Wesley on division

From John Wesley’s “A Plain Account of Christian Perfection”:

Suffer not one thought of separating from your brethern, whether their opinions agree with yours or not. Do not dream that any man sins in not believing you, in not taking your word; or that this or that opinion is essential to the work, and both must stand or fall together. Beware of impatience of contradiction. Do not condemn or think hardly of those who cannot see as you see, or judge it their duty to contradict you, whether in a great thing or a small. I fear some of us have thought hardly of others, merely because they contradicted what we affirmed. All this tends to division; and, by everything of this kind, we are teaching them an evil lesson against ourselves.

To which heart should we be relevant?

I was at the movie theater when a preview for a Hillsong movie played. One of the only two other people in the theater said to the man sitting next to her, “Why do they think we’d want to watch that?”

Her words reflect the culture in which the church find itself. The crisis of relevance has been with us for a long time. The idea that Christianity is not only unwelcome but also dismissed as ridiculous is gaining wider currency. And, of course, we in the church find ourselves wondering how to respond.

A good question for us is this: What is the cause of people’s negative reactions?

Many people will point to the church itself as a cause. They have no end of advice about ways we can make ourselves more attractive to those who disdain us. But allow me to propose a different interpretive approach.

Is it possible that people disdain Jesus and the church because they are unconverted sinners?

I don’t want to ignore failings of the church. We have many for which we need to repent. We are always in need of reform.

But let’s not forget our theology.

Wesleyan theology, to the extent it still takes Wesley as a guide, suggests three different states for the human heart.

The natural heart neither knows nor desires the things of God. It conceives of itself as happy and self-sufficient. God — if he exists — exists to service the needs of the person or the society. In any event, he should not go around interrupting movies or other activities. My companions in the movie theater had such natural hearts, perhaps.

The convicted heart — one under what Wesley called the spirit of bondage — is aware of God, but its dominant awareness is of God’s great goodness and the heart’s great unworthiness. It is the heart of one deeply conscious of his or her own failings and dirt. It often is the heart of one who feels shame or guilt. I like the old word “wretch” here because it describes one wandering far from God.

The converted heart knows the forgiveness and awesome love of Jesus Christ, and can say in the spirit of adoption Abba, Father, in communion with the holy God of the universe. The converted heart rejoices in God, rejoices in forgiveness, and counts all things in the world as nothing compared to knowing God.

The problem in Wesley’s view is not that we are out of step with the times, but that the fallen world is out of step with God.

Wesley would not be at all surprised to hear what my fellow movie-goer said. For him, though, it would be diagnostic. It would help him to understand the state of her heart, and perhaps form his own ideas about how he might speak to her if given the opportunity.

In writing this, I’m aware of a few things.

First, Wesley’s categories are derived from but not explicitly outlined this way in scripture. You can read Romans in a way to support this, but it is not the only way to read it. Second, I am aware that many of our contemporary theologians view Wesley as a historical curiosity rather than as a vital thinker for today. And these are theologians in our own tribe. Finally, these thoughts don’t touch on the relevance issues raised when we talk about worship styles or cultural forms that welcome or engage different groups. We need to distinguish between relevant styles of worship and relevant doctrine. We need the first. We need to be wary of the second if it means abandoning the gospel. Wesley went where the people were to bring them the gospel.

With all this acknowledged, I do think Wesley helps us think through the crisis in relevance in some ways.

He challenges the easy conclusion that if people don’t want to hear about Jesus we must not be packaging him well. Those with natural hearts should be expected to resist any talk of God and holiness.

He also causes me to reflect on the state of my own heart and those in the congregations I serve. Are we displaying the converted hearts of those who have received the spirit of adoption? Do we desire it? Or do we want the church to bless our natural hearts and soothe away any conviction we might feel?

These are the kinds of questions that arise when you spend time with John and Charles Wesley and then go out into the world.

It is why I keep reading and singing with them.

Osteening Wesley?

Here are some words from John Wesley that I quoted recently. In copying the quote, I took out words that I thought would strike our contemporary ears as too negative.

Let thy religion be the religion of the heart. Let it lie deep in thy inmost soul. Be … amazed and humbled to the dust by the love of God which is in Christ Jesus. …. Let the whole stream of thy thoughts, words, and actions flow from the deepest conviction that thou standest on the edge of the great gulf, thou and all the children of men, just ready to drop … into everlasting glory …! Let thy soul be filled with mildness, gentleness, patience, long-suffering towards all men; — at the same time that all which is in thee is athirst for God, the living God; longing to awake up after his likeness, and to be satisfied with it! Be thou a lover of God and of all mankind! In this spirit do and suffer all things! Thus show thy faith by thy works; thus “do the will of thy Father which is in heaven!” And, as sure as thou now walkest with God on earth, thou shalt also reign with him in glory!

