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One of the more unique aspects of debate in our time is the use of the term "hatred" to stop discussion. It is a "power move," because once one position is motivated by personal animosity rather than a search for truth, that position has disqualified itself from being a true part of the discussion. Add to this the view, common in our time, that the worst of all sins is not heresy, unbelief, or sacrilege, but "intolerance," and the result is that if you can characterize your opponent's position as hateful and intolerant in a debate today, you can disqualify your opponent from the discussion and claim that your position prevails.
There are times when this kind of argument is completely valid. Jews, before and during World War II, were subjected to the most heinous defamation and persecution in Hitler's Germany and the Communist U.S.S.R. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. rightly protested the bigotry that often caused black Americans to be subjected to mistreatment as second-class citizens in the United States. In these cases, hatred was pervasive and characteristic, and acts of hatred were representative of widespread practice. In such cases charges of "hatred" are truthful, proper, and necessary. They deserve to advance to the forefront of any discussion. They demand recognition and appropriate response.
Today, however, charges of "hatred" are often rendered solely to halt debate; often on the basis of atypical and isolated instances, and even on the basis that for the opponent to differ from a particular point of view is, in itself, an act of "hatred." Whole communities are being charged with "hatred" on the words and actions of individuals or small groups not truly representative of those communities. Such inflammatory charges are used to side-step the real issues and stop debate. They are "power moves" meant to silence the larger community and impose an opinion upon others; and they are disingenuous because their true intent is to subject their opponents to contempt in the name of opposing "hatred."
Such charges are being lodged today against traditional Christianity in general and traditional Methodism in particular which is one expression of traditional, orthodox Christian belief. However, these charges mischaracterize both Methodism and traditional Christianity. Methodism represents the best in Christian teaching by both maintaining Christian orthodoxy and, as an expression of commitment to that orthodoxy, opposing "hatred."
John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, opposed bigotry in two sermons, " A Caution Against Bigotry" and "Catholic Spirit," that became part of "Wesley's Standard Sermons." These "standard sermons," in addition to other writings from early Methodism, have unique significance as part of the doctrinal standards of Methodism. By "catholic spirit" Wesley refers not to Roman Catholicism, but to the universal Christian faith; the belief (seen, for instance, in Ephesians) that all who love Jesus Christ are part of one, universal church in Christ even if they belong to separate church organizations. Together, these two sermons form a powerful argument that traditional Christianity opposes bigotry of any kind.
Wesley understood that every human group and culture perceived the world from its own unique experience and culture, and, therefore, that each was subject to looking at things to its own advantage and to the disadvantage of others. In other words, no one is immune from bigotry. In this, Wesley anticipated the contemporary understanding that all truth is viewed from one's perspective. Contrary to so many today, however, Wesley did not say that we can define truth for ourselves or that there aren't truths that must be recognized by everyone. What he recognizes is a tendency to bias in all human beings that can easily lead to the mistreatment of others not of one's own group. Wesley, who was critical of Calvin's execution of Servetus, is quite specific in denying that those who oppose the traditional views of the church should be mistreated.
There are two major sources for Wesley's thinking in such matters that may not be immediately obvious to those who read these sermons alone. First, Wesley believed that God reaches out to everyone in redemptive love. In other's words, God's actions are merciful to all, as characterized in Jesus' teaching that God ". . . causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous;" in other words, God gives life sustaining blessings (the sun and the rain for successful crops) to all. Further, as Paul wrote, "the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men . . ." (Titus 2:11); not providing eternal salvation for everyone automatically, but inviting everyone to be redeemed and providing the means for everyone to enjoy everlasting blessing in His fellowship through Jesus Christ. This is not just the benefit of a longer (everlasting) life, it is redemption from sin and the effects of sin to a life of holiness in fellowship with a holy God. Wesley also took seriously James' teaching that "Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights . . ." (James 1:17).
