World Vision, Wesley, and Differing Opinions

Matt Anderson tweeted this as a reminder to all those responding to the World Vision decision to first hire Christians who are in a same-sex marriage and then the reversal of that decision a few days later.

As this was unfolding, a friend of mine, knowing that I have blogged through some of John Wesley’s sermons, asked me what I knew of the relationship between Wesley and Augustus Toplady. Not knowing much I did what anyone would do and fired up “Google”.

[if you are scratching your head at this point,the connection between these two events will be clear soon]

Augustus Toplady and Wesley, both leaders within their movements, were engaged in what was a heated and intense fight over the character of God in relation to the doctrine of predestination and whether Reformed/Calvinist or Arminian theology should be taught in the Church of England. And like many responding to the World Vision decisions did not always exhibit the character of Christ in their exchanges.

J.C. Ryle is said to have described Toplady as follows:

“Arminianism seems to have precisely the same effect on him that a scarlet cloak has on a bull”.

Having read much of what Wesley has written regarding predestination and Calvinism, the same claim could likely be said of him.

The bulk of their debate on predestination was in a series of pamphlets, which would be equivalent to the blog exchanges that occur today. These men were not the only ones involved in the exchanges as their followers also took to publishing their opinions and defending their “champion”. Most of the debate centered on the quote summarizing predestination, which Wesley wrongly attributed to Toplady:

 The sum of all is this: one in twenty (suppose) of mankind are elected; nineteen in twenty are reprobated. The elect shall be saved, do what they will; the reprobate shall be damned, do what they can.

It was how Wesley summarized Toplady’s Reformed teachings. Though rather than preface the remarks as his, Wesley represented them as Toplady’s own statements.

After writing The Consequence Proved, Wesley does not seem to have directly engaged with Toplady, leaving this to other Methodists. Though, Toplady continually assailed Wesley as well as the doctrine he taught. As an example, in his work, Arminianism: The Road to Rome, Toplady colorfully describes John Wesley as the devil:

It has also been suggested, that “Mr. Wesley is a very laborious man:” not more laborious, I presume, than a certain active being, who is said to go to and fro in the earth, and walk up and down in it

In reading various accounts between these men, there are three charges that were leveled at John Wesley.

  • He spread rumors that Toplady, while on his deathbed, wanted to disavow his views on Calvinism.
  • He spread rumors that Toplady died in despair and uttering blasphemies.
  • He abridged the translation Toplady made of Jerome Zanchius’ The Doctrine of Absolute Predestination and wrongly attributed statements (see above) to him.

It is not my goal to acquit Wesley of these charges, but to examine them and see what we can learn from them.

On the first charge listed, there is little evidence that Wesley himself spread the rumors that Toplady had rejected Calvinism on his deathbed. Even Toplady, himself, did not specifically charge Wesley, only other Methodists, with doing this when he courageously left his deathbed to  dispel the rumors in a sermon later published as the Dying Avowal of his Religious Sentiments.

The second charge that Wesley was telling others that Toplady “died in black despair, blaspheming”, like the first, is also likely the work of other Methodists rather than Wesley himself. Most of the charges are second hand accounts made in open letters by followers of Toplady. Most are of this nature: He said that Mr. Wesley told him that … – or – he is told, by a pious friend and neighbour of his, that Mr. John Wesley had assured him … .

The third charge, that Wesley both abridged Toplady’s works and wrongly attributed statements to him, is one that has validity. Why Wesley chose to write this work (The Doctrine of Absolute Predestination stated and asserted, by The Reverend Mr A_ T_) in the form that he did can’t be fully explained or ignored.

Rev. Paul Cook, in his lecture (given in 1978) on Toplady, had this to say regarding this event:

John Wesley, obviously too busy preaching the Gospel to give adequate time to a serious reply, foolishly issued a sarcastic tract in which he parodied Toplady’s position.

If this were Wesley’s intent, it certainly should have been explained as such in the work. As written it certainly resulted in a rather bitter dispute between the two men and their followers. Cook summarizes this dispute:

The controversy raged furiously for the next five years with charges and counter-charges of doubtful integrity being made.

In the same lecture the Rev. Cook wisely reminds us:

Leaders among men need to remember that their followers are usually less restrained than they. Such was the case in this controversy.

WaIter Sellon and Thomas Olivers who sprang to Wesley’s defence answered Toplady in a Topladian fashion. Toplady hardly seemed to consider the effect of his vitriol or to calculate that all the good he was seeking to achieve in defence of Calvinistic doctrine would be undermined by the way he endeavoured to do it.

These two episodes (World Vision and the Wesley/Toplady disputes) are a good reminder that leaders and the decisions they make can have a large impact on those that follow them.

The decisions a leader makes and the impacts that may result should be considered before publishing statements. Neither Wesley, nor Toplady, set Christ-like examples as they wrestled over the doctrine that would prevail in the Church of England. They both made their points in ways that would only flame the situation and both sets of followers, taking their cues from these men, responded in unloving and reckless ways.

In this case the leaders of World Vision they should have known what kind of reaction their first decision would have created, or at least considered the strong possibility of it in light of the Chick-fil-A and Duck Dynasty events. And they should not have made the decision if they were not confident that they were doing the right thing. Retracting it so quickly speaks loudly about their leadership and how well they thought through the first decision.

This is a good and practical reminder that as we engage in discussions about our theological differences we need to remember that we can do more damage to the cause of Christ by how we treat each other during the debate than any good we can do winning the argument.

Which is the point of Matt’s tweet.

What do you think?

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