The People Called Methodists
Many newcomers ask us about the differences and similarities between the Methodist church and other Christian churches. Here are some aspects of the Methodist church that may answer some of your questions.
- At the risk of stating the obvious, we’re Christians.
- There are 8 million United Methodists in the United States and another 3.5 million in countries around the world. The Methodist family, however, numbers more than 70 million worldwide, and more than 12 million in the United States. Our particular branch of this larger family, the United Methodist Church, is the largest.
- Both women and men can serve as clergy/pastors. Methodists believe we are all in ministry together. Our decision-making bodies always include clergy and lay church members.
- Like other Protestant churches, Methodists celebrate two sacraments: Baptism and Communion (sometimes also called Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper). Our communion table is open to all. Yes, that really means everyone.
- Methodists believe that many of the things that separate people from each other are more important to them than they are to God. One of our founders, John Wesley, once said something we take seriously to heart today: In essentials: unity; in non-essentials: diversity; in all things: charity.
- Our name, Methodist, at first was a term meant to ridicule our theological founders, who believed in a systematic way of practicing the Christian faith. It was something they referred to as “practical divinity” and the emphasis on spiritual practicality and application is still something that characterizes us today. These earliest Methodists were quite intentional in living their faith by:
- The study of scripture and other works of theology
- Works of mercy
- Regularly receiving Holy Communion
- Christian conferencing (a dated way of saying that they gathered regularly with one another to encourage each other and hold each other accountable in their Christian life and faith)
- Financial generosity
Methodists to this day find these means of grace to be essential. At Christ Church, you will find regular and plentiful opportunities to engage in these central practices of the Christian faith.
Where Did It All Begin?
Since Methodists are Christians, that means we trace our origins with Judaism. It’s important to remember these basic points:
- Jesus of Nazareth, a Jew, was born in what we now call the Middle East between 7 and 2 B.C.E. (Before the Common Era). (Note: You probably recognize years “B.C.” and “A.D.,” but scholars now refer to years “Before the Common Era” and in the “Common Era.”)
- Jesus ministered in ancient Israel preaching, teaching, healing and causing controversy. He stood in a long line of great prophets of Israel, and those in the early church turned to the words of Isaiah to describe his ministry. They believed, as do we today, that he came to: “preach good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, and to announce that the time had come when [God] would save all people. He healed the sick, fed the hungry, and ate with sinners.” That is our spiritual legacy.
- Jesus invited everyone (literally) to participate in the coming kingdom of God.
- He welcomed the social outcasts and those considered sinners when others would not, extending to them love in the present and hope for the future.
- His regular challenges of the power structures of his day led to his arrest by the authorities – after his closest friends betrayed and abandoned him. He died as an enemy of the Roman state sometime between 26-36 C.E.
- He forgave his executioners and those who reviled him, with his dying breath. He refused to exact revenge, and insisted that all who would be his disciples should practice this forgiveness and reconciliation and live peaceably in the world.
- After burial, he rose from the dead and appeared multiple times to his followers.
The Early Church
There is much to the story of how Christianity took root, but here are some basic points on the timeline:
- The early apostles spread the “Good News” (a term you’ll hear often in Christian churches) throughout their world, baptizing others in the name of Jesus, breaking bread, sharing wine, serving the poor and building community. Yet, it’s important to remember that Jesus’ earliest followers were Jews, like Jesus himself. The Christian movement did not seek a break with its Jewish roots or heritage. That break – a later, sad historical reality – was neither Jesus’ intention nor that of his earliest followers.
- The story spread by word of mouth, and it wasn’t until perhaps 80 to 100 years after Jesus died that people started recording the literature that has become the New Testament.
- In the first century C.E., Christianity was an underground movement – a fringe, radical movement within Judaism, often persecuted by religious and civil authorities alike.
- A significant shift in this history took place in 312 C.E. That’s when Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity. Churches were organized across the Roman Empire, with bishops presiding over cities and geographic areas. The once fringe group was now the official religion of the empire.
- Later, in the year 1054 C.E., another seismic shift took place in Christian history: the church in the eastern part of the world and the western part of the world split over theological differences. The story is much too complicated to retell here, but from this point on our story develops as part of western Christianity, which was centered in Rome under the leadership of its bishop, otherwise known as the Pope.
The Protestant Reformation
You’ve probably heard of Protestants, but what were the original Protestants protesting? The answer is that they had many concerns about the direction of the Church.
- In 1517 Martin Luther, a German priest/monk/theologian captured the feelings and thoughts of many European Christians in his now famous 95 theses, which he pinned to the door of the university church in Wittenberg.
- Other reformers in various European countries followed (John Calvin in France; Ulrich Zwingli in Switzerland, for example). They took somewhat different paths, but these are the key issues they all tried to address:
- Correcting questionable practices of the church
- Challenging the singular authority of the pope
- Establishing the Bible as the foundational source of Christian faith and practice
- Making the message of Jesus more accessible to ordinary people (for instance, replacing Latin as the sole language of worship and having Bibles in the languages of the people)
- Allowing priests (soon known as ministers) to marry
This Protestant Reformation ultimately led to Lutherans, Baptists, Huguenots, Presbyterians and other denominations.
Inevitably the Reformation moves to England . . . and eventually to America
Martin Luther emboldened many people, including King Henry VIII, who broke with the Roman Church (the great tale of marital intrigue is an oversimplification of the story) to form the Church of England, later also known as the Anglican Church or as the Episcopal Church in the United States. That was in the 1530s.
Skip ahead two centuries, and we’re finally ready to meet the Methodists.
- In 1729, brothers John and Charles Wesley, who were Anglican priests, joined others from Oxford University in England in a religious study group, literally the “Holy Club.”
- Members were so methodical in their practices, that outsiders mockingly called them “Methodists,” proving that taunts and bullying aren’t anything new. The holy club that began in a college dorm room soon spreads throughout the British Isles and eventually to British colonies around the world, including America. This Methodist movement began as a renewal movement within the Church of England.
- When the American Revolution began, Anglican clergymen were forced to abandon 15,000 Methodist church members in the colonies.
- The Wesleys and other Methodist leaders pleaded with the Bishop of London to send clergy to the colonies. When he refused, John Wesley ordained ministers on his own authority to meet the spiritual needs of the growing Methodist community.
- The Methodist Episcopal Church in America was established as a result in 1784. Lots of twists and turns over the next two centuries led us to today’s United Methodist Church, but explaining them is best left for another day.