Joining these insights together, Wesley saw that everything good in this world is an expression of God's goodness, and so should be recognized as good. This is different from saying that any person's good deeds bring glory to them, for the source of these good deeds is always God, and therefore the glory is God's. On this basis, we should not withhold approval of good deeds simply because we disagree with the person who did them. Not only is this a recognition that the source of anything beneficial in this world comes from God, it is also a recognition of what Paul wrote to the Ephesians, ". . . For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places" (Ephesians 6:12). All people are the objects of God's redemptive love and potential recipients of His saving grace through faith in Jesus Christ.
Secondly, as this is characteristic of God, Jesus' taught that it is also to be characteristic of Christians. "You have heard that it was said, "you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy." But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven . . . Therefore, you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matthew 6:43-45, 48), ". . . for He Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men" (Luke 6:35, cf. Romans 12:14-21). Wesley sought the full application of I Corinthians 13, taking seriously Paul's teaching that one's Christian faith is worthless unless it is characterized by Christian love. This is not a blanket approval of the beliefs and actions of others, it is a recognition of God's redemptive love and a desire to be a vehicle through whom this redemptive love is expressed to others.
One practical application of this may be seen in Galatians 6:1, "Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted." The correction of others is always to be done in such a manner that it is an expression of love. Harshness, pride, divisiveness -- these are not legitimate expressions of Christian love. When Wesley wrote to address the views of others, as he did when he wrote in opposition to Roman Catholicism, Calvinism, Quakerism, Swedenborgianism, and so forth, he wrote not out of hatred, but redemptive love. We must always remember that we are all children of God by grace rather than by right, and that those who are Christians are servants of God, not of ourselves. Christian love is an expression of the humility that flows from these truths.
We should also notice that Wesley's teachings, based upon the teachings of Scripture, recognize the right of groups to organize themselves into religious organizations (congregations and denominations) for the purpose of worshipping according to the dictates of their conscience whether we agree with them or not. Thus, traditional Methodism recognizes the rights not only of Christians to form themselves into various denominations, but of non-Christians to practice their faith in peace. Methodists want not only evangelical Protestants, but liberal Christians, Roman Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Mormons, Jews, Moslems, Buddhists, free-thinkers, and others to have the right to assemble peacefully and to practice their faiths freely and without fear. Further, each has the right to make its beliefs public and to invite others to join their group the same rights Wesleyan Methodists desire for themselves.
The attitude of love and good will towards all which characterized Methodism from its earliest times as "non-sectarian" is, nevertheless, not a blanket acceptance of all views and practices. We should be careful to notice that when Wesley mentions specific groups he is referring to the beliefs and practices of those groups in his day, not our own -- for there is sometimes considerable difference between then and now -- and otherwise, Wesley may seem to be arguing for the legitimacy of a kind of anti-Christian attitude that is manifest in some contemporary churches when, in fact, Wesley argues for Christian orthodoxy. This is seen both in his sermon against bigotry and in his sermon on catholic spirit; just as it is made clear by other words and actions of Wesley's ministry.
In his sermon against bigotry, Wesley describes those who "cast out devils" as those who invite people to turn from gross sin to lead a Christian life (Section III.3). The thoughts and terminology are wholly orthodox that of those oppressed by Satan who can receive new life from God through the redemption available in Jesus Christ. Other kinds of good deeds are not entirely out of view, but strictly speaking, Wesley has the Gospel in mind.
This is made even more clear in Wesley's sermon on catholic spirit. Wesley's text is II Kings 10:15, "Is thine heart right, as my heart is with thy heart . . . If it be, give me thine hand." Wesley's point is that even when people differ in religious opinions, they can have a fellowship together in Jesus Christ. In this sermon Wesley is also careful to define what it means for one's heart to be the same as Wesley's, and thus for Methodists and others to "join hands."
