By Hal Knight
We are approaching a called General Conference in February to address deep divisions in our denomination. There is disagreement over the best way to maintain our unity and theological integrity. It is only natural we feel anxious about the future.
What is most unfortunate is not that we differ but when we do so with rhetoric that doesn’t just disagree but demeans, doesn’t just make a case but makes accusations. There has been such rhetoric already, and in the midst of conflict when all sides have much at stake, the temptation will be for more.
So, this might be a good time to review John Wesley’s advice on how to engage in disagreement. He gives it in his preface to his first set of standard sermons, published as a guide to the way of salvation.
“But,” he writes, “some may say I have mistaken the way myself, although I take upon me to teach it to others. It is probable many will think this, and it is very possible that I have. But I trust ... my mind is open to conviction. I sincerely desire to be better informed.”
It is the manner in which we seek to “better inform” one another that gives him concern: “Are you persuaded you see more clearly than me? It is not unlikely that you may. Then treat me as you would desire to be treated yourself upon a change of circumstances. Point me out a better way than I have known. Show me it is so by plain proof of scripture.” Wesley insists on the primacy of scripture but is aware that we do not all interpret scripture the same way. He knows we can get it wrong and need to be open to alternative understandings.
It is often the case that we are reluctant to change long-held opinions. Thus he advises, “And if I linger in the path I have been accustomed to tread and therefore am unwilling to leave it, labour with me a little; take me by the hand and led me as I am able to bear. But be not displeased if I entreat you not to beat me down in order to quicken my pace. I can go but feebly and slowly at best; then I should not be able to go at all.”
Moreover, he asks “not to give me hard names in order to bring me into the right way. Suppose I was ever so much in the wrong” it is unlikely this would “set me right. Rather, it would make me run so much farther from you and so get more and more out of the way.”
Then Wesley gets to the heart of the issue: “Nay, perhaps, if you are angry, so shall I be, too; and then there will be small hopes of finding the truth.” “For God’s sake,” he implores, “if it be possible to avoid it, let us not provoke one another to wrath. Let us not kindle in each other this fire of hell, much less blow it up into a flame. If we could discern truth by that dreadful light, would it not be loss rather than gain?”
“For how far is love, even with many wrong opinions, to be preferred before truth itself without love? We may die without the knowledge of many truths and yet be carried into Abraham’s bosom. But if we die without love, what will knowledge avail?”
“The God of love forbid we should ever make the trial! May he prepare us for the knowledge of all truth by filling our hearts with all his love and ‘with all joy and peace in believing’ (Rom. 15:12).”