Why, I wonder, do mainline Christian denominations put so much emphasis on unity at the denominational level? Why are formal mergers, divisions, and dissolutions of our denominational structures so important?
If any act of ecclesiastical separation renders a church invalid, the United Methodist Church is in a world of trouble. While the 1844 schism creating the Methodist Episcopal Church South is frequently brought up in contemporary discussions of the denomination’s identity and future, the most important act of separation is rarely mentioned. The Methodist Episcopal Church was born in an act of separation from the Church of England. Separation is in our DNA.
Samaria and Samaritans figure prominently in the twin books of Luke and Acts, at least when compared to the other gospels. The Samaritans are not a stand-in for all despised or marginalized groups of people. They are the Judeans’ estranged kin. Echoes of God’s covenants with Israel still reverberate in their land. For Luke, the incorporation of Samaritans into the church represents one step in Jesus’ renewal of the whole people of God.
Who Were the Samaritans?
The Samaritans, you will recall, were Judah’s separated brothers and sisters, at least in part. After the death of King Solomon, the people of Israel divided into two nations: Israel in the north, with its capital at Samaria and Judah in the south, with its capital in Jerusalem. Assyria conquered the northern kingdom in 722 BC, sending the leaders of Israel into exile and importing foreigners to settle among the remnants of the population. By the time of Jesus, Samaritan and Jewish religion had diverged as well. Jesus, however, did not look at the Samaritans and see only half-breed heretics. He saw them as estranged brothers and sisters, whom the Lord would enfold into a renewed and reconstituted people of God.
Seven years ago, Teddy Ray published a series of articles that still has me thinking.
- John Wesley Never Heard of a Traveling Pastor
- When the Circuit Rider Dismounted
- The Local Pastor and the Itinerant Apostle in Scripture
- Re-evangelizing America with Changes in our Ministry Roles
Ray’s thought draws heavily from Wesley’s sermon, The Ministerial Office.
If I can summarize Ray’s argument, it goes something like this. Wesley appointed preachers, not pastors.
The preachers were traveling evangelists who proclaimed salvation in Christ, invited people to repent and believe, organized Methodist societies where there were none and checked on the health of existing societies as they traveled.
Wesley’s preachers were like the extraordinary prophets of the Old Testament and the apostles of the New. The Church of England clergy were more like the Old Testament priesthood. Both were important. Methodists received the sacraments and the other priestly ministry of the church from the regularly constituted clergy of the Church of England. Pastors (bishops, elders and deacons) cared for their the people of their parishes and dioceses.
When Wesley ordained clergy for America, he broke from this model. American Methodism now had churches. Nevertheless, the preachers in America basically followed a pattern similar to the one laid down in England. The traveling preachers had sacramental authority, but they were not really pastors of the churches they visited. They still functioned in an apostolic role, evangelizing, planting churches and guiding the churches in their charge.
Since the itinerant preachers were rarely present in for any length of time in any one place, the everyday job of pastoral care and discipling fell to local leadership, including former circuit riders who had “located”.
The entire Wesleyan connection was built so that Methodists could strive together toward that holiness “without which no one will see the Lord.” When Wesley said that there is “no holiness but social holiness” he meant that we make this journey toward holiness with other Christians. “You can believe and practice whatever you want as long as you do it by yourself ” is just not a Methodist way of being the church. Our structures exist so that we can help each other live the holy lives to which we have been called.