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The Rev. Dr. William H. Willimon The Rev. Dr. William H. Willimon

The Rev. Dr. William H. Willimon is Professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry at The Divinity School, Duke University. He retired after serving eight years as Bishop of the North Alabama Conference of The United Methodist Church.

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Bishop Will Willimon: We Believe in Discipleship in Action

January 24, 2012

This week, I return to the series of messages focusing on some of our distinctive Wesleyan beliefs from my book on that subject.


No motif in the Wesleyan tradition has been more consistent than the link between Christian doctrine and Christian living. Methodists have always been strictly enjoined to maintain the unity of faith and good works, through the means of grace... The coherence of faith with ministries of love forms the discipline of Wesleyan spirituality and Christian discipleship.... Discipline was not church law; it was a way of discipleship. (The United Methodist Book of Discipline)

Any truly Wesleyan vision of the Christian life includes direct, personal, sacrificial encounter with suffering persons - simply collecting money for someone else to work with the poor is not enough. Also, John Wesley stressed a need for understanding of the root causes of poverty. He avoided the typical moral explanations for poverty that were in vogue in his day (and our day too). Wesley also didn't mind urging governmental officials to do their part in response to human need. Why does the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society lobby Congress? Not simply from a desire for a better functioning society but rather from our theological vision of God whose presence and love among us is always "good news to the poor" and our passionate desire to walk with this God.

Here is the summation of one of Wesley's diatribes against wealth:

Heathen custom is nothing to us. We follow no men any farther than they are followers of Christ. Hear ye him. Yea, today, while it is called today, hear and obey his voice. At this hour and from this hour do his will; fulfill his word in this and in all things. I entreat you, in the name of the Lord Jesus, act up to the dignity of your calling. No more sloth! Whatsoever your hand findeth to do, do it with your might. No more waste! Cut off every expense which fashion, caprice, or flesh and blood demand. No more covetousness! But employ whatever God has entrusted you with in doing good, all possible good, in every possible kind and degree, to the household of faith, to all men. [1]

Wesley's 1739 decision to go out and preach in the fields to the masses and engage in the innovative practice of "field preaching" in the open air was his dramatic attempt to take the gospel to England's new urban poor, just as he had worked among the poor at Oxford for a decade before. He defined the gospel as "good news to the poor" (Luke 4). Right up to the very end of his life, John Wesley worked to set right what was wrong with the world, supporting the Strangers' Friend Society to help newcomers to England's great cities. He worked to end the scourge of slavery, as in his famous last letter to William Wilberforce in 1791. Just four years before his death he welcomed Sarah Mallet as a preacher; the first officially sanctioned female preacher of Methodism. He gave away all that he made from his books and writings, dying a pauper. Six poor men bore Wesley's body to its grave.

-- Adapted from William H. Willimon, United Methodist Beliefs: An Introduction, Westminster/John Knox Press, 2006.

[1] Works, 2:279.

[Taken with permission from the Bishop's Blog, North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church.]


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