What does it mean to be Methodist? With the launch of the Global Methodist Church (GMC), the question comes up regularly. Those of us who've joined the GMC have an opportunity to clarify who we are, what we believe, and what our mission is. In this short post, I'll offer several answers to the question. I'm not suggesting this list is exhaustive. But I do take these features of Methodism to be markers of a classical Wesleyan identity.
Before we proceed, allow me to take a moment and invite you to Reconstructing Methodism, a conference we're hosting at Christ Church in Birmingham, Alabama, April 26-27, 2024. Reconstructing Methodism is designed to offer the Global Methodist Church public space to reflect on the questions we face with the launch of a new denomination. What do we believe about the Bible? What do we believe about holiness? What will bishops do? How do we build and maintain a Holy Spirit driven movement? What is our mission? What does ordination mean? We'll take up these questions and more. And we'll hear from a number of key leaders in the denomination including Bishop Scott Jones, Rev. Keith Boyette, Dr. Jason Vickers, Dr. Bill Arnold, Dr. Madeline Henners, Rev. Angela Pleasants, Rev. Paul Lawler, Dr. Chris Bounds, and more. Visit the conference website for speaker topics and registration info: Reconstructing Methodism
Methodism is committed to scripture
If you read the sermons of John Wesley, you will find that scripture saturates his every thought. He doesn't simply quote the Bible; he weaves it into everything he writes. He was indeed "a man of one book," and that conviction on his part has led faithful Methodists to cultivate a love for scripture. Methodism at its best aims to submit to the authority of scripture. We happily use the language of infallibility with regard to scripture, which simply means that the Bible accomplishes what God intends it do. It operates to reveal the mind of God. And it works as a means of grace to convict us of sin, give us new life, and sanctify us in truth. In short, classical Wesleyanism aims to be a thoroughly biblical expression of the Christian faith.
Methodism is committed to holiness
Because Methodists are committed to scripture, we are also committed to cultivating a life of holiness. From cover to cover, the Bible teaches that God's grace is strong enough to overcome the power of sin in our lives. Scripture does not teach that the normal Christian life is one of consistent failing when confronted with temptation to sin. To the contrary, when faced with the question of whether believers should continue in sin, we recognize that the biblical answer is an emphatic, "May it never be" (Romans 6:2, 15). This commitment to cultivating a life of holiness is based on an optimistic understanding of the power of grace and is distinctive of Methodism. In short, we aren't Methodist without it.
Methodism is sacramental
Following on our commitment to holiness, Methodism is deeply sacramental in character. We believe that God is the active agent at work in baptism and holy communion to unite us with Christ and draw us more deeply into his life. This means that baptism does not primarily signify the faith of the individual; instead, it signifies the gracious work of God to draw us to himself and unite us to the covenant community in Christ and the Spirit. We baptize small children to signify the priority of grace: that God is active through the Church to draw the children of believers to himself before they are cognitively aware of his working. By virtue of being born into believing families, these covenant children are exposed from the start to preaching of the gospel and the means of grace. Their baptism is an overwhelmingly beautiful dramatization of the conviction that grace comes first and that we respond to God's initiating grace with increasing confidence and faith in his power to save. To be clear, the meaning of baptism doesn't change with the baptism of adults. Baptism is always primarily about the power of God to incorporate us into his mighty acts of salvation, whether the baptized person is three months or thirty years old.
Likewise, the sacrament of holy communion marks our ongoing fellowship with Christ in the Spirit. Methodists have typically been hesitant to embrace a particular theory of how Christ is present at the table. We prefer to acknowledge the beauty of the mystery and worship the One who lovingly takes us into his presence and feeds us with his own body and blood.
Methodism is trinitarian
The people called Methodist have always identified ourselves with orthodox trinitarian faith. We believe that God the Father eternally begets the Son and brings forth the Spirit. Father, Son, and Spirit are both one being and three persons. They exist forever in relationships of eternal perfect love. In the person of the Son, the divine nature and human nature are joined together without being diminished or mixed. The Holy Spirit is a fully divine person who dwells within believers enabling us to life to the honor and glory of God.
Methodism is an expansive understanding of grace
We believe that God's grace operates in our lives long before and long after the moment of conversion. God's grace precedes anything we think or do when it comes to drawing near to God. God's grace justifies us. God's grace gives us new birth and initial sanctification. God's grace continues to work powerfully in our lives as long as we live to consistently reproduce the character of God in our bodies. And on the day of Christ's return when our bodies are raised physically from that dead, that will be a work of God's grace, too. This grace is absolutely necessary because in our natural state we are utterly lost and unable to save ourselves. For Methodists, grace is more than unmerited favor. Grace is the dynamic and active power of God to unite us with Christ and reproduce his character in us.
Methodism is discipleship in community
The language of social holiness has been used in all sorts of ways other than Wesley intended. When Wesley used the term he referred to the system of organizing Methodist people into societies, classes, and bands for accountable discipleship. Methodists recognize that there's no such thing as a Christian disconnected from the Church as the body of Christ. Discipleship and growth in Christian maturity only happen in community.
Methodism has bishops
While the language varies to some degree (e.g., bishops, general superintendents), Methodist church governance is structured hierarchically. We recognize in scripture that the apostles sent people out to do the work of ministry, and elders were appointed (Titus 1:5). We in the Global Methodist Church are working out what that looks like in practice. We've learned that we need to dispense with the itinerant system, which was deeply unhealthy for churches and pastors and their families. We recognize that churches need some collaborative role in the selection of the pastor under the oversight of bishop. While those questions have been answered differently at different times in our history, we've kept bishops and looked to them as visible signs of the unity of the Church.
Methodism is mission
At our best, we Methodists have committed ourselves to evangelical mission with a view to the transformation of society. We want people to meet Jesus and walk in the Spirit and carry their witness and influence everywhere they go. Wesley's sermon "The General Spread of the Gospel" offers a lovely vision of the Methodist mission working in the power of the Spirit toward a world in which the gospel is loved by every people group.
What do you think?
Again, I offer these features of Methodism in no particular order and without claiming the list is exhaustive. It's worth recognizing that the question we're asking is one of identity. Who are we? It's crucial for GMC people to have some open and charitable discussion around that question in this season ahead of the Convening Conference. To that end, I offer these reflections. That's also why we're hosting Reconstructing Methodism in Birmingham in a few months. That said, how would you fill in the blank? Methodism is ____________. Leave a comment and let me know what you think.
Dr. Matt O’Reilly is Lead Pastor of Christ Church in Birmingham, Alabama, Director of Research at Wesley Biblical Seminary, and a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians. A two-time recipient of the John Stott Award for Pastoral Engagement, he is the author of Paul and the Resurrected Body: Social Identity and Ethical Practice, The Letters to the Thessalonians, and Bless the Nations: A Devotional for Short-Term Missions. Connect at theologyproject.online and follow @mporeilly.
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