Author Archives: Ted A. Campbell

About Ted A. Campbell

Professor Church History, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.

A Wesleyan Ethic of Speech

GCFA at Historic St George's UMC – Version 2

I grew up in a southern US culture that used euphemistic expressions like “God bless your little heart” to mean… Well, I can’t say what that really meant while discussing a Wesleyan ethic of speech. But I promise you that what it meant wasn’t always nice.

There’s a lot in the Bible, a lot in the words of Jesus, and a lot in Wesleyan and Methodist culture about what comes out of our mouths. The world would be a better place if we could pay more attention to the words we generate with our mouths and our keypads. But not just the world outside of our churches: in a time of Methodist rancor and division, this historic culture of carefully guarded speech (and writing) is as needed as ever.

Jesus recognized a world awash in verbal vomit. In fact, that’s just about exactly how he described it:

“… it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles” (St Matthew 15:11).

It’s a puke joke. What goes into the mouth does not defile. It’s what comes out of the mouth that defiles us. So the letter of James says: “And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell” (James 3:6).

Jesus and James describe a cycle of verbal violence set on fire by what comes out of our mouths. And, I dare say, from our keypads. The way out of the cycle is simplicity of speech: “Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’” (St Matthew 5:37). “… let your ‘Yes’ be yes and your ‘No’ be no” (James 5:12).

There is a long Christian tradition of guarding speech carefully. Eastern Orthodox bishops speak very slowly, very calmly, and very deliberately. Part of the discipline of Orthodox monasteries is to form monks in this practice of careful, deliberate speech.

Careful guarding of speech was also a central element in early Methodist life. It was enshrined in the General Rules. Methodists met weekly in their classes and asked each other: this week, have you been able to avoid “The taking of the name of God in vain”? This week, have you been able to avoid “Fighting, quarreling, brawling, brother going to law with brother; returning evil for evil, or railing for railing…”? This week, have you been able to avoid “Uncharitable or unprofitable conversation…”? It’s about what comes “out of the mouth.”

John Wesley’s sermon on “The Cure of Evil Speaking” is particularly revealing. Wesley defined “evil speaking” in this way:

For evil-speaking is neither more nor less than speaking evil of an absent person.

That is to say, you can say whatever you need to say directly to the person: looking directly in their eyes, following Jesus’ words in St Matthew 18:15-17, which was the text for Wesley’s sermon. Wesley continued: “still this command, ‘Speak evil of no man,’ is trampled under foot; if we relate to another the fault of a third person, when he is not present to answer for himself.” You should not criticize a person in a situation where they have no chance to speak or answer for themselves.

Can you imagine what the world would be like if we were to follow that ethic about “evil speaking”?

There’s one more aspect of a Wesleyan ethic about speech that should appear here. The principle is that we should not make anonymous accusations or attributions. In my study of Wesley’s letters I’ve come across his concern that his correspondents will say something like “Those who say…” without naming who actually said what they claim.

We have to name names to be responsible. Not, “Those who say we should have no sexual boundaries…” Really? Who said that? When? Without a specific reference, we should doubt it. Just as we should not speak critically of a person behind their backs, we should identify responsibly who says the things with which we’re concerned. Name a name. That holds us to a high standard for responsible speech.

Part of our sanctification is the sanctification of the mouth. And the keypad: any way in which we express ourselves. Even if the end of sanctification is the transformation of the heart, sanctifying what comes out of our mouths and our keypads can form our hearts. And we need our speech and expression to be formed by divine grace. “Come, Lord Jesus.”

(The photo at the top shows “The Old Class Room” at Historic St George’s United Methodist Church in Philadelphia.)

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Posted by on April 5, 2019 in Ted Campbell


On the Necessity of Potluck or Covered-Dish Suppers

This perhaps deserves publication on April 1, but for the same of general knowledge and preparation for the World Methodist Conference, here it goes on the feast of St Irenaeus of Lyons…

Sources: Scripture: Acts 2:42, 20:7, Jude 1:12. Wesleyan sources: John Wesley, “A Treatise upon the Godliness and Necessity of Potluck Suppers: Justified and Sanctified with Reference to Holy Scripture and Cullinary [sic] Experience” (1792; in Jackson, ed., Works, 15:393-405); Charles Wesley, Hymns of Pot Luck (1789). Doctrinal sources: Second Methodist Assembly of Reformed Transcendentalists (SMART), “Divinely Revealed Doctrine concerning Covered-Dish Suppers,” articles 325-654 (in particular). Ecumenical sources: World Council of Churches Faith and Order Commission, General Condemnation and Anathematization of Methodist Practices Involving Social Intercourse and Promiscuously Intermingled Entrées (Geneva: WCC, 1983). Secondary sources: Carlotta F. Pietister, The Meaning and Significance of the Pot-Luck or Covered-Dish Supper in Global Methodism: Compleat with Recipes (1978).

