And John answered him saying, Master, we saw one casting out devils in thy name, and we forbade him, because he followeth not us. And Jesus said, Forbid him not.
One thing that keeps me Wesleyan is John Wesley’s insistence on “community-in-diversity” (as put by Albert Outler/Richard Heitzenreater in “John Wesley’s Sermons,” p. 287). I love that in my Sunday morning worship, we have Biblical literalists receiving communion next to borderline-Unitarians. I love that we have Tea Party conservatives singing hymns beside outspoken gay teenage youth who protest House Bill 2 at the State Capitol. This community-in-diversity can be frustrating at times, and things don’t always change or move as quickly as they would if we all thought alike, but I don’t think I’d want it any other way. As the United Methodist General Conference begins next week (our quadrennial gathering that makes decisions affecting the denomination’s policies), I am in prayer that we will be able to faithfully uphold this community-in-diversity.
So, I’m encouraged by Wesley’s Sermon 38, A Caution Against Bigotry. May its wisdom speak to all of us before we open our mouths against those with whom we disagree. In this sermon, Wesley studies Mark 9:38-39 to address divisions in the church. He defines “casting out devils” from the scripture as any ministry that would turn a person to love God, repent, and follow Christ. If you know that a person’s ministry has resulted in this kind of fruit, you should not forbid them from their ministry…no matter how differently they think about God and the world. This is a hard word for most of us, because some people bear fruit in their ministry in ways that we just will never be diggity-down with.
But Wesley doesn’t care. Difference of opinions about Grace & Holiness have existed since the Acts of the Apostles. Wesley warned that “The differences which begin in points of opinion seldom terminate there. They generally spread into the affections, and the separate chief friends. Nor are any animosities so deep and irreconcilable as those that spring from disagreement in religion. For this, [people will] persecute each other even to the death, thinking all the time they are doing God service (II.6).” Wesley pushes back, saying, if there is “reasonable proof” that a person’s ministry bears fruit, then you put your own soul in peril by forbidding that person from ministry.
‘But what if [a person] has these [fruits of ministry]? And has brought sinners to repentance? And yet the bishop will not ordain him?’ The the bishop does ‘forbid him to cast out devils’. But I dare not forbid him.’
John Wesley, A Caution Against Bigotry, Sermon 38, III.10
Wesley explains what it looks like to forbid someone from their fruit-bearing ministry: “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…when you discourage him in his work by drawing him into disputes concerning it, by raising objections against it, or frighting him with consequences which very possibly never will be…when you show any unkindness toward him…when you represent him to any in a despicable light…by making no account of his labours…by discouraging sinners from hearing that word which is able to save their souls (III.11).”
Wesley calls this attitude bigotry, “too strong an attachment to, or fondness for, our own party, opinion, Church, and religion.” But what if the person is a heretic? John said that he would not stop an Arian or a Socinian if they were converting someone to Christ…But what if the person isn’t a Christian? Wesley answers, “If it could be supposed that I should see a Jew, a deist, or a [Muslim] doing the same, were I to forbid him either directly or indirectly I should be no better than a bigot still (IV, 4).”
So before you prepare your next rant against THOSE types of Christians, before you Tweet that funny, derisive remark about THEM, examine your own heart and motives. Ask God to search your own heart for bigotry. Then love that person who thinks so differently from you. Pray for them, speak kindly of them, love them even if all they ever do is bitterly oppose you. Let’s stop chopping limbs off the body of Christ that we don’t understand.