The Social Creed: History

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The early 20th Century was a tumultuous time in the life of the Methodist Church. The Church had split decades before the Civil War over the issue of slavery. In the late 19th Century, populist and labor movements were springing up around the country in response to the Gilded Age. Anti-liquor activists and women’s suffragists were active in and out of the Church. 

Methodists experienced the largest growth in their history during the period of manifest destiny, as the country expanded continually westward. yet by the end of that century, Methodists had gone from being a frontier church to a downtown church. Different denominations had split off over the last 50 years, from the Free Methodists to the Wesleyans to the Nazarenes. 

What does it mean to be faithful to God in this period of World History? How can we be silent to injustice in this world? It is from this milieu that the social creed was born.

As Donald Gorrell writes,

In an era of unscrupulous business leaders and unprotected laborers, of political corruption and insurance scandals exposed by muckracking journalists and progressive reformers,4 the Methodist Federation for Social Service was created at Washington, DC, on December 3-4, 1907. Through the leaders and strategy of this organization the Social Creed had its birth. 

Five months later, the first Social Creed was written and adopted by the Methodist Episcopal Church. Soon after that, the National Council of Churches adopted it. 

What the first Social Creed put into words is that belief in Jesus Christ is not just about what you do on Sunday morning between 11am-12noon. Faith without works is dead. A church that ignores grave injustice is not a church of Jesus Christ. When we look at the original creed, we can see that many of the planks have been addressed by policy in this country. As well, most concern labor issues.

  • For equal rights and complete justice for all men in all stations of life.
  • For the principles of conciliation and arbitration in industrial dissensions.
  • For the protection of the worker from dangerous machinery occupational diseases, 
  • injuries and mortality.
  • For the abolition of child labor.
  • For such regulation of the conditions of labor for women as shall safeguard the 
  • physical and moral health of the community.
  • For the suppression of the 'sweating system.
  • For the gradual and reasonable reduction of the hours of labor to the lowest practical point with work for all; and for that degree of leisure for all which is the condition of the highest human life. 
  • For a release for [from] employment one day in seven.
  • For a living wage in every industry.
  • For the highest wage that each industry can afford and for the most equitable division of the products of industry that can ultimately be devised.
  • For the recognition of the Golden Rule and the mind of Christ as the supreme law of society and the sure remedy for all social ills. 
  • Since 1908, the text has formed the basis of the Social Principles of the United Methodist Church, but a creed has always remained.

Over the next several weeks I will look at a section of the current social creed each week (as time permits) in order 

The current Social Creed is as follows:

  • We believe in God, Creator of the world; and in Jesus Christ, the Redeemer of creation. We believe in the Holy Spirit, through whom we acknowledge God’s gifts, and we repent of our sin in misusing these gifts to idolatrous ends.
  • We affirm the natural world as God’s handiwork and dedicate ourselves to its preservation, enhancement, and faithful use by humankind.
  • We joyfully receive for ourselves and others the blessings of community, sexuality, marriage, and the family.
  • We commit ourselves to the rights of men, women, children, youth, young adults, the aging, and people with disabilities; to improvement of the quality of life; and to the rights and dignity of all persons.
  • We believe in the right and duty of persons to work for the glory of God and the good of themselves and others and in the protection of their welfare in so doing; in the rights to property as a trust from God, collective bargaining, and responsible consumption; and in the elimination of economic and social distress.
  • We dedicate ourselves to peace throughout the world, to the rule of justice and law among nations, and to individual freedom for all people of the world.
  • We believe in the present and final triumph of God’s Word in human affairs and gladly accept our commission to manifest the life of the gospel in the world. Amen.

What do Methodists Believe?: Of a Christian's Oath

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I grew up saying ‘I pledge allegiance to the flag, etc.’, as well as the pledge to the Texas flag. This would have horrified Christians in the 15th and 16th centuries and for the centuries before. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us, ‘But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God's throne;’ (Matthew 5:34). In James, the Apostle writes, ‘But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath; but your yes is to be yes, and your no, no, so that you may not fall under judgment.’ (James 5:12)

Pledge has a different etymology but the same meaning as oath or swearing. It is a solemn promise. What allows Anglicans who follow the 39 Articles and Methodists who follow the Articles of Religion to say a pledge is the interpretation of the those two verses cited above by the 25th article, which I will quote in full here.

Article XXV - Of a Christian Man's Oath

As we confess that vain and rash swearing is forbidden Christian men by our Lord Jesus Christ and James his apostle, so we judge that the Christian religion doth not prohibit, but that a man may swear when the magistrate requireth, in a cause of faith and charity, so it be done according to the prophet's teaching, in justice, judgment, and truth.

Cranmer and the leaders of the English Reformation clearly thought (and John Wesley agreed with them) that Jesus and James were speaking of vain or rash oaths or swearing or promises. Since the Victorian era, Protestants have used these verses to condemn cuss words, but that has literally nothing to do with what James or Jesus are talking about. 

Are you a citizen of heaven? Who is your Lord? That is the question with which Jesus is concerned. We should give to Caesar what is caesar’s. We should not be treasonous to the places wherein we reside. We should see the legitimate government’s of our land as authoritative, but they cannot save us. They cannot make our word good or feed us the bread of life. This is the point of Jesus and James and the point of the 25th Article. 

Without it, Christians would be hard pressed to close on a mortgage. How many documents did you sign? Notary publics would be pointless. Presidents and judges couldn’t be sworn in to office. All of these would be morally repugnant according to one interpretation of these verses. Instead, Article 25 shows how we must hold all our oaths and pledges and promise ‘according to the prophet’s teaching, in justice, judgment, and truth.’

May they be a lesson for all our actions. May you live ‘according to the prophet’s teaching, in justice, judgment, and truth.’

What do Methodists Believe?: Of Christian Peoples' Goods

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The Articles of Religion begin with the Holy Trinity, with the reality of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who created everything, redeemed and is redeeming the brokenness of sin in the world, and who sustains the present and coming Kingdom of God until all will be made well in life with God in the New Creation.

