In my previous two posts (1, 2), I looked at some of the motivations for John Wesley’s preaching and his goals in that preaching. In this post, I turn to look at the closing words from the preface to his first series of sermons. Here we find his words to those who believe his theology to be wrong headed and his actions misguided.
Wesley addresses such people with a request.
Are you persuaded you see more clearly than me? It is not unlikely that you may. Then treat me as you would desire to be treated yourself upon a change of circumstance. Point me out a better way than I have yet known. Show me it is so, by plain proof in Scripture. And if I linger in the path I have been accustomed to tread, and am therefore unwilling to leave it, labour with me a little; take me by the hand, and lead me as I am able to bear. But be not displeased if I entreat you not to beat me down in order to quicken my pace.
Wesley had an extraordinary quality that I struggle to imitate in its fullness. He was capable of preaching and teaching out of a rock solid conviction that souls were hanging on the line. He did not waffle at all about the importance of the things he preached or the stakes for those who heard him. Eternity was at risk and there was no place in his preaching for “well some people say this but others say that.” He believed God had revealed the truth and the truth needed to be preached.
That got him excluded from a lot of pulpits. It caused people to throw rocks at him while he preached. He was not trying to please people. He was trying to please God in the only way he could see how.
And yet, along side this he held just as fiercely to the notion that he could be wrong and that we should not rip each other to shreds over our differences. We did not have to agree, but we should never fail to love each other.
No, this did not mean he ignored doctrinal error or sin. He tossed hundreds of people out of society meetings for their failure to abide by the covenants they made when joining. But he never aimed to do so in a spirit of wrath. (He was human so surely failed at times.)
As he wrote in his preface:
For God’s sake, if it be possible to avoid it, let us not provoke on another to wrath. Let us not kindle in each other this fire of hell; much less blow it up into a flame. If we could discern truth by that dreadful light, would it not be loss, rather than gain? For, how far is love, even with many wrong opinions, to be preferred before truth itself without love! We may die without the knowledge of many truths, and yet be carried into Abraham’s bosom. But if we die without love, what will knowledge avail? Just as much as it avails the devil and his angels!
These are really quite remarkable words.
The United Methodist Church right now is coming apart. As it does, I am seeing more and more that “dreadful light” flaring up among us. I hear people attributing evil motives to each other and assuming the worst of their fellow Christians. Less and less charity seems to remain for those whose understanding of doctrine differs.
As we acknowledge the reality that our church is broken and divided, can we have as much charity toward one another as Wesley had for his critics and opponents? Having labored for more than 40 years to convince each other of our errors, could we give the devil a little less reason to smile about the way we treat each other as we conclude that we must walk different roads in the days ahead?