Methodism and the Church Universal

This was the message given at the Goshen (NY) United Methodist Church on July 7th, 2013, by Bob Buice, a lay speaker in the United Methodist Church.  Bob uses his scholarly background to explore the history of Christianity and Methodism and offers classes in those areas to interested people in the district and area.  Hope you enjoy his thoughts on Methodism and the Church Universal.

Dr. Tony


St. Paul frequently uses the word “church” to designate the entire body of Christians, & often refers to the church as “the body of Christ”.

From THE GOSPEL PROCLAMATION we heard, “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.”

From the READING FROM THE EPISTLES we heard, “Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church.”

The Body of Christ, which is the church

The Church was founded to continue Christ’s work in the world.

During the apostolic period, the first century, long before the New Testament books were written, the church existed & was carrying out a definite mission.

There are numerous NT references to the church

There are NT references to the appointment of bishops & the qualifications of bishops

In St. Paul’s Epistle to Titus, Chapter 1, Verses 7 – 9, we read:

7 Since a bishop is entrusted with God’s work, he must be blameless — not overbearing, not quick-tempered, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain. 8 Rather he must be hospitable, one who loves what is good, who is self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined. 9 He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.

The church is well established in the NT writings

All books of the New Testament were written in Hellenistic Greek.

The Gospel According to St. Matthew 16:18.

The original Hellenistic Greek version is listed first on the front page of the bulletin.

I am not planning to bury you in linguistics, but I have a few points to make.

18 καγω δε σοι λεγω οτι συ ει πετρος (Peter) και επι ταυτη τη (this) πετρα (rock)
οικοδοµησω µου την (my) εκκλησιαν1 (church), και πυλαι αδου ου κατισχυσουσιν
Textus Receptus 2nd  Edition (Pubished 1519) ~ Translated by St Erasmus (1466-1536)
(Hellenistic Greek)

In the English NIV, we read

18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.
The Holy Bible (NIV)

This is the first mention of the word “church” in the canonical scriptures, but it is mentioned many times after this.

Note that the word for ‘Peter” and the word for “rock” are the same. The endings differ, signifying that one is a proper name & one is an inanimate object.

Could Christ be saying, “You are Peter and around you I build my church”?

St. Peter was the first bishop of Rome & the Roman Catholic Church considers St. Peter the first pope.

18 καγω δε σοι λεγω οτι συ ει πετρος (Peter) και επι ταυτη τη (this) πετρα (rock)
οικοδοµησω µου την (my) εκκλησιαν (church), και πυλαι αδου ου κατισχυσουσιν
Textus Receptus 2nd  Edition (Pubished 1519)
~ Translated by St Erasmus (1466-1536)
(Hellenistic Greek)

Martin Luther’s “translated” the Textus Recepticus into the Early New High German of the Middle Ages.

The same verse in Luther’s “Die Bibel” is listed last on the front page of the bulletin.

18 Und ich sage dir auch: Du bist Petrus, und auf diesen Felsen (these rocks) will ich bauen meine Gemeinde (community) 2, und die Pforten der Hölle sollen sie nicht überwältigen.
(Die Bibel – Early New High German)
Personal Revision, Martin Luther’s Die Bibel
Translated from the Textus Receptus (1532)

I find it interesting that, inconsistent with the Greek, Luther says “diesen Felsen” which means “these rocks”. He pluralizes the term “rock”.

I am not sure why, but perhaps he is trying to get away from the medieval Roman Catholic concept of the “Rock of Peter”.

More importantly, he says that upon “these rocks” I will build my “Gemeinde”, which means “community”

In the Early New High German of Luther’s day & the Hochdeutsch or High German of today, the word for church is “Kirche” & the word “Gemeinde” means “community. Yet Luther uses “Gemeinde”, meaning “community”.

The word “Kirche”, meaning “church”, does not appear anywhere in the Luther Bible. Where other translations, including the original Greek, use “church”, Luther’s Bible uses “community”

Scholars can debate the reason for this. Perhaps it was because the word “church” referred to the worldwide body of Christians under the pope. Luther was trying to break away from this so he called his followers a community, rather than a church & worked this into his version of the Bible.

