Marks of a Methodist

Andrew Conard posted on his understanding of what a Methodist should believe. He included this list of essential beliefs:

  • Belief in God
  • Belief in Jesus Christ, his life, death and resurrection.
  • Love of God with heart, soul, mind and strength
  • Desire to do God’s will
  • Service to others out as a result of one’s  love of God.
  • Love of one’s neighbor as oneself.

I like the answer John Wesley gave to this question in essays such as “The Character of a Methodist.”

We believe, indeed, that “all Scripture is given by the inspiration of God;” and herein we are distinguished from Jews, Turks, and Infidels. We believe the written word of God to be the only and sufficient rule both of Christian faith and practice; and herein we are fundamentally distinguished from those of the Romish Church. We believe Christ to be the eternal, supreme God; and herein we are distinguished from the Socinians and Arians. But as to all opinions which do not strike at the root of Christianity, we think and let think. So that whatsoever they are, whether right or wrong, they are no distinguishing marks of a Methodist.

Even as he ends with “think and let think” Wesley’s list of particulars narrows the field quite a bit compared to many in the church. His strong reading of Scriptural inspiration, for instance, affirms many things that contemporary Christians question or even dismiss.

But these beliefs, Wesley would say, are not themselves the essential center of Christianity. They are in a way necessary because we cannot come into true heart-religion if our ideas about faith rule it out. But Wesley would have us be wrong in every opinion than wrong in the disposition of our hearts.

The Methodist is not identified by his or her ideas, but by his or her life.

A Methodist is one who has “the love of God shed abroad in his heart by the Holy Ghost given unto him;” one who “loves the Lord his God with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his mind, and with all his strength. God is the joy of his heart, and the desire of his soul; which is constantly crying out, “Whom have I in heaven but thee? and there is none upon earth that I desire beside thee! My God and my all! Thou art the strength of my heart, and my portion for ever!”

And below:

And while he thus always exercises his love to God, by praying without ceasing, rejoicing evermore, and in everything giving thanks, this commandment is written in his heart, “That he who loveth God, love his brother also.” And he accordingly loves his neighbour as himself; he loves every man as his own soul. His heart is full of love to all mankind, to every child of “the Father of the spirits of all flesh.” That a man is not personally known to him, is no bar to his love; no, nor that he is known to be such as he approves not, that he repays hatred for his good-will. For he “loves his enemies;” yea, and the enemies of God, “the evil and the unthankful.” And if it be not in his power to “do good to them that hate him,” yet he ceases not to pray for them, though they continue to spurn his love, and still “despitefully use him and persecute him.”

But we should not be deceived into thinking we can adopt the outward behaviors described above and elsewhere and call ourselves Christian. First, such behaviors are difficult to maintain if the heart is not in it. Second, the heart being in it is the very thing that matters.

A Christian – and Methodism from the first has thought of itself as nothing other than true Christianity lived out – is one whose heart has been made new by God through faith in Jesus Christ.

6 thoughts on “Marks of a Methodist

  1. The thoughts on what a Methodist should believe are quite helpful to ruminate on. I’m struck by what it is that people (myself included) say it is that we believe versus what we live that reveals what we believe. I haven’t read all of your posts…but some of your posts and some of those I read on other blogs that I find access to through you seem to have some un-ease with what you perceive to be a lack of conviction or is it clarity – in the people called Methodist. That’s a little curious to me – because it doesn’t look like to me that at the core of our problem is the lack of belief as I seem to read about it – but what you point to at the end of this post (though you may see this differently). It appears to me that so many times I find that the people of my parish don’t know or trust or believe the faith that they truly live out in their lives. Part of my work as pastor – a large part of my work as pastor – seems to be to remind them, help them see, the glory and the grace of God at work in their lives. My joy is that when they see that it seems to multiply, blossom and grow. I suppose I could spend a large part of my time grousing about the lack I see in their lives – which is their true enough – as in my own. Or I could focus my pastoral work on celebrating the goodness, the graciousness, the holiness of their lives that they often seem so blind to. I could help them see the way in which they are living out the faith in their relationships at work, at home and in the community. Today I met with a sociology student from IUPUI who will be doing her internship with us this school year. And it began a little rocky as she had a hard time wrapping her mind around the idea that because we are followers of Jesus Christ we believe (i.e. – we practice the belief) that grace is at work in our parish all over the place (and, of course, by our parish we both mean “at little” and the world). And that we wanted her to help us see the whole new world that God is revealing in and around us (it’s difficult with so much of the world wanting to point out what we lack – and the church too often leading the way). I have been asked over and over again by churches and church leaders – what food can they collect and bring to us, what needs can they supply? Those aren’t bad questions – except that they seem to be the only ones. Where is the request coming to us – “hey, can you share a little of the joy that happens in that place?” In the end if all we can see is the lack – in our communities and in our congregations (in our parishes) then what does that show belief in? I scratch my head on that one.