Wow! That is some amazing stuff. That is what gets me up in the morning for ministry. Yet our faith is not simply that God exists but that we have a life to live here and now. There are some nitty gritty mundane aspects of life that can also be articles of faith. Article 24 concerns private property. It seems moot today but has not been throughout the history of the church. There are two main points to the article. The first concerns private property. Christians retain title to their property. Property is not automatically shared in common with one another.

But it goes on, compelling us that “every person ought, of such things as he or she possesses, liberally to give alms to the poor, according to his or her ability” (updated for modern language). It is an article of faith to give to the poor. How this plays out is decided by the individual Christian and the faith community of which they are apart, but this is important.

Alms or charity gifts are not transactions. Nor should they be hoarded so as to make certain they are honestly used. Article 24 does not say that the Christian should discern between the righteous poor and the unrighteous poor. It says “liberally to give alms to the poor.”

This should be done out of faith. As Hebrews 11:1 states, “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen.” We are called to give out of faith in the God who saves us. We have been saved by grace through faith and it is not through works alone. Yet when see the hungry and feed them, and the poor and give to them, and the naked and clothe them, we give to our savior by faith. Not by logic or political instinct or by an attempt to save the world, but by faith in the Triune God who has saved the world. 

Now, we are called to do this “according to our ability”, but we are still called to do it by faith. We are called to be stewards of our property by faith. So let us care for what is ours by faith. May we, in the words of John Wesley, earn all we can, save all we can, so we can give all we can.

Article XXIV - Of Christian Men's Goods

The riches and goods of Christians are not common as touching the right, title, and possession of the same, as some do falsely boast. Notwithstanding, every man ought, of such things as he possesseth, liberally to give alms to the poor, according to his ability.

What do Methodists Believe?: Of the Rulers of the United States of America

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The head of the Church of England is not the Archbishop of Canterbury but the monarch of England. The relevant article in the 39 Articles is about the sovereignty of the King or Queen. When the American Revolution ended and the Monarch was no longer sovereign over the colonies, John Wesley did not scrap the article. Instead, he changed it for our context.

Instead of a king, we have a President, instead of parliament, we have Congress, etc..

But what is the point? Why does it matter who the rulers are? Can’t the church be the church wherever it is regardless of the rulers in power?

We have bodies. We were created with bodies. This may seem a minor and assumed point but it is important to state with theological fervor. We have bodies created by God. God became human in a body like our bodies in the form of Jesus of Nazareth.

The church is located in a specific place with a specific organization of bodies. This is politics. How are people organized together? Politics is not simply voting or parties but it is how we exist as a society and the church is a part of that fabric. In the United States, we do not have an established church anymore (though multiple states kept established churches even after the adoption of the Bill of Rights). 

Since we, as United Methodists, are not in open revolt of the leaders of the land, even when we disagree vehemently with them, we should acknowledge their authority. Even more so when we love them. Bill Clinton used to say that Democrats fall in love and Republicans fall in line. The President is the President, but he or she is not more than that. The governor is the governor and has certain responsibilities, but he or she is not more than that. By naming and including the leaders of the land in the Articles of Religion, I believe that, in some way, their power is limited. Yes, the President is the president. He has a job. I don’t have to love him or like him. In fact, I should not love him. I know a lot of people who loved Obama and I know some who love Trump. I think Article 23 should be a check on that passion. The government has authority, yes, but they are not our gods. As well, as a democracy, we have checks on the powers. We can vote someone else to office. We can participate in organized rally’s and sit-in. We can call our representatives to share our positions. We can prayerfully discern whether some laws are unjust and work to have those laws changed for the common good. 

We give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, we give to God what is God’s. Jesus said the kingdom of heaven is at hand. We are citizens of heavenly kingdom but we participate as we can in an earthly one

Article XXIII — Of the Rulers of the United States of America

The President, the Congress, the general assemblies, the governors, and the councils of state, as the delegates of the people, are the rulers of the United States of America, according to the division of power made to them by the Constitution of the United States and by the constitutions of their respective states. And the said states are a sovereign and independent nation, and ought not to be subject to any foreign jurisdiction.

What do Methodists Believe?: Of the Rites and Ceremonies of Churches

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We do not pray in Latin or Greek or Syriac. We worship in the language with which we are familiar. There are many in the congregation who speak other languages but worship in English or Spanish out of a choice. That is, because they find that they are closer to God in this language.

When we were in Hungary a few years ago, Alina and I worshipped at a small, Methodist church in Budapest. The service was entirely in Hungarian, a language that I do not speak but Alina’s heritage language. She was able to pray and worship in the language of her family and it was beautiful. They had not become Christians until moving to the states and so English was the language of her faith up until that point. 

Article 22 of the Articles of Religion guides us liturgically as a Church. It says that liturgy need not be identical but that we have a standard of the Word of God. As well, it says that changing the liturgy is not up to individuals but up to the church itself. 

The point of worship is not to please everybody but to praise God. It is finding the balance between comfort and tradition, between the vernacular and the historic.

Worship has a goal and a purpose and every aspect of worship should be aimed at that purpose. As it says in the article, “Every particular church may ordain, change, or abolish rites and ceremonies, so that all things may be done to edification.” Are we being edified in worship or confused? Are we obfuscating or making clear. 

As a preacher, I have to consider whether I talk about the Greek or Hebrew in order to edify or in order to puff myself up. Our bible is translated from languages quite different from English. Something is always lost in translation but that is not reason enough to worship in a language most do not understand. 

But all of this means that as a church, we should be continually looking at how we worship to see whether we are being edifying or not. Whether we are doing things because they bring people closer to God, or because we’ve always done them and haven’t had time to think about a change. 

If you lift your arms in praise or if you do not, God is present in our worship and we glorify God in that time by making worship as meaningful as possible to everyone. 

