You do not have to agree with all of the beliefs and positions of The United Methodist Church to be a United Methodist. However, you do need to agree upon some of the central issues of Christian faith. The founder of Methodist movement, John Wesley, preached a sermon titled, Catholic Spirit, in which he addresses this question. He asserts that if believers are of one mind about a few things, there is room for disagreement in others. Beliefs that are to be held in common include:
- 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.
One of the hallmarks of being a United Methodist is that we seek the good on both sides of any number of issues that face the church and world today. United Methodists are of one mind about the above list and hold in tension those more trivial idea about which there are disagreement.
9 replies on “Do I have to believe all the beliefs in Methodism to be a Methodist?”
The catholic spirit sermon actually is a clever rhetorical device that is widely misunderstood by many in the Methodist movement. Rather than being a bastion of broad mindedness, Wesley actually articulates in very precise terms what kinds of things must be non negotiable. For example, you mentioned that belief in the life death and Resurrection of Christ is a requirement. Wesley would agree but he would say (and does so in the Catholic spirit document), that this doesn’t go far enough. He asserts plainly that we must believe in a particular Jesus, who accomplished a particular task – namely that of an atoning sacrifice. The sermon asserts strongly that to be a Christian of any sort you must believe in the atoning work of Christ, renouncing all claims to righteousness or the ability to inherit eternity outside of his saving work on the Christ. In essence Wesley is asserting that we must follow a specific Jesus Christ, not just a Generic one. He must be believed in faith to be both Lord and Savior. Here are some of the relevant passages where Wesley makes his case for the bare minimum a person must believe to be considered a fellow Christian. It is important to note that these definitions would no doubt exclude many in today’s culture who would claim the name.
The first thing implied is this: Is thy heart right with God? Dost thou believe his being and his perfections? his eternity, immensity, wisdom, power? his justice, mercy, and truth? Dost thou believe that he now “upholdeth all things by the word of his power?” and that he governs even the most minute, even the most noxious, to his own glory, and the good of them that love him? hast thou a divine evidence, a supernatural conviction, of the things of God? Dost thou “walk by faith not by sight?” looking not at temporal things, but things eternal?
13. Dost thou believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, “God over all, blessed for ever?” Is he revealed in thy soul? Dost thou know Jesus Christ and him crucified? Does he dwell in thee, and thou in him? Is he formed in thy heart by faith? having absolutely disclaimed all thy own works, thy own righteousness, hast thou “submitted thyself unto the righteousness of God, which is by faith in Christ Jesus? Art thou “found in him, not having thy own righteousness, but the righteousness which is by faith?” And art thou, through him, “fighting the good fight of faith, and laying hold of eternal life?”
14. Is thy faith filled with the energy of love? Dost thou love God (I do not say “above all things,” for it is both an unscriptural and an ambiguous expression, but) “with all thy heart, and with all thy mind, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength?” Dost thou seek all thy happiness in him alone? And dost thou find what thou seekest? Does thy soul continually “magnify the Lord, and thy spirit rejoice in God thy Saviour?” having learned “in everything to give thanks, dost thou find “it is a joyful and a pleasant thing to be thankful?” Is God the centre of thy soul, the sum of all thy desires? Art thou accordingly laying up thy treasure in heaven, and counting all things else dung and dross? hath the love of God cast the love of the world out of thy soul? Then thou art “crucified to the world;” thou art dead to all below; and thy “life is hid with Christ in God.”
15. Art thou employed in doing, “not thy own will, but the will of him that sent thee” –of him that sent thee down to sojourn here awhile, to spend a few days in a strange land, till, having finished the work he hath given thee to do, thou return to thy Father’s house? Is it thy meat and drink “to do the will of thy Father which is in heaven?” Is thine eye single in all things? always fixed on him? always looking unto Jesus? Dost thou point at him in whatsoever thou doest? in all thy labour, thy business, thy conversation? aiming only at the glory of God in all, “whatsoever thou doest, either in word or deed, doing it all in the name of the Lord Jesus; giving thanks unto God, even the Father, through him?”
16. Does the love of God constrain thee to serve him with fear, to “rejoice unto him with reverence?” Art thou more afraid of displeasing God, than either of death or hell? Is nothing so terrible to thee as the thought of offending the eyes of his glory? Upon this ground, dost thou “hate all evil ways,” every transgression of his holy and perfect law; and herein “exercise thyself, to have a conscience void of offence toward God, and toward man?”
17. Is thy heart right toward thy neighbour? Dost thou love as thyself, all mankind, without exception? “If you love those only that love you, what thank have ye?” Do you “love your enemies?” Is your soul full of good-will, of tender affection, toward them? Do you love even the enemies of God, the unthankful and unholy? Do your bowels yearn over them? Could you “wish yourself” temporally “accursed” for their sake? And do you show this by “blessing them that curse you, and praying for those that despitefully use you, and persecute you?”
18. Do you show your love by your works? While you have time as you have opportunity, do you in fact “do good to all men,” neighbours or strangers, friends or enemies, good or bad? Do you do them all the good you can; endeavouring to supply all their wants; assisting them both in body and soul, to the uttermost of your power? –If thou art thus minded, may every Christian say, yea, if thou art but sincerely desirous of it, and following on till thou attain, then “thy heart is right, as my heart is with thy heart.”
