Preserve me from bigotry

I read today a blog post by a United Methodist who considers the election of Karen Oliveto as bishop as an opportunity for the United Methodist Church to “lance the boil” of bigotry enshrined in our Book of Discipline.

I want to sidestep getting into an argument with that blog about the definition of the word “bigotry” and the writer’s assertion about the church’s bigotry. Those are old arguments, and I have little doubt whether I could persuade that writer or those who think as he does to change his opinions.

But the post did get me thinking again about one of our doctrinal standards in the United Methodist Church, John Wesley’s sermon “A Caution Against Bigotry.”

In that sermon, Wesley uses a brief passage in the Gospel of Mark as his starting point. In the Gospel, Jesus rebukes the disciples for their eagerness to shut down a man casting out devils in the name of Jesus because the man is not part of their group. Wesley uses this sermon to address voices in English Christianity who were condemning other Christians because they worshiped differently or were dissenters from the Church of England or were — as the Methodists often were — viewed as irregular or illegal gatherings because they allowed lay preachers to preach. Wesley’s plea was that Christians judge such things on the basis of results.

Wesley starts by observing the scope of the devil’s work in England.

These monsters might almost make us overlook the works of the devil that are wrought in our own country. But, alas! we cannot open our eyes even here, without seeing them on every side. Is it a small proof of his power, that common swearers, drunkards, whoremongers, adulterers, thieves, robbers, sodomites, murderers, are still found in every part of our land? How triumphant does the prince of this world reign in all these children of disobedience!

He less openly, but no less effectually, works in dissemblers, tale-bearers, liars, slanderers; in oppressors and extortioners, in the perjured, the seller of his friend, his honour, his conscience, his country. And yet these may talk of religion or conscience still; of honour, virtue, and public spirit! But they can no more deceive Satan than they can God. He likewise knows those that are his: and a great multitude they are, out of every nation and people, of whom he has full possession at this day.

Many in the United Methodist Church today, of course, would cast Wesley with the bigots for his list of those under the power of the Satan. But please stick with me rather than getting bogged down on that point. Wesley’s point is that the devil is at work in people’s lives and the work of a Christian minister is to be the instrument that God uses to break that power and bring them into the kingdom. We can see the work of casting out devils to the degree that these signs of the power of Satan are broken in the lives of men and women. Here is how devils are cast out, Wesley writes.

By the power of God attending his word, he brings these sinners to repentance; an entire inward as well as outward change, from all evil to all good. And this is, in a sound sense, to cast out devils, out of the souls wherein they had hitherto dwelt. The strong one can no longer keep his house. A stronger than he is come upon him, and hath cast him out, and taken possession for himself, and made it an habitation of God through his Spirit. Here, then, the energy of Satan ends, and the Son of God “destroys the works of the devil.” The understanding of the sinner is now enlightened, and his heart sweetly drawn to God. His desires are refined, his affections purified; and, being filled with the Holy Ghost, he grows in grace till he is not only holy in heart, but in all manner of conversation.

So here is what I hear Wesley arguing as a preface to addressing the issue of bigotry. He is arguing that the real issue of concern for the church is that people need to be saved from the power of Satan and that this is effected by the preaching of repentance and the building up of people in holiness. This is the standard we should use to judge the work of other Christians. To criticize them or refuse to recognize them on the basis of other issues, he cautions, is bigotry.

But how do we know if another preacher has cast out devils in the manner Wesley commends. Here are his words.

The answer is easy. Is there full proof, (1) That a person before us was a gross, open sinner? (2) That he is not so now? that he has broke off his sins, and lives a Christian life? And (3) That this change was wrought by his hearing this man preach? If these three points be plain and undeniable, then you have sufficient, reasonable proof, such as you cannot resist without wilful sin, that this man casts out devils.

And so, this might be our practice, too, when dealing with division within our denomination. Rather than getting into endless fights over worship styles or even points of doctrine and theology, perhaps, we should follow Wesley’s lead and ask of each other this question: Can you show that your ministry has brought sinners to Christ in such a way that they have broken off from their sins?

Yes, yes, I am aware that the problem with my recommendation is that we disagree about whether sin is sin. And that is not unimportant. But can we find signs that those with whom we disagree cast out devils by their ministry? Can we see clear evidence that God uses their ministry to save men and women from the power of the devil?

If we can, Wesley would caution us not to forbid them from doing their work. And so, it seems to me, that we cannot be good Wesleyans or good Methodists or good Christians if we do not ask for such signs. Neither can we, upon seeing such signs, ignore them.

For Wesley, this is the true mark of bigotry — to see the work of God in the ministry of another and to oppose it still because that person does not follow our “party, opinion, religion, or church.”

