Wesley’s Caution Against Bigotry and the UMC General Conference

I understand that UMC General Secretary Gere Reist has called John Wesley’s sermon “A Caution Against Bigotry” required reading in preparation for the United Methodist Church’s quadrennial General Conference which convenes in May. So, even though I am not a delegate, I accepted Mr. Reist’s challenge and read Mr. Wesley’s sermon. You can too. The text is here and here.

Before looking at the text in some detail, here are my takeaways:

  • The bigotry against which Wesley cautions does not require one to turn a blind eye to sin. On the contrary, the behavior Wesley is trying to encourage demands that Christians recognize the difference between sin and holiness.
  • Respecting and honoring God’s work among those who are “not of us” does not require all Christians to belong to the same institutional expression of Christ’s one church. Wesley explicitly states that some differences in practice will require Christians to belong to separate institutions.
  • By the power of the Holy Spirit and the work of Jesus Christ, God brings sinners to repentance and holiness. Wherever God is doing that, we must respect and encourage it. This is the one and only focus of Wesley’s “caution against bigotry” and it is identical with the emphasis of the entire 18th century Wesleyan movement.

The sermon is an exposition of Mark 9:38-39:

And John answered him, saying, Master, we saw one casting out devils in Thy name: and he followeth not us: and we forbad him, because he followeth not us. But Jesus said, Forbid him not.

Wesley’s train of thought in the sermon runs something like this:

  • Apart from Christ, all people are in the bondage of the Devil as evidenced by their sin.
  • The power of the triune God is at work in the preaching of His word to free people from their bondage to the Devil, enlighten their minds with God’s truth, fill their hearts with love for God and empower them to grow in grace until their hearts and lives are made completely holy.
  • God freely choses his human instruments for this work, and his work is not limited to one type of Christian, one movement, one denomination or one stream of Christian tradition.
  • All Christians are called to honor this work of God wherever they happen to see it, to commend it to others and to encourage those through whom God is working.

The purpose of Wesley’s sermon appears to me to be two-fold:

  • To call on the civil and ecclesiastical leadership of the English establishment to recognize the fact that God was working powerfully in the Methodist movement, even in the preaching of unordained Methodist laity. The authorities sometimes did their best to get in the way of Wesley and his followers.
  • To encourage Methodists to respect the work God was doing outside the Methodist sphere. Wesley’s concern here was more evangelical than ecumenical (to use anachronistic modern terms). This is not the place to describe the complex environment of English ecclesiastical history. Suffice it to say that Wesley saw God at work to bring repentance, spiritual rebirth and holiness among many of the Christian groups present within the English world.

Casting Out Devils

Wesley took the Devil seriously. For him, Satan is not just a metaphor.

As the Holy Spirit possesses the souls of good men, so the evil spirit possesses the souls of the wicked.

The Devil has changed tactics, Wesley believed, since the days in which Christ and his disciples cast out evil spirits with shrieks and groans. Then, Wesley said, the Devil afflicted both body and soul. Today, he afflicts (with some exceptions) the soul only. The Devil now hides and works covertly. Nevertheless it is the same Devil accomplishing the same end.

It is, therefore, an unquestionable truth, that the god and prince of this world still possesses all who know not God. Only the manner wherein he possesses them now differs from that wherein he did it of old time. . . . He works in them with power, with mighty energy, transforming them into his own likeness, effacing all the remains of the image of God, and preparing them for every evil word and work.

As evidence of humanity’s universal bondage to Satan, Wesley offers examples of the world’s sinfulness. Following the lead of the prophet Amos, Wesley begins his denunciation of sin at the farthest edges of the world – those other people – and then brings his condemnation closer to home. He first describes the sin of the “heathen,” people who did not claim to know the God of the Bible. He catalogs ancient Roman vices and the violence of Native American tribes. Wesley then moves on to the sins of Christian Europe, especially the violence perpetrated by European colonial powers – including England – on the native people of the Americas and the Pacific. Wesley then turns to the English people themselves. [Note to the Reader: Mr. Wesley’s words and tone are harsh by modern standards and some may find them offensive. ]

Is it a small proof of [Satan’s] 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.