In the analysis of this sermon given by Rev. N. Burwash, published with Wesley's standard sermons in 1881, Burwash writes, "But the question does ask for right faith in God and Christ, and a right love to God and to our neighbour, shown in the work of life." In section I.12, for example, Wesley writes that in order for one's heart to be "right with God" one must believe in God as He is described in Scripture. The description of God that Wesley gives is consistent with that of Christian systematic theology, stating the attributes of God as one would expect to find them defined there. Further, Wesley states that one must, through faith in God, look to things that are eternal rather than temporal. In section I.13 Wesley writes that one must believe in "the Lord Jesus Christ" as defined by orthodox Christianity, living a life of love towards God and man. There is no question as to how this is defined, for Wesley states in section III.1 that such a person "is fixed as the sun, in his judgment concerning the main branches of Christian doctrine."
Wesley calls for careful consideration of the fact that a proper catholic spirit is not "speculative latitudinarianism," in other words, it is not "an indifference to all opinions," the belief that doctrine doesn't matter. It is also not "practical latitudinarianism," in other words, it is not indifference to all forms of public worship, the belief that you can worship however you choose. He maintains that the worship of the person who manifests a true catholic spirit must be "scriptural." Nor is catholic spirit "indifference to all congregations," an indifference to which Christian group one belongs. Wesley says, "Go, first, and learn the first elements of the gospel of Christ, and then shall you learn to be of truly catholic spirit." So when Wesley speaks of "religious opinions" he is not talking about those doctrines of the Christian faith that have been made clear in Scripture, but those matters of faith that Christians are free to make up their own mind about (Romans 14:5).
Both the spirit and the love that Wesley commends through these sermons are inseparable from traditional Christianity. They flow from the new life available from the Holy Spirit through faith and commitment to Jesus Christ, and thus are expressed by those who acknowledge some form of traditional, orthodox, Scriptural Christianity, accepting those doctrines and practices that have always been endorsed by orthodox Christians. Others are surely objects of good will, but only those who submit to the authority of the Lordship of Jesus Christ, and the faith defined by Scripture and recognized by traditional Christianity, are in true fellowship.
In society as Wesley envisioned it, people of different religious opinions could live together in mutual respect, each able to worship as they chose. John Wesley and the early Methodists knew what it was to be victims of the intolerance of others, as they were often treated with disrespect. Even the name "Methodist" was initially a term of derision. Wesley clearly wanted this kind of bigotry to go away, for Methodists and for others, and for Methodists to model correct behavior for others as part of their witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
The love that Wesley envisioned was a love that did not accuse others of hatred simply because they were in disagreement. These disagreements might be cause for someone to leave the Methodist societies and join some other religious group, but they were not cause for hate.
Methodists did not infiltrate other groups with the intention of forcing them to accept Methodist beliefs and practices, nor did they tolerate others coming into Wesleyan societies to teach whatever they would. There were doctrinal standards, like the standard sermons, for Methodists to embrace especially if they wished to be Methodist class leaders, preachers, or clergy. Those who violated their discipline were dismissed from membership in Wesleyan societies to recognize that fellowship was broken, not as an act of hatred.
Wesleyan teaching is no more an invitation to hatred than it is an invitation for those who differ with traditional Christianity to teach or impose -- their views in Methodist churches.
Many currently suggest that all of the problems in Methodism today stem from a lack of love. This may be the case in some instances, and where it is, those who study the historic writings of Methodism will find their attitudes, words, and actions strongly condemned there in light of the teachings of Scripture. But surely the greater problem in Methodism today is defined by these two characteristics:
Anyone who fails to recognize these truths loses fellowship not because they are "hated" but because they have rejected orthodox Christianity, and so have ceased to be Methodists according to those standards whereby Wesleyan Methodism has always been properly defined. SMD
Burwash, N. Wesley's Doctrinal Standards, Part I: The Sermons with Introductions, Analysis, and Notes. 1881 ed. reprinted 1967 by H. E. Schmul.
Related readings at our web site include:
We highly recommend: Thomas Oden's John Wesley's Scriptural Christianity: A Plain Exposition of His Teaching on Christian Doctrine, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994.
John Wesley's sermons are available online at The Wesley Center for Applied Theology, http://wesley.nnu.edu/
Baker Book House has reprinted the fourteen volume Works of John Wesley. Segen Corp. offers Works on CD-ROM: 1-800-737-0877.
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This page was last updated December 1, 2000.