The duty we reject

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?


16 thoughts on “The duty we reject

  1. I’ve witnessed this done poorly and been on the receiving end of reproving done poorly enough to push me away from being a reprover in most cases. I lack good role models in this department of faith development. Have you witnessed this done well?

    1. I have had people do it well with me, but it was always in a context in which I had given either tacit or explicit permission for people to do so. I think the culture of a community is a big, big piece of this. Do we invite each other to do this service for us? Do we instead have a culture that says everyone should mind his or her own business?

      1. Agreed, community is a huge part of this. But, how do you build a community in which healthy reproving is a key part. It’s difficult to insert reproving into a culture that doesn’t have it, or at least I assume it would be because it means moving from a “lets be nice to each other” model to a “lets be real” model of community. So, if we’re going to build those communities, we need to start with trust and realness going hand in hand. I think it’s an interesting balance.

  2. Scripture is a great “reproof” (thanks be to God). It works like a two-edged “app” in the life of someone who reads it regularly and welcomes its difficult message. Group Bible study is where I work this out with others. Scripture cuts the ice…

      1. A slack rope never pulled an ox out of the ditch. Just as you say, our job is not to “explain it away”…but to offer what cleanses us.

  3. Pastoral discretion seems to be a key here. Reminds me of a phrase Pope Francis lifted from John XXIII: “See everything; turn a blind eye to much; correct a little.”

    1. When you can’t make them see the light, make them feel the heat.
      Ronald Reagan

      Avoidance or hiding conflict can be much more damaging than facing it.
      Wisdom in the workplace.

      …………..reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction.
      2 Timothy 4:2

      Reject a factious man after a first and second warning,
      Titus 3:10

      A faction is a small organized, dissenting group within a larger on that can reek havoc in any organization.

  4. I think drunkenness is still regarded as an evil by most people, though there are some who boast of being drunk as much as possible. Alcoholism is considered a disease, but not all drunks are alcoholics.

    As for profaning the Lord’s Day, that one is a bit painful. My job requires me to work Sundays 9 months of the year. I don’t like it, but it’s not something I can easily get around. Even seminary libraries are often open on Sundays, as are major chains of Christian bookstores like Family Christian Stores. “Profaning the Lord’s Day” can be hard to avoid for many people employed in countries that do not enforce laws shuttering businesses on Sundays.

    Also, I’m not sure how just a characterization it is to call working on a Sunday “profaning the Lord’s Day.” There’s evidence from Paul’s epistles that Sunday was the Lord’s Day when the church met to worship, but at the same time in Romans 14:5 he also says that to some, particular days are holy, and to others, all days are the same. His advice is simply to be convinced in our own minds about it.

    1. What I wish we could do, James, is actually have this conversation in the church. What does it mean to honor the Lord’s Day? Certainly earning money to feed your family is not against the will of God. Or so I would think. But I’d love it if this was not a topic that just got written off.

      1. Well, the biblical injunction in the Old Testament was that the sabbath was to be kept as a time of rest from work and a time for worship. I don’t really see a change in its meaning in the New Testament, though perhaps initially the Lord’s Day and the Sabbath were not synonymous.

        I don’t know how the earliest Christians dealt with it. Perhaps they gathered for worship on Sunday mornings, and then dispersed to deal with the day-to-day business of life–after all, Sunday wasn’t a week-end in the Roman Empire.

        1. I do think there was a tradition of early morning worship. Given how much the Sabbath comes up in the NT, I have to believe it was an important question for the early church. I know part of that had to do with whether to keep the Jewish Sabbath, but it seem plausible to me that part of that conversation was about what it meant to honor the Lord’s day.

  5. One last thought on this one, probably obvious, but flaming people on the internet does not count as reproving.

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