Article XXII — Of the Rites and Ceremonies of Churches

It is not necessary that rites and ceremonies should in all places be the same, or exactly alike; for they have been always different, and may be changed according to the diversity of countries, times, and men's manners, so that nothing be ordained against God's Word. Whosoever, through his private judgment, willingly and purposely doth openly break the rites and ceremonies of the church to which he belongs, which are not repugnant to the Word of God, and are ordained and approved by common authority, ought to be rebuked openly, that others may fear to do the like, as one that offendeth against the common order of the church, and woundeth the consciences of weak brethren.

Every particular church may ordain, change, or abolish rites and ceremonies, so that all things may be done to edification.

What do Methodists Believe?: Of the Marriage of Ministers

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Catholic priests don’t marry, everyone knows that. Some think it has always been this way, yet it was not until 1139 at the Second Lateran Council that this position was officially codified. Before 1139, most priests did not marry, but some did, and they had a roughly similar policy to Eastern Orthodox. That is, if you are married before you are ordained, you can be married. If you try to marry after you are ordained, you cannot. There are some married Eastern Rite Catholic priests who are still in communion with Rome, as well as former Lutheran or Episcopal priests who become Catholic, but it is important to remember that this was not an ancient policy when it was challenged during the Reformation. When Martin Luther married Katerina, he was not upending 1500 years of teaching but only a little over 300.

Theologically, the marriedness or singleness of ministers comes down to how we interpret 1 Corinthians 7. In 2 Timothy and other passages, a bishop is said to be husband of one wife, so there is some precedent. Yet in 1 Corinthians, Paul says that it is best to not be married so as to more dedicated to God, but if you must, marriage is good. 

For Rome, priests were to be held up to the highest standard, that is also why ordination is a special sacrament on its own.

For Protestants, it is the individual and not the institution that decides on marriage. Ordination is not a sacrament akin to Communion or Baptism. It is a blessing and a setting apart for a specific mission of Word, Table, Order, and Service. Immediately after the Reformation, every Anglican priest did not marry. Most early Methodist circuit riders were not married. 

Today, though, the tides have turned. There is an assumption that the preacher be married, or if not, they would love to be with someone's granddaughter or grandson. I have a number of colleagues who are struggling in ministry because of these assumptions. I know a lot of churches who think a pastor's spouse is automatically another pastor who will do whatever anyone wants.

Marriage does not bring salvation. Our spouse is not our savior. Our future is not unidirectional. We are not less human single or widowed. We find our hope, our future, our life in the Lord of Heaven and Earth, Jesus Christ. Marriage is not restricted from Clergy, nor is it required. Just like marriage is not required of our children or grandchildren. They don't need to marry to be happy. They can find joy in the Lord. 

I lift up my eyes to the mountains—where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth. - Psalm 121:1-2

Article XXI — Of the Marriage of Ministers

The ministers of Christ are not commanded by God's law either to vow the estate of single life, or to abstain from marriage; therefore it is lawful for them, as for all other Christians, to marry at their own discretion, as they shall judge the same to serve best to godliness.

What do Methodists Believe?: Of the One Offering of Christ, Finished upon the Cross

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Does Jesus save us or does Jesus and the priest or how does all this work? This is the question addressed by Article 20, though before we get to the interesting bits, we need to address the unfortunate anti-Catholic Elephant that quickly saunters into the room. 

As I have mentioned multiple times while remarking upon the Articles of Religion, at their conception in the mid 16th century, the authorities of the Church of England were deeply anti-Catholic. John Wesley cut out a number of articles (14 to be exact) but he left many of the supposedly anti-Catholic ones when he edited the Book of Common Prayer into the Sunday Service for the Methodists in the new country of the United States of America. 

Article 20 is different from the others in that it speaks to a distortion of Catholic dogma, not to its faithful practice. In short, the article declares that Christ’s offering on the cross was perfect and total for the satisfaction and saving of all the sins of the world. It then goes on to say “wherefore the sacrifice of masses, in the which it is commonly said that the priest doth offer Christ for the quick and the dead, to have remission of pain or guilt, is a blasphemous fable and dangerous deceit.” John Henry Newman, in the final Tracts of the Times, articulates quite clearly how this article is not speaking of Catholic doctrine (Newman actually quotes the Council of Trent to the same effect).

Okay, that is pretty deep church nerdy and if I’m losing you, don’t worry, we’re about to change directions.

The importance of this article is not found in the anti-Catholic part but in the declaration about the satisfaction of the offering of Christ. Jesus saves. Priests don’t. Pastors don’t. Parents don’t. Friends don’t. Rich Aunts don’t. Jesus saves and his offering has already been made and accepted. Theologically, this is called the Atonement of Christ. Christ offered himself for us, for all of us, for all the sins of the world. We are saved only by Christ. Not by our worship or works but by the faith of Jesus Christ, as Paul writes in the letter to the Galatians. The cross is not a sign of morbid fascination but a mark of victory over death. Death no longer rules this world and our Lord went to the depths of hell to win the victory!

This is Good News. Jesus Christ makes whole the brokenness of the world. We see but a foretaste for now we look through a glass darkly, but soon we shall see Him face to face. Thanks be to God!

Article XX - Of the One Oblation of Christ, Finished upon the Cross
The offering of Christ, once made, is that perfect redemption, propitiation, and satisfaction for all the sins of the whole world, both original and actual; and there is none other satisfaction for sin but that alone. Wherefore the sacrifice of masses, in the which it is commonly said that the priest doth offer Christ for the quick and the dead, to have remission of pain or guilt, is a blasphemous fable and dangerous deceit.

What do Methodists Believe?: Of Both Kinds of Communion

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Back before the reformation, when communion was served, the priests would receive the body and the blood while the people would only receive the body. Article 19, of both kinds, directly addresses this practice. A practice that is currently anachronistic in Catholic circles, but still is something of interest to discuss due to the common reality of people with gluten allergies or intolerances.

Most Methodist churches currently serve communion by intinction. That means you are given a piece of the bread and dip it in the cup. Most Catholic and Episcopalian churches you are served the wafer and drink from the common cup together so that there is no dipping and fewer chances of crumbs. 