So, what is meant by the word “church”?

The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2008-2012 (p. 44)
(2009-01-01). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition

“Our unity is affirmed in the historic creeds as we confess one holy, catholic, and apostolic church.”

The one holy, catholic, and apostolic church is this world-wide body of all Christians. The same body that St. Paul described as the Body of Christ

There is only one church.

According to the Gospel of St. Mathew, Christ said “…on this rock I will build my church”.

Note – He said, “I build My church”.

He didn’t say, “I build hundreds of churches who disagree with each other”.

He said, “I build My church”.

There is only one church. “Our unity is affirmed in the historic creeds as we confess one holy, catholic, and apostolic church.”

Our theology, Methodism, recognizes that we are a part of this universal church.

Obviously there are disagreements within Christendom. Some theological, some political, some personal. Regardless of the reason, such disagreements led to the founding of numerous denominations. Denominations were human creations
– not scriptural.

So, what do we mean when we say we are Methodists?

If you saw the movie “42” about the career of Jackie Robinson, recall that Branch Rickey, GM of the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 40s, was asked why he is so enthusiastic about Jackie Robinson. Rickey responded, “He’s Methodist, I’m Methodist, God is Methodist”.  All exaggerations aside, I do feel a certain pride in the United Methodist Church, its origin, its theology, & its accomplishments. I will discuss my reasons in the next few minutes.

In addition to John Wesley’s other talents, he authored a dictionary,

• Wesley’s Complete English Dictionary.

In this dictionary, he defines a Methodist as, and I quote

“A Methodist, one that lives according to the method laid down in the Bible.”
~ Wesley’s Complete English Dictionary

Rather vague, perhaps

John Wesley was an Anglican priest & he never intended to initiate a new denomination. He insisted all his life the he was an Anglican priest.

The Anglican Church of Wesley’s day was rigid it its polity. Only the wealthy & the royalty felt welcome in the Anglican Church.

Those who could not dress impressively or place large sums in the collection plate were not made to feel welcome.

Edmund Gibson, Bishop of London in the 18th  century, referred to the lower class as “rabble”

Bishop Gibson’s major criticism of “this group called Methodists”, was that they preached to large groups of “rabble” in the open air – Outside the church – Outside any parish

John Wesley & Methodists in general, appealed to those who did not feel welcome in the Anglican Church.

1. The original Methodism was opened to everyone

Not only the well-dressed, not only the wealthy, not only the upper class

Theologian Albert Outer said that Wesley was the founder of folk theology; a theology that could connect and resonate with the everyday man (person).

2. Methodism is an adaptable theology.

In Colonial times, Methodism spread by adapting to its environment. It has been described as a “clever parasite”.

The Church of England, with all of its sophistication, followed the English settlers in the New World.

Again, the Anglican Church was a church that focused on the wealthy both in England & in the Colonies.

Methodism picked up numerous members in each English colony from among those who did not feel welcome in the Anglican Church.

In each new location, Methodism adapted to the needs & desires of the local people, where the rigid Anglican Church wouldn’t bend.

Methodism still adapts to its environment.

If you attend a Methodist church at different locations around the United States, you will see vast differences from place to place.

3. Methodism is a flexible theology

The Evangelical United Brethren Church & the Methodist Church came together to form the United Methodist Church at the Uniting Conference (1968)

The uniting conference (1968) established a Theological Study Commission on Doctrine and Doctrinal Standards for the new church

The Commission recommended that the UMC not become a rigidly creedal church – A doctrinal statement endorsed “theological pluralism” – Diversity among UMC members was acknowledged.

The General Conference in 1972 adopted the report of the this Commission

(The Wesleyan Quadrilateral)

We do have a core Methodist theology (the Trinity, prevenient grace), but within that core, a degree of diversity is acceptable.

Our guide is the Wesleyan Quadrilateral – Scripture, Tradition, Experience, Reason.

