The Character of a Methodist

11755888_10206331994451834_2931784041095489580_nIf you have spent any time speaking with a United Methodist about theology, this has come up. Often it is used as a defense of having ideas outside the stated doctrine of the UMC, outside of orthodoxy (orthodoxy here is contained in the Nicaean Creed so that we have a working definition from the start), outside of scripture, or some combination of those and others. Like most things in our sound bite world, this is taken well out of context, and upon reading all that was written, you may find yourself surprised at what Wesley went on to say. You can find the entire writing here.
I am going to pull out a few surprising (to some) quotes out of here and briefly comment on them. Also, while not related to scripture, it is related to posts here and here in that they show an ongoing trend to pick and choose what we want to listen to and quote, rather than taking the time to understand the larger whole of what is being said. Because of that ongoing trend, we not only have a poor understanding of scripture, but also of the one whose theology we purport to follow. I encourage you to read the entire “Character of a Methodist” by Wesley, but here are some choice phrases.

And the tree is known by its fruits. For as he loves God, so he keeps his commandments; not only some, or most of them, but all, from the least to the greatest. He is not content to “keep the whole law, and offend in one point;” but has, in all points, “a conscience void of offence towards God and towards man.” Whatever God has forbidden, he avoids; whatever God hath enjoined, he doeth; and that whether it be little or great, hard or easy, joyous or grievous to the flesh. He “runs the way of God’s commandments,” now he hath set his heart at liberty. It is his glory so to do; it is his daily crown of rejoicing, “to do the will of God on earth, as it is done in heaven;” knowing it is the highest privilege of “the angels of God, of those that excel in strength, to fulfill his commandments, and hearken to the voice of his word.”

Yep, that same guy who said think and let think, said the above about the character of a Methodist. One would rightly infer that Wesley considered all of God’s (notice here that Wesley uses God’s rather than Christ’s. While Christ’s commands are included as He and the Father are one, he takes care to ensure that we understand this is more than only the commands of Jesus) commands as worthy of following. A casual familiarity with the rest of Wesley’s writings and theology reveals that he refers to the moral law, not the ceremonial. (Yes, the character of a Methodist may properly be expressed in eating bacon.)

“4. Nor, lastly, is he distinguished by laying the whole stress of religion on any single part of it. If you say, “Yes, he is; for he thinks ‘we are saved by faith alone:'” I answer, You do not understand the terms. By salvation he means holiness of heart and life. And this he affirms to spring from true faith alone. Can even a nominal Christian deny it? Is this placing a part of religion for the whole? “Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid! Yea, we establish the law.” We do not place the whole of religion (as too many do, God knoweth) either in doing no harm, or in doing good, or in using the ordinances of God. No, not in all of them together; wherein we know by experience a man may labour many years, and at the end have no religion at all, no more than he had at the beginning. Much less in any one of these; or, it may be, in a scrap of one of them: Like her who fancies herself a virtuous woman, only because she is not a prostitute; or him who dreams he is an honest man, merely because he does not rob or steal. May the Lord God of my fathers preserve me from such a poor, starved religion as this! Were this the mark of a Methodist, I would sooner choose to be a sincere Jew, Turk, or Pagan.”

Sorry, again, God’s moral law is not made void through faith. Notice Wesley reminds us it is more than the popular sound bite ‘do no harm’ or ‘good works’ or even by keeping the ordinances of God. More than any of these things alone. Wesley reminds us it is not just the holiness of our actions, it is not even just the holiness of our heart, or the holiness of our beliefs, but a combination of all.

“1. THE distinguishing marks of a Methodist are not his opinions of any sort. His assenting to this or that scheme of religion, his embracing any particular set of notions, his espousing the judgment of one man or of another, are all quite wide of the point. Whosoever, therefore, imagines that a Methodist is a man of such or such an opinion, is grossly ignorant of the whole affair; he mistakes the truth totally. We believe, indeed, that “all Scripture is given by the inspiration of God;” and herein we are distinguished from Jews, Turks, and Infidels. We believe the written word of God to be the only and sufficient rule both of Christian faith and practice; and herein we are fundamentally distinguished from those of the Romish Church. We believe Christ to be the eternal, supreme God; and herein we are distinguished from the Socinians and Arians. But as to all opinions which do not strike at the root of Christianity, we think and let think. So that whatsoever they are, whether right or wrong, they are no distinguishing marks of a Methodist.”

