Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Big Methodists

I like big Methodist churches. Little Methodist churches can still be a bit provincial and family or founder or “big giver” dominated or bound up in local traditions, but the big ones seem to be the humblest, most service oriented, most welcoming, and least argumentative of the better known Protestant groups still on record as “protesting” the Catholic faith. The Catholics of course claim to be the one true church and seem to me to be the only group with any reasonable basis for such a claim. The Baptists often deny protestant status and sometimes come across as also claiming to be the one true church but, as far as I can see, without any reasonable basis for such a claim.

The Lutherans trace their history back to the 16th century mass departure from Catholicism which I blame more on the Pope of the time than on Luther. Leo X should have assigned Luther to head up a task force to stamp out abusive practices, of which there were plenty, instead of kicking him out of the Church. Many Lutheran Churches have ethnic traditions since they not only departed Catholicism en mass but were often ejected from their homes and regions and emigrated to the new world en mass, leaving all their property and possessions behind. Lutherans sometimes seem to be prouder of being Lutheran than of being Christian. That’s good because pride in surviving persecution may be acceptable while pride in receiving salvation by the grace of God is certainly not. That calls only for thankfulness.

Presbyterians date from the same time as Lutherans, still have some of the predestinarian views of Calvin and Knox, and may seem a bit aloof to those not predestined to be Presbyterians. Episcopalians still suffer from their poorly motivated founding by Henry VIII as well as from recent theological splits over gay issues. Lutherans may be heading the same way after decades of mergers combining as many as sixty separate synods into today’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

The Episcopalians gave birth to the Methodists, and for that we can be grateful. However, at least as far as American Methodists go, formation was not the result of a rancorous split and a mass departure with associated squabbles and residual acrimony. Formation of American Methodists was almost totally positive in nature. John Wesley left the Church of England, came to America, and founded a new church for which he provided an adequate supply of ordained (falsely so according to the folks back home) English-speaking pastors. People with no church and people who were members of other churches came to the Methodist faith but not en mass over theological splits. They came because they were invited, came, liked, and stayed. Methodism in America is an American church.

Baptists stand pretty much alone among major Christian denominations in denying the Sacraments, rejecting the creeds, and insisting on “believers” baptism only. Fortunately, they are good at motivating people to get up out of their pews and take that first step of faith, sometimes more than once, and at teaching believers how to tithe and how to find their way around in the Bible. For those things, we can be thankful. Former Baptists stand out as faithful and disciplined members of many denominations.

There are some very good reasons for the formation of these various Protestant church bodies. The gates of hell have not prevailed against the Church our Lord founded, but sin has crept in from time to time necessitating reforms. However, the Catholic Church has changed over the centuries, and the question now is whether enough problems remain to justify the divisions which currently exist and which result in presentation of a very fuzzy picture of Christianity to the world outside the Christian Church. If not, we (non-Baptist) Protestants might as well repent, recant, and return to the Catholic Church and begin working together to continue its reformation and to present a more unified picture of The Body of Christ to an unbelieving world.

If serious church dividing problems do remain, then my suggestion would be that we all give up our smaller theological points of contention and join together in big Methodist churches. We need to forgive and forget if our founder was excommunicated or our ancestors were cast out of Europe. We need to forgive and forget those who followed Henry VIII and Henry VIII himself for an unbelievable display of arrogance. We need to quit talking about predestination and leave that entirely up to God because there is no point in discussing something about which, we must confess, nothing can be done. Then the Body of Christ would have just three major parts: The Catholic Church with its magisterium and tradition and its rules and regulations and frequent masses, the Methodist Church with its open doors, friendly faces, loose theology, and numerous opportunities for service and worship, and the Baptist Church struggling along without the Sacraments and creeds but doing a fine job of teaching Bible and stewardship. It would be a better world and a better witness for our Lord.

