The Methodist Church: Two Departures from Liberal United Methodism

 

The Methodist Church:

Two Departures from Liberal United Methodism

Part 4

 

methodist

The Methodist Church: Two Departures from Liberal United Methodism

Let’s notice two of the smaller defections from the original Methodist Church.

The Free Methodist Church

First, the Free Methodist Church, formed in 1860 in Pekin, New York.[i]  This was a strong anti-slavery denomination that also opposed secret societies. In 1990 this denomination moved its headquarters from Winona Lake, Indiana to Indianapolis, Indiana.  Presently, the denomination has about 77,000 members in the United States and 850,000 worldwide.[ii]

The Free Methodist Church is generally theologically conservative, whereas the United Methodist Church obviously is liberal in theology. Further, the Free Methodist Church is less ceremonial or liturgical in worship and the clergy generally do not wear clerical vestments.[iii] The Free Methodists have been more loyal to Wesley’s emphasis on perfection and the church takes a strong stand on “entire sanctification.”

One point that does indicate a departure from the Free Methodist conservative posture is the denominational acceptance of a feminist perspective. The first general superintendent was B. T. Roberts who favored the ordination of women. By 1911 the denomination accepted this ordination stance and today about 216 of their clergy are women (26% of candidates for the ministry are women)![iv] A further point of interest is that early Free Methodists enjoyed a cappella hymn-singing, whereas after 1943, instruments of music made their appearance with many churches today accepting a full range of instruments (though dancing is still not permitted).[v] Like Methodism in general, the Free Methodists have an unscriptural organizational structure, with “the highest governing earthly body” being “the World Conference.” Presently there are 13 General Conferences on the earth.[vi] What we will be noticing later about the United Methodist Church will apply in some measure to the aberrations within this small denomination.

In contrast to the United Methodist Church that has compromised the inspiration and authority of Scripture, the Free Methodist Church seeks to base its doctrine on the Bible:

The Bible is God’s written Word, uniquely inspired by the Holy Spirit. It bears unerring witness to Jesus Christ, the living Word. As attested by the early church and subsequent councils, it is the trustworthy record of God’s revelation, completely truthful in all it affirms. It has been faithfully preserved and proves itself true in human experience. . . . The Bible has authority over all human life. It teaches the truth about God, His creation, His people, His one and only Son, and the destiny of humankind. It also teaches the way of salvation and the life of faith. Whatever is not found in the Bible nor can be proved by it is not to be required as an article of belief or as necessary to salvation.[vii]

This well-expressed statement should be one all Bible-lovers affirm. This denomination seeks to build the church on the basis of Scripture: “The Free Methodist Church purposes to be representative of what the church of Jesus Christ should be on earth. It therefore requires specific commitment regarding the faith and life of its members. In its requirements it seeks to honor Christ and obey the written Word of God.”[viii]

Following the lead of the early Methodist presence in the United States, the Free Methodist Church also incorporates the unscriptural bishop system into its organization.[ix] This shows that affirming the authority and trustworthiness of Scripture does not preserve a denomination from accepting unscriptural organizations and practices. As we shall see under the United Methodist discussion later, the body of Christ in the first century had overseers (a better translation than the KJV “bishops”) or elders/shepherds in each congregation who were qualified men in contrast to the Free Methodist (and United Methodist) practice of having bishops over multiple congregations (cf. Acts 14:23; 20:17, 28; 1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9; 1 Peter 5:1-3).

The Free Methodist statement on baptism is interesting:

Water baptism is a sacrament of the church, commanded by our Lord, signifying acceptance of the benefits of the atonement of Jesus Christ to be administered to believers, as declaration of their faith in Jesus Christ as Savior. Baptism is a symbol of the new covenant of grace as circumcision was the symbol of the old covenant; and, since infants are recognized as being included in the atonement, they may be baptized upon the request of parents or guardians who shall give assurance for them of necessary Christian training. They shall be required to affirm the vow for themselves before being accepted into church membership.[x]

It is perplexing that the denomination says that baptism is a “declaration of their faith in Jesus Christ as Savior” but, at the same time, the doctrinal statement says that infants “may be baptized upon the request of parents or guardians.” This seems like a clear contradiction. Baptism cannot be a statement of faith on the part of the baptized when a baby is utterly unable to have such faith. Further, one would not be able to affirm infant baptism if he uses the Bible as his only rule of faith and doctrine since infant baptism is not found in the teaching or practice in the Bible.[xi] Of course, this inconsistency also is found in the United Methodist Church that we are discussing in this study.

