No wonder preachers don’t like hell

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.

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.

Righteousness as a requirement

Near the end of his life, John Wesley wrote the following in his journal:

I then met the society, and explained at large the rise and nature of Methodism; and still aver, I have never read or heard of, either in ancient or modern history, any other church which builds on so broad a foundation as the Methodists do; which requires of its members no conformity either in opinions or modes of worship, but barely this one thing, to fear God, and to work righteousness. (August 26, 1789)

We heirs of the Methodist movement who call ourselves United Methodists stand on the brink of schism because we are deeply divided over whether sex between people of the same sex is compatible with righteousness.

We agree on some things regarding sex. We all agree, so far as I am aware, that adultery and polygamy are contrary to the will of God and righteousness. I am not aware of a significant movement within our denomination to declare fornication — sex outside of marriage — compatible with righteousness. We agree that divorce is contrary to the will of God, but that as sinful and fallen people we do break our relationships to the degree that divorce is the outcome and that divorce does not automatically preclude remarriage. And we agree that all these sexual sins are things for which we can receive forgiveness.

Our schism hangs on a disagreement about how to respond a subset of homosexual sexual activity. I do not hear anyone in the church advocating for celebration of casual, one-night hook ups by anyone. What one party in the church argues is that sexual activity between two people of the same sex is compatible with righteousness in the confines of a monogamous relationship that the partners intend to be lifelong. The majority of the church — at least as far as the votes of our General Conference indicate — has disagreed with this claim since it was first up for formal consideration in 1972.

I wonder if there would be any room for holding our denomination together if we could all affirm some form of the following statements.

  1. Righteousness before God is incompatible with sexual sin. We affirm biblical and Christian teaching that insists that adultery, polygamy, and fornication are contrary to the will of God and incompatible with Christian salvation.
  2. We recognize that the church has at times in its past held to teaching that it has changed. Guided by the prayerful study of Scripture under the discipline of the Holy Spirit the church has in the past concluded that what it once held to be true should be revised. For instance, we believe there is a sound biblical argument in favor of a strict prohibition of slavery, the ordination of women, and the remarriage of divorced Christians. We hold these positions not in spite of what the Bible says, but because we believe the Bible, as the final word on all matters of faith and practice, is compatible with these positions. Arriving at these teachings has not been easy or without dispute.
  3. There are those in the church who believe that our teaching about same-sex sexual activity is in need of a similar revision. Those advocates have not persuaded the church of this position. They should be permitted to argue and attempt to convince the church that their position is consistent with the Bible.
  4. As the church is not persuaded, however, all members of the United Methodist Church should continue to honor and uphold the doctrine and discipline of the church, especially the clergy who have taken a vow to that end.

I realize this would not satisfy everyone in the church right now. We have reached the point where we can no longer hope to do that. We have arrived at the point where the question is no longer whether people will separate from the church, but what will be the grounds for separation. I believe the four statements above could be affirmed or accepted by the majority of our global denomination.