“Do not imagine you can avoid giving offence.”
These direct words were Wesley’s second piece of advice to “the people called Methodists.” But why would Wesley tell the fledgling Methodists that it would be impossible to avoid giving offence?
“Your very name renders this impossible.”
“And as much as offense as you give by your name, you will give still more by your principles.”
Wesley is surprisingly frank that Methodists who know who they are and are faithful to who God has called them to be will inevitably give offence. (For Wesley’s definition of a Methodist see the first post in this series. The second post emphasized the importance of Methodists knowing who they are.) In case his audience was unclear how Methodists might give offence, Wesley offered a litany of ways Methodism would offend:
You will give offence to the bigots for opinions, modes of worship, and ordinances, by laying no more stress upon them; to the bigots against them, by laying so much; to men of form, by insisting so frequently and strongly on the inward power of religion; to moral men (so called) by declaring the absolute necessity of faith in order to acceptance with God. To men of reason you will give offence by talking of inspiration and receiving the Holy Ghost; to drunkards, sabbath-breakers, common swearers, and other open sinners, by refraining from their company, as well as by that disapprobation of their behaviour which you will often be obliged to express. And indeed your life must give them continual offence; your sobriety is grievously offensive to a drunkard; your serious conversation is equally intolerable to a gay impertinent; and, in general, that ‘you are grown so precise and singular, so monstrously strict, beyond all sense and reason, that you scruple so many harmless things, and fancy you are obliged to do so many others which you need not,’cannot but be an offence to abundance of people, your friends and relations in particular.
Some of the 18th century turns of phrase above may obscure Wesley’s meaning for contemporary readers. The conclusion to his “litany of offence” is pretty straightforward: “Either therefore you must consent to give up your principles, or your fond hope of pleasing men.”
I’m not sure I could come up with a piece of advice from the founder of Methodism that would cut harder against the grain of contemporary Methodist sensibilities, at least in my part of The United Methodist Church. Here is what I understand Wesley to be saying: Being who you are will be offensive to others. You can either strive to please them or you can be true to who God has called you to be and save your own souls and, God willing, theirs as well.
In order to try to be as clear as I can, let me say that I do not think that Wesley is saying that Methodists are to strive to offend others. He was telling Methodists that being who they were, for the reasons mentioned in the extended quote above, would inevitably offend others. The purpose of Methodism is not to offend. But, Methodists determined pursuit of holiness of heart and life will inevitably offend those who are not pursuing holiness of heart and life.
Wesley describes the result of all of this offence:
“You cannot but expect that the offence continually arising from such a variety of provocations will gradually ripen into hatred, malice, and all other unkind tempers…. The consequence, humanly speaking, must be that, together with your reputation, you will lose, first, the love of your friends, relations, and acquaintance, even those who once loved you the most tenderly; then your business… your health, liberty, and life.”
Wesley was exaggerating, right? I would guess that is the instinctive reaction many would have to this quote. The rhetoric just seems so inflated. But was he?
Historians know that Wesley himself experienced tremendous strain in relationships with family and friends due to the “principles” of Methodism. He was also regularly told after preaching in Church of England parishes that he would not be invited to preach there again. Wesley also experienced the wrath, violence, and unpredictability of mobs on more than one occasion in the years immediately before writing this essay. William Seward actually died of stoning by an angry mob in 1740, five years before Wesley wrote this.
When Wesley told Methodists not to imagine that they could avoid giving offence that would cost them dearly in terms of relationships, employment, and even their physical health, he meant it.
Wesley’s next piece of advice is one of the passages in this essay that I just keep coming back to again and again. I’ll let it speak for itself:
What further advice can be given to a person in such a situation? I can but advise you, thirdly: Consider deeply with yourself, Is the God whom I serve able to deliver me? I am not able to deliver myself out of these difficulties; much less am I able to bear them. I know not how to give up my reputation, my friends, my substance, my liberty, my life. Can God give me to rejoice in doing this? And may I depend on him that he will? Are the hairs of my head all numbered? And does he never fail them that trust in him? Weigh this thoroughly; and if you can trust God with your all, then go on, in the power of his might.
I stopped reading several times as I read Wesley’s second and third pieces of advice. “Do not imagine you can avoid giving offence.” “Consider deeply with yourself, Is the God whom I serve able to deliver me?” I stopped because the advice seemed so obvious and true. At the same time, these simple exhortations are so counter to how I experience my own United Methodist Church today. I cannot imagine a key leader of Methodism saying what Wesley says in this advice. I also believe it desperately needs to be said for our time and our place. This is how I see Wesley’s advice applying to us today:
Methodists, if you are centered in your identity and if you are true to who God has called you to be, people will not like you. People will be offended by what you believe and by how you live your life. That is ok. Make no mistake, being disliked, even despised is hard. That is one reason it is essential for you to unite together to watch over one another in love. But the purpose of Methodism was never meant to be winning the approval of a world that does not believe. The purpose of Methodism has been and, as long as the Holy Spirit is in the building, will be spreading scriptural holiness. When Methodism is faithful to that purpose, the once offended are often converted to faith in Jesus Christ and the peculiar and particular principles of this people so strangely raised up by God.
The next piece of advice is most important of all. Do not trust yourself. Do not seek to discover a confidence in yourself that you have what it takes. These are dead ends. When your faith begins to cost you, really cost you: Do you trust God? Are the promises of the gospel still true? Or as Wesley beautifully puts it, “Does he never fail them that trust in him?”
