John Wesley and His Workout

Recently I came into knowledge of a paper, titled “Perfecting One Another: Friendship and the Moral Implications of Wesley’s Small Groups,” presented at the 2006 meeting of the Wesleyan Theological Society. I did not attend the meeting and do not know how the paper was received; but I know that presenting a paper is a matter of pride with academicians and, no doubt, puffed this young man’s ego at the time. Perhaps when Daniel Castelo (Seattle Pacific University) is older, as I am now, he will look back on it with a different perspective and weep. Perhaps. It is said that John Wesley refused to preach old sermons: “Once in seven years I burn all my sermons; for it is a shame if I cannot write better sermons now than I did seven years ago” (referenced in his Journal).

I have issues with Castelo’s paper.

One, even though his mentor, Wesley, said, “My ground is the Bible. Yea, I am a Bible-bigot. I follow it in all things, both great and small,” Castelo rarely mentions a Bible verse. In his 21-page paper, the only scripture I saw quoted and cited was “Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed” (James 5:16). Instead he uses as his reference point Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. “Friendship is the culminating moment for Aristotle” … “Aristotle speaks of the necessity of friendship” … “Aristotle differentiates types of friendship” … “Growth in the good … is considered by Aristotle as a proper end of human existence” …”Aristotle can say that friendship is a necessity” … “According to Aristotle the good life cannot be envisioned apart from friends” … “Aristotle’s … friendship … [has] seminal implications for discipleship” … “Friendship, according to Aristotle, includes … a certain kind of communication” … “For Aristotle, a courageous person … is courageous because she performs courageous acts” … “‘Aristotle is fundamentally concerned with sustaining goodness'” … “Aristotle … remarked that ‘the friendship of decent people is decent … [you will learn] what is noble from noble people'” … “Friendship is necessary in Aristotle’s ethical project for the simple reason that a person cannot be good without friends” … “Aristotle’s understanding of moral formation … requires performing virtuous acts ‘in the right way.'” He goes on.

Yes, Castelo does mention John Wesley, but he never quits Aristotle: “Wesley and Aristotle share the notion that ‘constancy is a communal virtue … we help each other grow.'” He uses Aristotle to interpret Wesley. If there is anything wrong with Wesleyanism today—according to Keith Drury (Indiana Wesleyan University), the Holiness Movement is dead—perhaps here is the place for correction. Our source should be Scripture (and, in this instance, Wesley) not Aristotle, nor secular humanism—which is not to say we cannot read and appreciate nonbiblical sources, but they should not be our reference point. Castelo is “looking for the right answers in all the wrong places.”

Two, Castelo implies, but never mentions, the Shema,“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord: And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might” (Deuteronomy 6:4, 5) and “thy neighbour as thyself” (Leviticus 19:18; Luke 10:27)—God and others—with the greater emphasis, here, being on others: “Perfecting One Another.” The title alone is problematic. Such language is not biblical. If it is Wesleyan, Castelo should say so. We Christians cannot “perfect” one another. We can talk with one another and pray one for another, but “cleans[ing] ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness” (2 Corinthians 7:1) is a personal matter as indicated by Paul’s“Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12, 13). In this spiritual aerobics, or workout, our personal trainer is God, not others.

I’ve been told that when you address an academic audience, you do not need to say the obvious: assume they know something. Well, evidently Castelo assumes his audience knows Scripture and does not know Aristotle, because he teaches the Greek but not the Hebrew!

Three, Castelo says that “Christian perfection is a journey [italics mine] ….” From my own perspective, I know that Holiness groups have differed over whether or not sanctification (Wesley’s forte) is instantaneous, progressive, or both. Wesley taught an instantaneous experience followed by Christian growth: “Every one, though born of God in an instant, yet undoubtedly grows by slow degrees.” Castelo mentions growth but not initial experience. Is he choosing one over the other?

Four, Castelo says that “Christian perfection is a journey that takes place only in the company of others [italics mine]” … “Journeys are better undertaken with friends.” He quotes Paul J Wadell (St Norbert College): “Virtue cannot be attained in solitude [italics mine]. By definition it is relationship because the virtuous life is the activity of doing good.” By whose definition? I suggest that persons can be virtuous apart from others, that what most matters is not how we relate with people, but how we relate with God.

• Adam was one man, alone with God, and Adam, was “very good” (Genesis 1:31).

• Abel: one man, alone with God. And “the Lord had respect unto Abel and to his offering” (Genesis 4:4). “By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, by which he obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts” (Hebrews 11:4).