A central aspect of Eucharistic theology is that both the cup and the bread function as communion so if you did only have the juice or the bread, it would still ‘work’. There is no deficiency to this. Article 19 encourages that the bread and the wine should be distributed to everyone and not reserved for some people and not others. 

Okay, a lot of this may seem pretty convoluted and I am sorry for that. If you are still with me, awesome. One of the limits of intinction is that the method makes it very difficult to only have the cup since you need something to dip. There was a recent ruling by the Vatican about the production of communion wafers that is apropos. The Pope said that communion must have gluten. Now, there is a company in Missouri (I think) that produces communion wafers with .000001% gluten in it that is indistinguishable from other wafers. Yet, this avoids the major issue about why that ruling was not really a big deal. If you are allergic to gluten and you are Catholic, you just take the wine. 

If you are allergic to gluten and you are Methodist, we have separate gluten free wafers. This is not ideal to have two separate loves. I have made gluten free communion bread before and after weeks of testing recipes, it turned out pretty good, but had to be baked fresh every morning before it was used. One of the lines in the liturgy which I can’t say anymore is that because there is one loaf, we who are many are one. I would much rather have all communion be a gluten free wafer or loaf than have two types, but this is where we are today.

Most of these blog posts have functioned to explain or elaborate on the various doctrines of the church. This is mostly a big question that there is little guidance or help from the church but for which the Articles of Religion can give a lodestar. We are to be a body which serves all and excludes none. Communion is not just a metaphor or a memory but Jesus for us, with us, in us, transforming us. Theology is not just answers. Theology is the questions we don’t know the answers to yet and the process of discerning together with Scripture how best to address them. That is hopeful. We are a part of what the future of the church will be. In the basic and central practice of sharing communion, we can seek a place of serving all in our midst, of being one body. We can also look to how we are not quite there and what it is going to take to truly be one. 

Article XIX - Of Both Kinds

The cup of the Lord is not to be denied to the lay people; for both the parts of the Lord's Supper, by Christ's ordinance and commandment, ought to be administered to all Christians alike.

What do Methodists Believe?: On the Lord's Supper

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I like imagining a martian coming down and secretly observing us. What would he/she/it say about what they see? If they see me walking my dog, who would they think is the master? If they hear what we say on Sunday morning, what would they think about the way we live the rest of the week. If they watch us during communion, what would they think that we are doing?

This is the body of Christ, broken for you.
This is the blood of Christ, shed for you.

Would they think us cannibals? What are they supposed to think goes on at communion? 

One way to start is to think about what other churches say communion means. Catholics, most famously, believe in transubstantiation. That means they believe that the substance of bread becomes the body of Christ even while it looks like bread. The wine becomes the blood of Christ even though it looks like wine. Part of this comes from the Aristotelian categories of substance and accidence, but it also comes from the Gospel of John 6:53-56

 So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him.

On the opposite side of the spectrum is the view of communion as a memorial. In sharing communion, we remember Christ’s sacrifice. It is a sign, but that is all that it is. 

Between transubstantiation and a memorial lies the Methodist view of communion. It is a sign but also a sacrament, mysterious instrument of grace. For their to be violin music, one needs a violin, but one also needs a violinist. A violinist cannot make music without a violin. A violin cannot make music without a violinist. In communion, the violinist is God, the violin is the elements of bread and wine, and the music is the grace for us who receive.

The article on communion says of transubstantiation is ‘repugnant to the plain words of scripture’, but we must remember the anti-Catholic sentiment present in the 16th and 18th centuries. The Methodist position is much closer to the Roman Catholic one than the low church memorial. We simply do not use the categories of Aristotelian metaphysics. 

At communion, not only do we remember Jesus, we receive Jesus. It is a foretaste of our heavenly banquet when we will all be fully present with God. Taste and see that Lord is good!

Article XVIII - Of the Lord's Supper

The Supper of the Lord is not only a sign of the love that Christians ought to have among themselves one to another, but rather is a sacrament of our redemption by Christ's death; insomuch that, to such as rightly, worthily, and with faith receive the same, the bread which we break is a partaking of the body of Christ; and likewise the cup of blessing is a partaking of the blood of Christ.

Transubstantiation, or the change of the substance of bread and wine in the Supper of our Lord, cannot be proved by Holy Writ, but is repugnant to the plain words of Scripture, overthroweth the nature of a sacrament, and hath given occasion to many superstitions.

The body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten in the Supper, only after a heavenly and spiritual manner. And the mean whereby the body of Christ is received and eaten in the Supper is faith.

The Sacrament of the Lord's Supper was not by Christ's ordinance reserved, carried about, lifted up, or worshiped.

What do Methodists Believe?: On Baptism

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What is the difference between a Methodist and a Baptist cupcake? The Methodist has sprinkles on top, the Baptist one is totally submerged in icing.

Okay, so this is not a very good joke. That is not the point. Any joke that highlights different denominations is going to be inherently bad. Just like any aggie jokes or t-sipper jokes. They are not funny in themselves but only funny due to preconceptions. 

Jokes, funny or not, point to preconceptions and assumptions. The assumption with Methodists is that baptism is just a sprinkling affair whereas Baptists have full-immersion baptistries in the churches themselves. Well, what do Methodists believe about Baptism?

We should start with how Methodists practice. We baptize infants, children, adults. Anyone who has not been previously baptized is up for baptism. If you have been previously baptized, well, tough for you, but you can get your pastor defrocked if they baptize you again (Not that this has happened in a hundred years, but it could. The defrocking part, that is. The re-baptizing happens more than I’m comfortable with...c’est la vie).

Why?

Why do we baptize infants?

There are two major theological reasons for this. The first is that we see baptism as primarily an act of God and not an action of the person being baptized. Baptism is something you receive. It is a sacrament, a revealed grace of God to cleanse you of original sin and to mark entrance into God’s holy body, the church. Baptism is a grace that need not be withheld. There is no scriptural moment of waiting to be baptized. In fact, when Philip explains the Good News of Jesus Christ to the Ethiopian eunich in the book of Acts, the Ethiopian asks, “Why should I not be baptized?” Philip then proceeds to take the Ethiopian to be baptized. 

