I was talking with a pastor colleague not long ago when he recounted a story about an unpopular funeral sermon. The gist of the story is that the funeral was for a man who was not a believer or member of a church and in the sermon he raised just a bit of doubt about than man’s eternal destiny.
As you might imagine, that did not go over well.
If you’ve been a pastor for any time at all, I expect you’ve met someone who is anxious about the salvation of someone they love. The question comes up as something like this: “My (cousin, brother, daughter, mother, etc.) does not believe in God or go to church. I’m afraid what will happen to them if they never come to faith. What do you think, pastor?”
Here is the answer I sense people want. “I’m sure they will be with you in heaven.”
There is great pressure for pastors — and other Christians — to go along with the comfortable universalism that pervades our culture. No one wants to tell a fried that Aunt Maude is bound for hell. Few church people want to contemplate a kingdom of God without the people they love.
And while I would never presume to declare the eternal destiny of any particular person — that is Jesus’ job not mine — I do find the pressure to adopt a de facto universalism serves to undermine most of the rest of my ministry. It reduces the point of what we do in the church to a kind of do-gooder society with covered dish meals. You can get a lot of praise and a fairly comfortable life leading a do-gooder society — and the covered dishes are often quite tasty — but it can be an uneasy life if you read the Bible much at all.
Do you ever sense this tension? How can pastors and lay members better resist the pressure toward universalism in the church?
In Part II of his “A Farther Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion,” John Wesley challenges his fellow clergy to not be slack in their calling. He scolds the clergyman who sees no greater burden in his office than to preach once or twice a week and refuses the hard, continual work of shepherding the flock into spiritual growth and maturity.
He challenges them and us with a series of questions for clergy.
Have I not said, ‘Peace, peace, when there was no peace?’ How many are they also that do this? who do not study to speak what is true, especially to the rich and great, so much as what is pleasing? who flatter honourable sinners, instead of telling them plain, ‘How can ye escape the damnation of hell?’ O, what account have you to make, if there be a God that judgeth the earth? … How great will your damnation be, who destroy souls instead of saving them!
Reading these lines from Wesley, I understand the appeal of those forms of theology that do away with the idea of eternal judgment and hell. Such theologies are soothing to people but even more are they soothing to pastors who no longer must carry the burden of risking their own souls if they neglect their work or turn aside when they see sinners rejoicing in their sins.
Wesley’s words certainly sting me today as I read them and consider my own answers.
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.