John Wesley never heard of a traveling pastor

This post may only interest my Methodist friends. Indulge me. I’ll get back to broader themes soon.

If you’re a Methodist, you may be surprised to see how clearly John Wesley distinguished between the itinerant ministry and pastoral ministry. He insisted that he wasn’t appointing pastors, but preachers/evangelists. Look at what he says in his sermon “The Ministerial Office”:

I do not find that ever the office of an Evangelist was the same with that of a Pastor, frequently called a Bishop. He presided over the flock, and administered the sacraments: The former assisted him, and preached the Word, either in one or more congregations. I cannot prove from any part of the New Testament, or from any author of the three first centuries, that the office of an evangelist gave any man a right to act as a Pastor or Bishop. I believe these offices were considered as quite distinct from each other till the time of Constantine.

Let’s highlight two of those points. According to Wesley:

1 — Pastor, Bishop… same thing. Wesley wouldn’t concede any differentiated role between pastors and bishops. It’s hard to make a strong argument for the distinction in the NT either. In other places, Wesley makes his feelings about bishops loud and clear––the people called Methodists should “put a full end to this!” Let the Presbyterians have their bishops, but let the Methodists know their calling better.

2 — Pastor, Evangelist… big difference. He said he could not prove from any part of the NT, or any time until Constantine, that the offices of evangelist and pastor were one and the same.

You should go read that whole sermon if you’re interested in these things. You’ll see a full, deeply theological explanation of ministry orders according to Wesley.

Wesley associated the pastors of the New Testament with priests in the Old Testament. He described them as the “ordinary, established, institutional ministers of the church.”

Meanwhile, he associated Methodist preachers with the prophets of the Old Testament. They were extraordinarily called to the work of itinerant evangelism: “It is true extraordinary prophets were frequently raised up, who had not been educated in the ‘schools of the prophets,’ neither had the outward ordinary call. But we read of no extraordinary priests” (see this in “Ought We to Separate from the Church of England?”).

Wesley did not believe he was appointing institutional ministers of the church for the ordinary work of the church. Wesley was raising up extraordinary leaders as traveling evangelists and apostles “to proclaim glad tidings to all the world.”

John Wesley never heard of a traveling pastor. Pastors were the local ministers, building up congregations in their faith. Wesley was calling traveling preachers to proclaim glad tidings to all the world.

The question for Methodists today: what is the point of our traveling ministers? Are they sent “to proclaim glad tidings to all the world”? If so, we should take a closer look at what they’re actually doing, because it looks more like that ordinary pastoral ministry, ordering the day-to-day life of the church and its sacramental life.

Whatever the case, it seems that we have blurred two roles that Wesley was at pains to keep distinct.

You may ask what we do with Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury, and the American ministry that followed. If you want to talk about that, we can use the comments section for it. In short, I think much of what Wesley had taught and fought for elsewhere got undermined when he ordained these two.

Yet we still see in the early American ministry that the traveling preachers were not pastors. Don Haynes has shown that circuit riders weren’t pastors and also argues that “local elders were the pillars and backbone of local churches.” 1

Next: a proposal for better ministry today.


  1. In an article in the old United Methodist Reporter, sadly no longer available online.

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15 thoughts on “John Wesley never heard of a traveling pastor

  1. We could sure plant a lot more churches w traveling evangelists. As it is, it feels more and more like we are having to work around the system to do some of the things we just need to do– lots of reliance on local pastors, looking to plant churches with lay people… we’re coming up against a lot of limitations in our current system when it comes down to getting done the work that needs to get done. We are pretty good at taking care of the people who have happened to stay part of our churches. Replacing them, winning new believers to Christ… well, that’s just not happening in any ways that don’t enforce the overall trend of stagnation and decline

  2. Right on, Aaron. People have supposed that my main concern in all of this was to suggest that pastors shouldn’t have to itinerate. My first goal, though, is to show that we have lost the apostolic role by making all of our ministers into itinerating chaplains.

    When the Methodist movement was thriving, those who traveled were doing it to preach the gospel and start new churches, not to go give senior leadership to existing churches.

  3. I think the problem arose because of the very different mission fields Wesley was working with in Britain compared to North America. Wesley, always the practical theologian, once he was convinced that there was no primitive warrant for a distinction between priests and bishops, felt he could ordain Coke. Since there was no Church of England in America, the distinction between traveling preacher and pastor was tough to hold separate after this. It was a tension JW never resolved and we’ve been dealing with ever since. Various separations have been made, something like when Presiding Elders had to be at quarterly conferences, but DSes hardly fulfill the role of traveling preacher anymore. We also have the office of General Evangelist, but there’s so few of them that they don’t function like the order of traveling preachers did.

    We’ve gotten to the point that I think we are now an institution akin to the CofE in Wesley’s time that would need a revival movement to come out from within it to actually re-establish the kind of traveling preacher John Wesley had in mind. It won’t come from the denomination, I’m sure of it.

    • Wesley, I completely agree. And I agree that this kind of re-establishment of the traveling preacher won’t come from the denomination. Will a renewal movement rise up from within? For it to succeed, it will undoubtedly need a new contingent of traveling apostles, and a mass of (likely unpaid or bivocational) local pastors.

  4. It’s not nearly bad enough yet for what you’re saying to appear not only wise, but inevitable. As bad as it is, its not bad enough yet.

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