Confession and Background Information: I wrote the first draft of the above on a bulletin while sitting in the back pew of a big downtown Methodist Church December, 2008, listening to the community Messiah sing-along in which my wife was participating. I was Southern Baptist for 32 years, Presbyterian for 16 years, and now have been in Lutheran churches for 19 years. Self identification has shifted over the years from denominational to now saying simply that I am Christian and currently a member of a Lutheran Church. I can’t help wondering what the message is in the fact that the two groups I seem to favor in the essay, Catholic and Methodist, are ones with which I have little firsthand experience, but make what you will of it. I first got interested in Christian unity when we were living in Japan (1992-1995) and seeing how confusing the multiplicity of Christian groups can be to a people who are about 2% Christian. Then, after retirement, I spent three years at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary where I got my first real doses of Christian theology, Church history, contextual Bible study, and ecumenism and learned something about what separated and still separates us from each other. I trust we will eventually be united, but it may be a while.


19 comments:

  1. Darryl, I see no mention of Orthodoxy in your comments. The Orthodox Church certainly also claims to be the "one true church" and is one of the largest Christian denominations worldwide.

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  2. Good point, but the Greeks and Romans split 463 years before Luther nailed up his 95 Theses and launched the Protestant Reformation so I don't feel any personal responsibility for that divergence. And, I have no personal experience with Orthodoxy but think that now it is somewhat splintered and does not have a single Patriarch as it did in 1054.

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  3. My experience is that the Orthodox Church is still very unified with respect to theology, though it is organized along national or cultural lines. But the point is that a unified Christian church would not be unified without inclusion of the Eastern Orthodox. That being said, and humans being human, I have to agree that it may be a while before reunification. In the meantime, to paraphrase a Presbyterian minister, maybe the focus should not be on what makes us different, but on how can we work together.

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  4. Darryl, enjoyed your thought provoking piece. Interesting, direct, honest commentary on the state of demoniations, and perhaps the church in general. Several comments: In additon to the Episcopal Church (American and Canadian), many main-line denominations are struggling with the "gay issue", but it goes way beyond the "gay" issue, e.g., sanctity of marriage between man and woman, the authority of the Holy Scriptures, even the divinity of Jesus Christ. I commend to you Thaddeus Barnum's incredible book, NEVER SILENT. Also, Baptists do recognize the Sacrements of Baptism and The Lord's Supper/Communion. But, I still see many churches and Christians responding to the 2nd greatest commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves, thus living out the Gospel of Chrisst. Keep writing; you are gifted.

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  5. Good article, but do not leave out the Presbyterians in one of the last big churches.
    They have been good to us.
    Also, there are so many good denominations and churches....every denomination has its great churches and not so great churches.
    Salvation Army does not recognize the Sacraments because it says they are divisive and Catherine Booths father was and alcoholic so they did not do communion.
    I believe it is the relationship we have with our creator that makes a difference whether we ever attend church or not.

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  6. I understand that the Wesley brothers were quite interested in Orthodox Christianity, however apparently they never sought communion with the Eastern Church.

    Unless you believe that the Church fell into apostasty, I believe that the unity that you seek will be found in the faith of the historic, ancient Eastern Orthodox Church (i.e., Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, etc.), since this church represents the faith of the undivided Church.

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  7. Mississippi MethodistMarch 6, 2010 at 3:50 PM

    Some interesting observations. I would disagree that Methodists are Protestants. We didn't protest anything when we left the Anglican communion. We are technically Episcopalian in our church polity since we have bishops - some are idiots - but bishops nevertheless.

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  8. True I suppose (not about the bishops), but Henry VIII was certainly protesting.

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  9. I suggest you take a serious look at the church fathers. Most Christians think that the church fathers taught what their denomination believes. If you take the time to sincerely look at their writings with an unbiased approach you will find that their teachings are distinctly Catholic. They preach about the true presence of Jesus in the eucharist, the authority of the papacy and bishops, etc.
    Jesus himself said in Matthew 16:18 that the gates of hell would not prevail against the church He established with Peter. This is precisely the church that the church fathers write about. Now, being that He was God, surely Jesus would have established His one, true church himself rather than wait 1500 years for Luther, Calvin, or anyone else to establish it. But I really encourage you to look at the church fathers, especially Ignatius, Polycarp, Irenaeus.

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  10. One minor quibble ... Wesley never left the Church of England to which he was fiercely loyal until his death (which true of both John and Charles). He did come to America, but as an Anglican, and went back to England still an Anglican. He did uncanonically "ordain" "elders" for the American Methodists (and Charles really disagreed with that move), but beyond that, he never defied the C of E.

