One of Jesus’ most extreme instructions to his disciples was this one in the Sermon on the Mount:
“If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell” (Matthew 5:29-30).
That was instruction to anyone committing adultery or even looking at a woman lustfully. Most Christians have tended to take this in the same way: figurative and for our individual bodies.
We usually read this as hyperbole, intended to make a point but not to be followed. Surely Jesus wouldn’t ask us to gouge out our eyes! I still have both eyes and both hands, despite the sins that have come by them.
But even if we take this as hyperbole, we dare not miss the point: avoid sin at all costs. Because sin leads to death, eternal death, hell. What’s worse than going through life without an eye or a hand? Losing your life for all of eternity—the whole body going into hell. And if willful sin persists, that’s our trajectory.[1. Many balk at this. “We all sin. We’re human!” First—by that very statement, you deny Christ’s humanity or his perfection. Be careful. Second—passages like 1 John 3:6 say the opposite: “No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him.” Third—see my article “Why I Love Wesleyan Theology” for more.]
This is usually where we stop when it comes to this passage, if we even make it this far, but I wonder if its application can be broader.
What if we read this in a different way: literal and for our corporate body—the church?[1. I’m not suggesting that Jesus intended this statement for that purpose. But I am suggesting that it properly applies, as Jesus’ and Paul’s later words demonstrate.]
It is better for you to lose one part of your (church) body than for your whole body to go into hell
The early church practiced this kind of instruction about cutting off parts. We see it from both Jesus and Paul.
Jesus instructed his disciples to cut people off, if necessary. For a “brother or sister” who sins, he gave a whole process for trying to turn them from their fault. The goal was restoration, not punishment! The last step: bring it before the church, “and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector” (Matt 18:17).
We know from his other interactions that Jesus didn’t treat pagans and tax collectors with scorn. He treated them with love. But he also didn’t treat them as “brothers and sisters” in the faith.[1. Unless they had come to faith, at which point they would no longer be pagans and no longer keep the unscrupulous practices of other tax collectors] He treated them as sick, as sinners, as those he was calling to be healed through repentance and faith.[1. See Matt 9:12-13]
Later, the apostle Paul wrote to the church in Corinth. He was apoplectic.
“It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that even pagans do not tolerate: A man is sleeping with his father’s wife.And you are proud! Shouldn’t you rather have gone into mourning and have put out of your fellowship the man who has been doing this?” [1. 1 Cor 5:1-2]
His final instruction to them was a quote from Deuteronomy, “Expel the wicked person from among you.” That line occurs seven times in the book of Deuteronomy, where my version translates, “You must purge the evil from among you.” [1. Deut 13:5; 17:7; 19:19; 21:21; 22:21, 24; 24:7] Seven repetitions—that’s enough to be taken seriously.
(A note for those who ask why the church should be so obsessed about sex, the passages we’ve looked at above were both about sexual sin. Sex is not, and should not be, our only issue. But it is one of the most prominent issues of morality in Scripture, which warrants our attention.)
On church discipline
It is better for you to lose one part of your (church) body than for your whole body to go into hell. This was part of Paul’s rationale in the situation above. He asked, “Don’t you know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough?” [1. 1 Cor 5:6]
When we tolerate outright sin in the church among “brothers and sisters,” we aren’t just doing them damage because we’re unwilling to have the hard conversation. We also risk potential damage to the whole church—devastating damage. We teach the church that we don’t really believe avoid sin at all costs. We treat sin not as our menacing enemy, but as a minor nuisance—or even less, as something we shrug off and tolerate.
When we tolerate outright sin in the church, do we risk the whole body being thrown into hell because one part caused it to sin? A little yeast leavens the whole batch.
John Wesley longed for preachers who “fear nothing but sin and desire nothing but God.” [1. From his letter to Alexander Mather on August 6, 1777] When we treat sin with anything less than fear, as anything less than cancer, we have treated it as too little. When we fear offense, impropriety or misperception more than we fear sin, we have treated sin as too little.
Brothers and sisters, we must flee from sin. We flee not just for ourselves, but for the sake of the whole body. A little yeast leavens the whole batch.
The Protestant Distortion
In the earliest Protestant tradition, the church was defined by three practices, as the community where (1) the Word of God is preached, (2) the sacraments are administered, and (3) church discipline is observed, all according to Christ’s institution.
We have largely abandoned the third part of that definition. This may be the logical end of Protestantism, at least in its cheapest form.
Where we have emphasized above all else the private reading and interpretation of Scripture, what place is left for church discipline? What place is left for anything but someone’s private reading and application of the Word of God? What authority does anyone else have to tell a Christian brother or sister that they’re in the wrong?
As we abandon the authority of the church and the authority of the pastor, no space is left for church discipline. Though I don’t believe my doctor is infallible—or in perfect health himself!—I generally trust him when it comes to my physical health. I give him authority to tell me where he sees problems in my health, to tell me where things look good, and even to prescribe new things for me.
Pastors today rarely hold that same kind of authority regarding people’s spiritual health. This isn’t to suggest a domineering relationship (just as our relationships with our doctors tend to avoid that extreme), but a relationship that recognizes the pastor as a spiritual authority, someone who should be expected to examine, diagnose and prescribe, as needed.
Instead, American religion today is more akin to that sad observation in the book of Judges: “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit.” [1. Judg 17:6; 21:25] That line makes Phillip Tallon’s remark in my interview with him especially interesting: “We’ve leaned hard into pastor-as-teacher, but while neglecting the authoritative element. Especially in Wesleyan circles, I think we’ve emphasized the pastor-as-prophet and pastor-as-priest, but overlooked pastor-as-king.” [1. emphasis mine]
How can we flee from sin when we give no one permission to name it? How can we help the church to flee from sin when we go on tolerating it in our midst?
If the church is a body, and if it is truly better to lose one part than for the whole body to go into hell, then we must restore the practice of church discipline.
The largest form of this “cutting off” members of the body comes in the form of schism. This is an extreme form of church discipline.
We should avoid schism at great pains. Because God loves unity. Because Jesus prayed for unity among his followers. We demonstrate that unity most specifically at a common table, at shared Eucharist. When any church comes to the point that it can no longer share at the one table, schism has already occurred. All that’s left is the crying, and perhaps the lawyers.
We avoid this schism at great pains, but we cannot avoid it at all costs. Namely, we can’t avoid schism at the cost of tolerating sin. Because we must avoid sin at all costs, even at the cost of losing a member of the body.