• Enoch: one man, alone with God. Enoch “walked with God: and he was not; for God took him” (Genesis 5:24). “By faith Enoch was translated that he should not see death; and was not found, because God had translated him: for before his translation he had this testimony, that he pleased God” (Hebrews 11:5).

• Noah: one man, alone with God. Noah “found grace in the eyes of the Lord … Noah was a just man and perfect in his generations, and Noah walked with God” (Genesis 6:8, 9). After Noah built an ark (Hebrews 11:7) and was a preacher of righteousness for 100 years, the Lord said to him, “Come … into the ark; for thee have I seen righteous before me in this generation” (Genesis 7:1).

• Abraham: one man, alone with God. Abraham, who “called upon the name of the Lord” (Genesis 12:8), “was called to go out into a place … [He] sojourned in the land of promise[He] looked for a city … whose builder and maker is God” (Hebrews 11:10). God told him, “Walk before me, and be thou perfect” (Genesis 17:1). “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness” (Galatians 3:6).

• Lot, singularly rescued out of Sodom, was called “just” and “righteous” (2 Peter 2:7, 8).

• Jacob: one man, alone with God. Jacob was on a literal journey by himself when he dreamed of a ladder. When he awoke, he said, “Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not … this is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven” (Genesis 28:16, 17). Numbers of times God appeared to or talked alone with Jacob (Genesis 31:3; 32:1, 2, 24-32; 35:1, 9-15; 46:2-4).

• Joseph: one man, alone with God. When he refused the wanton advances of Potiphar’s wife, he wound up wasting away in an Egyptian prison. “The Lord was with Joseph, and showed him mercy” (Genesis 39:21). “Joseph … was sold for a servant: Whose feet they hurt with fetters: he was laid in iron: Until the time that his word came: the word of the Lord tried him” (Psalm 105:17-19).

• Moses: one man, alone with God. He “refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter; Choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season … By faith he forsook Egypt … he endured, as seeing him who is invisible” (Hebrews 11:24-27). Moses “went up into the mount … [where was] the glory of the Lord … into the midst of the cloud … and Moses was in the mount [alone with God] forty days and forty nights” (Exodus 24:15-18).

• David: one man, alone with God. Alone, tending the sheep, when Samuel called him and anointed him to be king (1 Samuel 16:1-13). Alone, when he opposed Goliath and single-handedly brought down a giant (1 Samuel 17:12-58).

• Elijah: one man, alone with God. Alone, when he confronted Ahab and the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18:17-46). Alone, when God appeared to him in the wilderness and fed him “because the journey is too great for thee,” and he “went in the strength of that meat forty days and forty nights” (1 Kings 19:4-8). Alone, when God appeared to him in a cave and addressed him in “a still small voice” (1 Kings 19:9-18).

• Nehemiah: one man, alone with God (Nehemiah 1:4-11).

• Job, unequaled, “perfect and upright, and one that feared God, and eschewed evil” (Job 1:1): one man, alone with God. Job was made the brunt of a terrible contest between Satan (leviathan) and God (1:6-12; 2:1-6; 41:1-34), but the Lord both commended and accepted him (42:9-11; cf Ezekiel 14:14; James 5:11).

• Isaiah called and anointed: one man, alone with God (Isaiah 6:1-11). Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1:4-10). Ezekiel (Ezekiel 1:1–3:14). Daniel (Daniel 9:1-23) ….

• John the Baptist. This “same John had his raiment of camel’s hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins; and his meat was locusts and wild honey” (Matthew 3:4). Why? John had been living alone, with God, in the wilderness, the place where he “baptized” (Mark 1:2-14). After John was imprisoned and slated for execution, Jesus said of him, “What went ye out into the wilderness for to see? A reed shaken with the wind? … Among those that are born of women there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist” (Luke 7:24-28).

• Then there was the man on the Isle of Patmos, John the Revelator, the original Robinson Crusoe: one man, alone with God. To John was given the final eschatological vision (Revelation 1:10-19).

Tell me: How were these men perfected? in the company of their fellows? “Iron sharpen[ing] iron … a man sharpen[ing] … his friend” (Proverbs 27:17)? (Another good scripture Castelo missed, by the way.) Of course, not. The biblical characters mentioned above were alone with God. It was after God told Jacob to relocate to Bethel, that Jacob instructed his family: “Put away the strange gods that are among you, and be clean, and change your garments … And they journeyed” (Genesis 35:1-5). It was not the journey that purified; it was preparation for the journey.

