In my Historical Theology class this semester, we began at the year 1600, with the writings of John Locke (who, by the way, heavily influenced the thought of Thomas and Alexander Campbell — the resemblance is so close that TC’s “Declaration and Address” almost sounds like it plagiarized Locke’s “First Letter on Toleration” in some spots).
This week, we moved to a dozen sermons of John Wesley. Especially noteworthy was Sermon 128, entitled “Free Grace,” which amounts to an attack on the doctrine of predestination in all of its degrees. It is really quite good in doing what it sets out do (I wish all of my preacher friends would read it! Our arguments against predestination might be more effective if Wesley were brought to bear.) What stood out to me to me, however, was the way in which Wesley handled his opponents. In a preface to the text of the sermon, Wesley writes:
TO THE READER
Nothing but the strongest conviction, not only that what is here advanced is “the truth as it is in Jesus,” but also that I am indispensably obliged to declare this truth to all the world, could have induced me openly to oppose the sentiments of those whom I esteem for their work’s sake: At whose feet may I be found in the day of the Lord Jesus!
Should any believe it his duty to reply hereto, I have only one request to make, — Let whatsoever you do, be done inherently, in love, and in the spirit of meekness. Let your very disputing show that you have “put on, as the elect of God, bowel of mercies, gentleness, longsuffering;” that even according to this time it may be said, “See how these Christians love one another!”
Whereas a pamphlet entitled, “Free Grace Indeed,” has been published against this Sermon; this is to inform the publisher, that I cannot answer his tract till he appears to be more in earnest. For I dare not speak of “the deep things of God” in the spirit of a prize-fighter or a stage-player. [Emphasis mine, CRC]
I think this is really important. We, in non-institutional Churches of Christ, have an active debating tradition, both in public debates and in the pages of the journals that we publish. We come by it honestly: Alexander Campbell held a number of major debates as did our other spiritual forefathers in the Churches of Christ (the Cogdill-Woods Debate, 1957, comes to mind). Moreover, we have always hashed out our disagreements in the pages of the journals: early on it was the Gospel Advocate, the Firm Foundation and the Bible Banner, then the Gospel Guardian, The Preceptor and Truth Magazine. In recent years, others have come along: Watchman Magazine, Biblical Insights, Christianity Magazine and Focus. Whether it is a discussion about the “sponsoring church,” the headcovering, pacifism, MDR or the second serving of the Lord’s Supper, you can find it in the journals that our brethren publish.
What we have not paid very much attention to — and this is where I think Wesley has something to say to us — is the manner in which those disagreements have been discussed. I don’t think that it is universally true, but in many cases we have all too readily separated truth and love, elevating the former over the latter, rather than “speaking the truth in love.”
I don’t at all write this to say that the truths we hold to should not be proclaimed. Too often, in our day, the pursuit of brotherly love and unity has led to a radical devaluing of the importance of orthodox teaching and doctrine. Nowhere is this more true than in the ecumenical movement of the twentieth century. Productive Faith and Order Conferences of the 1920s-1940s degenerated, by the 1990s, into little more than liberal politics. This does not detract from the fact that the New Testament values the one (orthodox, correct doctrine) as much as the other (unity and brotherly love).
If you take the time to read the entirety of the sermon linked above (I hope you will), you will see, I think that Wesley understood this. The attitude that Wesley evidences in the preface does not cause him to waver one bit on his convictions. It does, however, affect the way that he expresses himself. He studiously avoids ad hominem attacks, focusing on the doctrine, not any particular advocate of it. Furthermore, he understands that the matters of which he speaks are ultimately beyond full human comprehension and therefore he speaks carefully and with humility. Particularly in the disputes of the 1990s over MDR and the deity of Christ, many of us lost sight of this. Would that we could understand how much brotherly love and unity would be increased if we refused to separate truth and love.