Doctrinal Standards and Church Unity  |  Homosexuality  |  Women in the Church

John Wesley on Doctrinal Standards and Church Unity

Morris Davis
Assistant Professor of Church History and Wesleyan and Methodist Studies
Drew University

In his sermon “On Catholic Spirit,” Wesley explores the phrase from 2 Kings 10:15, “Is thine heart right, as my heart is with thy heart?...If it be, give me thine hand.” He adapts this phrase as a crystallization of “catholic spirit” as it applies to his own time. This phrase describes Wesley’s distinctive doctrinal pluralism that strikes a conscious balance between dogmatism and doctrinal indifference. Wesley wrestled with the conflict between his desire for clear doctrinal standards and his conviction that true religion was “heart religion” shaped by Christian love.

As we shall see, Wesley’s concept of “catholic spirit” played itself out in praxis; Wesley found it a hard-won victory to stave off the call for separation from within his own Methodist ranks. In the course of his struggles, Wesley found the line between doctrinal indifference and doctrinal dogmatism a difficult one to navigate. In the end it was a combination of Wesley’s vision of catholicity and his strong belief in the destructive effects of schism that held off, nearly on its own, a split from the Church of England.
The United Methodist Church, like the Methodist movement of Wesley’s day, struggles over doctrinal disagreements. How should the Church approach such problems? How did John Wesley deal with such conflicts? While Wesley would have sympathized with calls for doctrinal standards, he would have been more concerned with relationships between believers. Wesley’s suspicion of human ability to fully know truth convinced him that hearts striving in perfecting love were more important than heads unified in doctrinal agreement. This “catholic spirit” might be a helpful stance today.

I. Wesley’s sermon “On Catholic Spirit”

Wesley makes an important distinction in this sermon between religious opinions and essential doctrines. Religious opinions, such as modes of worship, are numerous and easy to identify and should not come between Christians. Distinct from opinions are the essential doctrines of Christianity, which are legitimate topics for disagreement, but which Wesley does not attempt to spell out in the sermon. More important, it seems, was his vision of a universal church of Christians united by what he calls “true heart religion1:” “But although a difference in opinions or modes of worship may prevent an entire external union; yet need it prevent our union in affection?2” [4] His first observation about the exchange between Jehonadab and Jehu in his scripture text is that they were in disagreement about more than mere opinion: “here is no inquiry concerning...opinions.” [I.1] The two men were in severe disagreement, yet were still able to maintain affection for each other and spiritual communion together. Wesley takes this further, arguing that no human can know full truth, and thus must, in the humility of true Catholic spirit, remain in communion with other Christians:

“It is an unavoidable consequence of the present weakness and shortness of human understanding, that several men will be of several minds in religion as well as in common life...Although every man necessarily believes that every particular opinion which he holds is true...yet can no man be assured that all his own opinions, taken together, are true.” [I.3-4]

Wesley also maintains that the exchange between Jehu and Jehonadab was not “an inquiry as to modes of worship.” [I.7] Modes of worship are, for Wesley, a matter of mere opinion, and he includes under the rubric of worship forms of taking communion, baptism, models of church government, and forms of public prayer. These opinions concerning modes and forms of worship are a matter of prayerful deliberation: “No man can choose for, or prescribe to, another. But every one must follow the dictates of his own conscience, in simplicity and Godly sincerity.” [I.9]

Wesley puts a twist on this concept, though, that carries its significance into one of the most pressing issues of Wesley’s career, and that is the issue of the Methodist’s relationship to the Church of England. From Wesley’s arguments here about the subjective nature of religious opinions, it would be a relatively easy move towards downplaying the importance or role of an institutional church. But Wesley takes a much different and perhaps more difficult tack: “Every follower of Christ is be a member of some particular congregation or other, some Church, as it is usually termed.” [I.10] Despite his emphasis on allowing room for a diversity of religious opinions, he strongly believes in each believer maintaining a consistent association with a formal and institutional church, specifically the Church of England in the case of Methodists of his day.