Satan’s power is great, but God’s power is greater. Divinely inspired preaching of the gospel is God’s instrument for “casting out devils” in the current age.

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.

What proof is there that God is indeed casting out devils through the preaching of his word? Wesley offers a three-fold test:

(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.

It is this activity – the divinely empowered preaching of the gospel that results in repentance and life changing faith – that Wesley intends for his hearers to honor and support wherever they see it. He is not speaking about good works, honorable character or inspirational acts in general. He’s not talking about the value of diversity or the fact that we learn important things by listening to others. He is talking, rather, about recognizing the saving work of God in bringing sinners to repentance and new life in Christ.

Although Wesley doesn’t mention it, I am reminded of the accusation against Jesus: he casts out demons by the prince of demons. Jesus replied that if you couldn’t recognize the work of the Holy Spirit in what he was doing, there was no hope for you. This was the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit of which Jesus spoke. To deny the presence of Holy Spirit in Jesus’ work was to cut oneself off from the forgiveness that God was offering in Jesus.

He Followeth Us Not

Wesley then turns his attention to the divisions that exist within the church. Christians are divided by physical and relational distance, party, opinion, practice and ecclesiastical history. Differences of opinion are inevitable.

It is therefore no way surprising, that infinite varieties of opinion should now be found in the Christian church. A very probable consequence of this is, that whenever we see any “casting out devils,” he will be one that, in this sense, “followeth not us” –that is not of our opinion. It is scarce to be imagined he will be of our mind in all points, even of religion. He may very probably think in a different manner from us, even on several subjects of importance; such as the nature and use of the moral law, the eternal decrees of God, the sufficiency and efficacy of his grace, and the perseverance of his children.

No two Christians are likely to see everything in the same way. Some differences are a matter of think-and-let-think. Some matters of conscience, however, make institutional separation necessary. Wesley’s comments on differing practices are significant for the United Methodist Church’s discussion of its future.

[The one through whom God is casting out devils] may not approve of that manner of worshipping God which is practised in our congregation; and may judge that to be more profitable for his soul which took its rise from Calvin or Martin Luther. He may have many objections to that Liturgy which we approve of beyond all others; many doubts concerning that form of church government which we esteem both apostolical and scriptural. Perhaps he may go farther from us yet: he may, from a principle of conscience, refrain from several of those which we believe to be the ordinances of Christ. Or, if we both agree that they are ordained of God, there may still remain a difference between us, either as to the manner of administering those ordinances, or the persons to whom they should be administered. Now the unavoidable consequence of any of these differences will be, that he who thus differs from us must separate himself, with regard to those points, from our society. [Emphasis added]

Wesley upholds the Church of England’s liturgy and church government as apostolic and scriptural, but he also affirms that God performs his saving work through those who see things so differently. Conscientious differences with regard to religious practices sometimes dictate that two groups cannot faithfully operate within one organizational framework. Institutional separation with mutual respect may be the best way to honor the work God is doing in both camps.

God may even chose to work through those with whom you have very few points of agreement. Without using the word “Catholic”, Wesley describes the 18th century Protestant view of Catholicism.

… a Church as we account to be in many respects anti-scriptural and anti-Christian, — a Church which we believe to be utterly false and erroneous in her doctrines, as well as very dangerously wrong in her practice; guilty of gross superstition as well as idolatry, — a Church that has added many articles to the faith which was once delivered to the saints; that has dropped one whole commandment of God, and made void several of the rest by her traditions; and that, pretending the highest veneration for, and strictest conformity to, the ancient Church, has nevertheless brought in numberless innovations, without any warrant either from antiquity or Scripture.

Eighteenth century Catholicism, in Wesley’s view, was gravely and dangerously in error. And yet, Wesley implies, God may chose to bring men and women to repentance and faith even through members of a church that Wesley thought to be seriously wrong about so much.

