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Wesley valued differences in pursuit of perfection

5/5/2003 News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

DALLAS (UMNS) - For John Wesley, Christian perfection was all about "the pure love of God and neighbor" - a love that can be strengthened by disagreements or differences with others, a United Methodist theologian says.

Marjorie Suchocki took the denomination's bishops on a trek through Wesley's book, A Plain Account of Christian Perfection at their spring meeting, to mark this year's 300th anniversary of the birth of John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement. The international council met April 28-May 2 in Addison, Texas.

"Every United Methodist needs to know what is in this book," said Suchocki, a Wesleyan scholar at United Methodist-related Claremont (Calif.) School of Theology. She said she wished every denominational church would study and understand what is at the heart of United Methodism. "I would hope that every Christian whatsoever would be pressing on to this kind of perfection."

Perfection, for Wesley, is "the pure love of God and neighbor, loving God with all our heart and soul and loving neighbor as ourselves," Suchocki said. She suggested that during ordination ceremonies, instead of simply asking the ministerial candidates if they are "going on to perfection," include a few words elaborating on this understanding of perfection.

Wesley believed that people were created with minds, emotions and bodies so that they should develop them fully to the glory of God, and the glory of God is God's love, she said. "Everything that is in your being is available to the service of love," she said.

God intends for people to develop themselves to whatever fullness is available, she said. She recalled a student of hers who had cerebral palsy, who developed his physical body to the greatest potential to the glory of God.

"It's for the sake of love, so that you shall love with all that you are and not with some truncated version of who you are," she said.

Wesley understood that the reason for salvation was to get on with the business of sanctification, she said.

Making mistakes is part of life, she said. "We can no more live without making a mistake than we can live without breathing," she said. "Consequently, we need Christ."

Suchocki noted that love is strengthened rather than threatened by disagreements or differences of belief with others. When one seeks to build muscle, one uses weights instead of a feather - although the feather might feel nicer, she said. "That which helps you grow in love most is when you encounter a little disagreement along the way."

She reminded the bishops of Wesley's admonition to watch and pray continually against pride. "Pride for Wesley is the refusal to learn from somebody else," she said. She quoted Wesley: "Yea, you have need to be taught by the weakest preacher in London."

Wesley believed that everyone is a potential teacher, and he told the early Methodists that they needed to learn even from those who disagreed with them or who put them down, Suchocki said.

"We serve a God who is the God of all creation, and if you dare think the blessed love of God is circumscribed … that is a dangerous mistake," she said.

It is idolatry to think that one's thoughts are exactly the same as God's, she warned.

Differences are necessary to the church of Jesus Christ because they push Christians to challenge themselves, she said. "It is as theologically important that there be theological diversity in the church as it is that we should love one another."

Pressing on to Christian perfection entails learning from those who are different, and responding to differences not with verbal or physical bombs but as opportunities for growth, she said.

"Are you pressing on to perfection?" she asked the bishops. "Oh, yes, thank God."

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