In my previous two posts, we have looked at John Wesley’s sermon “A Caution Against Bigotry,” which we will come to see now as an argument against those who were trying to argue that lay Methodist preaching was forbidden.
Methodism was a movement of laity. Yes, it had men such as Wesley providing important leadership, but most of the actual on-the-ground work of early Methodism was done by lay people who became class leaders and stewards and lay preachers. This rise of lay preaching created a great deal of controversy. Critics of the movement argued that no man should preach unless the inward call they sense is confirmed by the outward call and certification or ordination of the church.
Wesley’s sermon is a defense of Methodist practice.
To recap some of what I have already written, Wesley understood the work of gospel preaching as participation in a spiritual war between God and Satan. He terms it so explicitly near the end of the third section of the sermon where he writes, “For there can be no neuter in this war. Everyone is either on God’s side, or on Satan’s. Are you on God’s side?”
He argues that you can identify the partisans of God in this struggle by the fruits of their ministry. The way to tell if someone is called by God to preach the gospel is to examine whether their preaching has the effect of calling sinners to repentance and a living faith that includes the breaking off of sins and the adoption of a Christian life. If a person preaches and the effect of that preaching is to bring sinners to Christ, then that person is sent by God. As Wesley argues, since only God can save sinners, such a preacher must be sent from God because merely human talk cannot do what only the Holy Spirit can accomplish.
And so the last portion of Wesley’s sermon is an appeal and admonition that no one should prevent anyone from preaching the gospel who does so with power and effect. Not only should we not restrain them by formal censure or punishment, Wesley writes, we should not speak ill of them, attempt to divert them from their work by argument, or even harbor in our hearts displeasure that such a person as this is being used by God. No, we should rejoice that God’s kingdom is going forward in power.
The bigotry that Wesley is cautioning against in this sermon is the bigotry that says that person must not really be doing God’s work if they do not agree with us on all points of faith and practice and order. Even if they are actively working to undermine our ministry, we should still rejoice when God uses them and work actively to help them increase the scope of their ministry.
Wesley’s sermon has obvious relevance to the moment in which it was written.
I think it raises a few points for us to ponder.
First, Wesley rightly lays out fruitfulness as the standard by which we judge our preachers. He endorses the practice that he saw at work in European Protestant churches of his day wherein people were evaluated for ministry on whether they actually had the gifts to “edify the Church of Christ.” In so doing, Wesley takes a not-so-subtle jab at the kind of clergy education he himself obtained.
Certainly, the practice and the direction of the Apostle Paul was, to prove a man before he be ordained at all … Proved, How? By setting them to construe a sentence of Greek, and asking them a few commonplace questions? O amazing proof of a minister of Christ! Nay; buty be making a clear, open trial … not only whether their lives be holy and unblamable, but whether they have such gifts as are absolutely and indispensably necessary in order to edify the Church of Christ.
In the United Methodist Church, I’ve been aware of many conversations about how we order our ministry. As a former licensed local pastor and a recently ordained elder, I’ve seen several aspects of our clergy recruitment, training, and deployment processes. I think there is an argument to be made that we sometimes run the danger of falling too much to the side of valuing credentials over fruit when we evaluate people for the ministry. We also struggle to help people develop as fruitful pastors. Wesley’s defense of lay preachers might be read as a warning to us about the ways we forbid or hinder the ministry of those who do not have an M.Div. Perhaps we are guilty of the very bigotry that Wesley wrote his sermon to oppose.
Second, as I read this sermon, I am struck by how well Wesley predicted the mood of our coming denominational divorce. Ever a student of human nature, Wesley describes here the ways in which differences of opinion and conviction about matters of doctrine and the moral law can lead us into bitterness, and that bitterness leads us to speak ill of others and even dismiss that they could be the agents of God’s salvation.
If you have been paying attention to the rising rhetoric in the United Methodist Church the last couple of years, you will hear the very thing Wesley described in his day. The differences which are pulling us into separate churches have also left less and less space for us to speak well of each other across our divisions.
And so, we who follow in the tradition of Wesley might read again his words with caution.
Yes, I am aware that our disputing factions believe deeply that the other side is not just allowing but promoting evil. One side sees a abrogation of the moral law that means men and women are being condemned to eternal punishment because they are not being turned away from sin. The other side sees a abrogation of the law of love that banishes from the kingdom those whom God calls. I’m not trying to resolve that disagreement here.
But — if we follow Wesley — we should pay attention to the fruit of the ministry of those who stand across the aisle from us. If an evangelical sees a progressive Methodist able to reach a sinner and turn them to Christ, we should rejoice and celebrate and encourage that as much as we do for those with us. And, of course, to follow Wesley, the same should go for progressives who witness God’s salvation working out in evangelical churches.
I’m not saying we should do this because it will heal our denominational rift. That moment, it appears, is well past. We should do it because we claim to be Christians and rejoice any time a sinner is saved.
In my own ministry, I have seen just how daunting a job it is to move people to true repentance and living faith. It really does require God to move. I pray for the grace to be able to celebrate when God does that through the ministry of another — whether they follow my tribe or not.