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  11. To skepticalobserverwithdirtyhands: Henry VIII was not "protesting" -- he was a very orthodox Catholic. He was simply trying to get an annulment.

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  12. I can't begin to tell you what a relief I felt, as a conservative, practicing Catholic, to read your blog entry. It was interesting and didn't need to condemn my faith (as so many of our non-Catholic brothers and sisters seem to relish). I look forward to reading more.

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  13. For some reason, Facebook suggested I look at "Big Methodist."
    The Orthodox never had only one Patriarch; there was for a time what we call Pentarchy: the five patriarchal sees of Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem. The Orthodox would say that one separated from the other four.
    I would recommend going to an Orthodox Easter Vigil, except that this year Orthodox Easter is the same day as Western Easter. But go to a church where they celebrate it all at mid-night, not to one of those more Americanized parishes where it is Sunday morning. It would be good to get into the church by 11:30 pm, even though things don't really start until midnight.

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  14. How about the Orthodox and/or Coptic
    Christians? I admit part of my problem is that of granting some of our Popes any semblance of authenticity.

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  15. yeah...follow the road the Presbyterians have gone down....now they are almost irrelevant

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  16. Couple of points: Baptists do NOT accept sacraments. Baptism and The Lords' Supper are referred to as Ordinances, as opposed to Sacraments, the difference being that a Sacrament accomplishes what it signifies. Baptism (the water and the rite) accomplishes the washing away of sin. For Baptists, salvation is not tied directly to baptism, but to the personal confession of faith, then baptism is done in obedience to the command and example of Jesus. It has no saving power in itself.

    I loved the article here - wise, gracious, and perceptive. I am one who made a similar journey, from fundamentalism (Church of Christ), the church of my family, to mainstream protestantism, (American Baptist Convention - a "liberal" Baptist group) to Catholicism, where I sometimes struggle with church politics and the creaky way change and renewal function. But it was my conviction that Jesus asked us to all be one, and this was my logical destination for all the reasons that Daryl mentions in his article.

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  17. I like your take on the denominations and on Methodists. I would like to add that all of us who have been born again, regardless of denomination, are members of the One True Church. The worldly representations of the Church are basically all just social clubs that provide a place and opportunity for the members of the One True Church to meet together to promote God's Will.

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  18. I love Methodist churches of all sizes. The supporter of the Boy Scouts in the planet. Sadly, they like ALL mainline churches are dying. On your essay, truly a tourists conception of religion. Your essay is so frightfully simplistic that only lazy readers will swallow it. You already gotten a dose from the orthodox. Religion is deep thinking but not in accessible. The documents, if one is interested are there. Truly a bit of research gives opinions a bit more ground. Methodism springing from the Episcopal Church? Luther was right, theologically, have you read the counter-reformation documents. The council of Trent is easy reading. Just from a practical stand point your studies should know something about authority and governance. Look, in all of Christendom today, only has one visible church. I am a Catholic now but I was born in Burma to Burmese Baptists and raised as such in the USA. Became a Unitarian when I married my Jewish wife. We became Episcopalians, I became an Episcopal seminarian and read my way to becoming Catholic. Read First Things if you are interested in Ecumenism.

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  19. I grew up during the seventies and eighties attending a Disciples of Christ church, the First Christian Church of Winder in Georgia. My mother played the organ there for about twenty five years. So I was very comfortable with liturgical services, its the only way I knew. When I met my wife, I had been away from the First Christian Church (DoC) for sometime as I had gone off to college, and served overseas for three years and away here on CONUS for one, so I had been out of that denomination for some time. She attended an independent Pentecostal "spirit led" church which was waaaayy different form what I was used to. We bantered back and forth for a few years. I brought her to the DoC Church, which was much more formal than she was used to. We went to a Baptist Church for a while, which we were both comfortable with but they only served communion once a year (Easter); we hadn't been back since. By this time mom and had moved there membership to a Methodist Church which we now attend. It is a large church with several hundred members, and three services. We have been there since 2005 I think, and haven't been happier.

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