Bigotry in the Church (A Very Relevant Word from Wesley)

pic-bigotIt’s a strong word – Bigot – often associated with extreme prejudice. John Wesley actually used this word in direct connection to the church.  He defined bigotry as extreme “attachment to, or fondness for, our own party, opinion, church, and religion.” This is similar to the way he talked about orthodoxy.  Underlying bigotry is a form of self-righteousness, possibly combined with fear, where we focus on the outward sins of others while conveniently overlooking the “subtler, but no less destructive, forms of disobedience” within us.  This leads us to divide the world into “us and them” and causes great harm to our witness.

In the midst of the blessed diversity of perspectives among us, Wesley warns against party zeal and how it can override our call to love.  Wesley challenges us to be attentive to God’s work in others, especially in those who differ from us, even when what seems “efficacious to [another] is horrid to [us].”   If another seems to be bearing good fruit, then who are we to judge?  As Jesus says, “Bless them and do not try to hinder their work.” “Forbid them not” – even if they are only a “lay person,” says Wesley. That certainly says something about an issue of his day.

Wesley gives a personal example regarding preachers.  He points to the book of Acts where people preached before they were ordained.  They demonstrate fruit before given the office.  Building on this, Wesley wonders about a Bishop refusing to ordain them, even if they are bearing good fruit.  Even if the Bishop stands in their way, “I will not,” says Wesley, “I dare not lest I be found even to fight against God.”  That is a strong word of warning.  Echoing Jesus, if we discourage others from using their gifts, even indirectly, then we are bigots by this definition, and possibly in grave risk of working on the side of the devil.

Wesley gives another personal example.  He asks himself, “what if I were to see,” to use his 18th century terms, “a Papist, an Arian, a Socinian casting out devils.  If I did, I could not forbid even them, without convicting myself of bigotry.”  In radical and relevant fashion, Wesley goes on to say the same about a Jew, a Deist, or a Turk (a Muslim).

So what can we do?  According to Wesley, we can give praise and encouragement to whomever God is pleased to employ.  We can work to enlarge their sphere of action. We can focus on manifesting the virtues of Christ – patience, kindness, compassion – rather than judgment and division. That is our witness to Christ, as we stop trying to defend God and start following instead.  Is this not a most relevant word for us today? (See Wesley’s sermon: “A Caution Against Bigotry”)

In a time when theological/political parties are forming within the church, we need to be alert to this danger.  In a time when people are rallying around code words that are too easily perceived as divisive and self-glorifying – progressive, prophetic, evangelical, orthodox, traditional, covenant-keeping, Jesus loving, faithful (some use more self-elevating adjectives than others) — we need those who are willing to rally around what truly maintains “the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.”  We definitely need to be cautious of hard line ultimatums which come from those who love self-affirming qualifiers; those so attached to their own party and position that they are unwilling to reflect upon how they might fall short or break covenant, or cause harm by their self-proclaimed faithfulness and rightness.  It comes from all “sides” and does so much harm.

As we turn to Wesley for guidance, he cautions us against this temperament and calls us to meet in the middle with a very different understanding of grace and holiness.  May we heed Wesley’s cautionary word and turn our focus to our common calling to be something other than bigots. Yes, it is a strong word revealing a great weakness within us. May we all guard against building ourselves up by implying that others have less of whatever has hold of our heart.   Does the right thing have hold of our heart?

Author: Michael Roberts

I am the senior pastor at First United Methodist Church in Conway, Arkansas. I love this work! Playing guitar, reading/writing, and theological conversation are among my favorite pastimes. My wife, Deidre is also an ordained United Methodist minister, and we have three wonderful children, all adults, and two grandchildren. I hold degrees from the University of Central Arkansas (BA), Duke University Divinity School (M.Div), and Southern Methodist University (D.min).

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