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Caution Against Bigotry - A Devotional Paraphrase

(Sermon 38 in the Standard Sermons of John Wesley)
By: Michael Roberts

Mark 9:38-39

In the preceding verse, the disciples dispute over who is the greatest among them. Jesus takes a child and says, “whoever receives one such as this in my name, receives me.” Then John answered him, “Master we saw one casting out devils in your name, but he was not one of us, so we told him to stop. But Jesus said, “Forbid him not.”

This is a strong warning to those of us who tend to see things in black and white, right and wrong. It can seem so clear cut to us. The Holy Spirit fills the souls of those who are good and the evil spirits fill the souls of the wicked. There are children of light and children of darkness. And yet the scriptures make it clear that the devil is more than “a roaring lion seeking to devour.” Evil is often much more of a subtle enemy, setting up camp in our heart, and tempting us to disobedience and darkness of arrogance, judgment, anger, envy, and fear. In civilized lands, and “churches,” evil works in more civilized and respectable ways, tempting us to idolize ourselves and to make ourselves wise in our own eyes. We might find ourselves “fast asleep in the mouth of the lion, who is too wise to wake us,” because in this spiritual sleep we are more easily bound down to earth, to love of the world, love of money, pleasure, and praise.

It is easy to talk of gross forms of evil in the world, using our enemies as examples. We can talk of torture and murder, terror and abuse. But we must – must – also look inward. We can’t let monstrous acts “out-there” blind us to the work of the devil right before us. At this point it is easy to start with a familiar list: with “drunkards, adulterers, thieves, sodomites, murderers,” but then we must move on to subtler, but no less destructive, forms of disobedience – dissemblers, tale bearers, liars, slanderers, oppressors, etc. (to use Wesley’s words). Among these, there may be talk of religion, but God is not deceived.

All of this is to say that evil is real. It is present. It needs to be cast out, not by us but by the Lord working through us. We, as children in the light, are able to be instruments of this work, witnesses to repentance and change, from one degree of glory to another, from forms of evil to blessings of faithfulness and fruitfulness.

In our scripture, the apostles wanted to stop those who were doing good work in Christ’s name, but in a different way and out of a different context. They just could not see how there could be unity without uniformity. But Jesus said, “Forbid them not.”

Among the laborers of the harvest there will be many who are “not of our party.” The word “party” itself suggests being a part of a larger whole. They may not “follow us,” to use the concern of the Apostles, but still follow Christ. They may differ “from us in our religious opinions,” but still be a part of the body. Even in the scriptures, we see how soon unanimity of opinion was lost, not only among the nominal but among the Apostles themselves. Members of the Body of Christ differ, not only in opinions, but in practices as well. Different liturgies, styles of worship, and sacramental practices are examples. And from here the difference can widen greatly, even with the suspicion of idolatry. What seems efficacious to one may be horrid to another.

When evil filtrates these differences, the escalation of tension and division begins. The differences “spread into the affections, and then separate chief friends.” There are few “animosities so deep and irreconcilable as those that spring from disagreements in religion.” And here, the bitterest enemies are often those of one’s own household. A difference in religious opinion or practice can soon escalate to bitterness and deep prejudice, all the while thinking that we are in service to God while the other is “against the will of God.” This attitude can spark the same in the other, leading to little following of Jesus all around.

Suppose then, there is a person who is not of our party, who differs widely from us, both in judgment, practice, and affection; yet we see even this person “casting out devils,” leading people into faith in Christ, and fruitfulness in living. Jesus says, “Bless them, and do not try to hinder their work.” “Forbid them not” – even if they only be a “lay person.”

In the Book of Acts, we see that the disciples were scattered abroad throughout the world. They preached before they were ordained. As Paul said, “Let these first be proved; then let them use the office.” (I Timothy 3:10). But what if the Bishop does not ordain them, even if they have “brought sinners to repentance,” and bore good fruit in ministry. Then the Bishop is standing in their way. But I will not! I dare not “lest I be found even to fight against God.”

Jesus says, “Those who are not for us are against us and those who are not gathering with me are scattering with the devil. Forbid not any gathering of souls into the kingdom of God. If you do, then you are at grave risk of working on the side of the devil.

If we either directly or indirectly forbid others from using their gifts to gather souls into the kingdom of God then we are bigots, to finally bring us to the title of the sermon. There is some fear in using this word because it is so misunderstood. Bigotry is “too strong an attachment to, or fondness for, our own party, opinion, church, and religion.” Therefore, one “is a bigot who is so fond of any of these, so strongly attached to them, as to forbid [others] who cast out devils because [they] differ … in any of these particulars.”

Therefore, take care that you do not convict yourself of bigotry. Examine yourself. Here are questions for followers of Christ. Do you forbid this work, even indirectly, by discouragement, or drawing the other into disputes, or by raising objections, or frightening them with consequences? Do you “forbid” by showing any unkindness toward the other, either in language or behavior? Do you “forbid” by taking no account of their ministry and fruitfulness, their direct work with souls in need? Do I focus on the perceived erroneous opinions of others more than I engage in self-examination? Do I discourage others by disputing with them and raising questions? Do I talk about this behind backs? If you “do any of these things, you are a bigot to this day.”

“Search me, O Lord.” “Is there any bigotry in me?” What if I were to see -- to use Wesley’s 18th century terms -- a Papist, an Arian, a Socinian, a Jew, a Deist, or a Turk casting out devils and doing good works. If I did, I could not forbid even him without convicting myself of bigotry. Stand clear of this. Acknowledge that God is at work in manifold and mysterious ways, from our finite and humble perspective. Give praise for this. Encourage whomsoever God is pleased to employ. Speak well of them. Defend their character and their mission. Enlarge, as far as you can, their sphere of action. Show them all kindness. That’s our witness, as we stop trying to defend God and start following instead. Amen.