I never heard or read of any considerable revival of religion which was not attended with a spirit of reproving. I believe it cannot be otherwise; for what is faith, unless it worketh by love? Thus it was in every part of England when the present revival of religion began about fifty years ago: All the subjects of that revival, — all the Methodists, so called, in every place, were reprovers of outward sin.
— John Wesley “The Duty of Reproving Our Neighbor“
In the list of sermons of John Wesley that would not go over well today, this one has to be near the top. It is a sermon about the necessity and method of pointing out each other’s sins. Wesley takes as his text Leviticus 19:17, which if you are not aware comes right before a little verse that Jesus Christ holds up as the second great commandment.
As is typical for Wesley, this sermon displays a keen grasp of the nuances of pastoral work. Wesley is never a one-size-fits-all teacher. He is always aware that different people and different audiences require different messages. In our day, we often misinterpret Wesley because we fail to take his awareness of audience and situation into account. We treat him like a systematic theologian rather than a pastor in the trenches.
In this sermon, he starts right off with a key observation about picking our battles wisely.
But if we desire not to lose our labour, we should rarely reprove anyone for anything that is of a disputable nature, that will bear much to be said on both sides. A thing may possibly appear evil to me; therefore I scruple the doing of it; and if I were to do it while that scruple remains, I should be a sinner before God. But another is not to be judged by my conscience: To his own master he standeth or falleth. Therefore I would not reprove him, but for what is clearly and undeniably evil.
In another place, while offering similar counsel, Wesley holds up the example of going to the theater. He writes that he could not set foot in such a place, but he knows others who can without threatening their salvation.
So the question, of course, is what are those class of things that are of a disputable nature? Wesley offers some examples of things that fall into the category of undeniable evil.
Such, for instance, is profane cursing and swearing; which even those who practise it most will not often venture to defend, if one mildly expostulates with them. Such is drunkenness, which even a habitual drunkard will condemn when he is sober. And such, in the account of the generality of people, is the profaning of the Lord’s day. And if any which are guilty of these sins for a while attempt to defend them, very few will persist to do it, if you look them steadily in the face, and appeal to their own conscience in the sight of God.
The list here: profane cursing and swearing, drunkenness, and profaning the Lord’s day. I almost hesitated to produce the quotation above as examples of undeniable evil because for each one we do deny them as evil.
Although Stanley Hauerwas no longer claims to be United Methodist — I believe — he has taught many a seminary student that cursing is nothing to be ashamed of. As for drunkenness, many will call this a sickness rather than an evil act. There are even those who say it is mere frivolity and of no moral concern at all. And as for profaning the Lord’s day, to even raise it as a concern is viewed by most Christians today as a sure sign of fanatic or a hopeless fool.
Are we reproved by Rev. Wesley’s list or does it lead us to dismiss his entire sermon?
If we retain the sermon at all, we will notice that Wesley does not advise us to engage in street-corner reprovings. He is no advocate of hectoring passersby. Indeed, he directs our attention first to our close relations then in widening circles. Of special attention are those who were joined together in Methodist societies, as those groups were formed for the express purpose of watching over each other in love.
As baptized Christians we make similar promises to nurture and love each other. Is there room for more of a spirit of reproof among us?