hearty fellowship” one with another.11
A Case Study of One Member of the Wesleyan Family: How Well Has the Church of the Nazarene Practiced Unity?
How well has the Church of the Nazarene practiced Christian unity? Imperfectly, as have all other Christian groups since the church’s beginning, even though it has sought to embody unity in the Spirit. The denomination was formed by Christians from various denominations who thought their parent denominations had not been faithful to the New Testament call to Christian holiness, or who had failed the gospel by chasing the American dream of wealth and prestige at the expense of Christian simplicity. To make space for the diverse Christian traditions represented among the early Nazarenes, the denomination adopted an organizational structure that accommodated those backgrounds. The preamble to the government section in the denomination’s Manual says, “The bases of unity in the Church of the Nazarene are those beliefs, polity, definitions, and procedures... articulated in the Manual... The core of [its] unity is declared in the Articles of Faith.”12 This is set within the context of a representative form of governance that “avoids the extremes of episcopacy on the one hand and unlimited congregationalism on the other.”13 The church aims at allowing all voices to be heard and decisions to be made jointly.
Nazarenes have imperfectly embodied the Christian unity to which they aspire. They are often buffeted by social and political pressures that count against Christian unity. They welcome diversity but sometimes find it difficult to distinguish between what is essential for Christian faith and unity, and what is not. For example, they have sometimes allowed disagreements over the relationship between modern science and Christian faith and over the role of women in the church to become disruptive. They are not immune to the lure of the independent, “self-made” Christian or to the temptation to read the Bible as their private domain apart from the wisdom of the apostolic church.
How Should We Express Unity in the Twenty-first Century?
For Christians of all denominations, the answer to the question lies in our Christian heritage. First, we must in love embrace all persons who confess core Christian beliefs. Second, we must avoid imposing reading the Scriptures in ways that disrupt the body of Christ and that deny the diverse gifts God has given to our sisters and brothers. Paul said the church is not divided according to Greek and Jew, male and female (Gal. 3:28). We can expand his statement to include denominations and political parties. We should recognize that allegiance to any rule antithetical to the law of love is also antithetical to the kingdom of God. We ought to follow the biblical instructions that we conduct ourselves humbly and gently before each other. Gossip or slander or speaking evil of one another must not be given place among us. Divisions in the church, Wesley warned, rarely result in good being done or the gospel being advanced. “Cherished anger and resentment” and “alienation of affection” reveal a “want of love” in the church.14 Where labels reign, the church suffers. Sisters and brothers become disenfranchised. Instead of this, let us be known by our love.15
MARY LOU SHEA has taught at Eastern Nazarene College and is now a visiting scholar at the Center for Global Christianity and Mission at Boston University School of Theology
1. Wesley, “Of the Church,” in Works of John Wesley, 6:395-96.
2. “The Church” Article XI of “Articles of Faith,” Church of the Nazarene Manual 2009-2013, 34-35.
4. “The General Church,” Article I of “The Church,” Church of the Nazarene Manual 2009-2013, 37.
5. “The Churches Severally,” Article II of “The Church,” Church of the Nazarene Manual 2009-2013, 37.
6. “Agreed Statement of Belief,” Article IV of “The Church,” Church of the Nazarene Manual 2009-2013, 37.
7. Ibid., 37-38.
8. Wesley, “A Caution Against Bigotry,” in Works of John Wesley, 5:490.
9. Ibid., 484-85.
10. “The Covenant of Christian Character,” Article V of “The Church,” Church of the Nazarene Manual 2009-2013, 38-40.
12. Preamble to “Government,” Part IV of Church of the Nazarene Manual 2009-2013, 62.
14. Wesley, “On Schism,” in Works of John Wesley, 2:401-10.
15. For some current topics that require discussion, see Daniel Boone, A Charitable Discourse: Talking About the Things That Divide Us (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 2011).