“My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world” (John 17:15–18).
“In the world, but not of it.” Jesus’ followers have wrestled with this tension ever since He prayed the words in John 17. Jesus makes a clear distinction between His followers who, like Himself, stand on the side of the Father against the evil one, and “the world.” He even states that the world has hated His followers as it has hated Him (John 17:14), just hours before the final drama of His crucifixion unfolds.
Early Free Methodists worked very hard to avoid “worldliness.” This central impulse not to be “of the world” was part of what defined our movement. Some of the stories from our early history seem almost bizarre, since one aspect of being separated from the world focused on extreme plainness of dress (e.g. no neckties for men, lace collars for women, jewelry for anyone, or even visible buttons on shirts). I have read diaries of early Free Methodist female preachers who agonized over the inner battle to relinquish all desire for “superfluous adornment” and wear only the plainest clothing.
At another level, however, their lack of conformity to the world demonstrated heroic courage and faith. The same women who struggled to surrender to the Lord over whether to disguise the buttons on their blouses stepped out boldly to enter taverns and brothels to carry the Good News and see lives transformed. When people responded to the message and were converted, our forebears didn’t leave these infants in the faith to fend for themselves — they took the risk of opening their homes and welcoming them in. They formed new converts into groups to grow in grace and reform their lives. They taught them livelihood skills and helped them find jobs. They organized inner-city missions so these new believers could testify to others, becoming effective evangelists on the mean streets of Buffalo and Chicago, among other cities.
Addressing a variety of social problems, our forebears opened orphanages and schools for indigent children and nursing homes for destitute seniors. They sent missionaries to India and Africa to carry the gospel and to begin clinics among people with no access to medicine. And to demonstrate solidarity with and hospitality to the poor, Free Methodists required all their church buildings to be simple and unadorned, with free pews for all.
Their bold, public action sprang from their understanding that Jesus has sent His followers into the world, just like the Father had sent Jesus (John 17:18). What were “sent ones” to do? They took their mandate for ministry from Jesus’ own “inaugural address” in Luke 4:18–19:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
They knew that Jesus was reading from Isaiah 61. The entire context of Isaiah’s prophecy rings out with God’s hatred of hypocrisy. Isaiah 58:6–7 demonstrates God’s preferred form of religious observance:
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter — when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?”
Benjamin Titus (B.T.) and Ellen Roberts, our founding couple, understood the calling of the Free Methodist Church to be twofold: “To maintain the Bible standard of Christianity and to preach the gospel to the poor” (fmchr.ch/populistsaints). To them, the Bible standard of Christianity involved biblical justice and social reform, “setting the oppressed free, breaking every yoke,” as embodied earlier by John Wesley and the Methodist revival in England. Wesley had written and lived this statement: “A scheme to reconstruct society which ignores the redemption of the individual is unthinkable, and a doctrine to save sinning men, with no aim to transform them into crusaders against social sin, is equally unthinkable” (fmchr.ch/jwbready).
B.T. Roberts’ critique of the Methodist Episcopal Church, from which he was eventually expelled, centered on its conformity to the world. One evidence was its acceptance of slavery, which he saw as an abomination. Even in the North, at the time B.T. Roberts spoke out, abolitionism was unpopular, but he powerfully wrote and preached against the evil of slavery. He also railed against cold, dead worship that lacked the enlivening presence of the Spirit of God. He charged the Methodist Episcopal clergy with dominating the leadership of the church, giving no voice to laypeople, who are also called and gifted by the Spirit.
Like the prophets and New Testament writers (e.g. James 2:1–7), he accused God’s people of pandering to the rich and cheating the poor out of their central place in God’s kingdom. He viewed all of these as symptoms of a grave illness, a departure from the Bible standard of Christianity. The newly forming Free Methodist Church was not unanimous in rejecting every injustice our founder deplored, including the subjugation of women. B.T. Roberts himself was a man of his own historical context, so he may not have seen the far-reaching possibilities of racial equality, but he championed the “one-bloodism of the New Testament” and took as a central text Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Under his leadership, our movement began as a community of earnest Christians with an ideal of oneness and an outsize outward reach.
Protection + Purpose
Jesus’ petition for His disciples in all historical contexts is that God would not take us out of the world but would protect us from the evil one. He taught us to pray this for ourselves in the Lord’s Prayer, “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one” (Matthew 6:13). He understands what we sometimes fail to comprehend, that we are engaged in a battle against evil forces from which we need God’s protection. We may try to protect ourselves by avoiding conflict and shying away from costly involvement in kingdom causes, but that is not Jesus’ intention. Self-protective risk avoidance only lulls us into a different form of danger, the self-centered and self-absorbed life, which is not discipleship at all. He asks the Father not to take us out of the world, but to shield us while we redemptively engage in it. Jesus’ followers are on His mission together, and this mission is mightily opposed.
