A Pastor’s Dilemma: When I Disagree With My Heroes

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John Wesley is my patron saint.  I have spent hours of my life reading his sermons, letters and journal entries.  Those hours double, maybe even triple, when you include the amount of things I have read about Wesley.  I am even reading a book now that is a collection of devotionals from Wesley’s writings.  Furthermore, I have written well over 20 papers about Wesley.  I have spoken about Wesley in several sermons, almost all of them and now I am even writing one more blog post about him.  I also sing John’s brother’s (Charles) hymns and spend hours searching the internet to find obscure Charles’ poems that help inform my understanding of Wesleyan theology.  To top it all off, I go to weekend conferences that are named after John Wesley!

I am proud to call myself Wesleyan/Arminian, with ultra emphasis on the Wesleyan.  I am a proud heir of his ministry and theology.

But I disagree with John Wesley.  First of all, I think he was kind of mean, maybe meaner than a Christian should be.  I had a seminary professor who said, “you would love to hear Wesley preach but don’t go out for coffee with him.”  The implication was that Wesley was not easy to get along with.

It was probably because of that meanness that John Wesley also had a lousy marriage.  Rumor has it he didn’t know his wife even died until months after the fact.  Lying behind that practice, or lack thereof, he had a pretty low view of marriage in general.  He wrote several letters to the betrothed, begging them not to go through with their weddings so that they can remain single and free for Jesus.  (Okay, I admit there are days when I do wonder if he has a point there.)

Wesley also said things about the use of Scripture that I am not sure I agree with and he also seemed to highly prioritize the penal substitution view of the atonement, which I highly de-emphasize.

Once in awhile people in my tradition will get into a theological or political debate and one person will pull out a Wesley quote that somehow pertains to the debate topic.  This person will do so with a smug satisfaction, as if by just mentioning Wesley they have won the debate.  When they do that, I always wonder if they are promoting Wesley’s words to the level of Scriptural infallibility, as if everything Wesley said was somehow divinely inspired and inerrant in every way.

And Christians don’t do this with just John Wesley.  Calvinists do it with Calvin.  Lutherans do it with Luther.  Some of us do it with Augustine (with whom I disagree on almost everything) or Irenaeus (whom I like a lot).  A lot of us do it with C.S. Lewis or A.W. Tozer.  We even do it with the living, people like Pope Francis, Timothy Keller, Scot McKnight, James Dobson, etc.  And, very disturbingly, a lot of Christians have begun doing it with Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, even Ronald Reagan and the like.  We have this list of so called “authorities” and when we get into debates we name drop as if to say, “This person is God and they are right about everything and therefore you are wrong!”

I don’t think it works like that.  In fact, I wonder if what lies behind the “appeal to authority” is a misplaced faith.  Put another way, I wonder if we are promoting our heroes to the level of deities.  When we go further and use the very slippery adjective “biblical” to describe their works, I am wondering if we are trying to say that their writings were infallible and inerrant and should be added to the words of Scripture as a sort of 3rd or “Newer than New” testament.

For this reason I am always a bit relieved when I find something questionable written or said by my heroes.  Now that does not mean I am right and they are wrong.  Indeed they may be and probably are more accurate but the very fact I disagree with them means I am not worshiping them or elevating their works to the level of the Scriptures.

In fact, I might take one more step and argue that unless you do find something with which you disagree than you are, by de facto, claiming that this author is God and their works are sacred Scriptures.

And I am not sure we want to do that as faithful Christians.

That was just a thought for a January Monday morning.

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