Agreeing to disagree
As we head into the Lenten season, we realize that it is a time of reflection and repentance. We generally practice these spiritual disciplines as a personal exercise. This year however will bring about many changes for Methodists, and I am going to encourage you to do this work on not only a personal level but also on a communal level as well.
I am not writing this to you to increase anxiety or sadness, but rather to keep you informed of what is happening within our denomination globally. What this denomination will look like in the coming year remains in the hands of God. A separation or schism within the people called Methodists will occur. And, this division is not just separating us into two camps but rather into numerous offshoots due to differing doctrinal understandings. In the future, each church, and each church member, will be asked to look into their hearts and make a prayerful decision on what they believe, and on where they want to assemble for worship based on those beliefs.
All of this is challenging and even gut-wrenching. As of this writing, we still do not know if General Conference will be able to meet in May due to Covid travel restrictions. United Methodism is a global denomination and General conference is the governing body that will have the ultimate authority to determine the details of how the pending separation will occur. There are many financial decisions to be made about pensions, property, land ownership, past due ministry shares, and so forth. As a result, many questions remain unanswered until this governing body meets.
Until that happens, please consider the following: labeling others who disagree with our own personal understanding and interpretation of scripture does not help the healing process. Bitterness and fear is not representative of Christ’s teachings; and insults are damaging. We need to prayerfully be above such worldly tactics during times of conflict. I agree with Rev. Khary Bridgewater, senior program officer at Gatherings of Hope, who wrote: "The church needs to give the world a better example, a better way to have an argument, a different model to respond to. We don't want to have the debate how the world has the debate, and often we do."
Disaffiliation and separation is inevitable, however there is hope for a peaceful future where we can find common ground with others and move the work of the Kingdom forward. It is my belief that we can learn from the past on how to model better ways in which to disagree than anger, name calling, denigration or hatred. Our Founder John Wesley coined the phrase “agree to disagree” after a ten-year estrangement from fellow pastor George Whitefield. There is much we can glean from this split within the beginning of the Methodist movement, prior to it becoming a denomination, and how it was eventually resolved.
George Whitefield was a student at Pembroke College in Oxford and while there, he was mentored by brothers John and Charles Wesley. He looked to the Wesley’s, especially John, as his spiritual guides and what today we would call accountability partners.
Whitefield was a powerful and charismatic preacher. Working as a team together with the Wesley’s, the Methodist movement grew rapidly. Whitefield was a visionary and began preaching to the masses out of doors which moved Methodism from an inward focused small church of respectable Anglican society, to including those who were the “unchurched” - the factory workers, coal miners, bar keepers, prostitutes, farmers… the uneducated and unrefined part of the social fabric of the time.
Reluctantly, the Wesley brothers had to follow Whitefield outside of the church walls and into the “field” to preach. Even though John preferred the church setting, he realized the wisdom of Whitefield’s going outside of the brick and mortar and meeting the people where they were most comfortable and likely to respond to the invitation of the Gospel. Most would never darken the doors of the church. There is a famous picture of the diminutive Wesley standing on a tombstone facing an eclectic group of listeners as he preached salvation, grace, and the forgiveness of sin. This was not a comfortable setting for John who preferred his pulpit and congregation inside the church, but he went where the people were and he had to admit the wisdom of Whitefield’s move.
Whitefield and the Wesley’s differing gifts and graces complemented each other, and initially they worked together as equals. George Whitefield’s gift was in the power of this preaching, reaching the people on an emotional level, while John Wesley’s was in the methodical way in which he organized the people for continued study. Wesley knew the emotional would fade away and people would then need a firm foundation and solid instruction for continued spiritual growth. New Christians needed a way to stay connected to God and each other.
John’s gift of organization allowed leaders of the classes he put in place to raise up new leaders from within the laity. These small groups functioned to hold one another accountable. They also gave instruction on scripture and taught how to dig deeper into the Word of God. Sanctification, grace, and moving on to perfection in love became the hallmark of his legacy.
Much as today’s issues within the denomination, a split over theological doctrine and scriptural interpretation and gifted men of faith became estranged. Whitefield and Wesley disagreed on the doctrine of predestination and the role of grace in salvation. And because of their passion on these subjects, a separation into two movements occurred. There was a lot of animosity with each side blaming the other for the separation. The argument spilled over to the people they were trying to lead and mentor as John and George wrote passionately and preached passionately about their differing views. The argument became so vitriolic that rival churches were established on the same street in towns in open competition with each other for members. It became quite messy.
But here is where we can learn from these two pillars of the faith and their estrangement as friends and Christians. First, both openly loved the Lord. Also, both recognized the value of each other’s contribution to the Kingdom of God. After ten years of passionate arguing, they put their theological differences into perspective and “agreed to disagree.” Healing took root and friendships that had been strained and perhaps broken were once again strengthened as God’s love became paramount in their lives. Churches that were fractured began to work together for the common goal of making disciples of Jesus Christ. Neither man changed their minds on their theology, they simply found ways to appreciate the strengths found in each other and work together.
George Whitefield became ill, and much to the surprise of many, he asked John Wesley to preach his funeral sermon. It was a true show of friendship in spite of their difference in judgment about points of doctrine. It was in Wesley’s 1770 funeral sermon that we get the famous phrase, “agree to disagree.” The following is part of Wesley’s Sermon 53, On the Death of Rev. Mr. George Whitefield:
“And, first, let us keep close to the grand scriptural doctrines which he everywhere delivered. There are many doctrines of a less essential nature, with regard to which even the sincere children of God (such is the present weakness of human understanding) are and have been divided for many ages. In these we may think and let think; we may ‘agree to disagree.’ But, meantime, let us hold fast the essentials of ‘the faith which was once delivered to the saints;’ and which this champion of God so strongly insisted on, at all times, and in all places!”
Wesley was right, we must not lose our focus on what being a Christian is all about. Friends, throughout the coming storm remember the one who calms the waters will guide us through them. We need to look for, and appreciate, the gifts found in others without malice and with Christian love. Indeed let us “think and let think” and may we “agree to disagree” all the while holding fast to the essentials of ‘the faith which was once delivered to the saints.’ Look for the common ground, work towards the common good, and remember the strength found in respectful dialogue as together we reach towards the goal of helping plant seeds for the next generation of disciples of Jesus Christ. Let it be so…
In peace and gentleness,
Rev. Susan Hadley