The second major reason to baptize infants is because there are a number of instances in the New Testament of entire families were baptized, like in Acts 16:

“One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. And after she was baptized, and her household as well, she urged us, saying, "If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay." And she prevailed upon us.”
‭‭Acts‬ ‭16:14-15‬ ‭ESV‬‬

Baptism is a gift that is offered and should be accepted. It is also a step in the life of faith and not the end result. Christianity isn’t over when you are baptized. That is when it literally begins. 

People can be baptized as infants and fall away from faith. People can be baptized as adults and fall away. God gives us freedom to draw closer or to pull away, yet even when we pull away, God seeks us out. 

Article XVII - Of Baptism
Baptism is not only a sign of profession and mark of difference whereby Christians are distinguished from others that are not baptized; but it is also a sign of regeneration or the new birth. The Baptism of young children is to be retained in the Church.

What do Methodists Believe?: Of the Sacraments

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Translation has been a central issue of Christianity since the time of Jesus. One of the most unique aspects of the religion is its universality: God became human in Jesus Christ so that all may be forgiven and reconciled with God, no matter who they are, where they are from, or what they have done with their life. 

The latin word, sacramentum, is a translation of the Greek word, mysterion. The word, mysterion, may make you think about TV mysteries or books with detectives and murders and problems to solve. Mysterion does not mean something unknown. Instead, it points to a solution that has been revealed. A gift. 

Much of Article 16 of the Articles of Religion is concerned with what is not a sacrament. Like Article 14, there is a definite anti-Catholic bias to this that today should be read generously with an eye to the broader church Universal. It is important to remember that John Wesley did not write the articles, he adapted those that were adopted by the Church of England some 200 years prior. My own reading and understanding of sacrament in the United Methodist Church is framed by Wesley's work on the Means of Grace, which are articulated most clearly in his sermon of the same name. They can be summarized in the following way:

Works of Piety

Individual Practices – reading, meditating and studying the scriptures, prayer, fasting, regularly attending worship, healthy living, and sharing our faith with others

Communal Practices – regularly share in the sacraments, Christian conferencing (accountability to one another), and Bible study

Works of Mercy

Individual Practices - doing good works, visiting the sick, visiting those in prison, feeding the hungry, and giving generously to the needs of others

Communal Practices – seeking justice, ending oppression and discrimination (for instance Wesley challenged Methodists to end slavery), and addressing the needs of the poor

Wesley frames the sacraments into the wholistic life of the Christian seeking God and seeking to be perfected in holiness so that all that remains is love. 

Communion is not a badge or a token. Baptism is not a badge or a token. God acts through these means. God acts through other means, as well, and so we should seek God wherever God is to be find. We should seek grace, especially at the table, especially at the mercy of the baptismal font by introducing others to the mercy of Christ and the purpose of life in friendship with God.

Article XVI - Of the Sacraments

Sacraments ordained of Christ are not only badges or tokens of Christian men's profession, but rather they are certain signs of grace, and God's good will toward us, by which he doth work invisibly in us, and doth not only quicken, but also strengthen and confirm, our faith in him.

There are two Sacraments ordained of Christ our Lord in the Gospel; that is to say, Baptism, and the Supper of the Lord.

Those five commonly called sacraments, that is to say, confirmation, penance, orders, matrimony, and extreme unction, are not to be counted for Sacraments of the Gospel; being such as have partly grown out of the corrupt following of the apostles, and partly are states of life allowed in the Scriptures, but yet have not the like nature of Baptism and the Lord's Supper, because they have not any visible sign or ceremony ordained of God.

The Sacraments were not ordained of Christ to be gazed upon, or to be carried about; but that we should duly use them. And in such only as worthily receive the same, they have a wholesome effect or operation; but they that receive them unworthily, purchase to themselves condemnation, as St. Paul saith.

What do Methodists Believe?: Of Speaking in tongues without a translator

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The Methodist movement began in the 18th century as an open-air revival, peak low church, led by an Anglican professor at Oxford (assumptively peak high church). Low church and high church refer to liturgical styles or styles of worship. A high church service has all the smells and bells, incense, sitting and standing and recitation of texts. Usually the worship leaders are dressed in special garbs for the occasion (with fun words like 'chaucible').

Low church, in contrast, is exemplified by the tent revival, with extemporaneous prayers and sermons and speaking in tongues. Informality reigns supreme. In Article XIV, we see the church positioned against the Church in Rome. That article should be read from an ecumenical with an understanding of the anti-Catholic sentiments that were to be found in the 16th and 18th centuries in England. Likewise, We should understand article 15 against the speaking in tongues without a translator as not referring to any practice analogous to modern day Pentecostalism or charismatic churches. Article 15, instead, points to 1 Corinthians 14 and Paul's extended reflection on prophecy and the speaking of tongues. What Paul emphasizes is that all spiritual gifts must be for the upbuilding of the community. If they are solely for individuals, they are no longer truly spiritual. This is why it is important to have translators to speaking in tongues so that any spiritual insight is not limited to any one individual but to the whole church.

For us today, whether we practice speaking in tongues or not, the lesson of 1 Corinthians 14 (and of Article 15) is that our gifts of the Spirit must be used for the upbuilding of others. They cannot be hoarded. It is like the parable of the talents. To those who use many, much will be given, to those who bury their talents out of fear that they will have even those taken away from them. 

Or as the old children song goes,

This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine.

We must let our gifts shine, whatever they may be. When we hide them or only use them in ways we understand, we have already received our reward. 

Article XV — Of Speaking in the Congregation in Such a Tongue as the People Understand

It is a thing plainly repugnant to the Word of God, and the custom of the primitive church, to have public prayer in the church, or to minister the Sacraments, in a tongue not understood by the people.