So if Wesley argues that the phrase “is thine heart right, as my heart is with thine?” does not mean that Christians must agree about opinions, then what does “as my heart” mean? Rather than offer a creedal test, Wesley suggests other questions that will help uncover “like” hearts:

“Is thy heart right with God? thy faith filled with the energy of love?...serve [God] with fear...rejoice with reverence?...heart right toward thy neighbor?...Love show in good works?”

The only question concerning belief is “dost thou believe in the Lord Jesus Christ?” [I.13] Besides this one question, all the others revolve around the working of some idea of “love” and its “fruits” in each Christian’s life. None are concerned directly with doctrinal issues or issues of worship.

Wesley continues to unpack the phrase with the second part, “if it be [your heart like mine] give me thy hand.” Reiterating his main point, Wesley says this does not mean “be of my opinion” or “embrace my modes of worship” but instead it means to first of all “ love me.” [II.3]

“ me with a very tender affection, as a friend that is closer than a brother; as a brother in Christ, a fellow citizen of the New Jerusalem, a fellow-soldier engaged in the same warfare, under the same Captain of our salvation. Love me as a companion in the kingdom and patience of Jesus, and a joint-heir of his glory.” [II.3}

Beyond this description, Wesley asks further to be loved “with love that is long-suffering and kind.” He also offers that to “give me thy hand” is to “commend [one] to God in all thy prayers,” and to “provoke [one] to love and to good works,” and “to love [one] in deed and in truth.” [II.7] This, then, goes beyond a unity or bond that only requires the appearance or language of “holding out a hand” to fellow Christians. Rather, it is a unity that demands action, more than belief or “right opinions,” and outward manifestations of a “right heart.”

Having explicated these verses, Wesley then moves on to outline more specifically what he means by “catholic spirit.” Again, Wesley tempers his openness about humanity’s freedom to hold individual opinions, arguing that although all have the right to their own religious opinion, there is no credibility in “speculative latitudinarianism.” He warns that any “unsettledness of thought” is the “spawn of hell,” and must not carry on indefinitely. A man of true “catholic spirit” is “fixed as the sun in his judgment concerning the main branches of Christian doctrine.” In a very specific recommendation Wesley advises the “unsettled” Christian to “Go, first, and learn the first elements of the gospel of Christ, and then shall you learn to be of a truly catholic spirit.” [III.1] Yet even here, Wesley does not outline precisely what the “first elements of the Gospel of Christ” are, at once leaving them open and yet implicitly defining them as fixed.

In this same vein, Wesley warns of “practical latitudinarianism,” urging Christians to find a mode of worship that they believe to be scripturally sound, and to stay with it, not to flounder and float around trying out different modes of worship.
The third latitudinal tendency against which Wesley warns is that of indifference towards congregations or churches. All Christians should “keep strong ties to a congregation.” [III.3] It is within the congregational environment that outward ties can parallel the inward ties of the heart, and the “ordinances” can be attended to (no matter what form or mode they might take). For Wesley, though he recognized that some of the details may not be so significant, a consistent, stable, and unified congregation is of the utmost importance for the life of the believer.

It is within a congregation or church that Christians are enabled to extend their affection outward to “all mankind;” through obligation and bond to and religious practice with a particular congregation, a believer is freed to grow in love and “affection:”
“But while he is steadily fixed in his religious principles, in what he believes to be the truth as it is in Jesus; while he firmly adheres to that worship of God which he judges to be most acceptable in his sight; and while he is united by the tenderest and closest ties to one particular congregation,--his heart is enlarged toward all mankind, those he knows and those he does not; he embraces with strong and cordial affection, neighbours and strangers, friends and enemies. This is catholic or universal love...Catholic love is catholic spirit.”[III.4]

Wesley’s summary paragraph is slightly contradictory to his previous position in this sermon in that his language becomes a little more specific as to just what some of these things mean. For example, he says something about the practice of “the true scriptural manner of worshiping him,”[III.5] which is not the same thing as “that worship of God which he judges to be most acceptable in his sight.” [III.4] What this illustrates is Wesley’s struggle between his strong belief that shared “affection” between Christians is a scriptural mandate, and his own strong “opinions” about religious practice and doctrine. This plays itself out especially in the later years of his life in his fight with his own Methodists to remain within the folds of the Church of England. I hope to show that it is this “catholic spirit” that advocates a practical doctrinal pluralism through mutual and universal “affection” between Christians that drives Wesley’s determination not to split the Church of England.