In times of severe strife in the church, our best option is to compromise and be faithful to one another while we work for a way to reconcile. But this is a solution only if the presenting issue is anything less than sin.[1. I could also say “sin and heresy” here, but I’m allowing heresy to come under the broader umbrella of sin.] If a minority group believes they would have to sin to submit to the church’s authority, then they have no options but sin or schism. And they must not choose sin.
Similarly, if the dominant group in a church believes the other is willfully practicing or endorsing sin, they have no options but to condone the sin or expel the group[1. assuming, of course, that they have first attempted to correct and restore them] (i.e. create schism). And they must not choose sin.
If we’ve come this far, let’s be honest about what’s happening. Each side believes the other is in sin or heresy. They’ve already stopped believing the other is truly Christian. They’ve stopped treating them as “brothers and sisters” and begun to treat them as pagans or tax collectors. Schism has occurred in spirit, only institutional trappings remain. In those cases, we would be better to acknowledge that schism and treat each other as pagans or tax collectors—but this in the best possible sense: not with scorn, but with love, gently but persistently calling the other to repentance and faith.
In marital counseling, I tell people that I’m biased toward reconciliation. I will go to great pains to avoid divorce. But I won’t avoid divorce at all costs. Namely, we can’t avoid it if there has been violence in the relationship (in the form of infidelity or abuse, in any of its varieties) and there’s reason to believe that violence will continue.
In the church, schism becomes necessary at the same point. We should take great pains to reconcile, even if it means tolerating anything less than sin. But when violence has occurred (in the form of infidelity to our mutual covenants or abusive behavior toward each other) and there’s reason to believe it will continue, it’s time to separate. In fact, a relatively amicable separation may offer the greatest hope for future reconciliation.
Postscript: A note on judging “outsiders”
The church in recent times (maybe always?) has done pretty well about identifying immorality “out there” among the pagans. This is exactly the opposite of what we see in the passages above. Paul specifically said that when he wrote about not associating with sexually immoral people he was “not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral… In that case you would have to leave this world.”[1. 1 Cor 5:10] He asked, “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside.”[1. 1 Cor 5:12-13]
For those who don’t claim faith, we don’t judge. We go to them as they are. We love them as they are. And we gently but persistently call them to repentance and faith.
Some people don’t like the first part of that—they prefer to keep their distance, and perhaps hurl some stones. Others don’t like the last part—calling people to repentance implies that they’re sinners, which could be offensive and seem intolerant. Jesus did both without apology. If we have the same love for others as Jesus, then we will go and do likewise.
I want to introduce you to Philip Tallon –– for two reasons.
First, Philip is one of the most perceptive and creative theologians I know. He works on heady topics like theological aesthetics and chairs the apologetics department at Houston Baptist University. He also served as a director of student ministries and writes about Spider-Man, Fight Club, and The Legend of Zelda.[1. That’s a small sample. See his CV for more, or to see where you can find those articles.] I know several people doing deep, scholarly theological work. I know several people who are comfortable talking to teenagers and discussing pop culture. I know very few who live in both of those worlds––and combine them––as well as Phil does. I think his wisdom and practical insights below will be worth your time, even if you never read the book or watch the videos we discuss. His reference to “pastor-as-king” and his discussion of “mankind” and gender-inclusive language were alone worth the whole interview for me.
The second reason I want to introduce you to Phil is because of the book and videos I just referenced. He recently put out a new resource called The Absolute Basics of the Christian Faith. One of my greatest interests is to communicate deep theology (i.e. beyond superficial or flawed pop theology) in a way that normal people (i.e. not academics) can understand and apply it.[1. As part of a grant I received through the Louisville Institute’s Pastoral Study Project, I’m having several conversations this year with people who are doing this kind of work––work I call catechesis.] The Absolute Basics is a great example of that. I think a lot of you would find it useful. Maybe on your own, but much better if you could use it with a group.
Here’s our interview about that resource and more…
You’re so interesting to me for the variety of work you’re doing. Your other two books were an aesthetic theodicy and the philosophy of Sherlock Holmes. And you’re contributing essays to books like The Legend of Zelda and Theology and Tarantino and Theology. How does this project fit in with all your other interests? And how do those other interests affect how you approached this project? Would this be different if it weren’t created by someone who’s also thinking about aesthetic theodicy and if Jesus could save aliens?
It’s funny that you ask this question, because I’ve often felt like The Absolute Basics was a bit of a side project for me, but now I realize that it’s more deeply connected to my other projects than I thought.
In pointing to all these other projects (my book on aesthetic theodicy, Sherlock Holmes, etc.) I guess the abiding interest is how theology and the arts talk to one another. There’s nothing I like more than thinking about how the arts enrich theology and vice versa. This is one of the reasons why C. S. Lewis is such a fascinating figure for me and many people. He did all this work in what we might call “public theology” and then he also went and wrote amazing stories that speak to what it means to live in God’s world. The avid Lewis lover gets the pleasure of thinking about how the two modes of discourse differ and connect. Since a pastor (Jeff Hoy) mailed me a copy of The Great Divorce when I was in middle school, while I was away for the summer, I’ve been enchanted with imaginative Christian writing. If anyone hasn’t read The Great Divorce and has to choose between two books to buy, his or mine, the choice is an easy one. Lewis all the way.
But back to the subject at hand, most of my writing has been meta-level reflection on theology and the arts, not an attempt to do theology through the arts myself. The Absolute Basics was an attempt to dip my toe into that. Specifically, I wanted to lay out some Christian theology for beginners in a way that was unapologetically doctrinal (speaking from the church) but was also creative. In this regard I was helped greatly by finding an illustrator who was a serious Christian and could help translate the ideas into images. I really can’t speak too highly of Andrew Chandler, the artist who helped me. Without him, I don’t think the book & videos would have had the reach they’ve had so far. He was able to take these images I had on the page and translate them into visual form with deft lines and a deep understanding of the Gospel.
Again, this synthesis of word & image, of conceptuality & creativity, is what I’m most interested in academically. I think sometimes we’ve regarded concepts as primary and creativity as a secondary ornament. Images being the biblia pauperum (the Bible for the illiterate) as it were, with spoken or written theology occupying pride of place and the arts being a secondary medium for filling in the margins, but of course the New Testament offers us a more integrated model. Jesus is the “Word made flesh,” the “express Image” of God incarnate. Therefore images and the imagination are already bound up in God’s self-communication. It isn’t that Jesus tells us about God with his words. He is God in very flesh. When we look at Jesus we see God. And Jesus, of course, used word pictures to talk about the Kingdom of God. This isn’t an accident. Aesthetics is bound up in the business of theology.