I do not personally know enough about the ministry of other pastors and bishops to make such determinations. I find the work in my own church is consuming enough that I have little time to examine others carefully. But I do want to be mindful of Wesley’s warning and his closing admonition in his sermon:

Think not the bigotry of another is any excuse for your own. It is not impossible, that one who casts out devils himself, may yet forbid you so to do. You may observe, this is the very case mentioned in the text. The Apostles forbade another to do what they did themselves. But beware of retorting. It is not your part to return evil for evil. Another’s not observing the direction of our Lord, is no reason why you should neglect it. Nay, but let him have all the bigotry to himself. If he forbid you, do not you forbid him. Rather labour, and watch, and pray the more, to confirm your love toward him. If he speak all manner of evil of you, speak all manner of good (that is true) of him. Imitate herein that glorious saying of a great man, (O that he had always breathed the same spirit!) “Let Luther call me a hundred devils; I will still reverence him as a messenger of God.”

May God preserve me from ever being a bigot.

Our origin story in five sentences

A brief account of the orgin and rise of Methodism as a movement taken from the minutes of an early Methodist conference:

In 1729, two young men, reading the Bible, saw they could not be saved without holiness, followed after it, and incited others so to do.

Note here: The first impulse was toward holiness and the conviction that without it no one can be saved. This conviction runs deeply counter to the common hope of ordinary Christians, then and now, that they will be saved despite their lack of holiness and their lack of desire to seek it.

In 1737 they saw holiness comes by faith.

Eight years! This explains why Aldersgate was such a big deal for John Wesley. For nine years he had searched earnestly for holiness and not found it within himself. For a year, he had been convinced that faith was the doorway but it had stood closed to him until that night his heart was strangely warmed and he knew that Christ had forgiven even him for his sins.

They saw likewise, that men are justified before they are sanctified; but still holiness was their point.

In the words of old Methodism, we go on to perfection. Jesus Christ gives us the power to overcome every temptation and sin, but we have not yet learned to use that power or lean into it fully. We need grace to help us grow.

God then thrust them out, utterly against their will, to raise a holy people. When Satan could no otherwise hinder this, he threw up Calvinism in the way; and then Antinomianism, which strikes directly at the root of all holiness.

Of course, the Church of England, Calvinists, and advocates of various forms of Antinomianism would tell a different story than this last part, but at the very least we might remember that at one time it was possible for Methodists to imagine that our work was worthy enough to deem it God’s own work and dangerous enough to stir up the opposition of Satan.

Are we saving souls?

John Wesley gets paraphrased a lot in United Methodist circles. For those who read and study Wesley’s works, the things that get said about him are often cringe-worthy, which is a shame because so much of what he wrote could be of such value to our work today.

Here is a quotation from Wesley that I do not see very often in United Methodist commentaries or hear very often from the lips of our bishops.

It is not your business to preach so many times, and to take care of this or that society; but to save as many souls as you can; to bring as many sinners as you possibly can to repentance, and with all your power to build them up in that holiness without which they cannot see the Lord.

Wesley did not believe that preaching alone could transform hearts and lives. In fact, he knew from hard experience that preaching was not sufficient to the work.

Here are some thoughts on the necessity of visitation from house to house taken from the minutes of the earliest Methodist conferences:

For, after all our preaching, many of our people are almost as ignorant as if they had never heard the gospel. I speak as plain as I can, yet I frequently meet with those who have been my hearers many years, who know not whether Christ be God or man. And how few are there that know the nature of repentance, faith, and holiness! Most of them have a sort of confidence that God will save them, while the world has their hearts. I have found by experience, that one of these has learned more from one hour’s close discourse, than from ten years’ public preaching.

I don’t know what stands out for you in that quotation, but here is the line that grabs me: “Most of them have a sort of confidence that God will save them, while the world has their hearts.”

How little the human heart changes despite the passage of time. How many of our people in our churches could that statement describe? How many of us know our people well enough to have a good sense of whether it applies to them or not?

There is some comfort in the realization that Wesley struggled with the same things that plague our churches these days. Elsewhere in the minutes of the early Methodist conferences, you can find reports of disguntled leadership and complaints about new programs or ministry ideas. Ministry was messy then as it is now.

As I read through Wesley’s program for visitation among the people, I am struck by how animated his work was by a clear mission: to save souls. That mission determines the shape of his work.

For instance, as he describes what a good visit to a house of a Methodist would entail, he includes the following:

Next inquire into his state, whether convinced or unconvinced, converted or unconverted. Tell him, if need be, what conversion is; and then renew and enforce the inquiry.*

Just reflect on that a moment. How many times have you asked such questions of members of your congregation? How many times have you as a church member had a pastor ask such questions of you?

They are uncomfortable questions and Wesley knew this. His advice on the matter includes acknowledgement of the resistance and discomfort such inquiries produce, but he always came back to whether such questions could be avoided if our aim is to save souls.

And so this somewhat rambling blog post comes to an end with this lingering question: Am I eager enough to save souls to let that mission shape my work? Are we?

 


*Note for those who think Wesley did not believe in “conversion” that here he seems to discuss quite directly.