Our theology does not suggest a literal interpretation of the scriptures.  Scripture might be interpreted with the help of tradition, confirmed by personal experienced, all tempered by reason.

It has been said that Methodism is the theology of a thinking person.

Some have referred to this as an “elastic theology”, others have called it an “anything goes” policy, which is certainly not the case.

However, a degree of diversity of opinion is acceptable

4. Methodism is theology of social & political activism

• Wesley believed that life on earth was more than just a period to be tolerated as we prepare for eternal life

“….. the ideal Christian life is one of ceaseless, cheerful activism
~ John Wesley

Wesley believed that when people are fighting simply to survive, fighting oppression of some kind, they were less likely to focus on faith.

Some see it differently – In times of trouble people turn to faith.

However, Wesley’s experience was that you can’t preach to people who are starving, those who are suffering from disease, or who are suffering under oppression.

Similar to the words of Robert Kennedy, “You can’t talk freedom to a starving man”.

Weslery saw social justice as an expression of his faith, declaring there is “no holiness, but social holiness”.

Yes, Wesley was definitely a political & social activist. Among his crusades were

• He wrote & preached against slavery in his home, Bristol, a major slave  trading port. He authored “Thoughts upon Slavery” (1772), an appeal for the abolition of the slavery industry
All of the early Methodists in the colonies strongly opposed slavery. In fact, the Methodists were the first religious group to oppose slavery.

• Wesley authored “A Calm Address to Our American Colonies” (Sep-1775), bitterly condemning the American Revolution.

“… he cannot love God if he does not love the King”
~ John Wesley

Wesley believed that the King’s power was from God & to attempt to overthrow the King’s authority was to attempt to usurp a God-giver power.

Many Colonial Methodists preached against the revolution. Methodists were  regarded as Loyalists & persecuted by Americans.

When the war began, Wesley called all of his clergy back to England.

The vast majority returned.

Francis Asbury was a Loyalist, but he said his loyalty was first to the church, second to the King

Asbury remained, & hid in the home of a friend, Judge Thomas White, near Dover, DE, until late in the war.

Cpt. Thomas Webb was a British officer, Methodist pastor, & founder of St. George’s United Methodist Church, Philadelphia, which is said to be America’s oldest United Methodist Church in continuous service.

Webb remained in the Colonies & became a spy for the King’s troops. He was arrested by the Colonials & deported back to England. I suspect that because he was a preacher, the Colonials did not hang him.

Another point about Methodism

During one of the Adult Class sessions, I read the following & asked how many would be a part of a denomination that took such a stand.

• We deplore war and urge the peaceful settlement of all disputes among nations.

• We reject national policies of enforced military service as incompatible with the gospel.

• We support and extend the ministry of the Church to those persons who  conscientiously oppose all war, or any particular war, and who therefore refuse to serve in the armed forces or to cooperate with systems of military conscription.
Actually, the above words appear in the United Methodist Book of Discipline p 127.  The Discipline goes on to condone war in very limited circumstances.

• We also respect those who support the use of force, but only in extreme situations and only when the need is clear beyond reasonable doubt, and through appropriate international organizations.

Prior to WWI & WWII the anti-war attitude of the church softened somewhat, but the policy of pacifism remained in place

Other issues

Methodism supported the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s

The 1972 General Conference, following a long debate, adopted a statement condemning the “immorality” of America’s involvement in Vietnam & called on  President Nixon to halt the bombing

In their 1986 Pastoral Letter, “In Defense of Creation – The Nuclear Crisis & a Just Peace”, the Council of Bishops affirmed “a clear & unconditioned ‘No’ to nuclear war & to any use of nuclear weapons”

• By this Pastoral Letter, the Council of Bishops opposed war, especially the use of nuclear weapons, & discussed means of maintaining peace

Methodism opposed the attacking of Iraq. Recall, we held a series of midweek services to pray that this attack might be avoided

