Beware exclusivism!

John Wesley
Trinitarian, incarnational theology teaches that God the Father has included all people in his love and life, through the person and work of his incarnate Son Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit. How ironic (and sad) if those who embrace this theology of inclusion would express an attitude of exclusivism!

I was thinking about this (and examining my own attitude), when I watched the movie Wesley. It dramatizes the story of the life and ministry of John Wesley and his brother Charles.

John and Charles were highly educated (both grads of Oxford U.). However, part of the genius of their Methodist movement was the ability to recognize that the Holy Spirit is able to further the cause of Christ through common, often uneducated (and sometimes even ill-informed) people serving as teachers and preachers. Though the Wesley's valued and advocated higher education and sound theology, they realized that perfection in these matters is not the end-all and be-all of Christian ministry (only the Triune God holds that lofty position!).

This was further illustrated to me when I came across a story that tells of a time when John Wesley attended a Methodist meeting where one of his lay leaders, who had very little education, was preaching from Luke 19:21, "Lord, I feared thee, because thou art an austere man." Not knowing the meaning of the word "austere," this preacher thought that the text spoke of "an oyster man." And so in his sermon, he spoke about the work of those who retrieve oysters from the sea-bed. The diver plunges down from the surface, cut off from his natural environment, into bone-chilling water. He gropes in the dark, cutting his hands on the sharp edges of the shells. Now he has the oyster, and kicks back up to the surface, up to the warmth and light and air, clutching in his torn and bleeding hands the object of his search. So Christ descended from the glory of heaven into the squalor of earth, into sinful human society, in order to retrieve humans and bring them back up with him to the glory of heaven, his torn and bleeding hands a sign of the value he has placed on the object of his quest.

During that sermon, twelve men were converted to Christ. Afterwards, someone complained to Wesley about the inappropriateness of allowing preachers who were too ignorant to know the meaning of the texts they were preaching on. Wesley's response was direct and simple, "Never mind, the Lord got a dozen oysters tonight."

Though education leading to sound theology and careful biblical exegesis is important to ministering well, let's be careful not to be exclusivistic (and even snobbish) about what we have come to understand. Rather, let's focus on proclaiming the perfections of our Savior and the glory of his gospel as best we know how. And then let us show respect for others by extending to them the same privilege. Above all, let's allow the Holy Spirit to do his amazing, often mysterious work through us and others (and sometimes despite us and others). He is able!


Anonymous said…
Wow! When you know the heart of God, you really can't go wrong. Unfortunately, our landscape is full of the educated who don't know it. But, you're right, God isn't hampered by even that. Maybe that explains those, in the judgement, who have a long list of spiritual accomplishments which were unauthorized.
Joe Radosti said…
Agreed. Sometimes we forget who is really doing the preaching. If we believe that Jesus lives His life in us, we should also believe that He speaks through us as we yield to Him.
I know a lot of people in churches who have a high-school education, or less, who love Jesus passionately and are thoroughly confused by the five-syllable words we often use. So I don't use least not to those folks. And Jesus is doing a great work in their lives, regardless of their education level! In fact, they're much more able to reach people of their same education or social level than I am. If we're following Jesus in what he's doing, and doing our best to help, then he's in charge -- even of the preaching -- and he'll make sure, through the Holy Spirit's empowering and commissioning, that his words are preached. In spite of our bumbling efforts.
Jerome Ellard said…
Thanks Ted, for writing about this. We should be grateful for "these surpassingly great revelations" but not become "conceited" by them (2 Cor 12:7). I know that the Holy Spirit is working through other Christians that may not have exactly this theology that we have - I have seen it and it is good. I try to read widely, and glean the good from what I read - it is good to have many teachers! There is safety in the multitude of counsel.
Mike Hale said…
Thanks Ted, for the excellent post! Appreciate the comments too. In "Reality and Evangelical Theology" T.F. Torrance quotes Paul, “Let God be true and every man a liar,” and then reminds us, “No man may boast of his own orthodoxy any more than he may boast of his own righteousness” (p. 18). Always best to just humbly fess up to our own inadequacy and point to Jesus rather than ourselves.

We all carry some cultural baggage as well. In Paul Louis Metzger’s "Consuming Jesus", Metzger describes serious racial and class divides in the church, and among other issues points to problems arising from a sort of ‘fetishization’ of Biblical texts which I would summarize as a tendency to miss the forest for the trees, and made worse when we add common preferences and prejudices to the mix.

For example, some folks hold in contempt the African-American community’s sense of participating through their own historical story of oppressed slaves struggling for survival and freedom, with the biblical story of God’s triumph over pharaoh. Martin Luther King used the story to offer hope and strength. Metzger agrees saying, “The grand biblical story and their story within it [the African-American community] bear witness to the missional God, who is at work in the church and society in history to bring about lasting freedom through Christ in the Spirit at the end of the age.” (p. 113)

Metzger adds, “Conservative white Christians need to embrace hermeneutical humility and engage other interpretive traditions constructively if we are truly serious about moving beyond our own cultural presuppositions and getting to the true meaning of the biblical text…. Christians—including scholars—can never master the text, but the text, which bears witness to the triune God, can and should master them.” (pp. 114-5)

Thanks again for your helpful ministry.
Ted Johnston said…
Thanks for all these comments. It seems that this topic resonates with many.

I have long appreciated the humility with which T.F. Torrance and other Trinitarian theologians approach what they write (and say). Good example for us all!
Anonymous said…
I'm convinced that God has ways of reaching people that are beyond us. I once heard a pastor describe his conversion experience. He was "witnessed to" by an atheist. Somehow through this conversation God convicted his heart and his life was never the same. Such stories help me guard against a spiritual arrogance--Christ is the central figure, not me, my education or spiritual giftedness. It is the Holy Spirit at work that brings about transformation--I'm only privileged to be present in the moment.