Even in the very paragraph that the quote is cherry picked from, we find a treasury of interesting observations from Wesley. We find that all scripture is inspired by God and is the only…let that sink in…ONLY and sufficient rule for Christian faith and practice. Christ is eternal (note that eternal is without end, but also without beginning). Sorry, but anything that denies the eternal nature of Christ is not in The Character of a Methodist, at least to Wesley. Those are just a few of the things Wesley believed were at the root of Christianity.

There is a lot more there and it is a phenomenal read that can help a great deal in understanding our character, origin and history. This does include updated language to aid in understanding, I am sure that you can find the original online or for a reasonable price. While not officially a part of Sermons on Several Occasions and therefore not official UMC doctrine, you will find those ideas outlined in several of Wesley’s sermons and also in the Articles of Religion and the Confession of the EUB. (All these can be found here) Take some time. Read a little. Find out where we came from and who this people called Methodist actually are and what they actually claim to believe, and how steeped in doctrine and theology (good theology even) they actually are. Read it all, don’t pick and choose quotes, and understand the full richness and meaning of our beliefs. They might just surprise you.

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8 Replies to “The Character of a Methodist”

  1. Great article and presentation of Wesley’s thoughts. I agree with your interpretation of the Character of a Methodist. I’ve often wondered though whether Wesley would have stuck to this very broad definition of a Methodist later in life, just because I know this work was written very early in the movement’s history. I wonder if Wesley might have written more on some the specific ideas that came to identify the Methodists like prevenient grace and entire sanctification as the movement broke away from the English Moravians and Whitfield Calvinists. I suppose it’s just idle speculation though.

    1. I think that we can make some reasonable extrapolations from the standard sermons and in the articles of religion where he removed all Calvinistic language from the Anglicanism articles, but if anything strengthened the language about justification leaving no doubts
      “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.”
      Most of those ideas existed in the Character of a Methodist, just not necessarily with the same language we are used to now.

  2. Best example of being a good Methodist!

    All Things Wise and Wonderful
    By James Herriot
    Chapter 19

    Besides, as a strict methodist he didn’t drink or indulge in worldly pleasures and had never been known to tell a lie. Altogether he was so good that I would have regarded him with deep suspicion if he had been anybody else. But I had come to know Mr. Gilby. He was a nice little man, he was as honest as the day. I would have trusted him with my life.

    That was why I was so sad to see him lying there. It had happened so quickly. We had only just come into the byre and he had pointed to a black Angus Cross cow almost opposite the door.

    “That’s ‘er. Got a touch o’cold, I think.” He knew I would want to take the temperature and grasped the tail before putting one foot across the channel so that he could slide between the cow and her neighbour. That was when it happened; when his legs were wide apart in the worst possible position.

    In a way I wasn’t surprised because that tail had been swishing bad-temperedly as we came in, and I am always a bit wary of black cows anyway. She didn’t seem to like our sudden entry and lashed out with her right hind foot with the speed of light, catching him with her flinty hoof full in the crutch as his legs were splayed. He was wearing only frayed, much-washed overall trousers and the protection was nil.

    I winced as the foot went home with an appalling thud, but Mr. Gilby showed no emotion at all. He dropped as though on the receiving end of a firing squad and lay motionless on the hard stones, his hands clutched between his legs. It was only after several seconds that he began to moan softly.

    As I hurried to his aid I felt it was wrong that I should be witnessing this disintegration of his modest facade. The little farmer, I was sure, would rather have died than be caught in this inelegant position, groveling on the floor gripping frantically at an unmentionable area. I kneeled on the cobbles and patted his shoulder while he fought his inner battle with his agony.

    After a while he felt well enough to sit up and I put my arm around him and supported him while perspiration bedewed the greenish pallor of his face. That was when the embarrassmentbegan to creep in, because though he had removed his hands from their compromising position he was clearly deeply ashamed at being caught in a course attitude.

    I felt strangely helpless. The little man couldn’t relieve his feelings in the usual way by cursing the animal and fate in general, nor could I help him to laugh the thing off with a few earthy remarks. This sort of thing happens now and then in the present day and usually gives rise to a certain amount of ripe comment, often embracing the possible effect on the victim’s future sex life. It all helps.

