Love, Unity and Catholic Spirit: What Does Wesley Say?

By Greg Stover

February 8, 2019

John Wesley’s sermon, Catholic Spirit, is often quoted in the controversies and conflicts within The United Methodist Church. Some assert that unity is a matter of the heart and does not depend on doctrine or theology. This implies that if we all possess a catholic spirit differences will be bridged, unity of the Spirit will result, and institutional unity will be the outcome (Cf. Rev. Dr. Jean Hawxhurst HERE). Is this a sufficient understanding of unity or catholic spirit?

In Catholic Spirit, Wesley pled for Christians to engage controversy and differences of opinion with love and generous affection for one another. He employed a text from II Kings 10:15. King Jehu says to Jehonadab, “If [your heart is as mine heart], give me thine hand.” Wesley applied this Scripture to encourage Christians to offer their hand in Christian community to others whose heart toward God was as theirs.

Unfortunately, Wesley’s concept of catholic spirit is often misunderstood and misapplied. Wesley himself lamented this misunderstanding: “There is scarce any expression which has been more grossly misunderstood and more dangerously misapplied than this” (Albert C. Outler, ed., The Works of John Wesley, [Abingdon: Nashville], 1985, Vol. 2, Sermon 39, pg. 92). Wesley’s understanding of catholic spirit was more nuanced than many recognize. Catholic Spirit reveals a careful balance between tolerance toward the opinions of others in the Christian community and commitment to orthodox faith. Wesley distinguished between extending Christian community to those with whom we disagree and experiencing “external” (institutional) unity with other Christian bodies.

What Is Catholic Spirit?

Wesley expressed his understanding of a person of “catholic spirit” most succinctly near the end of the sermon:

 … his heart is enlarged toward all mankind, those he knows and those he does not; he embraces with strong and cordial affection neighbours and strangers, friends and enemies. This is catholic or universal love. And he that has this is of a catholic spirit. For love alone gives the title to this character — catholic love is a catholic spirit (Ibid. 94).

These words echo the theme Wesley laid out at the beginning of the sermon when he noted the royal law of love: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” Further, he references Jesus’ command to love our enemies, and quotes Scriptures from the Old and New Testaments calling Christians to love God and others, especially believers.

Christ’s example of universal love for all animates catholic spirit. So, the person of catholic spirit gladly embraces Christians of differing opinions.

If Your Heart Is As My Heart?

Wesley’s immediate focus in Catholic Spirit was not the existence of various Christian churches (denominations). He was concerned that too often Christians share a common heart of love for God, yet do not practice the depth of love Christ commanded for one another:

How many hindrances lie in the way! The two grand, general hindrances are, first, that they can’t all think alike; and in consequence of this, secondly, they can’t all walk alike, but in several smaller points their practice must differ in proportion to the difference of their sentiments (Ibid. 82).

In response, Wesley insisted that if “your heart is as my heart” he was ready to extend his hand to all. He did not expect or desire that each person hold the same “opinions” as he did, nor he theirs.

Nonetheless, Wesley never argued that Christians merely set aside significant differences and just get along. He had an expansive understanding of what it meant to share a common heart for God. His description is lengthy, organized around seven sets of questions. In summary, those questions describe a person who is thoroughly committed to a God who is all-powerful, all-wise, all-good and filled with justice, mercy and truth. They describe a person who embraces Jesus as divine, Lord and Savior of all; and who seeks salvation not through personal merit but in Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Further this person loves God and neighbor, and is passionately surrendered to God’s will and glory. Wesley describes a Christian who is thoroughly orthodox in doctrine and deeply committed to Christian practice.

What Did Wesley Mean by Opinions?

To appropriately apply Wesley’s understanding of catholic spirit we must understand what he meant by “opinions.” His examples of “opinions” include convictions about appropriate ways to worship, the theology of sacraments, modes of baptism, structures for church organization, the relative value of contemporaneous or written prayers, and which church a person chooses for membership. Wesley insisted that these differences, which do not strike at the heart of Christian faith, should never hinder our ability to love one another and enter relationship with believers of differing opinions. The person of catholic spirit is ready to love the other Christian, commend them to God in prayer, correct them in love when needed, encourage them to good works, and join with them “in deed and truth.”

Even with such emphasis on Christian solidarity, Wesley maintained the sanctity of one’s conscience: “So far as in conscience thou canst (retaining still thy own opinions and thy own manner of worshipping God), join with me in the work of God, and let us go hand in hand” (Ibid. 91-92).

Wesley insisted that a catholic spirit has nothing whatsoever to do with unqualified tolerance of all opinions, indifference in matters of doctrine or theology, or simply blending contrary convictions together. (In fact, it is discussing this very point that Wesley laments that catholic spirit has been “more grossly misunderstood and more dangerously applied” [Ibid. 92].)

Specifically, Wesley wrote that “a catholic spirit is not speculative latitudinarianism. It is not an indifference to all opinions.” Wesley considered this toleration of all theological differences to be “the spawn of hell, not the offspring of heaven.” He continued,

This unsettledness of thought this being ‘driven to and fro, and tossed by every wind of doctrine’, is a great curse, not a blessing …  not a friend to true catholicism. A man of truly catholic spirit has not now his religion to seek. He is fixed as the sun in his judgment concerning the main branches of Christian doctrine … He does not halt between two opinions, nor vainly endeavor to blend them into one (Ibid. 93).

While Christians of catholic spirit reach out to those who have different manners of public worship or congregational practices, Wesley insisted they also ardently believe and defend their own practices. He considered the disinterest that simply affirms every practice to be both unscriptural and irrational.

In Catholic Spirit Wesley was not arguing that all Christians could be or should be united in one “external” (institutional) church. In fact, his premise was that not all Christians will be able to think alike, therefore, not all will be able to practice their faith in the same way. This reality points to Wesley’s belief that catholic spirit, rightly understood, provides a necessary application of Christ’s love even when Christians’ convictions lead them to be a part of separate Christian groups. Wesley writes,

… although a difference in opinions or modes of worship may prevent an entire external union, yet need it prevent our union in affection? Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt we may.

What Does Catholic Spirit Imply for Our Present Struggle in United Methodism?

As we engage the current controversy and struggle which threatens United Methodism, Wesley’s Catholic Spirit speaks much more strongly to our character and attitudes in confronting the challenge and less to what the “right” outcome will be. We can exhibit a catholic spirit yet support widely different approaches for “a way forward.” This is because a catholic spirit provides no definitive guidance for the outcome. It does not mandate a separation or demand we remain one institutional body. What does a catholic spirit suggest as we seek “a way forward?”

A catholic spirit:

  1. Recognizes that the greatest test of catholic spirit will not be the decisions of the 2019 special General Conference but the attitudes expressed while and after the decisions are made. Some due to conscience may not be able to remain within the United Methodist fold. Catholic spirit will look less to how an institution can be protected and more to positive relationships within the UM Church and creating new relationships with new Christian bodies which may emerge.
  2. Understands we cannot and should not “blend [all convictions] into one.”
  3. Seeks unity grounded in the truth as revealed in the Scripture and expounded in Wesleyan theology.

Even if we may not all think alike may we not love alike? Without a doubt, we may!

To read Wesley’s sermon Catholic Spirit click HERE.


The Rev. Greg Stover is a retired clergy member in the West Ohio Annual Conference. Stover has also served as a district superintendent, and represented his annual conference as a General Conference delegate. He is a member of the Confessing Movement’s board of directors.