I love the medium: a set of videos rather than just a written catechism. What inspired that?
The idea was there from the beginning. I was working in a church and knew I wanted to make something for students to use in theological education. I love those RSA Animate videos that illustrate lectures by famous thinkers. So I wrote something that could be feasibly animated. Something short with a visual hook, but where the visual element helped to enable the viewer to see the doctrinal ideas clearly.
In this sense, The Absolute Basics is really properly “read” by watching the videos, rather than just reading the text, because the illustrations are meant to be their own kind of faithful visual systematics (though a very minor systematics), where the images themselves can carry the content and help us to see the beauty & truth of God’s work in the world.
I loved some of the analogies you used. They were so easy to apprehend—trying to reconcile with friends after you ruin their Thanksgiving meal… except you can’t cook, or waving a white flag as analogy for justification. In fact, in almost all of your videos, your explanation is heavy on analogy and then you say something like, “That’s what happens in Acts…” Is this just how your mind works, or did you choose that approach for a particular reason?
Well, yes, this is just how my mind works. And I suppose it is probably how most minds work. We’re sensate, incarnate beings. Eugene Peterson says something like “stories are verbal acts of hospitality.” Most preachers get this intuitively or explicitly, and try to hang big slabs of ideas on meat hooks of the imagination in their sermons. I know some philosophers who prefer pure argumentation with premises lined up in straight rows of valid reasoning. And I appreciate this too. But even philosophers will often use analogies or thought experiments to engage our intuitions to support the plausibility of the premises. So analogies are just part of the work of communicating ideas. Again, back to Jesus, the parables invite everyone into Jesus’ way of seeing the world with unmatched economy.
Many of the extended analogies I used have theological precedents. Of the two you mention, these are nothing more than examples used by other thinkers with a fresh coat of paint. The Thanksgiving analogy–you wreck the dinner but can’t cook a new one yourself–is basically ripped from the pages of Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo (man ought to repay the debt of honor but can’t) and repurposed for an age that isn’t well acquainted with the feudal honor system. The white flag image is stolen from N. T. Wright’s discussion of repentance, where he talks about how Josephus commanded the rebels that tried to kill him to “repent & believe” in language that is basically identical in NT Greek to Jesus’ same words. Basically just “surrender and follow me.”
Maybe one thing more should be said about the analogies. One of the most common bits of feedback I get on the book is “great analogies.” I take this as the best kind of compliment, because I think analogies are so fundamental to understanding anything. Our language is shot through with analogy and metaphor even when we don’t realize it. We talk about good people as being “upright” or “solid.” We talk about bad people as “crooked” or “slippery.” We think about things in connection with other things. Nothing is ever really comprehended on its own, conceptually. Even God has to be grasped through analogy (as Aquinas articulates). God is best known to us through the metaphorical language of Father, Son, and Spirit. These metaphors are truthful, they show us who God is, but they also connect to us by way of analogy.
Anyway, this all went into my approach (intuitively or otherwise). The rhythm of the book is just a constant movement between ideas and analogies for this reason. If, in the end, the readers & viewers remember the analogies exclusively, I’ll still consider that a success.
A few questions about what you’re doing here as it relates to catechesis… You have 16 questions and answers and memory verses, too. Is your intention that people memorize the catechism answers and also the memory verses? Why the emphasis on memory?
It was my intention, at the very least, to offer something that was memorizable, and encourage that in the book. Hopefully churches will use it in this way. It’s certainly doable. If people can memorize the many, many lyrics in all 47 songs in Hamilton they can handle my 16 questions and answers. I mean, it’s good to ingrain the words of scripture on our hearts and minds, and to be able to repeat formal theological language. It’s even scriptural, as we read in Deuteronomy 6. It’s also not as hard as we often think. Once you get rolling, memorization becomes easier. And, of course, memorization isn’t just about getting down the content, it’s an act of meditation on God’s revelation. We’re delighting in scripture & theology through memorization & repetition.
There’s also, of course, a necessary role that memorization plays in the life of the church. If we want to be certain that Christians have really learned what the church believes, then accurate memorization is a clear way of testing that. We live in an age, at least in the American church, that has poured more resources than ever before into Christian education, but I’m skeptical that we’ve produced better educated Christians as a result. Part of this is that we put all the emphasis on top-down teaching–clear communication, engaging activities, and so forth–but very little on bottom-up responsibility for learning. On cloudy days, this strikes me as a flaw in our conception of the role of the pastor. We’ve leaned hard into pastor-as-teacher, but while neglecting the authoritative element. Especially in Wesleyan circles, I think we’ve emphasized the pastor-as-prophet and pastor-as-priest, but overlooked pastor-as-king. A responsible reflection of Christ’s threefold office should at least reckon with the ways that pastors have a duty to ensure that new Christians have truly learned what Christians believe (not to mention how Christians live). What all this looks like in practice is fuzzy to me, and I don’t want to sit on the sidelines and critique the coach, but it seems that at least part of Christian education should include real examination of the theological literacy of church members and, if wanting, insist on some kind of basic standard. At least in doctrinal terms, some kind of catechesis members can faithfully repeat from memory seems to be a fitting expectation. I’m still working through all this, but my sense is that our bar for real learning (not to mention living) is far lower that of other great periods in the church.
You and I have talked before about the benefits and drawbacks of creating new catechisms. Seedbed alone has four different catechisms available. Part of me wishes we could all use just one so that we could have that language in common among a larger group of people. What’s the benefit, in your mind, of creating a new catechism rather than all rallying around one that’s already available?
Right now it does seem like “of the making of catechisms there will be no end.” There’s your revised version of an older Methodist one. And more on Seedbed. And newer ones in books like Key United Methodist Beliefs. And now mine. And yes, I agree that there is something seemingly contradictory about having a bunch of different catechisms. It’s a bit like having a bunch of different sets of traffic laws taught in different driver’s ed classes. Not that the various catechisms necessarily contradict, but it is odd to say, “Here are the basics” when in fact there are other lists with expanded or contracted sets of basic ideas. This was very much on my mind & heart when I wrote up my 16 Qs & As. With this in mind (and without trying to sound too defensive) I reviewed most of the other extant catechisms so that I was working with these other, wiser voices. Hopefully they fit together in the way that various “longer and shorter” catechisms work together, like Luther’s catechisms or the Westminster catechisms.