II. The Struggle over Schism

In the 1750's the crisis over separation from the Church of England reached a climax, with rival groups forming within Methodism. A conference was convened in 1755 with this issue at the fore, and both the Wesley’s prepared a statement entitled “Ought we to separate from the Church of England?” It was this same year that “On Catholic Spirit” was published. “Ought we to Separate” is a document of expediency, outlining the practical reasons for remaining within the Church of England, as indeed was the final focus of the conference; it was decided that it was largely in the best interest of the Methodist movement to remain within the established church3. But the issue of separation was not just an issue of expediency, as I think Wesley’s thoughts in “On Catholic Spirit” show; Wesley’s “law of love” requires “affection” between believers, and this affection requires unity as a church body, despite differences in doctrinal opinion. Wesley’s thoughts return again to his writings in the days after his ordination of Coke and Asbury in the Americas, and it is to these that we can turn to see the determination with which Wesley held to his belief in the unity of the universal church.

In his letter to the Methodists in North America in 1784 Wesley argues that his ordination of the Americans violated no laws and did not mean that he was separating himself from the Church of England: “Here, therefore, my scruples are at an end; and I conceive myself at full liberty, as I violate no order, and invade no man’s right, by appointing and sending labourers into the harvest.” [3] After the ordination Wesley published a flurry of sermons and essays defending the ordinations and arguing for a continuance of the Methodist’s participation in the Church of England congregations. He reiterates his well-known definition of what or who constitutes “the church,” in his sermon in 1785 “Of the Church:”

“I dare not exclude from the Church catholic all those congregations in which any unscriptural doctrines, which cannot be affirmed to be the ‘pure word of God,’ are sometimes, yea, frequently preached; neither all those congregations, in which the sacraments are not ‘duly administered’...Whoever they are that have ‘one Spirit one hope, one Lord, one faith, one God and Father of all,’ I can easily bear with their holding wrong opinions, yea, and superstitious modes or worship: Nor would I, on these accounts, scruple still to include them within the pale of the catholic Church; neither would I have any objection to receive them, if they desired it, as members of the church of England.” [19, BE]

Here we see the same de-emphasis on differences in opinion, on specific doctrines—even those he deems unscriptural—and an emphasis on unity, here in Spirit, hope, and faith. Unity in the body of the catholic church, even within particular churches, takes precedence.

In 1785 Wesley also published a letter entitled “On the Church,” in which he addresses the same issue from the question “What obedience is due to heathenish Priests and mitred infidels?” A short piece was published the same year entitled “Of Separation from the Church” in which he gives a short history of his own struggle with separation, and he includes a defense of Methodist practices of holding meeting on Sundays during Church hours. Two other pieces were published in the Arminian Magazine, “Thoughts upon a Late Phenomenon,” 1788, and “Farther Thoughts on Separation from the Church,” 1789. In “Thoughts upon a Late Phenomenon” Wesley gives a broad historical sweep of the sources of the Methodist revivals, making the connection with the “descent of the Holy Ghost, on the day of Pentecost,” and says that, in spite of the “fatal time when Constantine called himself a Christian...God never left himself without witness.” This witness brought forth brief revivals and movements, though all of these “separated...and retired...if not into deserts, yet into distinct churches or religious bodies.” But the Methodists are “a new thing in the world,” because they “do not impose, in order to their admission, any opinions whatever...Is there any other society in Great Britain or Ireland that is so remote from bigotry?” For Wesley it is the Methodist’s “particular glory” that they will not succumb to the temptation to separate. He argues in “Farther Thoughts on Separation from the Church” that all other revival movements since Pentecost have separated and “dwindl[ed] away into a dry, dull, separate party. In flat opposition to these I declare once more that I live and die a member of the Church of England, and that none who regard my judgement or advice will ever separate from it.” These particular themes are more fully explored in Wesley’s sermon from 1787 “On Attending the Church Service.” The main thrust of the sermon is that “ungodly” ministers and preachers can still promote good. He ends the sermon with a familiar plea: “Let us not then trouble and embroil ourselves and our neighbours with unprofitable disputations, but all agree to spread, to the uttermost of our power, the quiet and peaceable gospel of Christ.” [33, BE]

