John Wesley’s sermon “On Obedience to Parents” is an illuminating and vexing text.
It is illuminating because it reveals the practical nature of Wesley’s theology. It also helps us understand how Wesley read scripture and applied it. The text in this sermon is plain as can be: “Children obey your parents in all things” (Col. 3:20, KJV).
And Wesley takes it at face value.
He urges children even into adulthood to obey parents, unless such obedience would conflict with the law of God. Here he uses himself as example and notes that even into his middle-age he aimed never to do anything that his mother forbid or leave off doing anything she told him to do. He says the same of his father who died at a younger age.
As for parents, Wesley counsels them to break the will of their children if they would save their souls.
As self-will is the root of all sin and misery, so whatever cherishes this in children, ensures their after-wretchedness and irreligion; and whatever checks and mortifies it, promotes their future happiness and piety. This is still more evident if we consider that religion is nothing else but the doing the will of God, and not our own; and that self-will being the grand impediment to our temporal and eternal happiness, no indulgence of it can be trivial; no denial of it unprofitable. Heaven or hell depends on this alone. So that the parent who studies to subdue it in his children, works together with God in the saving of a soul. The parent who indulges it does the devil’s work, makes religion impracticable, salvation unattainable; and does all that in him lies to damn his child, soul and body, for ever!
He warns parents against “fondness” for their children preventing them from instilling a proper obedience. This he argues in the name of love. If we really love our children, he writes, we will not allow them to develop the habit of self-will and disobedience that leads to destruction.
I find this advice hard to read with a peaceful heart. It may be that I read things into Wesley’s words, but when he suggests that children should be taught to fear disobedience and to cry softly, I find him describing my own parenting choices as the certain path to destruction for my children. It turns out, as a parent, I am less convinced of the total depravity of humanity than I am when reflecting on theological problems. And yet, I do have little trouble seeing ways in which children can “go off the rails” and into destructive patterns of life. I see ways that I am prone to do that as well. Could those things be stopped by a little “broken will” in the toddler years?
Is noting that Wesley was not himself a parent an ad hominem attack? It is. But does that remove the objection?
This sermon, of course, is not among what are generally considered the doctrinal standards for United Methodists.* In other words, Wesley might be consulted here for edification, but his sermon of parenting has no binding force on UM doctrine. (Not that many of his sermons have any actual binding force on United Methodism.)
But it is vexing, nonetheless, because it certainly gives 21st century readers all kinds of ammunition to discount Wesley’s others sermons and theological insights. Indeed, the most common criticism I hear of Wesley is that he was an uptight martinet who was a disaster in his love relationships. Why, people ask, should we take any counsel from him given his personal life?
We should, people say, take the good from Wesley and discard the bad.
But it is precisely in sermons such as this one that I find that advice so difficult to follow. This sermon is Wesley through and through. It reflects his laser-like focus on questions of salvation as the ultimate concern. It reflects his understanding of the law of God and of the meaning of sin. If reflects his conviction that our will is broken and will lead us only into destruction if not healed and reoriented toward God, often in direct opposition to what comes natural to us and what our culture teaches.
He vexes me because I am not skillful enough to strain out the parts of Wesley that are problematic for me without making an ugly mess of the rest of him.
*Frequently, but not always, considered to be the first 53 sermons as they appeared in collections published by Wesley. This order is often preserved to this day in in book and Internet listings of the sermons.