I was, at least, encouraged in reviewing the UMC Book of Discipline to note that the Articles of Religion already contain a complimentary plurality in that the articles of the Methodist Church and the articles of the Evangelical United Brethren were both included, rather than being unified into a single set. And of course Wesley himself edited the Church of England’s articles for Methodism. All of this suggests a healthy underlying logic, that these doctrinal statements are attempts to faithfully express God’s self-revelation in scripture, and by that they are judged, and are therefore open to revision and re-expression in the life of the church as the Spirit and wise judgment lead us.
All that being said, hopefully anyone using this catechism in the church would come to these other longer catechisms with greater understanding and appreciation.
You’re especially recommending this for use in confirmation. I know that was your initial use for it. What inspired you to create it for confirmation? Was there something you found missing or insufficient in any of the other confirmation curricula?
Indeed. This all started from a pastoral context. I was charged with the teaching part of the confirmation process and tried to figure out how to do it faithfully and well. There’s a lot of material out there, much of it good, some of it not-so-good, but nothing that I thought would work for my confirmands in our situation. Sociologically speaking, confirmation is still an important rite for many in the church. Most of the parents in our church thought it mattered that something happened with the students, and I wanted to make sure we seized the opportunity. I care about theological education and if I muffed this opportunity to invest the talents given to me I’d feel that as a failure.
But there was also a deeper, objective purpose. Confirmation is the moment when people reaffirm their baptismal vows and commit to discipleship. That’s huge. And a key part of that is knowing what Christians believe. (Here I should note that the confirmation process is about more than that. It is also about Christian living, but we’re talking about theological education mostly, so I’ll focus there.) I wanted to make sure that my confirmands really knew their stuff when they stood up and affirmed their belief in the Triune God. This was the reason behind the catechism & memory verses, but more distinctly, it was the driving reason behind the image-rich videos. We were catechizing 6th-graders, and I wanted to make sure I offered an act of “intellectual hospitality” to them in meeting them where they were, but also not leaving them where they were.
Most of the other resources (to my mind) were either a) theologically astute or b) fun & engaging, but weren’t both. Some resources were neither. (Though, of course, nothing in Seedbed’s catalog would ever fail to be theologically astute.) Given the response I’ve gotten from other youth leaders, it seems I’m not alone in wanting something more than what was on offer for students especially. In this regard, I’ve been fortunate to have accidentally-yet-providentially stumbled on a widespread need. And that need seems to go beyond youth ministry, as there seem to be many adults who are looking for something that is unapologetically doctrinal while also being engaging and accessible.
Saying all of this puts my temperamental self-effacement on edge, because it sounds to my own ears a bit like bragging. To put my nerves at ease, I will add that I never intended to put my work in the conversation for fundamental Christian education, but the needs of ministry at the time seemed to call for it, and a publisher wanted it, and the reports I’ve gotten suggest that it’s been a help to ministers in the field. Hopefully God approves as well. (This also sounds kind of braggy in a faux-humble way.)
You used the NIV translation for your Scripture passages. That includes the use of “mankind” in some passages, like the ones you use for creation. I know some people have a problem with “mankind” not being gender inclusive. Any reason you chose to stick with that translation?
I used the NIV because it is a common translation, and, although imperfect, as all translations are, it is clear and yet not too wooden. It works well enough, and it was also the version in our church’s pews. I also have some specific gripes (probably uncharitable) against some other translations that have denominationally-unhelpful theological underpinnings or are hard to memorize. Specifically, I didn’t want to use the ESV because the Study Bible version reiterates a lot of Calvinist theology in the notes. So I didn’t want to initiate students into that version. This is where the (perhaps) uncharitable bit comes in. But maybe not. Calvinism is, in my view, a seriously flawed theological tradition that is fundamentally opposed to the core of Wesleyan teaching. Other versions just don’t flow nicely for memorization, such as the NASB or the CEB. I strongly considered the NRSV. The KJV is a work of beauty, but is so removed from common language that it requires additional ‘translation,’ which is a problem for contemporary church use.
Regarding traditional gendered language, I have no quibble at all. In this regard, the NIV’s use of “mankind” is a strength, one could argue. First off, gendered usage reflects more closely the original Greek. Secondly, words like “mankind” or “man” (referring to humans) are just part of standard English usage. I don’t tend to use “man” or “mankind” in my own writing, but I don’t object to their usage, and I don’t think we need to exile the word to the dustbin. “Mankind,” properly understood, refers to man and woman inclusively. Now that I say this, I’m regretting my own capitulation to standard academic usage by not using the term more. Further, outside of academic circles, I’ve rarely met anyone who raises the issue. So I don’t think it’s a relevant pastoral issue. At least, it hasn’t been one for me.
So as not to end answering this question on a rant, I’ll say that I am at least philosophically committed to preserving traditional language. Returning to the KJV, there is something that is lost, I reckon, in losing the formal addresses (“Thou,” “Thy,” etc.). Looking back at the distance between our common language and the variety and beauty of older English expression makes me wish that we had done more in the past to preserve it. I suppose this suggests I should have opted for the KJV as my translation of choice (or something akin), but again, one wants scripture to speak clearly now, and so as a pastor, using such an old translation seems imprudent. These are the tensions one lives with.
I’m curious, what did you learn from doing this project?
Thank you for asking this question. It’s an easy question to answer, though with a harder resultant implication. There are two key things I learned in the process. One is that, in working with confirmands, we had not dedicated nearly enough time to the process. The default schedule was only 8 weeks. Even covering what I took to be the basics of theology requires, in my view, at least double that. Secondly, I focused on doctrine (as befits an academic egghead), but a faithful confirmation process needs to attend as much to Christian living. This is a gap in my work. There really should be a second part to The Absolute Basics focusing on spiritual disciplines, Christian morality, and so forth. Not to mention there’s a need to talk about Methodism specifically, its history and distinctions, which my work largely overlooks. Perhaps we’ll be able to create some supplementary materials in the future, but until then I hope that anyone using the material in churches will be able to make up for the deficiency.
Have you heard any good stories from people who are using this yet? Anything that surprised you from how you expected it to be used?
