What's a Wesleyan? It's probably one of the most-asked questions that Wesleyans hear. People have heard of Catholics and Presbyterians and Methodists and Nazarenes; they may even recognize the name John Wesley. But when it comes to Wesleyans, they don't have all the dots to draw the lines and determine what makes Wesleyans different from all the other churches on the block. So, what is the deal with Wesleyans?
Let's start with some basic numbers. Wesleyans are members of The Wesleyan Church. Worldwide, this weekend, more than 300,000 Wesleyans will worship together in more than 5,000 local churches, in over 80 countries. In the United States and Canada alone, there are approximately 1,700 Wesleyan congregations. But that doesn't really answer the question at hand.
As members of The Wesleyan Church, Wesleyans belong to a Christian denomination. In this respect, we are just like Lutherans, Baptists, Methodists, and any other number of denominations in that we acknowledge Jesus Christ as the Son of God, who became a man and died on a cross for the all the sins of the world.
Wesleyans, however, are not just another face in the crowd of Christian churches dotting the landscape. To understand how they stand out, though, we have to trace the heritage and fundamental tenants of The Wesleyan Church. You see, there are three ways that you can point a Wesleyan out in the crowd.
By the early 1500's, the Roman Catholic Church was in crisis. It had split down the middle into east and west, was losing territory to Muslims almost all around, and was on the verge of losing political control of Europe. For more than 1,000 years, it had enjoyed preeminence throughout civilized man, but with the fall of the Roman Empire, the rise of independent nation-states and decline of the Holy Roman Empire, and the dawning of the Rennaisance, people were becoming dissatisfied.
Scholarship was on the rise, and people were starting to think for themselves, of themselves. They began to question whether the pope should trump the Bible, and they became disillusioned by rampant corruption among the clergy.
And soon, there were people calling for reform. Men like Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Huldreich Zwingli tried at first to work within the bounds of the Catholic Church and start a reformation from within. Trumpeting passages like 2 Timothy 3:16-17 and 1 Timothy 4:4-5, they proclaimed that Scripture - not the pope - should have the final word on the things of the Church, and Scripture - not the Church - should be the test by which lives are measured. With verses like Acts 2:42 and Ephesians 2:8 in hand, they taught that the modern Church should more closely emulate the New Testament church by pursuing the Bible before fellowship or communion, and preaching salvation by grace through faith rather than baptism or Church decree. And with eyes on references like Acts 2:47 and John 3:18, they held that the rites and rituals of corporate religion were not nearly as important as each and every one deciding for himself to believe.
Their attempts, though, were short-lived, and soon these reformers were forced to leave the Roman Catholic Church in protest. Martin Luther formed what has become the Lutheran Church. John Calvin laid the foundations for the Presbyterian and Baptist and Reformed churches. But in the end, all of these went back to the three central issues of the Bible first, salvation by grace through faith, and the individual's responsibility to believe, all of which are an important part of being Wesleyan today.
Of course, even among Protestants there are tremendous differences, and so it is necessary to narrow the scope a bit further. In recent days, the word "evangelical" has assumed a tremendous amount of baggage. It's thrown out by mass media as a synonym for the radical right. And it's been used by the radical right to refer to those willing to compromise on some of the essential doctrines of the faith. Wesleyans are evangelical in neither of these senses, but to understand, we have to realize the origin of the word "evangelical."
You see, it comes from the Greek word euaggelion (pronounced euangelion), which means "gospel" or "good news." This is key to the Wesleyan's identification as evangelical because we are focused on the preservation and communication of the gospel of Jesus Christ. As such, we readily endorse the cornerstone doctrines of the divine inspiration of Scriptures (2 Tim. 3:16-17), virgin birth (Luke 2), salvation through Christ alone, and the imminent second coming. These and more, Wesleyans believe and aim to implement in their own lives, and they seek to convince others to do the same.
As evangelicals, then, Wesleyans naturally focus on evangelism, the communication of the gospel message to those around them. In the words of the apostle Paul, Wesleyans intend to "preach the word" in such a way that their friends, families, and neighbors will understand and be compelled to believe, too.
And Wesleyans focus also on missions. Seeking to obey Jesus' great commission to "go and make disciples of all nations," Wesleyans support the missionary operations in more than 80 nations around the globe through Wesleyan World Missions/Global Partners.
The third major thing which sets Wesleyans apart from virtually every other religion and denomination on the planet is our unique holiness emphasis. Trumpeting the teachings of revivalist John Wesley (from whom the name is taken), Wesleyans believe that God intends for all Christians - indeed, all people - to live holy lives free from sin. If it were not so, Jesus wouldn't have called the masses to "be perfect as [our] heavenly father is perfect" (Matthew 5:48), and the author of Hebrews would not have declared, "without holiness no one will see God" (12:14).
Wesleyans believe that holiness is something which is accomplished through a sort of team effort between the believer and God. They believe that God's part of this effort is to cleanse people through and through of sin through the blood of Jesus Christ. At salvation, this means forgiveness of incidental sins, those individual acts that we commit which transgress the word and will of God. This initial cleansing is akin to inviting the housekeeper to come into your house and clean it up. Wesleyans, though, believe that there must be more to it than that. At some point, the housekeeper will get to the bedroom closet, and only after we realize that and let him proceed, will the believer be totally purged of his inborn sinful nature.
The human side of this effort is summed up in the first words of Hebrews 12:14: "Make every effort... to be holy" (NIV). In essence, it is our objective to "doggedly pursue" a godly life through methodical spiritual disciplines (e.g. Bible reading, prayer, worship, fasting, etc.).
The answer, then, to the question which we originally asked - What's a Wesleyan? - is this: A Wesleyan is a protestant, evangelical believer in Jesus Christ committed to the pursuit of personal holiness.