The crux of the matter, then, is the “quiet and peaceable gospel of Christ” that can only be spread, says Wesley, through unity in some form of the Church, which in the case of the Methodists was the Church of England. But why is unity so important, especially is the face of “unscriptural dogma?” The last analysis and final piece to this inquiry is found in the sermon “On Schism,” both preached and published in 1786. In this sermon Wesley makes a distinction between “separation” and “schism,” the former specifically referring to a break from a church to form another church, and the latter referring to divisions within a church. Schism, says Wesley, is the same, in a scriptural context, as heresy; and separation can at times be heretical as well, if it is a “causeless” separation. [II. 10, BE] Wesley’s argument comes down to a view of schism as an act in defiance of the “law of love.” Schism breaks apart the “affection” between fellow Christians, and this is

“...evil in itself. To separate ourselves from a body of living Christians with whom we were before united is a grievous breach of the law of love. It is the nature of love to unite us together, and the greater the love the stricter the union...It is only when our love grows cold that we can think of separating from our brethren. And this is certainly the case with any who willingly separate from their Christian brethren. The pretences for separation may be innumerable, but want of love is always the real cause.” [II.11, BE]

So it is the “catholic spirit” that is the key to a better understanding Wesley’s stubborn refusal to break from the Church of England. When Wesley says “is thine heart right, as my heart is with thy heart? If it be, give me thine hand,” he is talking about “affection” between believers, and the only law that holds here is what he calls “the law of love.” And if this “affection” is required by the law of love, then separation from the Church of England meant coming short of expanding that affection in a true “catholic spirit” to all believers in the universal church, and even the destruction of the work of “true religion” in the world. I end with a last anguished, short section in which Wesley expresses the potential tragedy in a separation from the established church:

“Yea, abundance of [offences] will of necessity arise when a breach of this sort is made, in any religious community; while they that leave it endeavour to justify themselves by censuring those they separate from; and these, on the other hand, retort the charge, and strive to lay the blame on them. But how mightily does all this altercation grieve the Holy Spirit of God! How does it hinder his mild and gentle operation in the souls of one and the other! Heresies and schisms...will sooner or later be the consequence; parties will be formed on one and the other side, whereby the love of many will wax cold. The hunger and thirst after righteousness, after either the favour or the full image of God, together with the longing desires, wherewith so many were filled, of promoting the work of God in the souls of their brethren, will grow languid, and as offences increase will gradually die away. And as ‘the fruit of the Spirit’ withers away, ‘the works of the flesh’‘ will again prevail--to the utter destruction, first of the power, and then of the very form of religion. These consequences are not imaginary, are not built on mere conjectures, but on plain matter of fact. This has been the case again and again within these last thirty or forty years; these have been the fruits which we have seen over and over to be consequent on such separation.” [II.15, BE]

1 Wesley clearly pointed to his published sermons and his lengthy Explanatory Notes on the New Testament as his expressions of essential Christian doctrine.

2 Text in brackets designates the outline format that is standard throughout Wesley’s works, and I here give section number in Roman numerals (where applicable) and paragraph number. All references and quotes are from Jackson edition unless otherwise noted with “BE” which designates the Bicentennial Edition.

3 For a discussion of this conference, see Henry D. Rack, Reasonable Enthusiast: John Wesley and the Rise of Methodism, pp. 296-299. Rack here concentrates on the “practical” and political reasons for J. Wesley’s arguments, and on the differences in opinion between him and his brother Charles. My focus is rather on John’s theological misgivings over separation, and his insistence that “affection” between Christians is demanded by “the law of love,” and a break-down in unity is a transgression of that law.


| Articles | Contributors