In one of his most famous sermons, “Catholic Spirit,” John Wesley wrote, “Though we can’t 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.”
Wesley lived in a very divided England, a country recovering from years of religious and political upheaval and with a great gulf between rich and poor. He was calling his hearers to listen to those with whom they disagreed and to focus on what they shared in common. He was teaching them (and us!) to build bridges rather than walls. The word catholic is a bit confusing to some, but in this context it simply means “universal.” It conveys the sense that the church, the Body of Christ, is made up not only of people who are in my denomination or tribe but of all who call upon the name of Christ, even if they disagree on this or that point of doctrine.
The twenty-first century is as polarized as eighteenth-century England. We’re not Tories and Whigs, conformists and dissenters, Anglicans and Puritans; we’re Republicans and Democrats, fundamentalists and progressives, liberals and conservatives. Yet divisiveness and conflict drain us of our spiritual vitality and leave many today longing for a different approach, an approach like Wesley’s catholic spirit.
How do we do embrace such an approach today? Paul described it when he admonished the believers in Philippi, who themselves were divided, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:3). To the Christians at Corinth, who also were deeply divided, Paul noted that love was the defining characteristic of Christian life, and then he went on to describe the character of Christian love: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7).
Having a spirit like Wesley’s today means that we assume the best of others, not the worst. We give them the benefit of the doubt. We speak well of others, not poorly. We treat them as we hope to be treated. We listen more and talk less. We walk in other people’s shoes and try to understand what they believe and why. This does not mean we give up our convictions, but it does mean we test them. I’ve found that, after listening to another person’s point of view, some ideas I was sure of were not nearly so convincing. I’ve found that, on more than one occasion, views that seemed utterly indefensible actually were quite convincing when I moved beyond my assumptions and took the time to listen.
I’ve also learned that it’s easy to be adamantly opposed to a viewpoint or position—be it theological, ethical, or political—when no one I deeply care about holds such views. But as I get to know those with views different from my own and come to care about them and consider them my friends, it is hard to be adamantly opposed to their views.
Among the defining characteristics of the Christian life are humility, grace, and love. The test of our faith comes in how we respond to others and how willing we are to listen to, learn from, and love them.
Today’s post is an excerpt from my book, Revival, which will be published from Abingdon Press in September. Check out a video about the book below.
Join me for a live webinar on August 7 at 3pm ET/2pm CT at MinistryMatters.com. We'll discuss this new book as well as my travels to England where I followed the life of John Wesley, and we'll talk about the defining characteristics of a Wesleyan Christian. Find out more and sign up to reserve your seat at MinistryMatters.com.