Does Wesley lose his punch if we take out the vileness and hellfire?

A house upon the sand?

In the course of his sermons expounding on the Sermon on the Mount, John Wesley comes to consider the significance of Matthew 7:21-27. In that discourse, he begins by sketching out what it means to build our house upon the sand.

Near the beginning of the sermon, he singles out the preacher as one at risk.

After I have thus successfully preached to others, still I myself may be a castaway. I may, in the hand of God, snatch many souls from hell, and yet drop into it when I have done. I may bring many others to the kingdom of heaven, and yet myself never enter there. Reader, if God hath ever blessed my word to thy soul, pray that he may be merciful to me a sinner!

This is a warning that cuts to the heart and highlights the temptations preachers face. To so many people, we are the face of piety and faith. This is often not deserved and certainly not sought, but it remains. Wesley here shakes us from such delusions.

Wesley goes on — in his typical fashion — to warn against relying on good works or being innocent of any outward harm. These are also sand if relied upon to take the place of real Christianity. To those who can preach and teach all orthodoxy, who do no harm, and who are diligent in doing good, Wesley warns we may hear a harsh word from Christ in the last day.

Even then I did not know you as my own; for your heart was not right toward God. Ye were not yourselves meek and lowly; ye were not lovers of God, and of all mankind; ye were not renewed in the image of God; ye were not holy as I am holy.

Once again, we come face-to-face with the essential element of Christianity as understood from a Wesleyan perspective: holiness of heart and life.

I am reminded when reading Wesley how he distinguishes between things that I often hear others conflate. The goal of Christianity is new creation, holiness of heart and life, to be remade in the likeness of Christ. The means to this goal are conviction, justification, assurance, good works, piety, and so on.

I am often tempted to confuse the means with the end. I confuse the outward and inward activity for the actual change and transformation that these things are meant to foster. And I confuse myself about the basis on which Jesus will judge all humanity at the end of the age. He will not judge whether we practiced the means. He will judge whether we achieved the end.

Wesley closes the sermon — and therefore his series of 13 sermons on the Sermon on the Mount — with an exhortation to the practice of a religion of the heart.

Let thy religion be the religion of the heart. Let it lie deep in thy inmost soul. Be thou little, and base, and mean, and vile (beyond what words can express) in thy own eyes; amazed and humbled to the dust by the love of God which is in Christ Jesus. Be serious. Let the whole stream of thy thoughts, words, and actions flow from the deepest conviction that thou standest on the edge of the great gulf, thou and all the children of men, just ready to drop in, either into everlasting glory or everlasting burnings! Let thy soul be filled with mildness, gentleness, patience, long-suffering towards all men; — at the same time that all which is in thee is athirst for God, the living God; longing to awake up after his likeness, and to be satisfied with it! Be thou a lover of God and of all mankind! In this spirit do and suffer all things! Thus show thy faith by thy works; thus “do the will of thy Father which is in heaven!” And, as sure as thou now walkest with God on earth, thou shalt also reign with him in glory!

In his day, such an exhortation drew thousands to Methodism and repelled thousands more. It was met with the charge that Methodists held out too high a standard for Christianity. People could not attain this and remain in the world. It would cause men and women to despair of salvation. It was fanaticism not fit for a reasonable religion.

We have — more or less — sided with Wesley’s critics. Few of us could read the paragraph quoted above and relish it as a portrait of the faith to which we aspire and to which we call our brothers and sisters.

I am left, though, with the question suggested by Jesus’ warning. In ignoring Wesley’s teaching here are we building our house upon the sand? Is that why we are so badly buffeted by the floods and storms of our age?

Of the church

 

In a post on First Things, Stephen Webb writes about the nature of theologizing today. He asks where we locate authority in an age in which belief in the self-interpretation of Scripture and the brilliance of bishops no longer holds. He asks what are “the necessary conditions for the Church’s ability to embody Christianity in the midst of the erosions of a spiritual marketplace”?

In his post, Webb nods toward Rome but also holds out hope for a diffuse church with many points of authority.

In our current United Methodist debates, we are dealing with some of the same questions.

  • What is the church?
  • What is the basis of its authority?
  • What is necessary for it to “embody Christianity” in today’s world?
  • How can it maintain its integrity or defend its boundaries?
  • How can it also creatively engage changing conditions in the world?

Our conversations and announcements do not usually explicitly engage these questions, of course. What we often talk about instead are the rules in our Book of Discipline, the dysfunction of various bodies, the bad faith of rival groups, and the lines our own consciences will not allow us to cross.