The Evangelical Methodist Church

Another small splinter group from the main Methodist Church body occurred in 1946 when the Evangelical Methodist Church was formed, with J. H. Hamblen elected as the first General Superintendent. In a description on the denominational website that laments the changes that occurred in the Methodist Church in the nineteenth century, we read:

In the 20th century, things began to change. Slowly the revival fire that had driven the robust expansion of U. S. Methodism began to die out. Methodist leadership, literature and educational institutions became increasingly liberal and humanistic. The message being declared was no longer a consistent church-wide declaration of the infallible authority of the Bible nor of the deity of Christ, His virgin birth, sinless life, bodily resurrection and second coming. The imperative of a personal religious experience, including the “new birth” and “sanctification” [the spirit filled life], was quietly dropped as a requisite for church membership or even leadership. Methodism in the USA stagnated and no longer grew as a church.[xii]

This small American denomination describes itself as “a culturally conservative, evangelical church that is ‘fundamental in belief, missionary in outlook, evangelistic in endeavor, cooperative in spirit, and Wesleyan in doctrine.’”[xiii] The church’s conservative stance is reflected in its “moderate Holiness message, emphasizing the inerrancy of the Holy Bible and the power of the Holy Spirit to cleanse a Christian from sin and to keep him or her from falling back into a sinful lifestyle.”[xiv] The church does have a Wesleyan view of perfection—“the experience of an entire sanctification—a ‘second. Crisis experience’ in which a believer’s heart is cleansed of self-centered ambition replaced by a perfect love for God and other people.”[xv]

As the Methodist Church was becoming “a more liberal and humanistic organization, specifically with its denial of the accuracy, authority and all-sufficiency of the Bible,” the Evangelical Methodist Church was formed “in order to revive what it considered the original principles of the founders of Methodism.”[xvi] Indeed, it is true that John and Charles Wesley would not recognize the United Methodist Church of our day! When the Evangelical Methodist Church was formed, it “ordained no bishops and gave local congregations the power to hold property and call its own ministers.”[xvii] In these matters, such as rejecting the bishop system, the EMC sought to return to a more Biblical organization.

In turning away from the main Methodist Church, this small denomination rightly insists on the authority of the Word of God. The Evangelical Methodist Church’s Discipline states:

The Holy Scriptures contain all things necessary to salvation; so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation. In the name of the Holy Scriptures, we do understand those canonical books of the Old and New Testaments, of whose authority was never any doubt in the church.[xviii]

Unfortunately in 2008, the EMC did set up a General Conference consisting of delegates in the country. “The Evangelical Methodist Church’s distinctive includes a congregational and connectional system of church government, although hierarchical, affords a great degree of freedom for the local church.”[xix] The denomination does have General Conferences and a Conference Superintendent (who is not called a Bishop). It must be pointed out that even though the EMC does seek to base its doctrine and life on the Bible, it has a massive number of additional rules, instructions, and regulations that are found in the Discipline![xx]

The view of baptism held by the Evangelical Methodist Church is mentioned in the Discipline, Section XVII: “Baptism is not only a sign of profession, and mark of difference, whereby Christians are distinguished from others that are not baptized, but it is also a sign of regeneration, or the new birth. The baptism of young children is to be retained in the church.”[xxi] We will see that the EMC statement is similar to the UMC statement in calling baptism “a sign of regeneration” which is very ambiguous. Regardless of these words, the church doesn’t really believe that baptism brings regeneration but it is merely a “sign” of regeneration that comes through faith. Notice also that the EMC retains child baptism, a doctrine that Wesley and the following Methodists embraced. As we will see later, this conflicts with the Biblical mandate that baptism must be an expression of faith (Mark 16:16; Acts 8:12, 35-39; 19:8; Galatians 3:26-27; Colossians 2:12) and embodiment of repentance (Acts 2:38-41; cf. Romans 6:1-5; Mark 1:4).[xxii]

The Evangelical Methodist rationale for its existence is laudatory to some extent, one that is in general harmony with Scripture:

People who consider themselves true to historic Methodism and who find the gospel message central to life and eternity, who are tired of the Bible being relegated to second place in church life, who weary of a singular diet of social action issues, who believe in Jesus, His sinless birth and life, atoning death, literal resurrection and return, and who have a passion and heart for world evangelization and participation in the harvest will find a welcome home in their local Evangelical Methodist Church.[xxiii]

These affirmations are welcome to those enmeshed in theological unbelief and liberal social causes. As we continue to explore the United Methodist Church, we will see that this assessment is justified. American membership of the Evangelical Methodist Church numbers about 8,600 persons.

As the mainline United Methodist Church has moved increasingly to the left, several smaller sects that have origins in the Holiness movement of the nineteenth century continue with certain restrictions from “worldly” elements. They may even differ from what they consider to be “liberal” Holiness denominations. In an enlightening but short discussion, we read:

The beliefs of the conservative holiness movement vary slightly from group to group. The common thread between them is the belief that the carnal nature (or the sinful nature) can be cleansed through faith by the power of the Holy Spirit by one who has received salvation from God through the confession of sins, repentance and faith. This belief is also called entire sanctification or a “second work of grace” that enables one to live a life set apart from the world.