What do Methodists Believe?: Of Purgatory

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Context is essential whenever we look at historical documents. And anything not written today is historical in some sense. A text written hundreds of years ago is not perspicacious in and of itself but needs context. The Church of England was formed in the heart of the 16th century Reformation. The Articles of Religion of the UMC are adapted from the 39 Articles.

In this context, articles against purgatory and adoration make sense. One refers to more Catholic ideas, the other to much more low church ideas. Both arguments come out of a desire to understand what it means to be a Christian and in the Reformation context, first and foremost that means to be someone shaped entirely by Holy Scripture. 

John Wesley was ahead of his time in being a protestant in the 18th century who acknowledged that Catholics were Christian, yet Wesley’s abridgment of the 39 articles does not contain the spirit of ecumenism found in some of Wesley’s other works. Constitutionally, the church cannot change the Articles of Religion and still be the Church. Overall, I think this is a good thing because I would be horrified about opening the door to some future General Conference no longer thinking that the Trinity is relevant and so cutting that portion.

What the church has decided is to provide an interpretative resolution that has been adopted, in some form, at every annual conference since 1970. I am going to include the resolution in full because I believe that these words, better than my own, help to articulate how anti-Roman texts can be interpreted in a spirit of Christian unity. (From the 2016 Book of Resolutions 3155).

WHEREAS, it is common knowledge that the context of the original Thirty-Nine Articles (1563-and specifically Articles XIV, XIX, XXI, XXII, XXIV, XXV, XXVIII, XXX) was bitterly polemical, it is of prime importance in an ecumenical age that they should be reconsidered and reassessed. They were aimed, deliberately, at the Roman Catholic Church in a time of reckless strife, and were a mix of the theological and nontheological convictions of embattled schismatics fighting, as they believed, for national survival and evangelical truth. John Wesley's hasty abridgement (1784) of the original Thirty-Nine Articles (down to twenty-four) retained seven out of the ten of these anti-Roman references (XIV, XV, XVI, XVIII, XIX, XX, XXI) in his enumeration. This reflects his conviction as to their applicability to the Roman Catholic Church as he perceived it at the time. This much must be recognized and acknowledged as belonging to our inheritance from our Anglican-Wesleyan past.

It is, however, one of the virtues of historical insight that it enables persons, in a later age, to recognize the circumstances of earlier events and documents without being slavishly bound to their historical evaluation, especially in a subsequent epoch when relationships have been radically altered. Such a transvaluation will enable us freely to relegate the polemics in these articles (and the anathemas of Trent, as well) to our memories "Of old, unhappy, far-off tales/And battles long ago" and to rejoice in the positive contemporary relationships that are being developed between The United Methodist Church and the Roman Catholic Church, at levels both official and unofficial.

Therefore, be it resolved, that we declare it our official intent henceforth to interpret all our Articles, Confession, and other "standards of doctrine" in consonance with our best ecumenical insights and judgment, as these develop in the light of the Resolution of the 1968 General Conference on "The Methodist Church and the Cause of Christian Unity" (Book of Resolutions 1968, 65-72). This implies, at the very least, our heartiest offer of goodwill and Christian community to all our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters, in the avowed hope of the day when all bitter memories (ours and theirs) will have been redeemed by the gift of the fullness of Christian unity, from the God and [Creator] Father of our common Lord, Jesus Christ (Journal of the 1970 General Conference, The United Methodist Church, 255).


Article XIV — Of Purgatory
The Romish doctrine concerning purgatory, pardon, worshiping, and adoration, as well as images of relics, and also invocation of saints, is a fond thing, vainly invented, and grounded upon no warrant of Scripture, but repugnant to the Word of God.

What do Methodists Believe?: On the Church

Here is the church
Here is the steeple,
Open it up,
and see all the people.

What is the church? Where is the church? In the scriptures, this is a frustratingly ambiguous question. Is the church the building? No, but linguistically we refer to buildings as churches. Is there church people? Yes, but church refers to a specific people. Everyone is not the church. There are boundaries. These boundaries are the point of doctrine. It is not to keep us in line but to help us from lying to ourselves. That is, as humans, it is incredibly easy to justify any action we may take. We can rationalize anything. Doctrine helps not to rationalize what is destructive.

Like drinking bleach. If I tell someone not to drink bleach, they may think me authoritarian, but I am seeking their wellbeing in a concrete way. This is what God reveals to us with doctrines like the T

With the meaning of the church, we define more to give us an opportunity to flourish as the body of Christ. We can define it in a myriad of ways that are good in themselves but do not get to the heart of the matter. 

The church is not just what happens in worship, but if we are not worshipping God, we are not being the church. We may be a benevolent organization working for good in the world, but we are not being the body of Christ and we limit what God can do in our lives and give to us. Article XIII defines the church as the congregation where the pure word of God is proclaimed and the sacraments administered. 

This means that when we stop baptizing people, we stop being the church. When we stop sharing the supper of the Lord, we stop being the church. When we stop preaching the Word of God, we stop being the church. 

It also means that when we baptize, God is here. When we share the table, God is here. When we preach the Word, God is here. We are the body of Christ. God desires us to flourish together for God’s glory in this world. As it says in our communion liturgy.

Pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here,
       and on these gifts of bread and wine.
Make them be for us the body and blood of Christ,
      that we may be for the world the body of Christ,
redeemed by his blood.
By your Spirit make us one with Christ,
      one with each other,
     and one in ministry to all the world,
      until Christ comes in final victory
       and we feast at his heavenly banquet.
Through your Son Jesus Christ,
      with the Holy Spirit in your holy Church,
       all honor and glory is yours, almighty Father,
now and forever. Amen.

Article XIII — Of the Church

The visible church of Christ is a congregation of faithful people in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments duly administered according to Christ's ordinance, in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same.

What do Methodist Believe?: The Half-way point

We are now at the half-way point in our journey through the Articles of Religion. This week, I wanted to share a place holder with links to all articles which we have addressed so far. These posts are not exhaustive but are meant as a helpful way to think through what Methodists claim to believe in the Book of Discipline (¶104). If you would like to talk more about one of the articles or if you disagree or have a question, please do not hesitate to get in touch with me. 