I’ve been flattered by the good feedback. Many folks are using it much like I have, for confirmation mostly. But I’ve also heard it is used for adult education classes or in new member initiation. The reality is that most churchgoers really don’t have much of a theological grounding, so it seems to be a help in a range of contexts. Probably the most unexpected use was its adoption in a systematic theology class at HBU (not taught by me). The professor used it to get all his students up to speed with basic doctrine in the first few weeks before they dove into heavier material. This was a bit surprising because the book looks so unassuming. It has cartoons on the cover and throughout. I never expected the book to be on a college syllabus. But it seems to be helpful to the students. Honestly, I never expected this to go much beyond confirmation class. It’s a helpful reminder, I suppose, that sometimes the best things you do aren’t the things you expect to have an impact.
I conducted this interview in association with broader questions I’m asking this year related to theology and catechesis. Thanks to the Louisville Institute and their Pastoral Study Program for grant support that has enabled this work.
I hope you enjoyed this interview. Now two things:
Rebecca, I was so excited to talk to you because I read Glittering Vices about two and a half years ago and started sharing insights from it and recommending it to other people. It’s now kind of swept through my congregation. A number of our small groups have read it. It has influenced us where our preaching series for Lent this year is on the capital vices, or deadly sins, and I was just excited to be able to hear more from you. So thanks for being here.
RD: Good, it’s a pleasure to be with you today.
TR: Let me start here. This is one of the things I loved most. You show how these deadly sins are so much deeper than the popular assumptions about them today. Or in some cases they’re almost altogether different from our popular assumptions. I’m curious, which of those seven deadly sins would you say is maybe most misunderstood today?
RD: That’s a really good question. I mean they’re all misunderstood, mostly in terms of making them more behavioral and less matters of the heart. So that sort of runs through all seven, but I would say vainglory is the least familiar in terms of the name of the vice in question. I think it’s a very familiar phenomenon, so as soon as you slap the label on it, people have an “oh, of course” moment.
Sloth, I think, is the most misunderstood, just in terms of what that the actual vice is about. I wrote that chapter thinking, “Oh, good. For sure I don’t have this one. I’m a diligent, hard-working, over-achieving person.” And what I realized in studying it was that that was a deep misconception, and in fact both my laziness and my diligence could be front symptoms for this vice, which may lay much deeper within. And so, thinking about sloth as kind of resistance to the transforming power of God’s love, wanting to sort of stay comfortable with who you are and stay the same, in your comfort zone. That was a really new discovery for me in terms of what that vice was really about.
TR: So you end up identifying more of it in yourself then you had hoped to.
RD: Well I had hoped for a little relief as I was writing the book. Every chapter I went through I thought, “Oh no, it’s another one!” And you sort of think you have a little bit of a take on your own signature vices.
But I discovered there was a little bit of everything in me, too. And I honestly think that’s probably a good thing in the sense that, then as an author of the book, I don’t come across as you know, “I’m some saintly person, and look at all you schmucks out there who are still struggling with the vices.” We are really all, all of us, in this together on almost all fronts. So I think that makes me a little bit more human, a little more humble. That’s probably a good thing.
TR:Absolutely. It sounded that way. And I’m curious based on that, it sounds like this is a book that ended up producing a lot of soul-searching for you. Did it originate from that? Did you start exploring these in more depth because you were doing some soul-searching, or did that just happen along the way?
RD: That’s a really good question. It’s also a dangerous question for a philosopher, right? We sort of do self-knowledge, the examined life, that’s what we do for a living. So when I found this set of resources for that kind of seeking, it struck me that there’s just great depth here that I think is worth sharing.
It originally started in the classroom, my own classroom in graduate school. So I was reading about the virtues and vices in Thomas Aquinas, ran across a couple that really hit me in between the eyes, and what I discovered is there’s this whole thousand-year stretch of Christian wisdom on discipleship, transformation, spiritual formation, and so on. And they had virtue-vice labels for how this works, and it was a really illuminating moment for me.
I took it into my own classroom then when I became the teacher and my students had exactly the same reaction. So I’m thinking I don’t know if they’ll ever forgive me for cranking them through the whole second part of the Summa. You know, a hundred and eighty questions of all these dry, disputed questions with very few examples and very few stories.
And they were absolutely captivated by it. They found it extremely effective soul surgery kind of reading. And so they were interested in it. They thought it was practical. And through my conversations with them in that philosophy seminar, I thought, “I really just need to write up this class.” And that’s essentially what Glittering Vices is, and that’s why it’s dedicated to those students.
TR: Ok that’s great. That makes a lot of sense. And it’s so interesting to me you talk about this thousand-year history, and you keep referring to Aquinas and medieval theologians. What happened, was this in the Reformation that these started being ignored? Or how did the Reformers even look at these?
RD: That’s a really controversial issue. And I think the answer is probably more complicated than anything I can explain here in a few minutes. But I do think there was a shift in ethics toward law-based ethics — late Middle Ages to Enlightenment. And that shift, you know, I don’t know that it was caused by the Reformation, but they certainly inherited that trajectory in ethics. So an emphasis on the commandments, which comes I think more obviously out of Scripture. You get a list of commandments, you get a list of fruits of the Spirit, but we don’t sort of have explicit, recurrent virtue talk in the New Testament, so I think as we move toward a kind of a sola scriptura approach…
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There was a test of flourishing-oriented virtue ethics systems, and moving toward law-based systems, duty, obligation, and so on. And that move, I don’t think was a move that necessarily always rejected virtue, it just sort of downplayed its importance in sort of the way we talk about our ethical lives.
TR: With a move to the law-based. And was there any sense of people saying, “This is not canonical. We can’t find these in one place in Scripture, so this must be something that was made up, invented, and we should ditch it for something straight from Scripture”?
RD: Yeah, you know, I know that’s one story you can tell about this. I don’t know that I could quote anybody making exactly that move. But that’s sort of, you know, in the back of people’s minds. They want to be sure that their traditional authority, authoritative teaching of the church, doesn’t trump what they’re finding in Scripture. So there is a move in that direction, but I don’t know that I could sort of pin anybody down with a quote on just that note.
It is true, you’re not going to find the seven as a set in Scripture, and you’ll only find the four cardinal virtues, sort of the parallel set of virtues in the Book of Wisdom, which is an apocryphal book. So sometimes Protestant traditions will be like, “Oh those aren’t even in Scripture at all,” whereas in fact, they are in the Book of Wisdom, which was written right around the same time that the Greeks were working on the four cardinal virtues. So there are biblical connections but like I said, the Bible doesn’t wear them on its sleeve. You have to dig a little bit.
TR: You describe… I have two questions about this—you describe the vices as acquired moral qualities. They’re character traits. They’re things that are cultivated, along with virtues being the same sort of way.
