Dig or build

A comment writer asked on a previous post a variation of a question I have gotten from time to time over the years of this blog: “What would Wesley think about all of this?”

It got me to reflect for a few moments on Wesley’s approach to theological error and ethical failings in the church of his day. I’ve not done a systematic study. My impressions come from reading nearly all his collected works, but I did not originally read them with this question in mind, so what I write below may be off base. With that caution, here are my thoughts.

Wesley certainly did not turn a blind eye to theological errors and moral lapses in the church. He wrote and preached about them — often addressing himself to the very people who he deemed to be in the wrong. Despite how much we like to quote his “think and let think,” he had a rather specific list of teachings he opposed and behaviors he found incompatible with sanctification.

And yet, he did not make it his life’s work to dig up or root out these things. Rather than spend his energy trying to force lax bishops into doing their job or remove from pulpits heretical preachers, he poured his energy into preaching sound doctrine and encouraging practices that led to sanctification. He poured his work into building up what was good rather than in rooting out what was bad.

Indeed, this is the source of Wesley’s life-long conviction not to separate from the Church of England. He wanted to reform the church by supporting and encouraging a revival of biblical faith. I’m sure he would have been happy to see many preachers and not a few bishops leave their positions in the church, but that was not where he spent his energy. He spent it building up any who would hear the message he preached.

In this moment of looming schism within the United Methodist Church, I find myself reflecting on his example and wondering what is the best way to tend to the souls who have been placed in my care, especially the ones who do not yet attend the church where I preach every Sunday.

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2 thoughts on “Dig or build

  1. A gracious response. Thank you for clarifying. I do believe Wesley would be heavy hearted at the moral and spiritual state of the church as a whole.
    He did demonstrate grace and charity to those with whom he disagreed on non-essentials. Even in his debates with Whitefield and Toplady, he showed remarkable charity which was oft not reciprocated.

    I believe your interpreation os Methidost history is accurate when you remind us that he sought to preserve the catholic spirit in the Church of England, refusing to be a “come outer.”

    One wonders where the limitations of that discipline lay for Wesley. One thing is certain: he would encourage prayer and openness to the Spirit and the Word in our deliberations.

    1. Agreed. And I do not know where the limits would have been for him. I get the impression that he more than once broke the discipline of the Church of England — although he denied doing so — while still holding firm to the belief that the CoE was at its core a faithful orthodox expression of biblical Christianity, even if many of its clergy and members were not.

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