Methodism, the Non-Judgmental Church
Many good Christians today do not go to church any longer because they have been judged by other good Christians at church. Like shell- shocked soldiers these Christians eventually retreat from the slings and arrows of battle and wonder what went wrong. Or they stumble into a Methodist church and find other shell shocked Christians all worshipping together in a safe place. I am one such shell- shocked Christian. After too many years of being judged and ostracized by my intellectual evangelical community, my husband and I moved away and walked into a Methodist church. And the rest was history.
The Methodist folk took us in and included us in their lives. Invited us into their homes and treated us with respect. We couldn’t resist. We were part of a Christian fellowship again and it felt good. Small groups are one of the hallmarks of Methodism. And we soon felt at home in our small cozy Sunday School group. Many of our Sunday School class members had been divorced in the past. And many of these folks had been asked to leave their home churches when their marriages broke up.. But the Methodist Church was always there in the background waiting to take in anyone left out in the cold and love them in the Name of Christ.
How did the Methodist Church become like this? Why are Methodists so non-judgmental when many of its’ members don’t agree on important issues? It all started with John Wesley, the father of the Methodist Church. John Wesley and his generation inherited 200 years of religious warfare and bloodshed. In his home, he also experienced religious debates. Wesley had seen up close the damage that fighting among fellow Christians had done to the body of Christ. He wanted to change all that.. He believed that love could cover a multitude of sin and he emphasized the importance of loving one another to his new converts.
Wesley looked for the common ground and tried to build bridges with people who thought differently than he did. Instead of forming a church that leaned to the far left and fought for far left truths or a church that leaned to the far right, and fought for far right truths, Wesley’s Methodist church is a church of the extreme center! And Methodists have had to give up a lot to remain in the extreme center. The Methodist denomination has been criticized by Christians from other denominations for occupying this middle position.
Wesley wrote these words: “Although a difference in opinions or modes of worship may prevent an entire external union, yet need it prevent our union in affection? Though we can’t think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion. Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences.” These attitudes of John Wesley have been a hallmark of Methodism ever since.
The Methodist Church was born in England out of two hundred years of religious struggle between the Catholics and the Protestants. Wars were fought and for a while England went back and forth from being Catholic to being Protestant. And then back again to being Catholic with much bloodshed in between. Christians killed other Christians because of their different beliefs as to the right way to follow Christ. The Methodist Church was profoundly shaped by these warring religious forces. Martin Luther preached that Christians should love and understand one another instead of judging and fighting.
Finally, England became mostly Protestant but the question then was, How Protestant? So they fought about that. As time passed England kept on changing and modernizing and moving out of the Dark Ages into the Renaissance period which brought with it the Enlightenment! John Wesley was deeply influenced by these new humanistic ideas.
People in England who believed in the Enlightment principles would keep their membership in the church and formally hold that they were Christians. But their loyalty to Christianity would be in name only. These folks really believed that education, class status and intelligence could save a person and that Bible teachings and Christian religious beliefs were old fashioned. John Wesley and his Methodist movement had this new problem to consider. But often the Methodist answer was to take in the sinner and just add more love.
John Wesley was shaped by the new Enlightenment ideas but he believed that people should give their hearts to Christ as Savior and Lord to be saved. So the union of human reason with the desire for a personal faith in Christ would become one of the main characteristics of Methodism. Wesley believed that the Methodist Church should emphasize the preaching of the Bible. John Wesley’s deepest desire was to bring people to faith in Christ. And he rode on horseback all over England preaching in the open fields everywhere and calling people to believe in Jesus as their Savior and Lord. There was spiritual revival in England and all of England was changed because of John Wesley and the Methodist movement.
But the tensions between believing in human experience and also believing all the teachings of the Bible can occasionally be difficult to pull off. Methodists then and now want to bring the sinner into their fellowship, but if the sinner does not renounce his/her sin and if he/she ignores the commandments in Scripture, then other church members can be harmed. Some Methodist churches have watered down their faith so as not to offend others. So you can see the tension between wanting to be a loving body of Christ and still wanting to keep the Christian faith!
The Methodist Church takes her doctrines and beliefs from four sources: The Bible, tradition, human wisdom and human experience. (a four- legged stool) You may remember that the Catholics takes their beliefs from two sources: Scripture and tradition. Martin Luther and the Lutheran Church protested this belief in allowing tradition to be equal with the holy Scriptures and Lutherans claimed that they would only take their beliefs from the Bible. “Sola Scriptura” or only Scripture would guide their decisions. Lutherans in Luther’s day took a high view of Scripture.
Methodists were and are known for their singing. John Wesley’s brother Charles Wesley wrote over a thousand hymns and many of them are still popular hymns today. And Methodists are also known for helping the poor and for social reform. Methodists today put a priority on helping the poor and working to make a better and more just society. Most of the members in a typical Methodist church serve the poor, feed the homeless, visit the prisons, visit the sick, and some support attorneys who will represent the poor in court, operate homes for single mothers and children, etc.
Methodist churches typically send their youth groups out each year on mission trips to poor neighborhoods to work and rebuild and pass out food and supplies. Methodist youth come back tired from a week of hard work and happy to have been able to help where they were needed. Whereas Evangelical churches, typically send their youths out each year to nice camps in the woods usually with church services and good Bible studies along with sports and games. These young people come back more enthusiastic about their Christian faith. They also have had a week of fun and pampering. The Methodists retreats emphasize giving to the poor and the Baptist retreats emphasize a personal relationship with Christ and learning more of Gods’ Word.
As a former Baptist, I miss Baptist Bible studies. I miss testimony time around the campfire and being challenged for Christ. Baptists believe that the Bible is Gods’ living Word and they know that they can count on its’ promises. Many Methodists aren’t quite so sure. Methodists sometimes have a low view of Scripture, I believe that if we can’t trust the holy Scriptures, our faith has nothing solid to stand on and we are on a slippery slope. Many Methodists don’t seem to know what they believe!
But God is teaching us many other lessons now that we have joined a caring Methodist Church. It has been good. We are learning to love others who are different from us and not be as judgmental as we had been before. We are learning to reach out to the homeless and the poor and not to neglect these commands of Christ. The Methodist Church has many strengths and we are being blessed..
Some of the ideas in this blog were taken from Adam hamilton’s book, “Christianity’s Family Tree”.