John Wesley’s inner holiness, the sanctifying and perfecting love at work inside us, finds outward expression in social witness, a dedicated commitment to changing conditions that rob people of fullness of life. Social witness serves God, who is the “lover of justice” (Psalm 99:4 NRSV). United Methodists perceive God’s activity not merely in stories of personal transformation but in the great shifts of history toward justice, release from oppression, and relief from suffering.
Whenever United Methodists gather in conference, they focus not only on how God uses faith communities to reshape human souls but also on how God works through the church to affect society. Disciples place themselves in service to God “for the transformation of the world.” Many people feel that the church should avoid controversial issues. But while conscientious Christians may seriously disagree about social and legislative strategies to feed the hungry, heal the sick, protect the innocent, and foster peace, no Christian can act as if these things do not matter to God. How should disciples of Jesus respond?
“Justice is love with legs,” one seminary professor said. God’s love takes a social form, a political expression, when the followers of Jesus learn to love strangers by relieving suffering though programs to prevent disease, health care systems that serve the poor as well as the wealthy, and laws that protect people from injustice.
Victims of violence, poverty, discrimination, and people who suffer through war, famine, or natural disaster often lack the power to effect change that will transform their circumstances. If no one with power and resources speaks for them, how can their voices be heard? To advocate means to speak for, to act on behalf of, to give support. Among the most important ways followers of Christ express God’s gracious love is by speaking up for children, the oppressed, the homeless, the poor, or the marginalized who cannot speak for themselves.
As followers of Jesus, we look at the world from the perspective of someone who suffered innocently—a person who was crushed and broken by the world’s powers—rather than through the lens of privilege, power, and wealth. Christianity began with catastrophic brokenness and violence, resulting in a persevering, sacrificial love that drives us to work on behalf of the suffering with unending passion. We can do no other.
Some social witness the world understands—seeking cures to diseases, protecting children from abuse, supporting victims of violence. Other forms of social witness the world cannot fathom because the ideas run counter to deep cultural biases or because such initiatives seem foolish, unrealistic, or hopeless—working with violent offenders, protesting torture, organizing for peace, protecting the rights of immigrants.
Prophetic voices help us see the incongruity between what we believe and the personal choices we actually make. The dissonance is uncomfortable. We want such voices to be wrong, even when we intuitively know that some of what they say is true. Listening attentively rather than reacting with indignation may cause us to rethink and to act with greater fairness and more compassion. We are able to influence systems and make personal choices that align more truly with the deep principles we hold and with the scriptural witness we have inherited. God speaks to us sometimes through the voices of people who disagree with us just as the prophets of the Old Testament bothered the comfortable and complacent in days gone by. They rally us to a collective sense of responsibility.
John Wesley writes that “Christianity is essentially a social religion; and that to turn it into a solitary religion, is indeed to destroy it.” (Sermon 24, “Upon the Lord’s Sermon on the Mount”) He calls us to immerse ourselves in the world and not to separate ourselves from it. Without immersing ourselves in the world, we cannot influence the lives of others or become the force for good that God desires us to become.
The Call to Action urges the church “to redirect the flow of attention, energy, and resources to an intense concentration on fostering and sustaining an increase in the number of vital congregations effective in making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world” (the adaptive challenge facing The United Methodist Church as stated in the Call to Action reports).
Does this mean we neglect our social witness as United Methodists? I cannot imagine The United Methodist Church without a robust engagement with the world. Begin with the end in mind: the transformation of the world and the reign of God that we see revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. God works through us and through communities of faith to transform the world. The more we cooperate with the Holy Spirit in forming disciples who are mature in faith and committed to service, the greater our social witness.
We are personal disciples and social creatures, and God’s grace leads us to private action and public change. God forms us in the way of Christ not merely for our own personal benefit but for the transformation of the world. How do we have in us the mind that was in Christ Jesus? is a social question as well as a personal one.
How does your ministry reveal God’s passion for justice? When was a time you offered a ministry of advocacy on behalf of those who had no power to do so themselves? Does your congregation offer a social witness? How do you evaluate its effectiveness?
When has someone’s prophetic voice provoked you to positive ministry despite your initial resistance? What role do you think the church should play in social change? What role do you think annual and general conferences should play?
For scriptural study, read Eugene Peterson’s interpretation of Matthew 5:13-16 in The Message for a fresh restatement of a common passage, or check out Amos 5:21-24.
To explore Wesley’s notions of social witness, John Wesley’s Sermon 24, “Upon Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount ,” which you can find by searching online websites. Also, Paul Chilcote’s Praying in the Wesleyan Spirit relies upon Wesley’s sermons to deepen our discipleship and social witness. For further reflection on social witness, reread the chapter on “Risk-taking Mission and Service” from Five Practices of Fruitful Living by Robert Schnase.