What is a Methodist?

On Sunday June 6, 1742, John Wesley preached on the grave of his father — the Rev. Samuel Wesley — in the church yard at Epworth, Lincolnshire, England. Currier & Ives. Library of Congress. Public domain.

By Thomas Lambrecht

I have argued before that a consistent Methodist identity has been blurred and obscured in The United Methodist Church. What it means to be United Methodist varies from church to church and conference to conference. A wide latitude in what we believe, even to the point of accommodating teaching that contradicts our doctrinal standards, makes it difficult to say with any confidence what United Methodists believe. Relegating the Book of Discipline to the status of “guidelines” instead of church law to be followed makes it apparent that United Methodists do not even share common practices in many cases.

The launching of the Global Methodist Church signals a desire to reclaim a consistent Methodist identity. While we may express our ethnically diverse faith in different ways based on individual personality, age, culture, or location, there is a hunger for the common thread or the strong foundation of Methodism.

John Wesley, Methodism’s founder, was faced with the need to define what the Methodist movement was all about. Within four years of his heart-warming experience of assurance on Aldersgate Street, Wesley was beset by criticism and misunderstanding (misinformation?) from the established Church of England. In response, he wrote a short pamphlet, The Character of a Methodist, to answer his critics and define his expectations for what is a Methodist. Revisiting his definition of Methodism can help us recover and clarify our Methodist identity.

Wesley argues that a Methodist is no more and no less than a Christian, one who follows “the common fundamental principles of Christianity.” Wesley saw Methodism as getting back to the basics of Christian faith and life, which had been watered down or forgotten by the Church of England. In our own day, we can do no better than follow Wesley’s example and get back to the basics of what it means to be and live as a Christian in today’s world.

Interestingly, Wesley begins his definition of Methodism by reclaiming the authority of Scripture. Methodists believe “all Scripture is given by inspiration of God” (quoting 2 Timothy 3:16) and that “the written Word of God [is] the only and the sufficient rule both of Christian faith and practice” (emphasis original). Over the decades, the widely-held perception of the Bible has evolved from it being the Word and revelation of God, to that it contains the Word of God, to a document as inspired by God as a pastor’s eloquent Sunday sermon, to being a record of some people’s experiences with God that holds only as much authority as we are willing to give it. Wesley returns us to a high view of Scripture as our only authority for what to believe and how to live as disciples of Jesus Christ, giving us sufficient guidance on matters of faith and life that cannot be overridden by any other source of wisdom or knowledge.

Methodists believe “Christ to be the Eternal Supreme God.” This emphatic statement puts the focus on Jesus Christ as the heart of Christianity. In a day when Jesus is seen by some as only a prophet or moral teacher, and as a human being in need of teaching and correcting by others, it is healthy to return to a high view of Jesus Christ as “the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). Depart from this foundational belief and one has left Christian faith.

At the same time, while insisting on uniformity of belief on the major doctrines of Christianity (think the Nicene creed), Methodists allow freedom of thought on disputable matters. “As to all opinions which do not strike at the root of Christianity, we ‘think and let think.’” Methodism should therefore avoid endless disputes over lesser theological points. Modern United Methodism has found itself embroiled in vehement arguments over political and social opinions that are not clearly spelled out in Scripture or the creeds. We would do well to find unity in the essentials, while giving each other liberty in non-essential matters. As recent divisions have shown, however, the most important debate may be whether a particular point is an essential tenet of the faith and life of a Christian. (For example, is the definition of marriage and sexual morality essential to being a Christian?)

Wesley made it clear that Methodists are not “attached to any peculiar mode of speaking, any quaint or uncommon set of expressions,” but prefer “the most obvious, easy, common words” to convey our meaning. In a word, everyday language for everyday people. Nor is Methodist identity based on “actions, customs, or usages” that are not commanded in Scripture (e.g., a certain type of apparel, using a certain posture of the body in worship, abstaining from marriage or from certain foods or drink). Our identity is not found in some idiosyncratic way of speaking or acting, but in our common humanity as adopted children of God.