I wish Wesley could meet some of my Catholic friends today, through whom God is casting out more devils than he appears to be through some of my mainline Protestant brothers and sisters.

It is possible, if we are following Wesley’s example, to recognize sinfulness for what it is and to argue against bad theology while at the same time recognizing that God chooses to “cast out devils” through sinful and wrongheaded people.

Wesley concludes this section by noting that differences of affiliation, opinion and practice can escalate to become matters of the heart.

The differences which begin in points of opinion seldom terminate there. They generally spread into the affections, and then separate chief friends. Nor are any animosities so deep and irreconcilable as those that spring from disagreement in religion. . . . It is therefore nothing more than we may expect, if those who differ from us, either in religious opinions or practice, soon contract a sharpness, yea, bitterness towards us; if they are more and more prejudiced against us, till they conceive as ill an opinion of our persons as of our principles. An almost necessary consequence of this will be, they will speak in the same manner as they think of us. They will set themselves in opposition to us, and, as far as they are able, hinder our work; seeing it does not appear to them to be the work of God, but either of man or of the devil.

This observation, then, serves as the natural transition into the final section of the sermon.

Forbid Him Not

Wesley instructs his readers to enable and support God’s chosen instruments in their divine task, not to forbid or hinder them. If you see God bringing people from a life of sin to a life of holiness in Christ, then don’t get in the way of the people through whom God has chosen to work.

Then “forbid him not.” Beware how you attempt to hinder him, either by your authority, or arguments, or persuasions. Do not in any wise strive to prevent his using all the power which God has given him.

And then Wesley gives examples of the kinds of actions he is trying to prohibit, and the kinds of actions that he wants to encourage.

You indirectly forbid him, if you either wholly deny, or despise and make little account of, the work which God has wrought by his hands. You indirectly forbid him, when you discourage him in his work, by drawing him into disputes concerning it, by raising objections against it, or frightening him with consequences which very possibly will never be. You forbid him when you show any unkindness toward him either in language or behaviour; and much more when you speak of him to others either in an unkind or a contemptuous manner; when you endeavour to represent him to any either in an odious or a despicable light. You are forbidding him all the time you are speaking evil of him, or making no account of his labours.

You will strengthen his hands by speaking honourably of him before all men, and avowing the things which you have seen and heard. You will encourage others to attend upon his word, to hear him whom God hath sent. And you will omit no actual proof of tender love, which God gives you an opportunity of showing him.

Encourage whomsoever God is pleased to employ, to give himself wholly up thereto. Speak well of him wheresoever you are; defend his character and his mission. Enlarge, as far as you can, his sphere of action; show him all kindness in word and deed; and cease not to cry to God in his behalf, that he may save both himself and them that hear him.

Wesley even makes what I assume for him was a hypothetical argument.

What, if I were to see a Papist, an Arian, a Socinian casting out devils? If I did, I could not forbid even him, without convicting myself of bigotry. Yea, if it could be supposed that I should see a Jew, a Deist, or a Turk, doing the same, were I to forbid him either directly or indirectly, I should be no better than a bigot still.

It might be unlikely that God would use someone who does not even believe in Christ to bring people to life-giving, life-changing faith in Christ, but Wesley argues strongly for God’s freedom to act. God will do what God will do.

Wesley concludes the sermon with this admonition:

Think not the bigotry of another is any excuse for your own. . . . 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.”

This last quotation comes from John Calvin, the 16th century reformer with whom Wesley strongly disagreed on important matters of the faith. Moreover, many of Calvin’s 18th century followers said terrible things about Mr. Wesley and the early Methodists. By citing Calvin approvingly, Wesley was taking his own counsel. Calvin and his followers might be very wrong in points of their theology, but God was clearly working through them.


One thought on “Wesley’s Caution Against Bigotry and the UMC General Conference”

Comments are closed.