First, I thought the analogy that you used about a snow sled going down the hill was really helpful, just made a lot of sense for me. Would you mind sharing that for people to hear?
RD: Sure. I’m from Michigan so that explains why I chose that analogy, perhaps.
When you first go down a hill and you’re sledding, you have to sort of break ground through all that fluffy, piled-up snow, and the sled goes slowly, and you have to kind of push it forward. But the second or third time you slide down the hill, then you get a track and you wear a groove, and it becomes icy with repeated use. And all of a sudden it’s very hard to slide out of the track, and once you’re tipping a little bit out of it, the track will sort of groove you back down the hill at lightning speed. And that’s one picture for the way in which individual choices become cumulative in our character.
So my question for people with respect to the vices isn’t, “Is this the right thing to do, or is this absolutely morally prohibited?” The question is, “If I repeated this action every day for the next ten years, where would it land me in terms of my character formation? What kind of habits would it built up in me? What kind of groove would it wear in my character?” And you know, you have grooves that take you down the wrong path and grooves that take you down the right path. So that’s my way of explaining virtue-vice talk to people. The focus isn’t on one snapshot action that’s sort of isolated from the backstory and where it will lead you next. The virtue-vice talk tends to try to think long-term about character development in a more narrative way.
TR: And so, when you look at one single action, and say, “Why did I do that? Or why did this person do that?” the answer isn’t so much in that moment as maybe the last ten years, or whatever we would see in their history?
RD: And what you find with the vices, and with the virtues frankly, is that where your grooves of character have been worn shapes the way you even see a situation. So after you’ve become, say, well-schooled in faithfulness, certain alternatives, certain options just don’t even occur to you to do.
So that’s the good and the bad thing. It’s good in the virtue case because the bad options often don’t even pop off the landscape, the moral landscape of the situation for you. But in the vice case, sometimes you get blinded to certain goods that might otherwise be in view, because you’re so focused on some particular thing that you desire, and that desire has gotten out of control.
TR: Have you done any research into recovery programs and how they approach things and whether it relates there?
RD: Sure. I think there’s a lot of common ground here between addiction and recovery programs. Addictive behavior is habitual, and so insofar as vices and addictions are habitual, there’s gonna certainly be some shared ground.
And there’s shared ground between psychology and moral psychology or spiritual formation, too. I like to think of them as overlapping circles. There are areas where they’re saying similar things about similar phenomena, but what I want to say with the vices is when these things spin out of control—two things: it’s a lot deeper diagnosis than you’re gonna get from a counselor, and that’s not to denigrate counseling or addiction recovery. They’re all very, very helpful. But spiritual heart surgery is at a completely different level.
And it also implicates our sense of brokenness and a sense of fallenness or sinfulness that isn’t always necessarily a sinfulness we can get ourselves out of. And so there’s a sense when you’re deep in a vice that you can be stuck and not be able to help yourself. And I think you’re gonna have a similar kind of crash moment if you’re in an addiction recovery program. You’re gonna say, “You know what, this is not a willpower thing for me anymore. I’m gonna have to transfer over to a higher power.” And I think there’s a similar moment with the vices. You can get yourself so deep in that your willpower or rehabituation can’t get you back out. And in that respect, I like to say this is more than just moral formation we’re talking about. We need the categories of sin and grace to do the work here.
TR: That relates to the other question I wanted to ask you about this. You describe these as acquired moral qualities. And you’re a good Calvinist. You’re at Calvin College. So I’m curious how you compare these acquired qualities––virtues and vices––to original sin and total depravity. What’s the relation in all these?
RD: I think what virtue-vice talk does is it really just gives us a helpful way to talk about the ways that we get trapped in sin. And we come into I think our moral and spiritual lives sort of broken from the get-go. I think that’s what the Calvinist tradition would say. You’re not just coming in clean and then gradually sliding off into some terrible vice or something. We’re all coming in with idolatrous hearts to begin with. And then the vices just sort of name specific forms of idolatry. Different ones will appeal to you than will appeal to me. I might be a wrath person and you might be a sloth person. Just to say that the devil works in strategic and complex ways in each of our lives, and he’s willing to exploit whatever form of brokenness is in you.
And so part of what the Calvinist tradition does for me is it says, “Look, this is not just a matter of a new Christian self-help program with a little willpower and 10 easy steps and a small group. You can make progress.” I think it’s really just saying, “Look, when you get this diagnosis, it’s gonna require the Great Physician to heal it.”
And my own research has moved away from virtue talk and towards spiritual discipline talk for just that reason. I’m not so sure that we can virtue ourselves out of these old ruts and grooves. And part of what spiritual discipline talk does, I think most helpfully, is there’s no formula. It’s not like, “Well, if you practice solitude and silence for long enough, you will achieve these three results.” Spiritual disciplines aren’t like that. Spiritual disciplines are more like, “Lord, I’m gonna fast for a period of time, and that’s just my way of opening my hands to you and saying whatever needs doing here in my recovery, in my healing process, I trust you to do, so be at work in me.” So that kind of cooperative intentionality I think is probably a more accurate way to think about how to move away from the vices through grace, and maybe the virtues are a better way of explaining the Christ-like character that God is drawing us toward.
TR: Great! And so even to add that into your sled analogy… You talk about cutting those grooves at the beginning, but we are predisposed to cut those grooves with vices. And we can’t get ourselves out without the grace of God.
RD: Right, you can think of in the sledding analogy, you could think of original sin as sort of like gravity. Which groove you’re in is just a matter of sort of your personal predispositions, your communal training, whatever formation led you to that groove.
TR: That’s a great way to put that.
I heard somebody recently say that we as a society used to discuss character and now we’ve replaced a lot of that conversation with discussion about personality. I’m curious if you’ve seen that and how that might affect how we think about vice and virtue.
RD: I think the contemporary positive psychology language right now, for example, is strengths. So you’re looking for personality strengths, personality weaknesses. It’s just disposition talk. By calling it strengths, I think the language still is trying to leave it in the realm of your control. You have personal dispositions in certain directions, but you can build on those strengths. So that’s, I think, the language that’s being used in psychology.
We still use character language in, for example, K-12 curricula, thinking about what kind of character we want to build in, for example, good democratic citizens. We have values espoused by various civic organizations. So for example, in the town where I live, we have a series of flags up in the downtown area explaining which civic virtues—they don’t use the virtue language—but what kind of character we want to embody as a community.
