'A Peculiar Love': John Wesley on Intra-Church Relationships

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In his classic sermon Catholic Spirit, John Wesley boldly argues for Christian unity at a time of bitter Church divide in Britain. He and his movement faced questions from his own Anglican Church, which also fomented discord with both Roman Catholics and various kinds of Protestant dissenters. Given the environment, Wesley’s sermon is a remarkable call for Christian unity when – not unlike our own time – many would dismiss such an effort as at best wishful thinking or, at worst, a pernicious call to work alongside heretics.  “But it is sure,” he argues, “there is a peculiar love which we owe to those that love God.”  While Wesley’s sentiment might have been unique in his context, it was not a new idea. Two millennia ago St. Paul urged the church in Galatia, riven by false teachers, to care especially for each other:

“So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.” (Galatians 6:10, NRSV)

Often times this “peculiar love” for our fellow members of the “family of faith” is hard to spot.  True friends stab each other in the front, it is said, and often times it seems the baptized have an affinity for tearing each other down.

A hackneyed but still deeply true joke goes like so:

Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump. I said, “Don’t do it!”

He said, “Nobody loves me.” I said, “God loves you. Do you believe in God?”

He said, “Yes.” I said, “Are you a Christian or a Jew?”

He said, “A Christian.” I said, “Me too! Protestant or Catholic?”

He said, “Protestant.” I said, “Me too! What denomination?”

He said, “Baptist.” I said, “Me too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?”

He said, “Northern Baptist.” I said, “Me too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?”

He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist.” I said, “Me too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?”

He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region.” I said, “Me too!”

“Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879 or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?”

He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?”  I said, “Die heretic!” And I pushed him over.

In the United Methodist Church, we often mirror that rather silly exchange.  We are willing to throw each other over the edge over a variety of litmus-test issues, regardless of how much we have in common: our worship of the Triune God, our need for grace through Jesus, the the pursuit of personal and social holiness through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, not to speak of Charles Wesley’s hymnody (envied by many outside of the UMC) or our Arminian theology which posits grace available to all.  I still love the UMC, warts and all, and yet often I wonder why it seems we tend to devour one another with so much glee.  I am not proud to say I have sometimes taken part in such festivities.

Wesley was not being optimistic in Catholic Spirit; he was taking the radical position that Christians should act like Christians toward one other.

“Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may.”

One of the stated goals for this project is to be the change we wish to see. Our conversation has thus far been fruitful, and I am excited to see it continue and expand. Can Oregon and Georgia, Texas and California, Upper New York and the Central Conferences recover a particularly Christian love for one another?

We can. We must. To do any less is to be satisfied with something other than God’s intention for God’s people. A God of love and unity is best served and best witnessed to by a people who embody that love and unity among themselves. We may not all be of one opinion, but we may yet rediscover that peculiar love that is both the calling of and a gift to the Church.

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