Differences between conservative holiness churches and mainstream holiness churches include, but are not limited to, standards of dress, fashion, and entertainment. A distinctive of the CHM is what is called “standards.” The term “standard” is a label that is applied to a large number of restrictions on activities, styles of dress and types of entertainment. Some of these restrictions that are typical of many, but not all, conservative holiness churches include prohibitions or restrictions on television, movies and popular music. Bible Missionary Churches, and some Bible Holiness Churches, in recent years, prohibited use of the internet inside their homes for all members. Some churches also have various standards for the way women dress and style their hair. Many conservative holiness churches also have restrictions on activities that can be performed on Sunday. Most of the standards maintained by the CHM are addressed directly in Scripture, while some are maintained out of an attitude of carefulness towards God.

During rapid cultural shifts in the United States, the conservative holiness movement has largely been successful at remaining unchanged, especially in regards to outward appearance. The movement holds to the belief that regardless of cultural shifts, its message of a conservative holiness lifestyle should not change or deviate from its original intent. The churches believe that the experience of “holiness of heart and life” will be the answer to holding to the doctrine and teachings of scripture. These churches teach that Christians who have experienced entire sanctification will withstand changes which are contrary to the word of God. Most people in the holiness movement still agree that to live a holy life one must be “separate” from the world.

Because of strict adherence to their beliefs, these members and churches have often been alienated from other mainstream holiness groups. Some efforts to bridge the gap still continue between the two groups.[xxiv]

These types of restrictions and emphases would surely be ridiculed by the mainstream UMC as well as certain more liberal denominations. However, they would be accepted by those who are determined to separate themselves from the world and live unreservedly for God.

The Formation of the United Methodist Church

The highest point of the United Methodist Church came with the 1968 merger. (This was the merger of the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church.) At that time, the membership climbed to nearly 11 million.[xxv] In the years 1968 to 1972, the Church lost about 518,000 members.  Yet it must be pointed out that in 1970, only about 1% of white Methodists were outside of the United Methodist Church in the smaller Methodist denominations.  The United Methodist Church was the second largest Protestant denomination by 1972, after the large Southern Baptist Church.[xxvi] Interestingly, the Catholic Digest said that the general public considered Methodists “the most liked religion” in 1967-68.[xxvii]

During the past several decades, this membership number has progressively decreased, in part caused by the liberal social agenda of Methodist leadership.  As the Methodist Church increasingly embraced abortion, feminism, political liberalism, sodomy (homosexuality), liberation theology, and other heresies and immoral stances, the denomination continued to shrink. At present the membership has decreased to about 7.6 million. Membership in Africa and other places, however, continues to grow as the American membership shrinks. African Methodists, however, are not as theologically liberal as their American counterparts. A case in point would be the acceptance of sodomy. Whereas American Methodists are more inclined to accept homosexuality, this would be rightly rejected by most African Methodists.[xxviii]

You may want to check out other articles in this United Methodist Series:

[i] en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free_Methodist.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] fmcusa.org/uniquelyfm/doctrine/

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] fmcusa.org/bishops/

[x] Ibid.

[xi] See particularly Why Baptize a Baby or Young Child and Baby Baptism and Baptismal Regeneration: What does the Bible say?, both published through our True Discipleship, PO Box 330031, Fort Worth, TX  76163-0031.

[xii] emchurch.org/beliefs-practices/emcumc-difference/

[xiii] en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evangelical_Methodist_Church.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] emchurch.org/downloads/General/ EMC%20Discipline%20and%20Handbook .pdf.

[xix] emchurch.org/beliefs-practices/emcumc-difference/

[xx] emchurch.org/downloads/ General/EMC%20Discipline% 20and%20Hand book.pdf.

[xxi]emchurch.org/downloads/General/EMC%20Discipline%20and%20Hand book. pdf,

[xxii] As noticed in an earlier footnote, see particularly our booklets, Why Baptize a Baby or Young Child? and Baby Baptism and Baptismal Regeneration: What does the Bible say?, both published through our work: True Discipleship, PO Box 330031, Fort Worth, TX  76163-0031.

[xxiii] emchurch.org/beliefs-practices/emcumc-difference/

[xxiv] en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conservative_holiness_movement

[xxv] Frank S. Mead, Handbook of Denominations in the United States, 11th Edition, p. 239.

[xxvi] Piepkorn, p. 596.

[xxvii] Ibid.

[xxviii] The official church standard does continue to say that heterosexual marriage is God’s will.

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