    1. Michael, thank you so much for your continued participation on my blog. Your comments really challenge me in a good way.

      I’m frankly quite torn on the question of how important and problematic lack of clarity about what Methodists teach and believe is. In some ways, it comes down to a matter of integrity for me – and maybe it is only my own integrity at stake here.

      An elder in the United Methodist Church – as you know – is asked to uphold and teach the doctrine of the church. As a local pastor – curiously – I was never asked a similar set of questions or brought up before the annual conference, but I take the the questions and vows of the ordination service as a guide in working through and thinking about my role within the church.

      My understanding – as best I’ve been instructed and self-informed – is that the doctrines of the church and the historic materials from John Wesley are meant to guide my preaching and teaching. I was called by God, but it is through this specific group of Christians known as United Methodists that my call has been confirmed and the ministry among and with a certain set of people has been set.

      For me – and this is the reason I write about it so often – fidelity to vocation includes keeping those ordination vows. I was given a license to preach by the United Methodist Church to be under the authority of the bishop and to teach, preach, and uphold a set of beliefs and ways of living in the world.

      I don’t do this terribly well. But I don’t want to let the fact that I struggle to do it turn into an argument against striving to do it better.

      It is not so much about the specific beliefs as it is fidelity to the vocation and the promises made before God. If I came to the conclusion that Methodist teaching and Wesleyan theology were wrong, then I hope I’d tell the bishop I can no longer serve as a pastor in this denomination.

      This is a separate question from your point about focus on what is lacking vs. focus on what is present, but it gets to your first observation about why so many of the things I write turn on issues of clarity and conviction.

      It may be I am caught up in secondary issues or questions that do not really matter. I’m more of a thinker than a doer, and we all know what Jesus said about who would see the kingdom. So, it may be I have turned from the proper path. But I do not see how to follow my vocation without treating questions about what I’m asked to preach and teach this way.

  2. John, I’m a big fan of clarity. And conviction. And I like to think that fidelity to my Savior, my Church, and my family are challenges that I strive to live up to and into, with (as everyone), varying degrees of success and failure. As for attempting to keep ordination vows has a lot more to do with fidelity than it does with keeping with the letter of the law. Which I’m pretty sure that every single one of us fails at. But I’m not even sure what a common agreement would look like to those ordination vows (and if you had common agreement that would be because there were probably 2 people left – and shortly one of them would be gone). I might be living entirely faithful to my belief in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. But you might think I’m not. I would daresay that Wesley was pretty darn angry that the early Methodist Church thought it could go weasely on the whole slavery issue – thus, to his mind I think, disavowing faith in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. But the Church didn’t shut down. It didn’t close. And there were those within the Methodist Church who did not keep their vows to the letter in this regard. And I’m grateful to them. To give a bow to a blog entry you made the other day – I wish there tribe would have been a bit more numerous. But I’m glad for the ones who valued love over integrity (which I think is Paul’s argument – particularly in I Corinthians)

    What I can’t figure out though – and I don’t think it’s secondary at all – is why the focus on belief of the mind and the word (not the Word) and not belief of our life and practice (which in my understanding was pretty important to Wesley). I don’t think, in particular, that thinking and doing need to be at odds with one another. But it seems to me that we are way out of balance. And that, in particular, we are way out of balance with the creative, innovative, joyful, painful, disruptive life of faith that Wesley himself led. I bet you would agree that Wesley was a doer and a thinker. Can’t we be both? All I’m saying is that I’m struck by the overwhelming amount of blogs there seem to be wringing their collective hands about the lack of professed-by-mouth faith – and very little to living that out in anything but fairly conventional (and un-thoughtful) ways that Wesley himself seemed to rail against. I’m continuously struck by mission efforts (doing) that seem to have very little connection to either thinking or a belief in the power and presence of a resurrected Savior. How can we say that we believe in a resurrected Savior and treat the poor as if there isn’t good news there – except in the bag of food we hand them, rather than intimately in their very life and communities?

    Non sequiter break: I was pastor for 11 1/2 years at Broadway Christian Parish UMC in South Bend. A congregation that celebrated the Lord’s Supper every Sunday (and had been doing so for nearly 10 years by the time that I arrived there). I went to visit a fellow pastor at a suburban congregation, Evangel Heights UMC in our area – because I wanted to talk with the pastor there who had signed the Confessing Movement “Confessional Statement.” In that statement there is quite a bit descrying the inability to unite in “historic confessions” of the Church. I remember asking that pastor how often they even recited the creeds at that church, much less, heard preaching about them. His response was — “never.” Now at our little congregation a few miles away – most of the youngest children could have recited at least the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed. Neither of these congregations were better or worse than the other. I just couldn’t figure out why someone who was so publicly complaining about the lack of unity around a confessional faith could preside at a congregation that wouldn’t have known a confession if it appeared in the bulletin on Sunday morning.

