Summary of the Methodist Church
The United Methodist Church is a Methodist denomination that traces its main root back to Reverend John Wesley's evangelical and revival movement in the Anglican Church, and theology is steeped in Wesleyanism. It contains sacramental and evangelical elements. In the United States, it ranks as largest mainline Church, second largest Protestant church (after the Southern Baptist Convention), and third largest Christian Church overall. In 2007, worldwide membership was about 12 million members: 8.0 million in the United States, and 3.5 million in Africa, Asia and Europe. It is a member church of the World Council of Churches, the World Methodist Council, and also other religious associations. It still remains today as the only Christian denomination or body to have congregations in every county or parish in the United States.
The United Methodist Church is seeking to create disciples for Christ through outreach, evangelism, and seeking holiness through the process of sanctification. Focusing on triune worship, United Methodists seek to bring honor to God through following the model of Jesus Christ, made possible by the power of the Holy Spirit. The flame in the church logo symbolizes the work of the Holy Spirit in the world, which is seen in believers through spiritual gifts. The two different parts of the flame represent the predecessor denominations, the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren, and are united at the base which symbolizes the 1968 merger.
Though many United Methodist congregations operate in the evangelical tradition, others are similar to many mainline Protestant denominations. Though United Methodist beliefs have evolved over time, these beliefs can be traced to the writings of the church's founders, John Wesley and Charles Wesley (Anglican Priests), Philip William Otterbein and Martin Boehm (United Brethren), and Jacob Albright (Evangelical). With the foounding of The United Methodist Church in 1968, theologian Albert C. Outler led the team which systematized denominational doctrine. Outler's work was pivotal in the work of union, and is largely considered the first United Methodist theologian.
The established Doctrinal Standards of United Methodism are:
- The Articles of Religion of the Methodist Church
- The Confession of Faith (United Methodist) of the Evangelical United Brethren Church
- The General Rules of the Methodist Societies
- The Standard Sermons of John Wesley
- John Wesley's Explanatory Notes on the New Testament
These Doctrinal Standards are constitutionally protected and nearly impossible to revoke. Other doctrines of the United Methodist Church can be found in the Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church.
The basic beliefs of The United Methodist Church include:
- Triune God. God is one God in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Holy Ghost).
- Scripture. The writings in the Old Testament and New Testament are the inspired word of God.
- Sin. While human beings were intended to bear the image of God, all humans are sinners for whom that image is distorted. Sin estranges us from God and corrupts human nature such that we cannot heal or save ourselves.
- Salvation through Jesus Christ. God's redeeming love is active to save sinners through Jesus' incarnate life and teachings, through his atoning death, his resurrection, his sovereign presence through history, and his promised return.
- Sacraments. The UMC recognizes only two sacraments: Holy Baptism and Holy Communion. Other rites such as Confirmation, Ordination, Holy Matrimony, Funerals, and Anointing of the Sick are performed but are not considered sacraments. In Holy Baptism, the Church believes that "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. It believes that Baptism is a sacrament in which God initiates a covenant with individuals, people become a part of the Church, is not to be repeated, and is a means of grace. The United Methodist Church generally practices Baptism by sprinkling, pouring, or immersion and recognizes Trinitarian formula baptisms from other Christian denominations in good standing. The United Methodist Church affirms the real presence of Christ in Holy Communion, (the bread is an effectual sign of His body crucified on the cross and the cup is an effectual sign of His blood shed for humanity), believes that the celebration is an anamnesis of Jesus’ death, believes the sacrament to be a means of grace, and practices open communion.
- Inclusivity. The UMC includes and welcomes people of all races, cultures, and ages.
- Free will. The UMC believes that people, while corrupted by sin, are free to make their own choices because of God's divine grace.
- Grace. The UMC believes that God gives unmerited favor freely to all people, though it may be resisted.
The United Methodist Church notices the historic ecumenical creeds, the Apostle's Creed and the Nicene Creed; they are used frequently in services of worship. The Book of Discipline also recognizes the importance of the Chalcedonian Creed of the Council of Chalcedon.
Distinctive Wesleyan Emphases
The emphasis of Wesley's theology relates with how Divine grace operates within the individual. Wesley defined the Way of Salvation as the operation of grace in three parts: Prevenient Grace, Justifying Grace, and Sanctifying Grace.
Prevenient grace, or grace that "goes before" us, is given to all mankind. It is that power enabling us to love and motivates us to seek a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. This grace is the present work of God turning us from our sin-corrupted human will to the loving will of the Father. In this work, God has the desire that we might sense both our sinfulness before God and God’s offering of salvation. Prevenient grace allows those tainted by sin to make a truly free choice to accept or reject God's salvation in Christ.
Justifying Grace or Accepting Grace is that grace, offered by God to all people, that we may receive through faith and trust in Christ, upon which God pardons the believer of sin. It is in justifying grace that we are received by God, regardless of our sin. In this reception, we are forgiven through the atoninment of Jesus Christ on the cross. Justifying grace cancels our guilt and empowers us to resist the power of sin and fully love God and our neighbors. Today, justifying grace is also known as conversion, meaning, "accepting Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior," or being "born again." John Wesley called this experience the New Birth originally. This experience occurs in different ways; it can be a transforming moment, such as an altar call experience, or may involve a series of decisions across a period of time.
Sanctifying Grace the grace of God which sustains believers in the journey toward Christian Perfection: the genuine love of God with heart, soul, mind, and strength, and a genuine love of our neighbors as ourselves. Sanctifying grace allows us to respond to God by leading a Spirit-filled and Christ-like life aimed toward love.
Wesleyan theology states that salvation is the act of God's grace entirely, from invitation, to pardon, to growth in holiness. Furthermore, God's prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying grace interact dynamically in the lives of Christians constantly from birth to death.
For Wesley, good works were the fruit of a person's salvation, not the way in which that salvation was earned. Faith and good works go hand in hand according to Methodist theology: a living tree naturally and inevitably will bear fruit. Wesleyan theology rejects the doctrine of eternal security, with the belief that salvation can be rejected. Wesley emphasized that believers must continue to grow in their relationship with Jesus Christ, through the process known as Sanctification.
A key outgrowth of this theology is the United Methodist's dedication not only to the Evangelical Gospel of repentance and a personal relationship with God, but to the Social Gospel and a commitment to social justice issues which include abolition, women's suffrage, labor rights, civil rights, and ministry to the poor. Because of this, Wesleyan theology is sometimes characterized as "progressive evangelical."
Characterization of Wesleyan Theology
Wesleyan unique theology stands at a cross-roads between evangelical and sacramental, between liturgical and charismatic, and between Anglo-Catholic and Reformed theology and practice. It is characterized by Arminian theology with an emphasis on the work of the Holy Spirit to bring holiness into the life of a participating believer. The United Methodist Church believes in prima scriptura, seeing the Holy Bible as the primary authority in the Church and using tradition, reason, and experience in order to interpret it, with the aid of the Holy Spirit (see Wesleyan Quadrilateral). Today, the UMC is considered one of the more moderate and tolerant denominations with respect to race, gender, and ideology, though the denomination itself includes a very broad spectrum of attitudes. Comparatively, the UMC stands to the right of liberal Protestant groups such as the United Church of Christ and the Episcopal Church on most lifestyle issues (especially regarding sexuality), but to the left of historically conservative evangelical traditions such Southern Baptists and Pentecostalism, in regard to matters such as Biblical interpretation.