Take all the victories we can get

In my previous two posts, we have looked at John Wesley’s sermon “A Caution Against Bigotry,” which we will come to see now as an argument against those who were trying to argue that lay Methodist preaching was forbidden.

Methodism was a movement of laity. Yes, it had men such as Wesley providing important leadership, but most of the actual on-the-ground work of early Methodism was done by lay people who became class leaders and stewards and lay preachers. This rise of lay preaching created a great deal of controversy. Critics of the movement argued that no man should preach unless the inward call they sense is confirmed by the outward call and certification or ordination of the church.

Wesley’s sermon is a defense of Methodist practice.

To recap some of what I have already written, Wesley understood the work of gospel preaching as participation in a spiritual war between God and Satan. He terms it so explicitly near the end of the third section of the sermon where he writes, “For there can be no neuter in this war. Everyone is either on God’s side, or on Satan’s. Are you on God’s side?”

He argues that you can identify the partisans of God in this struggle by the fruits of their ministry. The way to tell if someone is called by God to preach the gospel is to examine whether their preaching has the effect of calling sinners to repentance and a living faith that includes the breaking off of sins and the adoption of a Christian life. If a person preaches and the effect of that preaching is to bring sinners to Christ, then that person is sent by God. As Wesley argues, since only God can save sinners, such a preacher must be sent from God because merely human talk cannot do what only the Holy Spirit can accomplish.

And so the last portion of Wesley’s sermon is an appeal and admonition that no one should prevent anyone from preaching the gospel who does so with power and effect. Not only should we not restrain them by formal censure or punishment, Wesley writes, we should not speak ill of them, attempt to divert them from their work by argument, or even harbor in our hearts displeasure that such a person as this is being used by God. No, we should rejoice that God’s kingdom is going forward in power.

The bigotry that Wesley is cautioning against in this sermon is the bigotry that says that person must not really be doing God’s work if they do not agree with us on all points of faith and practice and order. Even if they are actively working to undermine our ministry, we should still rejoice when God uses them and work actively to help them increase the scope of their ministry.

Wesley’s sermon has obvious relevance to the moment in which it was written.

I think it raises a few points for us to ponder.

First, Wesley rightly lays out fruitfulness as the standard by which we judge our preachers. He endorses the practice that he saw at work in European Protestant churches of his day wherein people were evaluated for ministry on whether they actually had the gifts to “edify the Church of Christ.” In so doing, Wesley takes a not-so-subtle jab at the kind of clergy education he himself obtained.

Certainly, the practice and the direction of the Apostle Paul was, to prove a man before he be ordained at all … Proved, How? By setting them to construe a sentence of Greek, and asking them a few commonplace questions? O amazing proof of a minister of Christ! Nay; but by making a clear, open trial … not only whether their lives be holy and unblamable, but whether they have such gifts as are absolutely and indispensably necessary in order to edify the Church of Christ.

In the United Methodist Church, I’ve been aware of many conversations about how we order our ministry. As a former licensed local pastor and a recently ordained elder, I’ve seen several aspects of our clergy recruitment, training, and deployment processes. I think there is an argument to be made that we sometimes run the danger of falling too much to the side of valuing credentials over fruit when we evaluate people for the ministry. We also struggle to help people develop as fruitful pastors. Wesley’s defense of lay preachers might be read as a warning to us about the ways we forbid or hinder the ministry of those who do not have an M.Div. Perhaps we are guilty of the very bigotry that Wesley wrote his sermon to oppose.

Second, as I read this sermon, I am struck by how well Wesley predicted the mood of our coming denominational divorce. Ever a student of human nature, Wesley describes here the ways in which differences of opinion and conviction about matters of doctrine and the moral law can lead us into bitterness, and that bitterness leads us to speak ill of others and even dismiss that they could be the agents of God’s salvation.

If you have been paying attention to the rising rhetoric in the United Methodist Church the last couple of years, you will hear the very thing Wesley described in his day. The differences which are pulling us into separate churches have also left less and less space for us to speak well of each other across our divisions.

And so, we who follow in the tradition of Wesley might read again his words with caution.

Yes, I am aware that our disputing factions believe deeply that the other side is not just allowing but promoting evil. One side sees a abrogation of the moral law that means men and women are being condemned to eternal punishment because they are not being turned away from sin. The other side sees a abrogation of the law of love that banishes from the kingdom those whom God calls. I’m not trying to resolve that disagreement here.

But — if we follow Wesley — we should pay attention to the fruit of the ministry of those who stand across the aisle from us. If an evangelical sees a progressive Methodist able to reach a sinner and turn them to Christ, we should rejoice and celebrate and encourage that as much as we do for those with us. And, of course, to follow Wesley, the same should go for progressives who witness God’s salvation working out in evangelical churches.