I’ve read before that part of our mushy ecclesiology in United Methodism comes from a combination of John Wesley’s desire never to see his movement exist as an independent church and our own aping of the institutions and values of the new American republic when we put together our own constitution.

That may all be so. Nonetheless, I wanted to see what John Wesley’s sermon “Of the Church” might tell me about our own answers to some of these questions.

Wesley starts by distinguishing between the building and the people.

How much do we almost continually hear about the Church! With many it is matter of daily conversation. And yet how few understand what they talk of! How few know what the term means! A more ambiguous word than this, the Church, is scarce to be found in the English language. It is sometimes taken for a building, set apart for public worship: sometimes for a congregation, or body of people, united together in the service of God. It is only in the latter sense that it is taken in the ensuing discourse.

Wesley works through his understanding of the church from the top down. Leaning on Ephesians, he first defines the church universal by the marks laid out by Paul.

The catholic or universal Church is, all the persons in the universe whom God hath so called out of the world … as to be “one body,” united by “one spirit;” having “one faith, one hope, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in them all.”

Those members of that universal church gathered in a single country, form a national church. Those in a single city the church of that city. In addition, following Scripture, Wesley writes that we may think of a church within a single household or even as a church constituted by the gathering of two or three in the name of our Lord.

In other words, Wesley’s conception of “the church” does not fit very well into our denominational boxes.

Wesley goes on to consider the definition of the church laid out in the Articles of Religion of the Church of England. He expresses disagreement with the Article’s requirement — that I believe derives from Reformed theology — that the “pure word of God” be preached and the sacraments be “duly administered.” In his text, Wesley displays both his anti-Roman Catholic sentiments and his catholic spirit.

I will not undertake to defend the accuracy of this definition. I dare not exclude from the Church catholic all those congregations in which any unscriptural doctrines, which cannot be affirmed to be “the pure word of God,” are sometimes, yea, frequently preached; neither all those congregations, in which the sacraments are not “duly administered.” Certainly if these things are so, the Church of Rome is not so much as a part of the catholic Church; seeing therein neither is “the pure word of God” preached, nor the sacraments “duly administered.” Whoever they are that have “one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one God and Father of all,” I can easily bear with their holding wrong opinions, yea, and superstitious modes of worship: Nor would I, on these accounts, scruple still to include them within the pale of the catholic Church; neither would I have any objection to receive them, if they desired it, as members of the Church of England.

And so, to see what the church truly is — according to Wesley — we must look to a closer definition of those marks, which he lays out for us.

The church catholic are those who have

One spiritSome understand hereby the Holy Spirit himself, the Fountain of all spiritual life; and it is certain, “if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his.” Others understand it of those spiritual gifts and holy dispositions which are afterwards mentioned.

One hope a hope full of immortality. They know, to die is not to be lost: Their prospect extends beyond the grave.

One Lordwho has now dominion over them, who has set up his kingdom in their hearts, and reigns over all those that are partakers of this hope. To obey him, to run the way of his commandments, is their glory and joy. And while they are doing this with a willing mind they, as it were, “sit in heavenly places with Christ Jesus.”

One faithThis is not barely the faith of a Heathen; Namely, a belief that “there is a God,” and that he is gracious and just, and, consequently, “a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.” Neither is it barely the faith of a devil; though this goes much farther than the former. For the devil believes, and cannot but believe, all that is written both in the Old and New Testament to be true. But it is the faith of St. Thomas, teaching him to say with holy boldness, “My Lord, and my God!” It is the faith which enables every true Christian believer to testify with St. Paul, “The life which I now live, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.”

One baptismwhich is the outward sign our one Lord has been pleased to appoint, of all that inward and spiritual grace which he is continually bestowing upon his Church. It is likewise a precious means, whereby this faith and hope are given to those that diligently seek him.

One God and Father of allthat have the Spirit of adoption, which “crieth in their hearts, Abba, Father;” which “witnesseth” continually “with their spirits,” that they are the children of God: “Who is above all,” — the Most High, the Creator, the Sustainer, the Governor of the whole universe: “And through all,” — pervading all space; filling heaven and earth

Here Wesley offers not only a definition of the church that breaks the boundaries of denominational lines — giving preference to geographical ones — but also evicts from the church catholic huge numbers of people now at worship in most congregations. This point he brings home with particular force near the end of the sermon.

The Church is called holy, because it is holy, because every member thereof is holy, though in different degrees, as He that called them is holy. How clear is this! If the Church, as to the very essence of it, is a body of believers, no man that is not a Christian believer can be a member of it. If this whole body be animated by one spirit, and endued with one faith, and one hope of their calling; then he who has not that spirit, and faith, and hope, is no member of this body. It follows, that not only no common swearer, no Sabbath-breaker, no drunkard, no whoremonger, no thief, no liar, none that lives in any outward sin, but none that is under the power of anger or pride, no lover of the world, in a word, none that is dead to God, can be a member of his Church.

