WALKING w/ WESLEY & Disgrace of a Famous Church Planter – Lessons Wesley Learned

by Bob Whitesel, D.Min., Ph.D., 2/7/16. Excerpted from the upcoming 40-day devlotional guide: Walking w/ Wesley: The 40-day METHOD for Turning Trials into Triumphs (2018).

Week 2, Day 3………………………………………………………. Disgrace of a Famous Pastor

To this day in Savannah, Georgia stately moss-covered trees surround Johnson Square. Many such parks were laid out by James Oglethorpe to provide green space for residents. And though this was the most visible and public space in Savannah, in shame and humiliation John Wesley nailed his pastoral resignation to one of the trees. What began as a celebrated church new ministry had deteriorated to this.

What had happened in a short 16 months?

John Wesley’s disgrace sprung from a unbalanced adherence to rules and methods. Grace in the form of love and forgiveness, had been lacking in John’s early methods. Though his methods would eventually guide an entire movement known as Methodism, an early over emphasis and reliance upon methods without corresponding grace, had led to his shame. How did this happen so quickly?

One writer called John Wesley a romantic[1] and for good reason. His close relationship with his mother led him to appreciate the intellectual dialogue and encouragement of a close female friend. At the same time he sought to strengthen his resolve against undue affection. Thus he set up rules and regulations to guard his relationship with Sophy, which more than likely contributed to her feeling she was secondary to his career.

Once Sophy had eloped with the irreligious William Williamson, John began to reprove her as insincere and even ungrateful.[2] John’s strict adherence to rules and methods caused him to fixate on Mrs. Williamson’s spiritual faults. On one occasion when she did not receive communion, he took her aside to list her increasingly inexcusable behavior.[3] Sophy’s guardian, a local magistrate, warned that legal action could ensue if Wesley refused her communion.[4] One month later, Wesley barred her from receiving communion.

Many in the congregation, and certainly Sophey’s guardian, felt the motive was revenge. A grand jury convened and posted ten indictments against John. In reply, John nailed his resignation letter to a tree in Johnson Square.

There is a lesson from this story of a famous pastor’s fall so early in his career. And that is that there is an insidious power in rules and methods, that must be balanced with grace and mercy. Followers of John Wesley’s methods, from his time until today, have sometimes been criticized for focusing on outward methods, in lieu of the inward character.

We see here a warning to all that would desire to embrace a structure to enhance their spiritual growth. The warning is this: that though we may embrace spiritual structures to foster spiritual growth, those very methods, without equal grace and mercy, those methods might not mirror our Lord’s conduct. We see Jesus address this with the Pharisees:

While Jesus was speaking, a Pharisee invited him to share a meal with him, so Jesus went and took his place at the table. When the Pharisee saw that Jesus didn’t ritually purify his hands by washing before the meal, he was astonished.

The Lord said to him, “Now, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and platter, but your insides are stuffed with greed and wickedness. Foolish people! Didn’t the one who made the outside also make the inside? Therefore, give to those in need from the core of who you are and you will be clean all over. (Luke 11:37-41)

And Paul wrestled with rules and methods that overshadowed the grace and mercy of Christ:

If you died with Christ to the way the world thinks and acts, why do you submit to rules and regulations as though you were living in the world? “Don’t handle!” “Don’t taste!” “Don’t touch!” All these things cease to exist when they are used. Such rules are human commandments and teachings. They look like they are wise with this self-made religion and their self-denial by the harsh treatment of the body, but they are no help against indulging in selfish immoral behavior. (Colossians 2:20-23).

Lesson

For personal devotion, read the questions and meditate upon each and write down your responses. For group discussion, share as appropriate your answers with your group and then discuss the application.

Recall a time when you judged someone because of the way they looked or behaved. Write in your journal the power that rules and expectations played in this. Then ask yourself, “How would Jesus have me respond differently?”

Search the scriptures for a biblical story that can guide you in such future situations. In one paragraph, summarize that story in your own words.

Then, the next time you are tempted to impose your personal methods and structures upon others, read these two paragraphs again and let them guide you into a more Christ-like response.

Footnotes:

[1] H. Newton Malony, The Amazing John Wesley: An Unusual Look at an Uncommon Life (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2010), pp. 117-131.

[2] Reginald Ward and Richard P. Heitzenrater, ed.s The Works of John Wesley, Bicentennial ed., vol. 18, Journals and Dairies (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1988), p. 490.

[3] See Kenneth A Real Christian: The Life of John Wesley (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1999), p. 49.

[4] Reginald Ward and Richard P. Heitzenrater, ed.s op. cit., p. 184

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