    But here in Mr. Gilby’s byre there was only an uncomfortable silence. After a time the colour began to return to his cheeks and the little man struggled slowly to his feet. He took a couple of deep breaths then looked at me unhappily. Obviously he thought he owed me some explanation, even apology, for his tasteless behaviour.

    As the minutes passed the tension rose. Mr. Gilby’s mouth twitched once or twice as though he were about to speak but he seemed unable to find the words. At length he appeared to come to a decision. He cleared his throat, looked around him carefully then put his lips close to my ear. He clarified the whole situation by one hoarsely whispered, deeply confidential sentence.

    “Right in the privates, Mr. Herriot.”

    1. Really, what the hell does that have t do with anything in The Character of a Methodist that Wesley wrote?

      1. You keep your mouth shut and suffer in silence, to be a good Methodist. You “think and let think”, and not use you personal obsessions to try and force other people think like you. Nothing personal, I am referring to the “generic” Methodist, on both left and right.

  3. To put things into perspective, Wesley didn’t worship the word “Methodist”. But if a person uses it, it reflects taking care of your own business, and certainly not judging anyone else. In fact, this seems to be a response to negative comments about “Methodists”, not used to define Methodist’s obeying either law or scripture. So you must put the entire document into context. Let me put it into common phrases…it has absolutely nothing to do with obeying moral law! It is meant to get Methodist critics off Wesley’s back. It was not meant to make a moral statement.

    If you want to cherry pick, I will do the same:

    To the reader

    SINCE the name first came abroad into the world, many have been at a loss to know what a Methodist is; what are the principles and the practice of those who are commonly called by that name; and what the distinguishing marks of this sect, “which is everywhere spoken against.”
    I say those who are called Methodists; for, let it be well observed, that this is not a name which they take to themselves, but one fixed upon them by way of reproach, without their approbation or consent. It was first given to three or four young men at Oxford, by a student of Christ Church; either in allusion to the ancient sect of Physicians so called, from their teaching, that almost all diseases might be cured by a specific method of diet and exercise, or from their observing a more regular method of study and behaviour than was usual with those of their age and station.
    I should rejoice (so little ambitious am I to be at the head of any sect or party) if the very name might never be mentioned more, but be buried in eternal oblivion. But if that cannot be, at least let those who will use it, know the meaning of the word they use. Let us not always be fighting in the dark. Come, and let us look one another in the face. And perhaps some of you who hate what I am called, may love what I am by the grace of God; or rather, what “I follow after, if that I may apprehend that for which also I am apprehended of Christ Jesus.”

    The Character of a Methodist:

    … and in everything giving thanks, this commandment is written in his heart, “That he who loveth God, love his brother also.” And he accordingly loves his neighbour as himself; he loves every man as his own soul. His heart is full of love to all mankind, to every child of “the Father of the spirits of all flesh.” That a man is not personally known to him, is no bar to his love; no, nor that he is known to be such as he approves not, that he repays hatred for his good-will. For he “loves his enemies;” yea, and the enemies of God, “the evil and the unthankful.” And if it be not in his power to “do good to them that hate him,” yet he ceases not to pray for them, though they continue to spurn his love, and still “despitefully use him and persecute him.”
    …He cannot utter an unkind word of any one; for love keeps the door of his lips. He cannot speak “idle words;” “no corrupt communication” ever “comes out of his mouth,” as is all that “which is” not “good to the use of edifying,” not “fit to minister grace to the hearers.” But “whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are” justly “of good report,” he thinks, and speaks, and acts, “adorning the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ in all things.”

    1. Providing a source document and commenting on some selections while encouraging people to go and read the entire thing is not cherry picking. It is commentary.
      Yes, it was designed to get those who were insulting Methodism off Wesley’s back. To do this he decided to describe the character of a Methodist, character meaning “the mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual.” or something similar depending on what dictionary that you use. In his descriptions, he lists many things, some of which include following moral law. This assertion was backed up in many of Wesley’s standard sermons (part of the doctrine of the UMC) and also can be found in his comments on the New Testament. This was an important part of his theology. He did things like counselling pastor to never preach grace without the law (by which he meant moral law). The acceptance of moral law is not something new, but rather something very old. Believing or teaching a grace separate from the moral law has a name. It is Antinomianism and is well outside the beliefs of the church universal as a whole.

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