And so there’s language everywhere, and I think, “Good for them.” That’s just a way in for me. I don’t need to insist on my own terms, necessarily. It’s actually I think a touchpoint for beginning a good conversation. We may end up having to argue about terms later on and which terms do which kinds of work best. But I do think it’s an opportunity to enter the conversation for Christians. And we don’t need to just sort of chuck everybody else’s categories. I guess I would like to sort of think ecumenically about it if we can.
TR: So whether they’re saying strengths or dispositions or virtues, you’ll take whatever people are giving you and get them to a similar discussion.
RD: I will at the beginning of the conversation. What you do want to move toward is, you want to move away from, “Well, this is just my personality.” As if it’s something that could never be changed or formed in certain ways. Because of course we’re all being formed through many different influences—our friends, our family, our culture, entertainment, our own practices, and so on.
You could move one level over to moral formation, and there you’re in the realm of needing to practice and habituate yourself into certain virtues. And we do think this is possible, right?
This is part of what goes into training your children when you’re parenting, right? You want them to learn certain habits. And we think that’s possible and that’s good and that actually makes people better people, or at least easier to live with.
And then I think one step further you’re going to get into spiritual formation. And here it’s about deep cooperation between you and the Spirit. It’s primarily God’s work, but you need to be intentional about it, reflective about it, and open-hearted, open-handed about it. So I guess I’d like to start the conversation wherever people will let me and try to move in that direction.
TR: That’s great!
We’re almost out of time, and I want to ask you something quick and helpful maybe for churches. I said my church is doing this during Lent. Iactually know at least one or two others that are, as well. You said in a Wheaton lecture, “I found a diagnosis for something that I had been struggling with in my life, and finding a name for it was a path to becoming free from it.”
So here’s what I’m gonna do if you’re okay with it. I want to list each of these seven capital vices and just ask if you could give one practical sign that someone may be struggling with each, and then maybe one practice toward its remedy. Does that sound all right?
RD: Well that’s tricky. Because you know what I’m going to say. These are matters of the heart and not necessarily behavioral issues. Especially with sloth, it can be especially tricky.
TR: So is that unfair? Is it too much to jump straight to symptoms and even identify any?
RD: I would say there are often symptoms that show up, but they’re not necessarily symptoms of that vice. They can be confused with other things.
For example, I might be very very concerned about what I eat and when and where and why. And you might think, “Oh, we’ve got a fastidious glutton on our hands,” when it turns out what I’m really concerned about is vainglory, my appearance. Right?
So sometimes you can get doubling up, sometimes you can get one masking another one. This is why the tradition uses spiritual direction. Because you need a fine-tuned diagnosis for you. So I’d be happy to speculate, but I wouldn’t want people to read too quickly into just the behavioral sometimes.
TR: Okay, well let’s remove behavioral symptoms and you address it however you want, in 10 seconds how somebody might recognize one of these in their lives. So sloth, you spoke to that some, anything you would say specifically there?
RD: I guess with all of them I would ask, “What makes you uncomfortable?” So with sloth, does resting and being still make you uncomfortable? If you get in a place where you can hear God calling you to something, do you feel resistant to that? That would be a worry for a slothful person.
TR: Wow! How entirely opposite!
RD: Right, right! So thinking about stillness as a remedy for sloth, I just love the irony there, with the common misconception. So that’s a fun one.
TR: That’s great! Okay, this is good. We’ll keep going. How about envy?
RD: With envy I would worry about competitive situations and the fears that they raise in you. So if you’re a person who frames everything competitively and that competitive achievement is deeply tied to your own sense of worthiness, I would be worried about envy there.
Can you receive other people’s achievements with gratitude? Or do you struggle with those achievements making you feel worthless or inferior? So that would be an envy type frame of mind.
TR: How about anger or wrath?
RD: Anger or wrath… How much do you need to be in control? How important is your own agenda? Wrath, like many others, I would recommend practices of detachment. Because part of what they are is they’re excessive desires for things. And the question is, if you have to peel your sticky fingers off something that you deeply care about, how painful is that for you?
So fasting is a remedy for gluttony in the same way. You don’t even necessarily realize how attached you are to control, in the case of wrath, or pleasure, in the case of lust or gluttony, until you have to give those things up.
And then you realize that that emptiness that’s left behind is driving you crazy. Richard Foster says fasting reveals the things that control us. And I would say fasting is just a stand-in there for any practice of detachment.
Regular detachment teaches us what we’re hanging onto too tightly and what we need to then die to and let go of. And that is a movement toward freedom. I want to emphasize that.
It feels like teeth-gritting discipline at the beginning, but it is a way to become free. Free to love.
TR: I was talking with someone last week who said, “I am in control of everything except my emotions.” Sounds so much like what you’re describing there.
RD: Gluttony. I already mentioned fasting. I would say one of the things that I did in a practice of fasting once was to try to just eat less. So I wasn’t full every time I ate. And I tried to eat less often. So I kept it to two meals a day instead of three plus snacks, or whatever. And one of the things that I realized is how much of my mental decompression, my comfort seeking, was filled by food.
And what I also realized was that when I had less food to go on, less caffeine and sugar to prop up my hyper-achieving lifestyle, I had to slow down quite a bit. That also made me angry and crabby and upset. I had to think about how priorities would work in my life. Ok, if I don’t have as much energy, then I have to choose. And I don’t want to choose. I want to do it all, have it all.
So for me that practice of fasting, like for Cassian, gluttony’s just the gateway. Once you blow that one open, you’ll find it connected to lots of other things that you’re hanging onto too tightly in your life. So fasting led me to Sabbath rest. I don’t know where it will lead you, but that was when I realized that all my gluttony was kind of propping up a hyper-achieving self, which needed to lay down a few things, and that involved Sabbath.
TR: Forcing you to slow down in a very different way.
RD: Yeah, so be ready to be surprised through these practices is my bottom line there.
TR: Vainglory. You’ve written a whole book on vainglory.
RD: This is a favorite of mine. I keep having new thoughts about it. With vainglory, I think solitude and silence are the big ones. Those are again practices of detachment. Solitude takes away your audience, although you can still replay those little fantasies in your head. It takes a while for those to quiet down.
And also silence removes our ability to manage our own self-image through words. Now I know in our culture we do that through images, as well as words. But those are two practices that I think help us realize how attached we are to audience and appearance and approval. But I would counter that…
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Those practices of detachment…
I think people could just as equally practice celebration, encouragement, affirmation of others, and see how good glory works. So you need both the dying to the old self and the rising of the new self, and I think both of those happen first through detachment and then rightful reattachment to the things that reflect God’s glory in our communities. By being good givers of glory and good receivers of glory. We need to know how to do that well, too.
