Thoughts on Christians in Conflict: Whitefield and Wesley

“Young Christians are like little rivulets that make a large noise and have shallow water; old Christians are like deep water that makes little noise, carries a good load and gives not way.” –    George Whitefield

“Young” or “old” in Christian faith terms has little to do with chronological age or years as a believer, but everything to do with spiritual maturity.

How does a pastor, a church or a Christian discipleship program engage and invite non-believers, lead them into belief in Christ, then move them forward into deepening relationship with Christ to a point of being steadfast Christians?

Some evangelists/churches/programs are good at inviting non-believers and securing a profession of faith in Christ but not so good in moving individuals forward into deeper discipleship and evidence of the transformed heart by the growth of the fruit of the Spirit. They can impress upon one’s heart the need to embrace Christ as Savior, but they don’t seem to have the time, commitment or sense of their call to journey with one through to the place of understanding what it means to yield all of one’s life to the Lordship of Christ! And then, too, new believers often think a profession of faith in Christ which assures them entrance to Heaven is all that is needed to live a victorious life on Earth. Faith is a gift of God, but it is nurtured and grows in the covenant relationship of the church among other believers. In the world today where “relevance”, “tolerance”, and “individualism” are exalted, one can find support for anything one wishes to embrace. It can be hard to settle on what one truly believes to be “truth”.  Accountable Christian community with sound teaching can help one in that pursuit.

John Walsh describes such a tension dynamic during the Great Awakening between the ministry of George Whitefield and John Wesley:

“Whitefield was certainly not inadequate as a pastor and organizer, but he realized his primary calling lay as a “wayfaring witness.” His determination to shuttle continually between England, Scotland, and America meant he could never, like Wesley, provide oversight for a great connection of societies. “An itinerant pilgrim life is that which I choose,” he wrote, so he cheerfully let other pastors gather the lost sheep he had found.

Wesley, in contrast, insisted his converts be organized and built up in the faith. He resolved not to send preachers where he could not form societies, because failure to support new converts was like “begetting children for the murderer.” In Wesley’s view, the Great Awakening subsided largely because Whitefield’s converts did not receive adequate spiritual oversight.

Both Whitefield and Wesley (and the Moravians) deserve credit as Founding Fathers of the great revival. What is most striking is the providential complementarity of the two men’s gifts. More than any evangelist before him, Whitefield was given the ability to scatter the seed of God’s Word across the world. To Wesley, preeminently, was granted the ability to garner the grain and preserve it.”

James MacDonald writes, too, about the division between those of Calvinist inclination and those of Armenian:

“…those adversaries who are of the true faith will certainly be in Heaven.

Perhaps you remember the story of George Whitefield and John Wesley. At one point, these men were friends, colleagues in the propagation of the Gospel. But over time they separated due to doctrinal differences. Once, while Whitfield was on a mission trip to the American Colonies, John Wesley was even able to persuade the majority of Whitfield’s own church to turn away from him. Talk about persecution!

Around this time, Whitfield was asked this question, “Do you expect to see John Wesley in Heaven?”

“No,” was his reply.

But then Whitfield continued, “John Wesley will be so close to the Throne of Glory, and I will be so far away, I will hardly get a glimpse of him.”

What humility!

Brethren, when you face opposition, from even within the church, rejoice that the Lord is in control. If the opposition is in the form of skeptical questions about your family size, educational choice, doctrinal stands, be gracious – and be prayerful. But even more than that—be thankful. Divisions, especially between Christians, will eventually be resolved—melted away under the radiant beams of Heaven. Let us pray the Lord brings unity this side of eternity. “   Tony Cooke, writing about Whitefield and Wesley’s conflict and how they remained devoted brothers in Christ in spite of theological differences, states:

“The tendency of human nature, when any type of conflict occurs, is to defend oneself. After all, “every way of a man is right in his own eyes” (Proverbs 21:2). If we have theological insecurity in our own life, we not only feel a need to defend ourselves, but also to discredit those that take an opposing position. Dr. Bob Cook wisely said, “God reserves the right to use people who disagree with me.” One observer noted the phenomenal effectiveness of both Wesley and Whitfield in reaching untold thousands for Christ, and noted that in their minds, they were “convincing the free” and “harvesting the elect” respectively. Is it appropriate to have strong convictions about what we believe? Certainly, but we would also be wise to differentiate between the negotiable and the non-negotiable. Blaise Pascal, a French theologian of the 17th century said: “In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. And in all things, charity.” Perhaps the greatest deception any of us could walk in is to have the attitude, “I’m right about everything, and anyone who doesn’t agree with me is obviously wrong.” While we need to be grounded in the basic and essential truths of the faith, we all need to have the humility to realize that God has given others wisdom and insights as well, and we need to remain teachable in our lives and ministries. Proverbs 27:17 (NLT) says, “As iron sharpens iron, a friend sharpens a friend.” Dudley Malone said, “I have never in my life learned anything from any man who agreed with me.”

With time and experience, Whitefield came to understand his calling as that of an evangelist, preaching particularly to those unacquainted with Christ. He recognized, too, Wesley’s genius in forming closely bound communities of faith where accountable Christian fellowship with sound teaching would sustain new believers as they grew into solid followers. Both came to view their differences as “non-essential” elements of their shared belief in Scripture and Christ.   Would that all conflicts between Christians, no matter how tense at times, could be resolved and the parties come to appreciate one another as Whitefield and Wesley did in their dispute over Calvinism and Armenism, (which, by the way, still occupies some who refuse to grant the other the freedom to disagree.)