Article I— Of Faith in the Holy Trinity
Article II — Of the Word, or Son of God, Who Was Made Very Man
Article III — Of the Resurrection of Christ
Article IV — Of the Holy Ghost
Article V — Of the Sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures for Salvation (Part 1)
Article V — Of the Sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures for Salvation (Part 2)
Article VI — Of the Old Testament
Article VII — Of Original or Birth Sin
Article VIII — Of Free Will
Article IX — Of the Justification of Man
Article X — Of Good Works
Article XI — Of Works of Supererogation
Article XII — Of Sin After Justification

 

What do Methodists Believe?: Of Sin After Justification

What are we supposed to do with Christians who claim the faith publicly and then turn around and abuse others in the name of God? What are we to do with those times when, perhaps, we have claimed the faith and then turned around and hurt our neighbor, or even just withheld love? What happens to people who are baptized as infants and then turn completely away from God as they grow up?

One helpful way to frame questions of this sort is to look at grace. John Wesley stood in the long tradition of the church when he preached on the four graces of God. These graces are not independent and often overlap, but the names are helpful for us to understand how God works in us to transform our lives. 

The first grace is prevenient grace, which means the grace that comes before. This is the Holy Spirit in our life from before we are even aware of God. The second is justifying grace, which is the grace which makes us right with God, taking away the stain of original sin. The third is sanctifying grace, which is the grace that helps us grow in holiness that we can truly be the people we were created to be, that we can be emptied of all but love. The last is glorifying grace, this is the grace reserved for those blessed to be in the final presence of God in the new creation. 

Justifying grace is roughly equivalent to the sacrament of Baptism. In Baptism we are cleansed and we enter into the community of faith. Justification, though, is not the final step of faith. With sanctifying grace, we are drawn closer into the life of God, but we are not robots in this. We are not puppets and God is not the puppet master toying with us at his whim. God is like the shepherd who seeks out the lost sheep. For a sheep to be lost, the sheep has to already be in the fold of the shepherd, right? Jesus doesn't say that the kingdom of heaven is like a shepherd who goes out to domesticate wild sheep and then they never stray again. Sheep stray and God seeks the lost and brings them home.

We should not try to stray but we should not give up hope when we sin after receiving the justifying grace of God in Baptism. We should not give up when someone we love falls away from the faith. 

This is the point of Article XII of the Articles of Religion. Not every sin is a sin against the Holy Spirit (alluding to Gospel passages like Mark 3:28-30). Hope is not lost when we stray. God does not forsake us. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ. We have the ultimate freedom to separate ourselves from God by choosing pride over love, but God gives us every chance to turn back to him and to accept the mercy God has in store for all. 

Article XII — Of Sin After Justification

Not every sin willingly committed after justification is the sin against the Holy Ghost, and unpardonable. Wherefore, the grant of repentance is not to be denied to such as fall into sin after justification. After we have received the Holy Ghost, we may depart from grace given, and fall into sin, and, by the grace of God, rise again and amend our lives. And therefore they are to be condemned who say they can no more sin as long as they live here; or deny the place of forgiveness to such as truly repent.

What do Methodists Believe?: On doing too much

The kingdom of heaven is not a junior high cafeteria. I know you may not need me to say this but it must be said. The kingdom of heaven does not consist in all of humanity jockeying for God’s favor. We have received God’s favor through free grace. 

Once you become a Christian, though, it is difficult to not become a pharisee. The good news of Jesus Christ is so good that we can distort it and turn it into a means of controlling others or lifting ourselves up in comparison to other. It is easy to turn faith into a competition just like it is easy to turn everything in life into a competition. One of the greatest marks of the fall is the human tendency to extract self-worth from comparison with others. ‘At least I’m not as bad as that person.’ In earnest ways, we compare ourselves to others. Yet this is not what our future with God looks like. 

And this is the point of Article XI, one of the more convoluted of the entire Articles of Religion. The main word in the title, supererogation isn’t used at all any more.

Over the last 300 years, the word had a peek usage in the 1840s but is now virtually unknown. The word comes from greek, ergo, work and it means the works above and beyond. 

This does not mean, of course, that we should strive to do the minimum. On the contrary, Article XI helps us to see that we don’t need to do extra things for credit with God in order to earn points. Instead, we should maintain humility in all that we do because it is all from grace that we can follow God’s will at all, let alone happen to do good in this broken world. 

The comparison’s that matter are between ourselves and Christ, between ourselves and the holy people in our lives. If holiness is possible in John Doe, it is possible in me. Because the grace that makes holiness possible in John Doe is that same grace given to me. 


Article XI - Of Works of Supererogation

Voluntary works—besides, over and above God's commandments—which they call works of supererogation, cannot be taught without arrogancy and impiety. For by them men do declare that they do not only render unto God as much as they are bound to do, but that they do more for his sake than of bounden duty is required; whereas Christ saith plainly: When you have done all that is commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants.

What do Methodists Believe?: On Good Works

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The slogan of the Boy Scouts of America is 'Do a Good Turn Daily'. Help someone. Be nice. The qualifier 'daily' is interesting if you compare it to Wesley's General Rules of the Methodist Societies. The first is 'Do not harm.' The Second is 'Do all the Good you can,' the third is 'Follow the ordinances of God, which means worship God, pray, fast, read the bible, etc.).

I don't mean to pick on the scouts, but their slogan is far more limited than Wesley's.

In the Reformation, good turns and all the good you can would be segmented as Good works. The danger then comes if we begin espousing works-righteousness theology. That is, a theology wherein we are made right with God due to what we accomplish do. As if we can earn our salvation. This is patently contradicted by Paul in Ephesians where he writes in Ephesians 2:8: "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God."

The Epistle James also states that faith without works is dead. So what are we to do. If we are justified by faith, do we need to do works? Shouldn't we just be satisfied with a good turn daily since grace covers up all the rest?

By no means!