Methodists seek balance in doctrine, rather than “laying the whole stress … on any single part” of faith. We seek to develop a fuller understanding of all aspects of theology, rather than emphasizing some parts and ignoring others. Here, the United Methodist emphasis on social witness seems a bit unbalanced. Social witness accomplishes little apart from personal conversion and transformative discipleship. Social witness does not change individual spiritual lives – only the power of God can do that. Unfortunately, United Methodism has often forsaken seeking God’s power for seeking worldly or political power. The lack of fruitfulness bears witness to the futility of that course of action.

Methodists believe salvation consists of “holiness of heart and life.” It is not just saying the sinner’s prayer but embarking on a life of growing discipleship. This holiness springs from faith alone, not from following a long list of rules. The more time we spend with Jesus, the more like him we become, and it shows in the way we live. Obedience to God’s commandments springs from faith and love, not from human effort. The greater our faith and love for God, the greater our obedience will be.

The Christian life is characterized by love, joy, and hope. We experience the love of God and return our love to God. We experience the joy of knowing our sins are forgiven and we are adopted into God’s family as his child. We belong to God through Jesus Christ. We are hopeful for the future, based on trust in God’s providence. We entrust our life and circumstances into the hands of a loving Father, knowing he will work all things together for good.

The Christian life is a life of unceasing prayer. Not that we are constantly uttering words of prayer to God, but that we are continually “lifting up the heart to God,” with or without words. It is an attitude and alignment of our spirit toward God constantly in all that we are thinking and doing.

The Christian life is a life of active love. Based on God’s love, we in turn love every person with whom we come into contact, even our enemies. “As we have opportunity [Wesley – ‘as time allows’], doing good to all people” (Gal. 6:10).

The Christian life is a lifelong process of spiritual maturing. Through this process, we are continually being purified by God’s love from every unloving desire and every worldly way of seeing or thinking.

The Christian life means being committed to doing God’s will and keeping his commandments, devoting ourselves to God’s glory, not our own, in whatever activity or business in which we engage. At the same time, it is guarding against accepting or approving something that is wrong just because it has become fashionable in the world around us and allowing the “crowd” to determine how we ought to live. This last point is actually our battle in 21st century America. Too often, the church has allowed the ways of the world to influence how we live as Christians, instead of standing apart and allowing our unique way of living to transform the world.

One of our great failures as the Church of Jesus Christ is to allow ourselves to be persuaded by the “sexual revolution” to abandon Christian morality when it comes to sex and relationships. The current controversy over LGBT practices is just the tip of the iceberg. We have allowed infidelity, adultery, pre-marital sex, pornography, and sexual abuse to take up residence in the Christian life. We have failed to winsomely teach not only the “what” of Christian morality, but the “why.” We have failed to hold our leaders accountable to live up to Christian standards. At the same time, we have failed to offer the forgiveness and healing of Jesus for all those caught in sexual sin and brokenness. Surely as Methodists we can and will do better!

Wesley’s purpose was not to distinguish Methodists from other Christians, but to distinguish Methodists from the world. He promoted what he called “primitive religion,” a return to the foundational principles of faith and life found in the Bible and the early Church. Wesley’s dream was to reform and renew the Church of England to live up to its potential as a true and living part of the worldwide Body of Christ. When that proved impossible due to the resistance of the Church of England, Methodists struck out on their own direction to fulfill God’s calling.

In the same way, traditionalist Methodists today hoped and dreamed to see United Methodism spiritually renewed and reformed to live up to Wesley’s idea of what we believe the Body of Christ should be. Now that that hope and dream have proved impossible, many are striking out on their own to form a new part of the Body of Christ – with optimistic humility – where they can live out their understanding of what it means to be a Methodist Christian.

In Wesley’s words, “By these marks, by these fruits of a living faith, do we labour to distinguish ourselves from the unbelieving world, from all those whose minds or lives are not according to the gospel of Christ. But from real Christians, of whatsoever denomination they be, we earnestly desire not to be distinguished at all. … ‘Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother’” (Mat. 12:50, emphasis original).

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