TR: Yeah, that’s a great play on that word glory there. Okay, lust? How about lust?
RD: Lust is a lot like gluttony. It involves detachment, in part because you will not have the freedom to love other people and to receive other people in love if you are hanging onto your own egotistical need for pleasure in the experience. Right? What you really want with both gluttony and lust is to learn how to receive a gift. In the case of gluttony, you want to learn how to really appreciate food.
And you look at the way the glutton tends to ramp up desire. You tend to go for things that are worse and worse for you, and more and more of them. And it sort of gets out of control. And you get further and further away from actually appreciating a well-cooked, very simple meal. So I once read an Eastern Orthodox priest who said he’s never appreciated a piece of cheese more than after his forty day Lenten fast, where he abstained from all meat and dairy. One tiny little piece of cheese. Celebration!
And I would say the same thing for lust. You don’t understand what it’s like to be able to celebrate and receive an individual in their inexhaustible mystery and full humanity if you’re constantly substituting. It’s kind of like going for a sugar substitute. You’re becoming a junkie for pleasure instead of someone who is open to love.
And so detachment from the selfish desire is the first step. You need to just have your hands and heart free to be able to receive another person. And if you’re so ego-invested in your own pleasure, there’s no room for that.
Lust is hard, though, I will say. And lust is also full of shame, so isolation is a really bad thing, community is a really good thing.
TR: It’s interesting you’re using detachment. I think you’ve used it with almost every single one of these. But it’s a different form of detachment each time.
RD: And I think there’s a rhythm here. There’s a reason why the Sabbath comes around once a week and Lent comes around once a year. Right? It’s not as though you go through a discipline once and then you’re good to go. These are lifelong transformative, reformative practices, and we need to keep going around the wheel time and time again.
I would just say that’s part of the drill for all of us, so there’s humility in that, but there’s also continued reliance on God in that rhythm. So discipleship is really about the way that he’s calling us to become closer to him. And in all of these practices I want to just make sure we have that as the final frame. He’s in this for your healing. That’s what this is for.
TR: I’ve left one off. Let me ask one last one, and we’ll be done. Avarice, or greed?
RD: Oh, greed. Well, there the practice is to get your hands off the money. Any way that you can give away money, possessions—practices again of just making sure that you have a very loose grip on the things that you own. And regularly giving things away is a really useful way to go about that—either in more dutiful giving like tithing, but also over and above that—showing hospitality, sharing your time, sharing your possessions.
When someone shows up and looks like they have a need, is your first thought, “Here, have mine”? Or, “Oh, let’s see what we can do for this person”? And so there’s a kind of, “How loose is your grip? How ready are you to hand over what’s needed?” Because everything that you have isn’t yours. You are a steward of it.
TR: How interesting for you to relate that to time, too. I think for some of us it’s easier to give away stuff than to give away our time.
RD: It’s much easier to write the check. I think face-to-face giving is really important. Because greed really makes stuff about stuff, and stuff really has to be about need. Who has the need, and how can this created, good thing that I have meet that need? Wherever the need is, mine or yours.
TR: This is all excellent. It’s a great jump-start. Now we’ve got to be able to build on it in some way with what we’re doing here at our church and, I would imagine, in several other places.
Let me just remind everyone: on my site I’ll have links to both of these books, to Glittering Vices and to Vainglory. I’ve widely recommended Glittering Vices, so I hope if you haven’t read it that you get a chance to. And I hope to get all the way through Vainglory before the end of the season, as well.
Rebecca, thank you so much. I really appreciate your time and your thoughts toward all this.
RD: It’s just absolutely a pleasure to be with you today.
For churches and denominations that are wrangling over important issues, it would help to at least have some agreement about the most important questions.
For this, what if we listen to some wise people who came before us? I’m going to use an 1824 letter from the American Methodist Bishops as guide.[1. This was in their quadrennial address to the General Conference] I don’t want to bog you down in its unfamiliar grammar, so I’ll commenton some short extracts here, then provide the full paragraph at bottom.
“Who ever supposed […] that our system was designed, in any of its parts, to secure the applause and popularity of the world, or a numerical increase of worldly or impenitent men?”
Questions we can’t start with:
Will we lose members if we do this?
Will we lose giving/funding if we do this?
Will we lose [insert demographic segment] if we do this?
Will this make us out of step with cultural currents?
Will this be an unpopular decision?
Could the media have a field day with this?
“Holiness is the main cord that binds us together” “The original design of Methodism […] was to raise up and preserve a holy people.”
Questions that must take center stage:
What will help us be more holy?
What will help us raise up a holy people?
What will help us preserve a holy people?
We can only consider asking questions from that first list if we’ve already answered questions about holiness. And use caution. We’re quick to assume that many decisions are morally/theologically neutral. We often make a swift jump to strategy after giving ourselves a simplistic theological answer (e.g. “God wants us to reach people”). Our methods are as theologically significant as our goals.
“If Methodists lose sight of this doctrine [of entire sanctification], they will fall by their own weight. Their successes, in gaining numbers, will be the cause of their dissolution.”
Oh, by the way, even if you temporarily grow in number because of your strategies, if you neglect sanctification/holiness, it will be your undoing.
For all the discussion of unity in churches and denominations today, there is no real unity without holiness. Any supposed unity that loses sight of holiness is a superficial and worldly unity.
The full paragraph: “If Methodists give up the doctrine of entire sanctification, or suffer it to become a dead letter, we are a fallen people. It is this that lays the axe to the root of the Antinomian tree, in all its forms and degrees of growth––it is this that inflames zeal, diffuses life, rouses to action, prompts to perseverance, and urges the soul forward to every holy exercise, and every useful work. If Methodists lose sight of this doctrine, they will fall by their own weight. Their successes, in gaining numbers, will be the cause of their dissolution. Holiness is the main cord that binds us together. Relax this, and you loosen the whole system. This will appear more evident, if we call to mind the original design of Methodism. It was to raise up and preserve a holy people. This was the principal object which Mr. Wesley, who, under God, was the great founder of our order, had in view. To this end all the doctrines believed and preached by Methodists tend. And the rules of our Discipline, and the peculiar usages of our Church, were all instituted with the same design. Who ever supposed, or who that is acquainted with it can suppose, that our system was designed, in any of its parts, to secure the applause and popularity of the world, or a numerical increase of worldly or impenitent men?”