The word recalibrate is often used in church circles today. We use it in the FMC to describe what it looks like when a church rediscovers its purpose and elevates its effectiveness. It does not cast aspersions upon the church that was. It just acknowledges that language, culture and appeal changes in time. And, so the timeless truths of Scripture will find new garments and wineskins to relate in better ways to the world around.
There is much to celebrate about our ministry family- the FMC. We often emphasize, remember and reinvigorate our commitment to freedom and equality (abolition as well as race and gender equality); freedom from the encumbrance of purchased seats and elitist, secret societies; freedom of the Spirit to move within and among us and the full equality of lay and clergy to lead and have voice in our family. We have a history of being an evangelistic, discipling and socially conscious and engaged church. I cannot think of anything but good in all of that.
Yet as often is the case, foci, people and values change from time to time if we are not careful and observant of the tendency to allow slippage to creep into our theology and practice. Hebrews 2-4 addresses what slippage looks like better than I am able. But it happens. What I mean by slippage is imperceptible movement or alteration from core values and commitments.
Two such macro changes have taken place in the FMC over the past 160 years. The first involved a redefinition of holiness in both intellectual and practical terms. Holiness somehow came to be defined less by the shaping of the believer’s character to conform to the character of our loving God, but more by certain tangible, and measurable patterns of dress, speech, activity, singular and clearly defined spiritual experience and manner of behavior that may or may not have been part of character transformation. The “otherness” that is implicit in holiness ceased being as much about becoming more like God who is “Other” and instead about being “other” as separate from the world around. In short, the emphasis was not to become more like God but less like the world around. It was based more upon a negative- what we are not and who we are not- than a positive- what we are and who we are to become.
I was fortunate to not be caught in the most troubling part of that alteration of holiness. That was due in part to the fact that I was neither old enough to be part of the church when that mindset was at its peak nor raised in a Free Methodist or Christian family that had that pattern of belief, behavior and expectation. I am not at all saying that having no heritage in the family is advantageous. It is not. I can give many illustrations why it is not but will refrain. The benefits of being part of this family far outweigh the historic hazards in my estimation. My wife, Marlene, carries the very best in her from being a multi-generational Free Methodist. I have ridden her coattails in more ways than I can tell and enjoyed the fruit of her full experience in the church as a child.
The second macro change is one that we are experiencing at present. Holiness, if the term is used at all (it is less popular than terms like “fully devoted follower of Jesus” or “totally committed believer”), or its corollary value has been redefined by many in our movement as having more to do with social (which becomes confused with political and economic) change than personal, character reformation or transformation. Again, when this happens the movement is not necessarily about becoming more like God in image or love, but supporting the right cause and having the right level of indignation and counter-balance to authority, power and structures that influence the degradation of people.
Along with the first shift generations ago, neither are bad in intent or fully in outcome. Good behavior and predictably good speech is a blessing. It only becomes troublesome when grace, love and true transformation are not undergirding and accompanying it. Similarly, to be concerned about injustice, oppression and degradation are very admirable, even biblical. We have expressions of them in the very founding of the FMC. However, it is not only possible, but common for people to be concerned about injustice, oppression and the like without pursuing grace, love and transformation as followers of God. In the case of the formation of the FMC, its leaders were actually quite fruitful in evangelism, discipleship all while modeling winsome, holy living. It was out of those that they did and responded to the other matters addressed above. Personal transformation and becoming more like God bleeds through their writings more than expressions of and concerns about governments and economic imbalances. One might not know that based purely upon the parts of their writings that are favored over others. One personal anecdote comes from the fact that I have heard quotes hundreds of times from the FMC founder, B.T. Roberts about gender equality and societal engagement in his writings and yet I have not heard one quote from his books, Fishers of Men or The Earnest Christian over the past decade. The latter books demonstrate Roberts motivation to address all other matters. It was about seeing more and better disciples of Jesus; to increase and improve the church to be more like Jesus.
In both the more modern and more historic shifts in our movement, holiness became refocused upon some external measures that may or may not emerge from a desire to be more like our Savior than to simply right the wrongs that we see around us. “Otherness” could be arguably concluded in both cases to be based upon negatives. It is either about being “other” than the world around us as in the first shift or being “other” than the systems and structures in the world around us in the second. And, again, it is possible to be “other” in either sense and not be like the “Other” who is qualitatively different in love and grace, sparing no expense to bring people into the light of His presence and eternity.
As Marlene and I step away from positions of high leadership in the church, we are hoping to see a church passionate about holiness based upon the positives of character transformation, love and seeking to increase the number of people who have shared experience. Of course, as we become more holy in our pursuit of God, our behaviors and causes we seek to support to bring about change will follow. They simply must. But, we are going with great support for our new leadership in the FMC rather than suspicion of them. Our newly elected bishops are godly people with godly focus. Our superintendents and area directors are among my modern-day heroes. Marlene and I are diving back into the support of local FMC ministry with our greatest desire to be closer to and more like Jesus as we bring the good news to people who need to be close to and more like Jesus. I invite you to seek God and yearn for His holiness with us. Let’s recalibrate our Holy focus.