Then, in 2007, the Council of Bishops issued a Resolution on the Iraq War, stating the Discipline, listing the cost of the war in personnel killed & wounded, & asking that the President
• To immediately withdraw all troops
• To establish no permanent military bases in Iraq
• To increase support for veterans
• To initiate and give strong support to a plan for the reconstruction of  Iraq, with high priority given to the humanitarian and social needs of the Iraqi people, such as healthcare, education and housing

There are many more recent social & political positions of the church that ost you already know about

Suffice it to say that Methodism is a theology of social & political activism

5. Methodism is a theology of prevenient grace

During John Wesley’s time – the 1700s – Protestant Christendom was almost universally Calvinist – the theology of John Calvin – The “Five Points of  Calvinism” are

1. Total depravity (Original Sin) – “Man, by his fall into a state of sin, has wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation; so as a natural man being altogether averse from that good, & dead in sin, is not able, by his own strength, to convert himself, or to prepare himself thereunto.”
2. Unconditional Election (God’s Election) “By the decree of God, for the manifestation of his glory, some men & angels are predestined unto everlasting life & others foreordained to everlasting death”.
3. Limited Atonement (Particular Redemption) The doctrine states that Jesus Christ’s substitutionary atonement on the cross is specifically designed for the elect only.
4. Irresistible Grace (Effectual Calling) – The saving grace of God is effectually applied to those whom God has determined to save (the elect) &, in God’s timing, overcomes their resistance to obeying the call of the gospel, bringing them to faith in Christ.
5. Perseverance of the Saints “Once Saved, Always Saved”, is a Calvinist teaching that once persons are truly saved they can never lose their salvation.

An alternate theology was proposed in 1618 by a Dutch Reformed theologian, Jacobus Arminius.

• Arminius rejected the concept of Unconditional Election – Election is based  on the individual’s faith in Christ – It is not predestined by God
• Arminius rejected the concept of Limited Atonement – The atonement of Christ is offered to all people – not just the elect
• Arminius rejected the concept of Irresistible Grace – Grace is freely offered through Christ – It may be accepted or rejected
• Arminius rejected the concept of Perseverance of the Saints “Once Saved,  Always Saved” – Grace can be lost of the individual fails live a Christian life
Jacobus Arminius was persecuted by the Dutch Reformed Church for his radical new idea.

Wesley was introduced to Arminianism by his father, Samuel Wesley, also an Anglican Priest – Wesley eventually adopted Arminianism as his theology

Wesley simply could not accept the concept that God selected some to be saved & others to be lost.  Nor could he accept that salvation was permanent – cannot be lost

Arminianism became the basis of Wesley’s theology

Arminianism was a new revolutionary theology, considered something of a threat to Protestant Christendom of the time.

• A very prominent New England Puritan pastor, Jonathan Edwards, preached sermons warning of encroaching Arminianism.

• Wesley’s one-time colleague, George Whitefield, preached Calvinism

Arminianism is the core of present day Methodist theology

Wesley taught two distinct phases in the Christian experience

• During the first phase (first blessing), conversion, the believer accepts a  freely offered grace (prevenient grace) – receives forgiveness & becomes a Christian – The outcome is salvation

• During the second phase (second blessing), sanctification, the believer is  purified & made holy. – The Outcome is Christian Perfection

Wesley taught that sanctification could be an instantaneous experience & that it could be a gradual process


Methodism is a theology that is flexible & adaptable within reasonable limits.  We are not a rigidly creedal church – Our core theology is based on Arminianism & our guide is the Wesleyan Quadrilateral – Scripture, interpreted with the aid of tradition, confirmed by experience, & tempered by reason.

Methodism is a theology of social & political activism that has been influential in numerous social and political movements.

Finally, Methodism is a theology of prevenient grace – freely offered & freely accepted – to be followed by a life of Christian Perfection.


1 thought on “Methodism and the Church Universal

  1. I hope you enjoy reading this piece. My intent was to raise awareness that there is one true holy catholic and apostolic church, and that we, as Methodists, are a part of that church. All comments and questions are welcome.

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