Articles X of the Articles of Religion begins by stating clearly that good works do not save us, but that they are "pleasing and acceptable to God in Christ, and spring out of a true and lively faith, insomuch that by them a lively faith may be as evidently known as a tree is discerned by its fruit."

According to Scripture, good works come from a heart that has been turned towards God. When you are filled with God's love, you desire to love others more than you desire to love yourself. You would rather help your neighbor than help yourself.

The question cannot be, according to this paradigm, how can I do the minimum? The question must be how can I so overflow with God's love that the fruit of good works are naturally what I desire at all times? To have the love of God and love of neighbor will all my desires. This is what Christian perfection is. It is not a life free of mistakes but I life free of all but love.

When we realize we are not doing all the good we can. When we realize we are not avoiding harm and that we are not following the ordinances of God, there is grace for us.

Article X reminds us that we must see good works. They are not means to an end but fruit of a greater end in Christ, thanks be to God.


Article X - Of Good Works
Although good works, which are the fruits of faith, and follow after justification, cannot put away our sins, and endure the severity of God's judgment; yet are they pleasing and acceptable to God in Christ, and spring out of a true and lively faith, insomuch that by them a lively faith may be as evidently known as a tree is discerned by its fruit.

What do Methodists Believe?: Justification by Faith

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I have never built a house from foundation to roof. Some of you may have, though I would not be surprised. I built a few roofs in college on mission trips with far wiser men than me guiding the way.

If you build a house or a roof or anything else and it is not square, it won't last long. A square framing is sturdy and stable against the elements. Jesus tells the parable of the man who built his house upon the sand and how it blew away, but the man who built his hand upon the rock, his house remained.

We must have a firm foundation on the rock of the truth of God. Yet we also must be made right. It doesn't matter if we stand on a strong foundation and yet are not square.

This is what justification means. Dikaosune in Greek means to be made right, to square something up. In Latin, the word is iustitia, where our word justify comes from. Justice and righteousness are two translations of the same word in Greek or in Latin. Article IX says that we are made right only thanks to the grace of Jesus Christ. We don't earn it. If we do more good things than bad, that does not make us right and square. The Good news of Jesus Christ is that we are saved by grace through faith, as Paul says.

As well, as Article IX says, this is a comfort. We should be comforted by God's grace toward us.

Justification does not mean that we can do whatever we want. This is called antinomianism (which means against the law). Grace doesn't mean you get to do whatever you want but that God, in fact, heals us so that we can truly want what we need to live and no longer want what destroys us.

You are saved by grace through faith, but that is not the end of the story. Paul begins Romans 5 by saying, "Now that you have been saved by faith..." He still has a lot more to tell the people of Rome. In being justified we are made right on the foundation of Christ for life with God now. Not only a future promise, but the present reality of the kingdom of God here.

 

Article IX Of Justification

We are accounted righteous before God only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, by faith, and not for our own works or deservings. Wherefore, that we are justified by faith, only, is a most wholesome doctrine, and very full of comfort.

What do Methodists Believe?: Free Will

Free will is a concept that sounds a lot simpler than it is. More often than not, free will is confused with free choice. That is, an assumption that freedom means the ability to make a choice between two possibilities. This is how freedom is often characterized in the modern world. You are free if you can choose between having eggs for breakfast or cereal. You are free if you can choose between being a doctor or a lawyer or a politician or a teacher. 

It doesn’t take long to realize how impoverished a view of freedom this is. For the most part, as long as you are rich, you fulfill the requirements of free choice. If I am wealthy enough to choose between options, I am free, If my options are limited, I am not free. Some see the government at fault for limiting options. Some see every individual as completely culpable for anything that happens to them. Therefore, if someone doesn’t have a lot of options in life, that is their fault. They should just be better at life. 

This is not the freedom revealed to us in Scripture and given to us by grace through Jesus Christ. Free will is about the direction of our lives, it is about our desires. What do you desire out of life? Are you trapped by selfish desires? This is what Paul calls the slavery to sin and death and, in Romans 3, he points to Psalm 36 where the Psalmist writes that no one is righteous, no not one. No one who understands. No one looks for God. They have all turned away. 

This does not mean that everyone only does bad things apart from God’s grace. Many people happen to do good, but what is revealed through Jesus is that apart from grace, as Article VIII states, “we have no power to do good works, pleasant and acceptable to God, without the grace of God by Christ preventing us, that we may have a good will, and working with us, when we have that good will.”

We have no power in ourselves to do good. When others do good it is God working in them without their knowledge, but the issue of desire is still present. Free will is the freedom to see God and follow God, the freedom to not be a slave to selfish desires. As Paul says in Romans 8:5-8, 

People whose lives are based on selfishness think about selfish things, but people whose lives are based on the Spirit think about things that are related to the Spirit. The attitude that comes from selfishness leads to death, but the attitude that comes from the Spirit leads to life and peace. So the attitude that comes from selfishness is hostile to God. It doesn’t submit to God’s Law, because it can’t. People who are self-centered aren’t able to please God.

And then in verses 26-28

In the same way, the Spirit comes to help our weakness. We don’t know what we should pray, but the Spirit himself pleads our case with unexpressed groans. The one who searches hearts knows how the Spirit thinks, because he pleads for the saints, consistent with God’s will. We know that God works all things together for good for the ones who love God, for those who are called according to his purpose.

The Spirit of God comes to help us in our weakness so that no matter what circumstance or state we find ourselves, we can follow God’s will. We should still strive for justice and the alleviation of suffering, but freedom in Christ is not about reaching a certain income threshold so that you can choose between going to Whole Foods or HEB, it is the freedom to love fully that can only come through grace. In looking at Jesus Christ, we see the ultimate expression of free will and the possibility for all of us through grace. 

Article VIII — Of Free Will
The condition of man after the fall of Adam is such that he cannot turn and prepare himself, by his own natural strength and works, to faith, and calling upon God; wherefore we have no power to do good works, pleasant and acceptable to God, without the grace of God by Christ preventing us, that we may have a good will, and working with us, when we have that good will.