I’m not saying we should do this because it will heal our denominational rift. That moment, it appears, is well past. We should do it because we claim to be Christians and rejoice any time a sinner is saved.

In my own ministry, I have seen just how daunting a job it is to move people to true repentance and living faith. It really does require God to move. I pray for the grace to be able to celebrate when God does that through the ministry of another — whether they follow my tribe or not.

Casting out demons

In my previous post, we looked at the ways in which John Wesley named the work of the devil in his setting. I noted in that post that his description of the devil’s work still seems relevant and suggested that the contemporary American church would be wise to take up again the spiritual language that has fallen out of fashion in the last hundred years.

As we go further with Wesley into his sermon “A Caution Against Bigotry,” we turn to his description of what it means to say we cast out devils or demons.

For Wesley, there was a bright line division between those who are in Christ and those who are still children of the devil. Those who do not have a vital, living faith in Christ are still held by the power of darkness. They are blind to the gospel and therefore robbed of all its benefits.

It is important to remember as we read these words that this did not mean Wesley thought non-Christians were incapable of good or were without any kind of moral compass. Far from it. Because we are created by a good God and God’s grace is active in our lives, even when we do not believe in Him, we are capable of goodness and kindness and all manner of virtues. Our problem is that without grace we are prone to slide into the darkness of greed, selfishness, jealousy, spite, and lust. We might fight the devil who has dominion in our hearts, but we cannot overcome him on our own.

For Wesley, to cast out demons is to bring people to repentance and to faith in Christ. We often call such work the “saving of souls.” Wesley grounds this work squarely as a spiritual struggle between the kingdom of darkness and the God of light. To bring a person to faith is to drive out the evil one who had previously bound them to his ways.

Wesley’s description of this takes up a fairly short portion of his sermon, but it is crucial for everything that comes in the rest of the sermon. He understood the work of preaching the gospel and building people up in holiness as work of a same kind as the casting out of demons that we read about in the gospels. It is the work of casting out Satan from the places where he reigns in the hearts of men and women. It is Christ, not preachers who do this. The devil is too strong for us to dislodge, but he flees before Christ. And yet, God has used human beings as the instruments of this work.

As I consider these crucial paragraphs in this sermon, I am struck by a couple of thoughts.

First, we in the contemporary church talk much more about shades of gray than Wesley did. Wesley took seriously the line from 1 John 5 that says God is light and in Him there is no darkness at all. His ministry was not about helping people cope better with a difficult world or making mostly nice people a little nicer and more service oriented. He understood himself to be in the midst of a titanic spiritual struggle between Satan and God for the souls of men, women, and children. We can understand both his incredible passion and his sometimes grim attitude if we see his work as he saw it. People in the midst of battles are often somewhat determined and grim.

Second, this work is something that mere humans such as myself simply cannot do on our own. I can give counsel and comfort to people. I can teach them a lot about the Bible and church history. I can help order the life of the church I serve. On my best weeks, I can string together words in a sermon that touch the head and heart. But I cannot save souls. I cannot bring life to a dead soul any more than I can bring life to a dead body. Only God can do this. To the extent that I define my ministry in terms of what I can do, I will fall short of my calling. The key for me is to seek to live out my vocation in such a way that God chooses to use me to do what only God can do. I have no control over that. I can only seek to be faithful to my call and hope that in my imperfect faithfulness God chooses to act through me.

As John Wesley always does, he challenges me in this sermon. He challenges me not to take too lightly and not to misunderstand my role. One strain of my training as a pastor places a lot of emphasis on using the tools of secular helping professions and secular politics to meet the needs of the people I serve. When I read Wesley, I encounter a very different view.

It is one that runs at odds with some aspects of my personality. Like many clergy, I tend to be pretty good at the soft skills of empathy and listening. I do not relish conflict or confrontation. I am quite capable of seeing multiple sides to many issues. You don’t have to push me hard to acknowledge shades of gray.

But there is another part of me that Wesley speaks to. It is the part that has become convinced first in the truth of the gospel — that Jesus Christ came to save sinners and that we require saving. What I see in Wesley is a man who understood this truth and did not flinch from living out the implications of it in his ministry, even when that set him at odds with others.

If the gospel is true, if Wesley is correct, then I don’t want to be serving as a chaplain to the damned, helping to comfort them in their chains and darkness. I don’t want to do that because I love them. I don’t want to do it because I don’t want to fail God who has called me to this work.

I need encouragement in this. That is why I value Wesley so much. He is a constant challenge and encourager to me in my vocation.