    I say all this to say that my experience is that I can’t figure out where the complaints about the lack of belief are coming from. Because it seems to me to be around people not being able to affirm the historic faith of the Church (which has changed a little bit across the centuries and millenia and will continue to and for that I praise God – at least for some of it) It seems entirely beside the point (the reciting or not reciting of the creeds that is); while ignoring the actual failure of attempts in living of the faith of which the creeds speak (and over which much blood was shed). Actually my complaint is that particularly clergy and our administrative leaders don’t even give a serious attempt at that…so intent are we on getting the words right (or afraid of getting them wrong).

    Let me say one more time that I am impressed and humbled by the faith of the people of the congregations I have served (including the one I got kicked out of – Asbury UMC in Evansvillle – my first year out of seminary). And I think that we clergy spend a lot more time arguing with each other – than doing things that I think (I think – not anyone else is as crazy as this) would help. Like what? I would love sometime for a district superintendent that I would have to come and lay hands on the people of my congregation and thank them for the life and the witness they make to the faith. Never happens. I would like for the Bishop to throw a party for the people called Methodist in Indianapolis – and thank them for the faithful living out of their faiths in their lives, in their work places, and in the communities, and yes, even in the congregations. I mean literally lay hands on people and anoint them with oil it would be the most useful thing a D.S. would have done with a congregation I served in the 25 years I’ve been serving. Would those be faithful acts of ordination? Why not?

    When my now 21 year old son had brain surgery for a tumor when he was 19 years old – I had many visits from clergy. Including a couple of D.S.’s. The only persons who ever offered to pray with us were lay folks from our congregations. I couldn’t figure that out. And then I did. They knew the faith – it was just hard to practice it.

    It is the unnecessary things I do as psstor – the anointing with oil, the praying with people, the visiting them in their workplaces and homes to thank them for the blessings that they are in the world that is keeping my vows. I wouldn’t know any other way to do it.

    We changed our summer program in the last couple of years. We gave up basketball, and mathematics, and even bible study…to encourage people to go listen to their neighbors and literally lay hands on them and bless them. It may not be the answer…but I think we are headed in the right direction.

    I thank you for listening and giving me a chance to try to get some of these things down in black and white so that I can work out my own expression of gratitude for the grace and power of God at work in my life, for the most part in spite of me.

    1. Just a couple thoughts because it is late.

      First, thank you for using this space to think out loud and in black and white. I find your thoughts grace filled.

      Second, I bet a lot of us bloggers are focussed on words and such because we are people who find writing an important way to engage with God. It may be a symptom of our love of words that we think everyone else should pay as much attention to them as we do. (That does not deal with the non-confessional Confessing types.)

      Finally, I hear John Wesley in my ears. Doctrine and right opinions are but the most slender part of true religion. It is better to have wrong opinions with love than right opinions without love. Or the epistle from James that I have been reading tonight: “Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.”

      Peace be with you through this night.

  3. “Wesley would have us be wrong in every opinion than wrong in the disposition of our hearts.”

    Well said! Coming from the perspective of a closely related Wesleyan denomination — Church of the Nazarene — I am in much agreement with your post. I would echo your sentiment that many of today’s Christians (regardless of affiliation) are quick to dismiss.

    It’s easy to see how all-important the concept of love for God and others was to Wesley. He came back to it over and over, indeed tying to his concept of Christian perfection — what we in the Nazarene church call entire sanctification — to love:

    “nothing higher and nothing lower than this,–the pure love of God and man; the loving God with all our heart and soul, and our neighbour as ourselves. It is love governing the heart and life, running through all our tempers, words, and actions.”

    I agree with you as well in regards to the deception implicit in thinking we can adopt the behaviors Wesley describes on merely an outward basis. The heart being in it is, I think, precisely the point Wesley gets at throughout the body of his writing when he refers to purity of intention. To me, this seems a matter of submission. A Christian who has fully submitted their heart to God will have no trouble in having their heart filled with love. As a Christian matures, increasing and deepening levels of surrender are what make the listener receptive to God’s ongoing works of grace, with the end result of love filling them.

    1. Thank you for stopping by, Chad. I think we Methodists do well to keep in touch with our brother and sister Wesleyan denominations. They help us all stay focussed on the heart of the matter.

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