On Becoming United Methodist: Ringside with Calvin and Wesley

This is the second part of a four-part series in which I reflect on my journey toward becoming one of Wesley’s people—a pastor in the United Methodist Church. You can read part one, I’m not Crazy, right here. 

When my mom asked me what I wanted for Christmas, I sent her an Amazon wish list with three items on it: Calvin’s Institutes, Fred Sander’s theological biography on John Wesley, John Wesley: The Heart Renewed in Love, and a collection of John Wesley’s writings. 

Nerd alert!

While at Wheaton, I learned to love reading books by dead people. Throughout my program, I had at least one historical mentor, and it’s a practice I’ve chosen to continue. For 2014, and most likely beyond that, I’ve chosen to read Wesley and Calvin together, in conversation with each other.

As I’ve sat ringside with these men, watching them duke it out with their opponents, I’ve come to appreciate each more and more—and to have burning questions for each, too.

Here are the three things I’ve learned while reading Wesley and Calvin. 

Wesley1: I want to be friends with Wesley. I’d avoid Calvin at parties. Here’s the deal: Calvin is kind of a jerk. He likes to insult his opponent’s intelligence and character, and is kind of reminiscent of the cool kids in high school that were just mean to everyone. (His favorite word for those who disagree with him is ‘miscreant,’ which you have to hand it to him, is a pretty cool word.) But Calvin is a jerk, and I think I’d feel awkward if someone said, “Hey, you’re friends with Calvin, right?” 

Meanwhile, Wesley is just a cool guy. He’s now been added to my list of people that I’d like to eat a meal with if they could come back from the dead. Wesley is intense, but personable; focused, but understanding; passionate, but charitable. Of course, Wesley did just hate Calvinism, but he also once said, “I think on justification just as I have done any time these seven and twenty years, and just as Mr. Calvin does. In this respect I do not differ from him a hair’s breadth.”

2: Wesley is far more charitable than Calvin. Wesley never wrote a systematic theology—which is why some say, and rightly, there is not a theological backbone in the Methodist tradition. Wesley was a practical man, so the textbook for his movement were his Standard Sermons. Practical theology for a very practical people.

In that, Wesley is a very charitable man. That’s not to say that he’s without fiery retorts for those who differ from him. (OK, so he called Calvinism a heresy once…) But for the most part, Wesley’s fire was for people who distorted the Gospel—mostly preachers who taught a dull morality in churches instead of a robust, Gospel-centered way of living. He was rather charitable toward men and women of other traditions, and you have to remember, wasn’t setting out to start a new denomination as much as he was trying to renew the Church at that time. 

3: There is something to be said for organization, clarity, and yes, systematic theology. Calvin’s contribution in the Institutes is an ordered, systematized theological way of thinking for Christians. Wesley’s lack thereof makes some of his thinking hard to understand; even the most intelligent Wesley scholars struggle to see what he means by ‘Christian perfection.’ (See Sander’s book for an excellent chapter on that!) It’s also hard to grasp what he was trying to go for when he teaches on works of righteousness. 

Sometimes a book with bullet points and an outline is just easier to think through. I think the lack of a systematic approach, a blueprint, if you will, leaves the Methodist movement prone to theological wishy-washy-ness. (It may also explain why The Book of Discipline, our guiding document as a movement and a church, is so vague!)

So there you have it. If you haven’t, I’d again challenge you to read something by Wesley. A suggestion: try Wesley’s sermon, The Lord Our Righteousness, which is number 20 in the Standard Sermons. Don’t cast a stone without giving him a chance, and this is a sermon that, I think, far outweighs most of the historical sermons I’ve read in the Reformed tradition. 

What do you know about John Wesley? Have you ever read anything by him? What has stopped you from reading him? 

On Becoming a United Methodist: I’m Not Crazy

This is the first of a four-part series in which I reflect on my journey toward becoming one of Wesley’s people—a pastor in the United Methodist Church. 

True confessions: when I tell people I work at a United Methodist Church, I feel a great urge to quickly follow it with, “But I’m not crazy.” 

For many who know me, and many who don’t, I am an anomaly. Raised in a conservative Evangelical home, trained at two conservative Evangelical colleges, for many (including me) there is something wrong with this picture. 

How did this guy become a Methodist?

People who know me, and people who don’t, often have a lot of questions. As well they should—it’s no secret that the UMC is in decline, and that it is a strikingly different tradition from the one in which I was raised and the one in which I studied. There are, rightfully, many concerns about the denomination’s stance on well, more issues than I’d like to admit (chief of which is the definition of marriage, and in some places, issues of biblical authority).

I often wonder if people think I went off the deep end. You might feel this if you knew me in years past, and now see that I’m pastoring in the UMC. You might feel this if you’re in the UMC and see me through more mainline eyes, and find out where I went to school.

So why become a pastor in the UMC? I could write about this for ages, and of course God’s leading had something to do with it. But if I were being honest, I came to the UMC not because of where I wanted to work, but for whom I wanted to work. 

Rick and Brigitta at Our Wedding! My boss is one of my closest friends and most trusted counselors. I interned for Rick throughout my years at Moody, and he performed my wedding ceremony. We’re close, and had always talked about working together—though to be truthful, I never thought it would happen. But it did, and I really enjoy working for him. 

Oddly, I’ve also grown to love being a United Methodist. In a culture of Evangelicalism that is inundated by the Reformed thinking of John Calvin and others, it’s hard to imagine anyone choosing a Wesleyan tradition. But I’m choosing a Wesleyan tradition, not necessarily because of his soteriology (read: his theology on how a person is saved) but because of his ecclesiology (read: his theory and practice of what it means to be the church). 

I’ll write more on this later—I’m spending this year reading Calvin’s Institutes and a collection of Wesley’s sermons and other writings at the same time, and coming to surprising conclusions. But for now, here are three things you might not know about the United Methodist Church, and why I’m coming to love it. 

1: The United Methodist Church is an explicitly global church. Unlike other mainline denominations in the US, the UMC can only make practical or theological decisions when gathered as a global church every four years at the General Conference. This is why the UMC hasn’t ‘officially’ changed their policy on marriage—Conferences in the Global South, especially in Africa and India, refuse to go with the West’s cultural flow. 

2: The United Methodist Committee on Relief is an incredibly effective organization. Hang around the UMC long enough and you’ll dissever we can out-acronym any Bible college in the continental US. UMCOR is one of the largest relief organizations in the world (I’ve heard it’s the largest, but I can’t substantiate that fact yet). It serves more than 80 countries—and get this: 100% of money given to UMCOR goes right to those in need. If you know anything about relief organizations, this should stun you as much as it did me

3: A rich tradition of Gospel-centered ministry expressed in a deep concern for the least, the last, and the lost. Anyone who balks at the Wesleyan tradition, Arminian theology, or just thinks that they are a Reformed smarty-pants hasn’t read Wesley’s A Plain Account of the People Called Methodists. No one, and I mean no one, in the history of the church developed a more robust, relational, Gospel-focused movement of discipleship. From the earliest moments of the Methodist movement (which began as a renewal movement within the Church of England) there was a concern for those in need—spiritually and materially. 

I recently began the process to become a candidate for ministry in the UMC, the first step toward ordination. These reasons, and more, have compelled me to become one of Wesley’s people. There is a tradition here that still lives, in some corners, to be about the Gospel and about the business of saving souls. 

That’s why I’m becoming a United Methodist—not because I’m crazy. Or, maybe, because I’m just crazy enough. 

What has been your opinion of the United Methodist Church? How does this post inform the way you think of the UMC?