The Five Practices, the Four Foci, Three Simple Rules – Methodists love numbering things. Of course, the people of God have a long history of makings lists: Ten Commandments, seven gifts of the Spirit, four cardinal virtues, three theological virtues. These lists are helpful ways of remembering important things, even if at times they appear to be somewhat forced. In the hope of the former and at the risk of the latter, I offer one more list with a single bullet point. There is only one way to make disciples of Jesus Christ: by persuading the intellect with reasons and gently alluring the will. So said Bartolomé de las Casas. Who was this man?
Bartolomé de las Casas was a priest who in 1502 sailed from Spain to the “new world” in search of adventure and fortune. He found both in Cuba where he became a prosperous landowner and slaveholder. However, in 1514, while preparing for a Sunday sermon, Las Casas came across a text from Ecclesiasticus 34:26-27 which states: “To take away a neighbor’s living is to commit murder; to deprive an employee of wages is to shed blood” (NRSV). Las Casas heard this text as a direct condemnation of his colonial lifestyle. His treatment of the Indians had been gentle by Spanish standards, and yet, in depriving them of their liberty, he had committed murder. In response to this word from God, Las Casas freed his slaves and became the defender of the indigenous inhabitants of the Americas until his death in 1566.
There is much that could be said and has been said about Las Casas. He has been hailed for his uncompromising advocacy for the Amerindian, pilloried for his blindness to the plight of the Africans, and studied for his writings on history and theology. On this last point, he wrote a book titled The Only Way that argues that there is one and only way to draw people to Christianity. There is only one way because there is only one God, and God does not change. There is only way because there is one human nature, and generational, cultural, and gender differences are so many variations on a common theme: the image of God. For Las Casas, the most important questions for evangelists are theological rather than technical. What is the human? Who is God? There are three points I want to highlight from his reflections on these questions.
First, the only way to make disciples of Jesus Christ is by teaching. At the heart of the Great Commission in Matt 28:20 is the command to teach, and good teaching moves the mind with reasons and moves the will sweetly. Evangelism cannot be reduced to tugging on heart strings or to presenting propositions. Both intellectually sound doctrine and affectively good rewards are required so that the whole human person is healed. Moreover, the successful integration of truth and love in the presentation of the gospel calls for the integrity of the messengers, which leads to the second point.
Second, the only way to make disciples of Jesus Christ is by living peaceably. The guiding text in sixteenth century missions was Luke 14:23, “Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in” (AV). A common mantra among colonial evangelists was “better forced to be good, than free to be bad.” For Las Casas, these arguments are nonsensical. A forced conversion is an oxymoron. The only way to make disciples calls for messengers who renounce violence of all kinds: physical, cultural, economic, and epistemic. After all, Jesus sent his disciples carrying neither staff nor purse, which leads to the third point.
Third, the only way to make disciples of Jesus Christ is by embracing poverty. Jesus sent his disciples as “as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything” (2 Cor 6:10, NRSV). Detachment from earthly goods is necessary for the sake of mission. The direct relation of poverty and grace was evident to Wesley, whose greatest fear was that the Methodist people would prosper economically and end up being a dead sect. The moment that the disciples of Jesus can no longer say “silver and gold have I none” is the moment when they can no longer say to the paralytic, “take up your mat and go home.”
What if contemporary theories and practices of evangelism were compared to The Only Way? How holistic would its approach to teaching be judged? Would it resemble the gentle and reasonable persuasion of Matt 28:20 or the forcible manipulation of Luke 14:23? How peaceable and poor would its practitioners be found? Like sheep among wolves? Or like wolves among sheep? I am not sure, but in my own experience as a Methodist evangelist, the results of such a comparison would be mixed.