A Methodist Catholic Spirit

In the year 1750, John Wesley published his sermon titled “Catholic Spirit,” which became a treatise for early Methodist dialogue and cooperation with other Christian churches. The scholar Albert Outler writes that Wesley’s concern was “to narrow the field of irreducible disagreement between professing, practicing Christians and to transfer their concerns from argument about faith in Christ to faith itself…” In the sermon, Wesley describes the essential core of Christian belief and how we can love other Christians who may disagree with us on other matters.
Importantly, the sermon is written in the context of interchurch cooperation. In other words, it deals with how Methodists are to interact with Christians of other denominations who may disagree in some theological emphases, modes of worship, or church government. The core essentials of faith are still held in common (the supremacy of God, the divinity of Jesus, faith filled with love, etc.), but how are we to navigate differences in the other areas of Christian belief? Wesley asks, “Though we can’t think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion?” These are important questions for us, as well.
Though Christians may not always agree in their theological opinions and worship preferences, Wesley shows that our commonality in the essentials of the faith enables us to “unite in love.” Love is the central thread that runs through the entire sermon. It bridges the personal squabbles we have over non-essential matters of belief. It calls us back to a theological center, built on the teaching and example of Jesus: “By this shall all know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35).
To be sure, Wesley does not advocate for “speculative latitudinarianism,” an indifference to all opinions. For Methodists, beliefs really do matter, and some theological opinions are certainly closer to the truth than others. However, even within these entrenched disagreements, Christians can still have love. Though we belong to different denominations, worship in different ways, and hold to different doctrines, the theological center of holy love holds us together.

Wesley concludes his sermon, “And now run the race which is set before thee, in the royal way of universal love… keep an even pace, rooted in the faith once delivered to the saints and grounded in love, in true, catholic love, till thou art swallowed up in love for ever and ever.” May we heed this wisdom in our own lives of faith. May we strive along the more excellent way of love— neither dismissing our differences nor tolerating falsehoods, but honing the center, holy love.


For further reading—


And the sermon text itself here

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