Wesley’s purpose in this sermon was not merely to offer a definition of the church, of course. It was a polemical sermon aimed at critics of his movement who objected to him harming the Church of England. And yet, his definition does give us the opportunity and the responsibility to reflect as United Methodists on the nature of the church.

I have a few thoughts. I am not sure I can or would defend these are final thoughts, but they are provisional ones suggested to me by reading Wesley’s sermon, and that alone.

First, the church is both universal and local, but it is not denominational. Denominations exist — to repurpose language from our Book of Discipline — for the maintenance of worship and edification of believers. Denominations are human superstructures that support the universal church gathered in particular places. Our devotion and zeal, however, is owed more to the church universal in our city or neighborhood — whatever denominations might provide its material support — rather than merely to those who depend upon the same superstructure.

Second, we have a lot of people who claim to be part of the church but simply are not. They have their name on the books at the denomination, but not in the book kept by our Lord. I cannot tell you that I know who is who. Wesley believed that was fairly simple to work out with simple questions, ones we do not ask very much these days. What standing such people should have in the denomination is difficult to discern.

Third, I find in Wesley’s formulations a challenge to the via media proposals and the recent statement of our Council of Bishops that want to ground “the church” in merely the sharing of creedal orthodoxy (the devil believes as much and is a devil still) or a unity based on a denominational mission statement. These may be strategies for holding together a denominational superstructure, but they do not strike me as representing a robust view of the identity of the church catholic.

I don’t imagine these thoughts of mine will solve any of the problems facing the United Methodist Church today. I do find them stimulating me to think in some different ways about the UMC and my local congregations, though.

Mr. Wesley’s fabulous contraption

Scripture, of course, is the source as well as the paradigm of Christian speech. What we say must be said faithful to the language of Scripture. This is a complex task because it is no means clear how the many ways of expression in Scripture are to be said coherently. The investigation of that process is called theology. But theologians are often tempted to say too much because the reticence of Scripture, the refusal of Scripture to tell us what we think we need to know, drives us crazy. I sometimes think that the work of historical criticism, essential work for helping us read Scripture faithfully, is a rage against the silences of Scripture. Why do not the Gospels tell us what Jesus is “thinking?”

– Stanley Hauerwas, Working with Words

If I were to rename this blog, I would be tempted to steal a phrase from Hauerwas and call it “Rage Against the Silences.”

Rage is not really my thing, but I love that turn of phrase. It speaks to me out of the same place that “An arrow through the air” does. It also capture the desperation I often feel when confronted with silences in my life. To sit in the presence of silence — especially the kind you get when you really want speech — is a discipline I have barely begun to develop.

I don’t think John Wesley was very good at abiding the silences, either.

I was baptized in a United Methodist Church without ever being exposed to Wesley. I later went on to read and study Wesley’s theology as an amateur. As I consider what I have learned from this work, I do wonder whether Wesley fell prey to the temptation of the of the theologians that Hauerwas mentions here. Did he fill up the silence of Scripture or steamroll the conflicts in the interest of constructing a method? There is a sense in reading Wesley’s theology that it works too well. (I know Calvinists will howl about that last line. That’s okay. Let them howl.)

Wesley’s theology is brilliantly constructed to speak to the spiritual condition of people conscious of sin, mindful of wrath, and desiring to know the way of salvation. It is practical and carefully articulated. It shows all the signs of being developed by a skilled practitioner and careful observer of the human soul. It is well engineered and elegant.

But like any finely crafted machine, it does not work very well at things it was never designed to do. For instance, Wesley just waves his hand at the question of salvation outside of Christianity. He neither condemns nor saves Muslims and Hindus and Jews. He merely says that is a question for God and not for him.

I respect that answer, but I do not find it terribly helpful in multi-faith America.

Or to hit even closer to home, Wesley’s theology is so dependent on cognitive processes, that I wonder how it speaks to those who by age, injury, or disability cannot form the proper mental states to participate or cooperate with grace as laid out by Wesley.

There are ways we might answer that, but Wesley does not help us at all with those answers. His concern was with the machine he was building, and he does not speculate about other problems, or at least nothing I have seen in his works shows such concern.

I don’t mean this as an attack on Wesley. I’ve learned far too much from him for that. But I do wonder how to properly receive him. I wonder this, in particular, because I take quite seriously the vows of ordination the church may one day ask me to take.

How do I reside in the silences of Scripture while remaining an heir to the fabulous contraption Wesley constructed?