In His prayer, Jesus also asks the Father to sanctify Jesus’ followers by the truth and declares, “Your word is truth” (John 17:17). Part of the meaning of sanctification is to be set apart for a higher purpose. The truth of God’s Word, when we abide in it and allow it to transform our minds, compels us upward to kingdom priorities and kingdom values. Our lives are no longer our own. As God’s Spirit gains control of our lives, this prayer constantly emanates from the core of our being, “Your kingdom come; your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). We want God’s will, in our own lives and in our world. Wherever injustice assaults people whom God has made in His image, we long for change and work for it. Sanctified believers live by the Spirit and walk in the Spirit. God’s compelling truth is their aim and their path.
What about us? Our movement is 160 years old. The temptation to conform to the world has never left us. Each generation has shifted focus and redefined what it means to be sanctified or perhaps lost sight of it altogether. For a while, we got caught in the trap of legalism, listing sinful practices for each individual to avoid, creating a checklist mentality that can never result in true heart holiness. We have drifted at times, blown by the winds of controversy in the church and the nation. In every cultural context, the world’s seduction takes a different form. Yet all followers of Jesus must live in the tension of being “in the world but not of it.”
How do we discern the truth of God’s Word for our own time? Perhaps the tumultuous events of 2020 have roused us from a kind of slumber. Someone called the first month of the COVID-19 pandemic a “shot across the bow of cultural Christianity.” If we have formed our entire identity around the quality of our Sunday gatherings in beautiful high-tech sanctuaries, for at least a few months we lost our reason for being. Yet after an initial cry of desperation, many of our pastors and churches have discovered a new passion to serve the world in its brokenness, to share our food with the hungry, to clothe the naked and bind up the brokenhearted.
Leaving our buildings has in some cases sent us into the world with new eyes and common cause with our communities. Will we press on once we re-enter our worship spaces? Will we follow Jesus’ mission to “proclaim good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind”? Will we finally begin to make it our aim to “set the oppressed free”? Could this be the year of the Lord’s favor? If the church of Jesus Christ awakens to God’s kingdom mission in our desperate moment in history, it will indeed experience the favor of the Lord.
Our moment is also seized by a new acknowledgement of the sin of racism in our culture. African American Free Methodists and other people of color in our churches have experienced firsthand the injustice of our stratified, racialized society throughout their lives. White Christ-followers are growing in awareness and beginning to join the fight for racial justice with what might be the most vigor we’ve ever seen. This is a painful moment for many, as new revelations come to light and our society polarizes in response. Yet this too can be a means by which God sanctifies us through the truth.
As Free Methodists, we claim to believe that racism is a sin that we are committed to combat. In practice, respectful listening in this moment will teach us that not only has our silence contributed to the problem of racism outside the church, but our blindness has harmed our brothers and sisters in the church as well. We don’t have to intentionally hurt anyone or be personally unkind to participate in patterns that perpetuate harm and limit opportunities. Encouraged by our present crisis, stories are pouring out of grievances long ignored and discrimination long accepted. This can be a Kairos moment — a divine opportunity for change. The favor of the Lord can rest on the church that humbles itself to learn, repenting for our own part in destructive systems. God has seen this evil all along. As we comprehend racial divisions for the evil that they are and overcome them through the reconciling work of the cross, we enter into the work of God’s kingdom.
Jesus’ reading from Isaiah has often been called His kingdom manifesto. In it, He declares that the time has come for recovery of sight for the blind and setting the captives free. Can it be that the blindness Jesus wants to heal in 2020 is in our own eyes? Maybe His correction can give us 20/20 vision. Our founders interpreted “setting the oppressed free” as calling for the emancipation of slaves. It is time for those of us who are their white descendants, to call for and participate in the full liberation of the oppressed in our own time and place.
Inspired by God’s sanctifying Word, we can imagine the glorious scene of a fully diverse throng worshipping around Jesus’ throne as portrayed in Revelation 7:9a, “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” And with our vision restored, we can overcome divisions of race and class in our own local expressions of the church, experiencing a foretaste of that glorious scene.
Jesus began His reading with “the Spirit of the Lord is on me.” For our presence in the world to be like Jesus’ beautiful balance of “in it, not of it,” we will need to be filled with the Spirit, fighting the battle with spiritual weapons and purified hearts. May God guide us to become an answer to His prayer.
Bishop Linda Adams, D.Min., was elected to the Board of Bishops at General Conference 2019 after serving 11 years as the director of ICCM. She previously served as a pastor in New York, Illinois and Michigan. As a bishop, she oversees Free Methodist ministries in the North and North Central portions of the United States and also in Latin America.3