Five, Castelo says that “‘friends protect us from … boredom,'” that there is “a certain stagnant or lethargic quality” to daily living, and—quoting Wadell—that “‘we tire of our projects … because left to ourselves we are incapable of appreciating … their value.'” Well, obviously some of us are more social than others. However, some of us don’t need people for our projects too much at all and are happy working alone. Sculptors (Daniel Chester French), artists (Michelangelo), composers (Ludwig van Beethoven), writers (Emily Dickinson), and other gifted persons (Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart) function quite well left to themselves. (Since Castelo borrows so much from Wadell, one wonders if the argument here is not with Wadell instead of Castelo.)

Though he said that the Bible knows nothing of solitary religion—most of us do go to church—John Wesley himself was a loner. Where did he spend most of his life? In the hinterland on horseback. Who polished him? The Lord. To whom did he tell his troubles? To God.

Six, so much of what Castelo says could be categorized as group process in a counseling course. Does it even have a place in today’s cell groups or small groups? Or might it be better used in something like, say, an addiction and deliverance ministry? “Giving account of one’s spiritual progress, publicly acknowledging one’s faults, and both receiving and giving spiritual edification and support” sounds more like a 12-step program than a teaching or training program.

Seven, Castelo focuses so tightly on others than he leaves God out of the process. Who needs God if we can do it ourselves? Again Castelo quotes Wadell: “It is this mutual, communal seeking of the good that makes us good …. we make one another good,” to which Castelo comments, “We essentially learn how to be holy from one another.”

Pardon? Where is God in all this? God’s “Be ye holy; for I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16; Leviticus 11:44) is personal instruction; and God never commands anything without giving us provision. His expectation is our assurance that it is possible.

Eight, Castelo says that “no one has an exclusive footing on the truth,” that “friendships require negotiations.” Uh? “Thy word is truth” (John 17:17; cf Psalm 119:142, 151; Colossians 1:5; 2 Timothy 2:15; James 1:18). Jesus, the incarnate Word, is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). You may have relativity in many areas, but not Truth. Truth is absolute. It is nonnegotiable.

Nine, Castelo says that Wesley’s “ticket system” ensured that “those with the proper disposition and mindset [italics mine] would continue in the fold.” Such an explanation describes a cult not a church. In a cult persons are forced to submit to the leader’s mindset or leave. Self-expression is forbidden. Was Wesley’s “Methodism” a cult?

This thought brings up another concern that Castelo fails to mention; i.e., the infighting that went on in Wesley’s small groups. Even George Whitefield, Charles Wesley, and John Wesley—the three primary Methodist leaders—could not get along. Whitefield separated. He and John Wesley did not reconcile till some time near Whitefield’s death (he died and was buried in America). Wesley preached Whitefield’s memorial service in England. John and Charles, the two brothers, differed till they were no longer on speaking terms. Sometimes classes and bands were anything but peaceful, and the only way of restoring order was ejecting “troublemakers” outright. If small groups were this open to division, why think of using them today?

Ten, Castelo equates happiness and holiness. “If happiness and holiness are the same thing, as they appear to be for Wesley,” they “can be embodied only within a community of friends.” I don’t know about you, but I want faith that is more than friendship. I want holiness that is more than happiness. I want godliness that is more than “a commonly-held good.”

To God, holiness is separation. “Come out from among them, and be ye separate … and touch not the unclean thing” (2 Corinthians 6:17). “Present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God” (Romans 12:1, 2). “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15). This is the message of the Book: do your own workout, with the Lord’s help. I think this is what John Wesley preached. This is what I believe.

I started out merely bothered by Castelo’s paper. As I worked out my thoughts, I began to see deeper things. I now conclude that working as he does from a secular, nonbiblical perspective, Castelo does not help his cause. He starts and ends with the Greek Aristotle and props up his message with the Catholic Wadell—a strange defense for Wesleyanism. Even the language he uses (communication, constancy, courage, decency, friendship, goodness, growth, morality, virtue) is Aristotlean, not biblical, theological, or historical (though anyone can use those words, and the Bible does, this is not the way Scripture expresses doctrine). Castelo reduces small groups to no more than self-help groups; pastoral care to no more than friendship; godliness to nothing more than ethics—relative and democratic at that—holiness to nothing more than happiness; and Wesleyanism to nothing more than a social club. If this is all Wesleyanism is, let it go. If the Holiness Movement is dead, as Keith Drury says, bury it.

“I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.” ~John Wesley

Copyright © 2011 Alexandra Lee


About Christseekerk

Minister, Editor, Writer, Senior Citizen, Grown Children, Grandchildren. Interests travel, writing, reading, walking, golf.
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