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Being a Methodist has never been based in “belief”. The emphasis of Methodism from its beginnings has been on practice, how you live your life in the world as one who wants to be a Christian. Recall the General Rules in which Wesley states the only requirement for joining a Methodist society was a “desire to be saved from your sins and to flee the wrath to come.” Once in the society, through the catechesis and community experienced in the class meeting, members learned learned how to live in the world as followers of Jesus Christ by doing no harm, doing good, and attending upon the ordinances of God (worship, the Lord’s Supper, ministry of the Word, prayer, searching the Scriptures, and fasting). In the course of life in the class and society meeting Methodists learned basic Christian doctrine through singing Charles Wesley hymns and listening to the preaching of Wesley brothers and the other Methodist preachers. The goal of Methodism is holiness of heart and life, not whether you properly believe everything that is in the Articles of Religion.
This is not to say that doctrine is not important. It is vitally important because orthopraxis neseccarily follows from orthodoxy. We cannot have one without the other. This is why Wesley wrote in the introduction to his “Thoughts Upon Methodism”:
“I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid, lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case, unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.”
The three, doctrine, spirit, and discipline, are interrelated and integral to Methodism. One of the reasons we have gotten ourselves to where we are today in North America and Europe is that Methodists have focused exclusively on doctrine and belief to the utter neglect of spirit and discipline.
To “desire to be saved from your sins and to flee the wrath to come” requires holding a number of theological prerequsits including:
God’s eventual judgement of humanity,
and the possiblilty of salvation through the Christian gospel.
So with all duie respect, your arguement is based on glossing over the latent theolgical underpinnings withing the General Rules themselves.
Methodists practice what we practice because we believe what we believe.
I highly recommend you go back and re-read Part 2 of the Book of Discipline as well as the Standard Sermons so you can regain a more accurate and comprehensive on Mr. Wesley and the early Methodist.
To tag along to the above, it is very clear that there are a number of explicit and implicit theological beliefs in the General Rules, which most of us need to think through more carefully than we have. Certainly I won’t have any desure to “flee that wrath to come” unless I have a whole constellation of specific beliefs about God, eschatology, sin, forgiveness and so on.
I think we should push the question back further still, from Wesley, through Anglicanism to the Ancient Church. In the West the traditional faith statement affirmed by candidates for baptism is The Apostles’ Creed (true in Wesley’s revision of The Book of Common Prayer, and still true in our own UM liturgy). So, it would seem that the most fundamental level of belief required for joining the Church is belief in the Creed – the Trinitarian God of the creed and the catholic/universal church that affirms this creed.
By tradition since the early 4th Century, the affirmation of faith used at the service of Word and Table is the Nicene Creed. This creed covers much the same ground, but gives us a little more detail about the Triune nature of God, the salvific nature of Christ’s work, the prophetic nature of the Scripture, and the glories of the coming Kingdom. It seems to me that the logic of the liturgy suggests that the Nicene Creed is the basic level of belief for the mature Christian, active in the Church over the long haul (as opposed to a newly baptized member or a new believer).
Finally there is the (very important and too often neglected in our day) question of what one must believe to be a pastor. Here the logic of the liturgy – in the examination questions of the ordination service (again in Wesley’s own revision of the prayerbook and in our current UM liturgy) – gives us another answer: one must believe United Methodist doctrine (particularly, the Articles of Religion, the Confession of Faith, the Standard Sermons, the Notes on the NT, and the General Rules – as put forth & exposited in the doctrinal section of the Discipline). This being the case, it is a bit distressing how comparatively little time and focus were given to these documents in my “official” United Methodist seminary education. But I’m hopeful that these documents will recover their practical importance as the question of corporate identity becomes more and more pressing.
The General Rules are not derived from any creed or doctrinal statements. Wesley developed them from Jesus’ commands: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength…You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:30-31). In other words, the General Rules are all about love; they are a recipe for holiness.
Wesley understood that right belief does not necessarily lead to righteous behavior. This is why the emphasis of early Methodism was on teaching Christian faith through the disciplined practices of loving God and loving the neighbor. The General Rules served as a rule of life that, when combined with the discipline and catechesis of the class meeting and preaching heard in the society meetings, formed the Methodists into disciples of Jesus Christ. In other words, Wesley learned through experience that belief came through practice of the means of grace (works of mercy and works of piety) in a community of mutual accountability and support.
There has never been a doctrinal “test” for membership in Methodist societies or in the Methodist Church. We are not a confessional tradition. This in no way implies that doctrine is not important. Wesley was very concerned that the proper teaching of Christian doctrine be done in the class and society meetings. He required his preachers to study the doctrines of the Church and to teach an preach in accordance with the same. I contend that one of the reasons for the current decline experienced by Methodism in America and Europe is that the teaching and preaching of Christian doctrine is nearly absent from our churches. Combine this “doctrinal amnesia” with complete lack of discipline and you have a recipe for decline.
There is no doctrinal test? What about the historic questions asked for anyone wanting to become a member, and for parents assuming the responsibility of their children at baptism. Those questions come straight out of the historic creeds, they are completely and utterly creedal, and without their recitation and affirmation individuals are not properly admitted into communion with the Methodist Church. See belowfrom the book of discipline.
When persons unite as professing members with a local United Methodist church, they profess their faith in God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth; in Jesus Christ his only Son, and in the Holy Spirit. Thus, they make known their desire to live their daily lives as disciples of Jesus Christ. They covenant together with God and with the members of the local church to keep the vows which are a part of the order of confirmation and reception into the Church…
These are doctrinal tests, they are required confessions, and while we do not require beliefs for example on the interpretation of Scripture, or eschatology – we certainly have very deeply held doctrinal standards and membership tests…
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