I am preaching to myself here. God brings me back to the basics over and over again. “Do you trust me? Do you believe that I am good and that I love you?” I need to hear and receive Wesley’s advice. I need to trust God every moment of every day. I desperately want to see United Methodism renewed. I want United Methodism to be what Wesley intended. But I don’t have what it takes to renew Methodism. Neither do you. But there is one who is able: Jesus Christ the risen Lord. I am thirsting for a revival of God’s Spirit that brings back to life a Methodism dependent on and desperate for intimate connection to the triune God.
Cal Brannon said:
Well said. Thanks for putting it into our contemporary language. What Wesley said is difficult to digest and more difficult to apply. Amen to the fact we can only do it through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit at work in us. Thank you.
My guess is that very few Methodists will be offended by your blog, as everyone will see themselves on the “right side” and that is why they will hold fast in the face of opposition. Some hold fast to what they perceive as sound doctrine and others to what they perceive as a fresh wind.
Kevin, you are in a high place in United Methodism . . . would you be willing to lose your position because of your convictions?
I’m not accusing or anything. I love your work and everything you do. And I hope that you are able to remain an influence where you are at.
But I have seen so many people with passionate hearts get enmeshed in the “UMC machine” and become “blabbers” of UMC political correctness and other nonsense. I know for me, I am not going to sell my soul to the devil.
Steve Perisho said:
Greetings, Kevin. Just thought you’d get a kick out of hearing that when I shared this via your Facebook post of it yesterday, Facebook took it down because “it looks like spam and doesn’t follow our Community Standards.” Needless to say, it was that second part that caught my eye. Probably this was just due to the workings of an algorithm, because it was put back up when I challenged the takedown, but “doesn’t follow our Community Standards”? Hmmm.
Kevin M. Watson said:
Josh, I believe any Christian must be willing to lose their position because of their faith. I think it would be appalling to hear any Christian leader say straightforwardly that they would not be willing to lose their position because of their convictions. As it happens, I read Hebrews 11 just before seeing your question. It seems to me to speak directly to the need for Christians to trust God regardless of whether faithfulness leads to prospering or suffering. Or, as Wesley said in one well known prayer: “Let me be employed by thee, or laid aside by thee.”
Having said all of this, I admit that I would rather be employed by God than laid aside by God. It is also important for me to acknowledge that it is easier to say you would be willing to suffer for your faith than to actually do it. Without the grace of God, I am without hope.
Steve, Always great to hear from you! You are the second person I’ve seen who linked to this post and had Facebook take it down. That is unfortunate and seems like an odd filter. My guess would be that it may have something to do with the way “offend” is used in the post…
Kevin, I honestly felt led by the Spirit to ask you that question at the moment. I usually try to stay away from online communication but I went ahead and typed out the response.
Believe me, I understand how hard it is to be faithful in circumstances that are very difficult to interpret. As a UMC pastor, I get very sick of the all the problems in the denomination and have felt the pull to just say what everyone else says. But I refuse to do that . . . and it is a constant battle to not allow the malaise to settle in.
Thank you for being a voice for traditional Wesleyan belief and practice. May your kind flourish. Keep up the good work. I have been in a Wesleyan band for 5 years now and helped with the formation of others. I don’t know if the UMC is going to make a turn around or not . . . but I refuse to allow cowardice to my guide. The cowardice among clergy in the UMC is tremendously disturbing. But truth be told, I have encountered it in other denominational/ church settings (and also in my own heart!). I struggle with it like any other human being and I am sure you do too. But, as Paul reminds us, God “has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline” (2 Tim. 1:7). Keep up the good work!
Paul W. said:
Very helpful commentary and insights! Sadly, I know of no place in Methodism or any other denomination where a community such as the one John Wesley describes exists, fully committed to inward and outward holiness. My soul yearns for the serious, alive, and sober faith Wesley describes. The section that most convicts me is covered in your second post concerning “strictness of life” and “abstaining from fashionable diversions”. Does such a supportive and faithful community exist? Where can I find this?
Rev Scott Meeker said:
Great message for our those in our church today… As we take stands for holiness we are often labeled with many harsh criticisms.
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Leland Lesher said:
Josh and Kevin, Some of us have walked away from sister Wesleyan-Holiness denominations for just those reasons. We who follow Christ Jesus through the guidance of Wesley’s insight and theological perspectives are many. Though I worship in our local UMC, I am non-denominational in my faith. I am of Christ, not of man. The UMC has so many conflicting unwritten policies which do not conform to the General Conference’s statement of church doctrines. I pray daily for the UMC because I view their leadership as trying to please man instead of pleasing God.
Leland Lesher said:
Paul W., We make them ourselves and invite others to join us. We do not worry about numbers and memberships. We don’t even in the back of our thoughts rely upon God to bring us numbers. Numbers are immaterial. Souls lost in darkness are our only concern. We are lamp posts holding up the Light and water jugs holding the Living Water. We love people to the foot of Jesus’ cross and let Holy Spirit do the rest. The community exists within us. It is not a place or a church building. It is a gathering of like spirited committed Christians. It might be right here on this web page or on a blog, yet remains within us. Blessings.
Yode Ayanlowo said:
helps in samon preparation