Naming the devil

In his sermon “A Caution Against Bigotry,” John Wesley speaks against the practice still common in the Christian church whereby we condemn and refuse fellowship with our brothers and sisters because they do not share our denomination or mode of worship.

I’ve always found this sermon to be among the most interesting and edifying to study because the sermon as a whole does a wonderful job resisting the urge we have to quote bits and pieces of Wesley to advance our contemporary arguments against each other.

Wesley takes as his sermon text Mark 9:38-39, which is about a dispute over the casting out of demons. The sermon is constructed with three major points, which I am going to spend a few posts walking through. He first explains what it means in cast out demons in his contemporary setting. Second, he examines what it means to say that a certain group does not follow us. Finally, Wesley considers how we should hear the Lord’s instruction to the disciples to not forbid what they wish to forbid.

As he often does, Wesley begins by attempting to be clear about terms. The first part of the sermon, therefore, takes up the question of how the devil works in Wesley’s day and age and how it might be said that people cast him and his minions out.

So here is our first interesting point when we read this sermon in 2020.

In the American church today, especially the mainline church, I’ve encountered quite a bit of uneasiness with talk about the devil and demons. I’ve even encountered those who are uncomfortable speaking of angels as beings that actually exist. This is not universal, of course, but there is an extent to which the secular dismissal of spiritual beings has made some of us shy about talking about the devil as if he were real and were our enemy.

Wesley, writing more than two centuries ago, already saw this and saw it clearly as the devil’s work. He notes that the devil has discerned that the best way to hold a firm grasp on the men and women of nations that consider themselves enlightened and educated is to play into their desire to believe he does not exist.

He is to make you idolize yourselves; to make you wiser in your own eyes that God himself, than all the oracles of God. Now, in order to do this, he must not appear in his own shape. That would frustrate his design. No: He uses all his art to make you deny his being, till he has you safe in his own place.

Wesley describes us as willing captives, asleep in the jaws of the lion and chained down by chains of our own making.

He blinds the eyes of their understanding, so that the light of the glorious gospel of Christ cannot shine upon them. He chains their souls down to earth and hell, with the chains of their own vile affections. He binds them down to earth, by love of the world, love of money, of pleasure, of praise. And by pride, envy, anger, hate, revenge, he causes their souls to drive nigh to hell; acting the more secure and uncontrolled because they know not that he acts at all.

Wesley wrote these words because there were many in his day who would be comfortable in ours. They did not believe that talk of the devil was useful for the work of the church. They imagined themselves to be beyond such primitive ideas.

Former Methodist theologian Stanley Hauerwas has written that the work of Christian formation is in large part the work of getting people to speak a new language, to label the world they live in and their experiences in it with Christian words and ideas. I think a lot of Wesley’s preaching can be understood as an attempt at this very thing.

Here we see Wesley attempting to persuade his English brothers and sisters that biblical words like “devil” and “demon” were just as relevant to diagnosing the ills of their world as they were when Jesus and the apostles spoke of them. Wesley is attempting to help people rename the problems of the world – greed, hatred, lust, violence, and murder – not a social or political issues but as spiritual ones. He wanted Christians to be able to describe the world in spiritual rather than secular terms. And so, he begins his sermon explaining how he saw the devil at work.

I find his description just as apt and just as needed today in the church.

I’m not sure what it is, but it feels like we in the church have lost confidence in our own language. Part of it, I think, is that we feel like we won’t be heard by a non-believing culture if we insist on talking about the devil and angels. But part of it, I suspect, is that we no longer believe that the true problem in the world is a spiritual problem – or at least not the kind of spiritual problem that can be described as the world being held captive by Satan and needing to be freed by Christ from his hold.

For my part, this aspect of Wesley has always been most helpful to me. He lived and preached when the worldview of our secular age was coming to dominate the culture. He never rejected the benefits of science and technology, but he never retreated from the biblical and Christian diagnosis of the world’s ills. And he never flinched from describing sin as sin, even if it was fashionable. In this very sermon, he condemned the extermination of native peoples in the Americas at the hands of Europeans as the devil’s work and also called out his countrymen for a whole raft of vices and sins that we know very well today.

As I read this first part of Wesley’s sermon, I am persuaded that our witness as a church would be more faithful — but perhaps not more effective in impacting the halls of secular power — if we once again learned how to see the devil at work in the world around us.

6 thoughts on “Naming the devil

  1. Paul, why did you juxtapose these two things in your conclusion?

    1) being “more faithful” versus
    2) “impacting the halls of secular power”?

    1. Thanks for writing, Ron. My name is John. I don’t mean to say they are purely juxtaposed, but pursuing faithfulness is not necessarily a path to influence in the secular power structure.

      1. Sorry John. It’s been a while since I last commented.

        My question remains. Why did you place influencing “the secular power structure” in some sort of tension with the pursuit of faithfulness?

        My assumption is that this is somehow related to the present presidential campaign.

        Do you believe the various factions of Christendom in America have ceased their pursuit of faithfulness and instead have tried to redeem society by means of party politics and government?

        The churches certainly seemed to learn some sort of “lesson” after the explosion of organized crime during Prohibition.

        “When I was young” I remember Christians saying, “We stay out of politics. It’s a dirty business.”

        What happened to change that?

        1. No problem, Ron.

          My awareness of my own thought process while writing was not about the current presidential campaign. I think we have lived through a period on the memory of many current church members (older ones) when the idea of the church being a norm setter and influencer in the wider culture was expected. I’m not thinking specifically about movements like the Moral Majority or its progressive equivalents today. I am thinking instead of the the National Council of Churches or the General Board of Church and Society presuming that the pronouncements they make have some resonance or importance in the halls of power. Maybe that was the case at one point. I don’t think these days the church should long for the kind of influence that it had 50 years ago. At least, it should not long for it if that distracts from its primary vocation.

          Thank you for writing. God bless you.

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