The writers of the notes found in the Wesley Study Bible (CEB) rightly point out that the admonition found in chapter 17 verse 1 to avoid causing another to "trip and fall into sin" is accompanied by an instruction to be sensitive to each other. Indeed, throughout our pursuit of personal holiness we must avoid behaviors and actions that might cause another to "stumble." However, we are also told in verse 3 that we are to warn our brother or sister when they sin. Then, of course, should they heed our warning and "change their hearts and lives," we are to forgive them...both as often as we are asked for forgiveness and even when we are not.
Faithfulness to living lives of love and forgiveness, as illustrated here by Jesus to the disciples, sounds simple enough but is by no means easy. This is why the apostles said to Jesus, "Increase our faith!" (v. 5) In my estimation, we in the church today need to make this same request in earnest.
Jesus, increase our faith!
There is a balancing that must be achieved when we accept the Christian responsibility of disciplining one another. In true Wesleyan fashion, our approach should be one that is "both/and" rather than "either/or." In other words, we both demonstrably live lives of love and forgiveness and ask others to do the same. Sadly, it seems that our approach is off kilter.
Our focus (or at least what social media and the press would have you believe) tends toward, "Either change your hearts and lives or you will stand in judgment." Obviously, there is truth in this statement. But, when it can also be legitimately interpreted as, "Do as we say, not as we do," we have missed the point.
Wesleyan theology and Methodist history together emphasize our responsibility as Christians to "watch over one another in love," and to "discipline one another" when necessary. However, an extremely important aspect of this, one that needs to be reclaimed in the church today, is that such accountability was lived in a small group experience among people who were a community in the truest sense of the word. They were not mere acquaintances who self-identified as Christians, rather they were brothers and sisters united in close Christian fellowship. The very heart of this experience known as the "class meeting" was soul-tending. The members would begin these meetings with the question, "What known sins have you committed since our last meeting?" Of these meetings, Francis Asbury is quoted as saying that the "most profitable exercise of any is a free inquiry into the state of the heart."
The state of the heart is what matters most to God, so it should also matter most to us. Call me a cynic, but much of the rhetoric in the church today doesn't seem to reflect this truth. If it did, we wouldn't spend so much time arguing over issues we believe might be threatening the church. What if, instead, we spent that time doing what we are really called to do?
Loving our neighbors.
Reflecting on this chapter has helped me realize that, in spite of my desire to live in authentic Christian community with those I care about, I do very little soul-tending. And so, I am feeling compelled to make more time to ask those around me, "How is your life with God?"
How about you?