Although the quasi-sacramental celebration of potluck or “covered-dish” suppers has been roundly condemned by the ecumenical community (see the WCC statement referenced above, Read the rest of this entry »

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Posted by on June 28, 2016 in Ted Campbell


Thoughts for UMC General Conference Folks

General Conference is underway. I’m home in Dallas, following the issues, but here are a few thoughts for General Conference folks. This isn’t going to solve all the issues, but I’d ask you to consider the following.

First. A timely word from United Methodist and former US President George W. Bush:

The strongest person isn’t usually the loudest one.

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Posted by on May 11, 2016 in Ted Campbell


Do Extroverts Dominate General Conferences? And Does It Matter?

The United Methodist General Conference of 2016 gets underway in Portland, Oregon, on May 10. I recently read Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, and it enabled me at least to name one of my great fears about such gatherings, the fear that they’re simply dominated by those whom Cain describes as following “the extrovert paradigm” that came to dominate US culture and politics from the early twentieth century. Read the rest of this entry »


Posted by on April 7, 2016 in Ted Campbell


C. S. Lewis and “mere” Christianity

Despite my failures to comprehend C. S. Lewis’s argument for the existence of God, I have always appreciated his account of common Christian beliefs and practices: that’s what he meant by “mere Christianity.” Lewis wrote Mere Christianity at the zenith of twentieth-century optimism about Christian unity. He arrived at his conclusions about common Christian beliefs and practices partly by intuition, partly by his immense knowledge of medieval European culture, and partly by running his stuff about common beliefs by Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian, and Methodist clergymen. Originally a series of radio talks that aired during the Second World War, the book was published in 1952, four years after the organizational meeting of the World Council of Churches. Lewis was not directly in touch with leaders of the movement for Christian unity, the ecumenical movement, but he seems to have imbibed the ecumenical spirit of the age and he thought he could write something up, run it by four clergymen, and then present readers with the essence of common Christianity. In my estimation he did a good job of that.

We do not live in such an age. Optimism for Christian unity has long since faded. The ecumenical movement now appears as a Christian expression of a particular era in western culture that valued modern visions of global unity, stripped of their moorings in traditional cultures, in art and architecture and music and political organization. That vision is now deeply suspect and likely to be seen as a relic of a bygone era even as ugly buildings in the “International Style” grow increasingly decrepit. Some of its most obvious expressions, like the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, have altogether disappeared. Others persist, like the United Nations and the World Bank, but today these groups project more the aura of staid institutional structures than that of vibrant and popular movements for human progress. Theologians and historians today speak readily of multiple and divergent “christianities,” presupposing or stating as a dogmatic principle that there are not and have never been common Christian practices and beliefs except perhaps at the most superficial level. So discerning “mere” Christianity isn’t as easy today as C. S. Lewis imagined it to be in the 1940s.

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Posted by on July 15, 2015 in Ted Campbell


Coffee and Belief in God (It Helps. Me.)

C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity (1952) begins with an argument for the existence of God, and I feel bad about the fact that I never have really comprehended it. I received a copy of the book in the fall of my senior year in high school and I trudged dutifully through the chapters that presented Lewis’s argument for the existence of God. Read the rest of this entry »

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Posted by on July 12, 2015 in Ted Campbell


Affirming the Discipline “in Its Entirety,” or Our Promises at Ordination?

The decision of the Eastern Pennsylvania Board of Ordained Ministry today to “deem the clergy credentials of Rev. Frank Schaeffer to be surrendered” was based on a previous challenge the Board gave Rev. Schaeffer to indicate to them within 30 days that he could “affirm the UM Book of Discipline in its entirety…” (cf. I think we know what they meant, but why put it like this? Is this an unprecedented request? I can’t recall other instances where clergy (much less church members) have been asked or required to “affirm the UM Book of Discipline in its entirety.”

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Posted by on December 19, 2013 in Ted Campbell