Not long ago, a young church member asked me specific questions for a school assignment about our Wesleyan tradition, and how we Methodists differ from some other Christian traditions and denominations. He found my answers helpful, and maybe you will, too. (You may also find my discussion of Protestantism and Catholicism, part 1 and part 2, interesting.)
“1. Some Protestant churches don’t celebrate Lent. Does the Methodist church? If so, for how many days do you celebrate it?”
Just to be clear, our church is part of the United Methodist Church (UMC), which is the largest Methodist church in America (and the world). What I’m going to say about the UMC is generally true of any Methodist denomination.
The UMC, along with most of the universal Christian church, observes Lent. It’s a season of spiritual preparation for Easter, which emphasizes penitence (repenting from sin). It lasts 40 days (not counting Sundays).
“2. What is the difference between Methodist churches and Baptist churches?”
We have much in common with Baptists, but some important differences—especially related to the sacraments and church polity. Like most of the rest of the universal Church, we baptize infants and later have confirmation for baptized children. At confirmation, the baptized person makes a profession of faith in Christ, thus “confirming” and fulfilling the promises that were made on that child’s behalf, by parents or sponsors, at baptism. Infant baptism is important because, among many other things, it signifies that the grace available through Christ is free and available to all people; that we are completely dependent upon God’s grace; and that even before a child is consciously aware of God, God’s Spirit is at work in that child’s life. Infant baptism places the emphasis on what God has done for us in Christ, not on what we do.
Baptists, by contrast, baptize people only after they make a profession of faith—and only by immersion. This understanding of baptism sees it primarily as a human response to God’s saving grace in a person’s life. Baptist churches are also organized and governed very differently from Methodist churches. In general, each Baptist church is “autonomous”—which means the local congregation makes all decisions about how to govern itself. They don’t have to answer or report to any other church. Local Methodist churches, by contrast, are part of a much larger network of churches organized into “conferences.” Bishops play an important role in leading conferences. We work with other Methodist churches, share resources, and make important decisions together.
“3. In what year did the Methodists split from the other Protestants? Why?”
The Methodist Church in America didn’t really “split” from any other church—it was created officially in 1784 mostly due to political circumstances surrounding the Revolutionary War. Most Methodists in America in the colonial days were members of the Church of England.
When the Revolutionary War started, clergy from the Church of England returned to England, leaving the Methodists without clergy to lead churches and administer the sacraments. John Wesley, who was himself a priest in the Church of England, agreed to organize these American Methodist churches into their own independent church with their own clergy. It was a practical decision—not because of any particular disagreement with anyone. Methodists are known for having cordial relations with with Christians of other denominations and traditions.
“4. What are some things you do differently from Catholics?”
We share much in common with the Catholic Church. We are united on the most important issues of faith. Our basic Sunday service—the “Service of Word and Table”—in our United Methodist Book of Worship, for example, is very similar to the Catholic worship service known as Mass. Methodists have more flexibility to alter the service to reflect the needs of their local congregations.
The biggest difference, however, is over the question of church authority. When it comes to deciding important questions of faith and doctrine—what a church believes—Catholics place a much greater emphasis on church tradition than Methodists, who say that the most
important questions should be made primarily on the basis of Scripture. (Here, “tradition” means how the church has generally interpreted and taught particular doctrines down through the centuries. Catholics place a greater weight, for instance, on what theologians like Thomas Aquinas, Augustine, and others taught about a particular doctrine than we Methodists do.) Fortunately, this doesn’t often lead to important differences in belief or practice.
In general, Methodists don’t share the Catholic Church’s understanding of the “communion of saints,” which means we don’t ask saints in heaven to pray or intervene for us. We don’t believe Mary was sinless, that she remained a virgin even after Jesus was born, or that, instead of dying a natural death, she was taken up into heaven. We don’t share their understanding of an intermediate state between death and resurrection known as purgatory. We don’t believe that the bread and wine of Communion are substantially changed into the body and blood of Christ. We don’t believe that the Bishop of Rome, the Pope, has the ability to speak infallibly on matters of faith. Again, we differ with Catholics on these issues because we don’t find an adequate scriptural basis for these beliefs. Unlike Catholics, Methodists permit female clergy and married clergy—because we believe it’s in keeping with what scripture teaches.
Although we believe Christian confession is important—and we should confess our sins to God and to one another—we don’t require it as a condition for remaining a member in good standing. We also permit Christians of all traditions to take part in our Communion services.
“5. What Protestant denomination would you say is the most similar to yours?”
Aside from the other Methodist denominations (such as AME, CME, AME-Zion, Nazarene churches), we share most in common with the Episcopal Church in America—and other churches affiliated with the Church of England (or Anglican tradition) around the world. Wesley, as I said above, was a priest in the Church of England, and loved the church. He wanted to inspire them to live out their Christian beliefs more faithfully, but he had no disagreements over church doctrine. Our “Articles of Religion,” which in general define what Methodists believe, were adapted by Wesley from the Church of England. Their Book of Common Prayer has greatly influenced our own worship services and liturgy.