Review: United Methodist Beliefs

by Alex

I first read this book partially to figure out if I should consider myself a United Methodist. Unfortunately, the book didn’t actually help much with that. It wasn’t the book’s fault, but rather my lack of theological sophistication. It is the first theological book I have read, and I don’t think I know enough to read theological texts with a critical mind. So I still am not sure whether I should consider myself a United Methodist.

On the other hand, I found United Methodist beliefs pretty inspiring. The author, William Willimon, heavily emphasized that Christians are called to take God’s commands seriously and strive as much as possible to be ‘everyday saints.’ When I write that, the belief sounds like a burden. When Willimon (quoting heavily from John Wesley and surprise! the Bible) writes about the same belief, it feels like a worthy, necessary, and perhaps achievable goal. There were at least a dozen instances in the book, starting in the introduction, where I had to pause for a minute because I was so excited and inspired by the possibilities of life on this here Earth. In fact, I have been browsing the book on the subway on the way to work nearly every day since I finished it just to get me pepped up about life.

I would recommend this book to any Christian who either a) wants to be inspired by being reminded of God’s promises to and requests of humanity or b) wants an introduction to what United Methodists consider core beliefs.  I would also recommend this book to non-Christians if you want to get a pulse on what leaders of a relatively mainstream Christian denomination consider to be important. However, Kate has pointed out that I might be over-excited about this book because I haven’t read many theology books, so take what I say with a grain of salt if you have, in fact, read many theology books.

The book is organized around the core beliefs of United Methodists, so the chapters are:

  1. We Believe in the Triune God

  2. We Believe in Salvation through Jesus Christ

  3. We Believe in the Holy Spirit

  4. We Believe in Christ’s Universal Church

  5. We Believe in Practicing Theology

  6. We Believe in Transforming and Perfecting Grace

  7. We Believe in Faith and Good Works

  8. We Believe in the Coming of God’s Realm and Reign to the World

  9. Thinking Like Wesleyans

Perhaps unsurprisingly, my favorite chapter was Practicing Theology. It shouted to me that we should take Jesus, the Bible, ourselves, and our work here on Earth seriously. Here is a sample passage of one of my favorite parts:

"One of the chief complaints about the exhortations and guidance of Scripture is that the Bible is just not relevant (that is, practical) to our needs and concerns today. We hear the words of Scripture and think “Well that all sounds great, on paper, but in the real world, it won’t work”... When we hear Jesus in the Scriptures (which is the primary way we hear Jesus) saying to “turn the other cheek” or to “forgive seventy times seven,” we are conditioned to reply, “Get real!”

But that begs the question of who defines reality. The Bible intends to be more than just a book of rules, a repository of helpful principles for better living. Attempts to use the Bible that are bound to be frustrated by the nature of the Bible’s way with the truth. Scripture is an attempt to construct a new world; to stoke, fund, and fuel our imaginations…

So when someone says that Scripture, contrary to the way United Methodists see it, is impractical and unrealistic, tell them that what they probably mean is that Scripture is difficult and demanding. When we read Scripture, allow it to have its authoritative way with us, and submit to its peculiar way of naming the world, we are changed, transformed, sanctified in the hearing…. We’re not simply to ask “Does this make sense to me?” Or “How can I use this to make my life less miserable?” But rather we are to ask in Wesleyan fashion, “How would I have to be changed in order to make this Scripture work?”"

I also really enjoyed Willimon’s quotation of the Watch Night Service covenant used by United Methodists. The covenant reminds me to be patient, consistent, and hopeful, which is always good to hear.

"Christ has many services to be done; some are easy, others are difficult; some bring honor, others bring reproach; some are suitable to our natural inclinations, and temporal interests, others are contrary to both. In some we may please Christ and please ourselves. Yet the power to do all these things is assuredly given us in Christ, who strengthens us… Let us now, in sincere dependence on his grace and trusting in his promises, yield ourselves anew to him."

The book doesn’t spend much time explicitly on personal finance, which makes sense as good personal finance should be a consequence of strong core beliefs, not actually a core belief itself of United Methodism (or Christianity in general). There was, however, a single passage regarding money I quite enjoyed:

"Wealth, which Wesley regarded with high suspicion, needed three rules to keep greed in check: Gain all you can, save all you can, and give all you can. Here is the summation of one of Wesley’s diatribes against wealth:

Heathen custom is nothing to us. We follow no men any farther than they are followers of Christ. Hear ye him. Yea, today, while it is called today, hear and obey his voice. At this hour and from this hour do his will; fulfill his word in this and in all things. I entreat you, in the name of the Lord Jesus, act up to the dignity of your calling. No more sloth! Whatsoever your hand findeth to do, do it with your might. No more waste! Cut off every expense which fashion, caprice, or flesh and blood demand. No more covetousness! But employ whatever God has entrusted you with in doing good, all possible good, in every possible kind and degree, to the household of faith, to all men."

I agree with everything in that passage, although both my inner nature and my social conditioning tend to make me less intense about it. In closing, I will admit that I could really use someone following me around shouting those reminders at me - “Act up to the dignity of your calling. No more sloth! No more waste! No more covetousness! Do good, all possible good, in every possible kind and degree!”