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By Dr. Richard P. Bucher


There are approximately 13 million Methodists in the United States in 12 denominations. The largest of these are the United Methodist Church (8.3 million), the African Methodist Episcopal Church (2.5 million), the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (1.2 million), and the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church (784,000). The United Methodist Church (UMC) is the second largest Protestant denomination in the U.S., after the Southern Baptist Convention (15 million); the UMC has lost over 2.5 million members since 1968. Worldwide there are 60 million Methodists.


The origin of Methodism goes back to John Wesley (1703-1791) and his brother Charles (1707-1788) in England. Both brothers were members of the Church of England. Following their Anglican priest father, John was ordained in the Church of England in 1728 and Charles in 1735. Next to Martin Luther and John Calvin, no other Protestant leader has exerted such a wide and lasting influence on people than John Wesley.

Wesley’s view of Christianity was heavily influenced by several factors.

(1) Arminianism. John Wesley considered Jacob Arminius (1559-1609) to be a great man and openly described himself as Arminian. (Mack B. Stokes, Major United Methodist Beliefs. Revised Edition (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998), 13). Wesley followed Arminius in rejecting all five points of Calvinism.

(2) His mother’s training at home. She trained each child at an early age to live by a strict and carefully prescribed “method” of conduct.

(3) William Law’s Christian Perfection, which deeply influenced Wesley’s understanding of what would become his most important doctrine: Christian perfectionism.

(4) In 1729, John, Charles and a number of other students at Oxford University began meeting regularly in order to develop holiness and perfection by methodical Bible study, prayer, and acts of charity. Other students mockingly referred to them as “Methodists” or “the Holy Club.” But Wesley failed to find the perfection he was striving for, or the personal assurance of his salvation that he so desperately wanted.

(5) In 1735 he and Charles traveled to the Georgia colony to do mission work there. The mission itself was a disappointment, but on this trip he met some Moravian Christians who impressed him by their emphasis on holiness and perfection, and convinced him that such perfection was possible. Upon returning to Europe, he spent six months at the Moravian settlement at Herrnhut, Saxony.

(6) The Aldersgate Experience. On May 24, 1738, he went to a Moravian society meeting on Aldersgate Street in London. There he heard someone reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. As Wesley later reported, as he listened, “I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” This was not Wesley’s conversion; but it was deeply moving emotional experience that gave him assurance that Christ was his Savior. It is significant than Wesley based his assurance of salvation on his experience rather than on the objective promise of the Gospel alone. From then on, Wesley began to stress that each person must individually experience for himself the escape from the wrath of God and strive for holiness.

Wesley began to attempt to persuade others, but the Church of England, suspicious of his theology, closed its doors to his preaching. So Wesley began preaching in open fields or barns. Over the next several years, thousands experienced the same kind of experience as Wesley. A great religious awakening occurred. Wesley didn’t trust Anglican priests to minister properly to the new converts, so he established a class system to care for them. 10-12 members were placed under a class leader, a laymen whose duty was to investigate once a week each member’s spiritual growth. The separate classes constituted a circuit under the supervision of a lay preacher. Because he didn’t believe that the lay preachers were fully able to teach others, he introduced the itinerancy, where pastors would travel to the various circuits. In the American frontier they became known as “circuit riders.” The Wesley’s were incredible workers. It is estimated that John Wesley traveled 225,000 miles and preached 40,000 sermons, as well as producing many books. Charles produced over 6000 hymns (including “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”).

Methodism was brought to America by Philip Embury in 1760. Later Wesley sent Thomas Rankin, Francis Asbury, and several itinerant preachers to minister to the Methodist colonists. After the Revolutionary War, Wesley (contrary to Anglican procedure) ordained ministers for the colonies and appointed Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury as superintendents (later they were called bishops). Wesley also prepared a special liturgy, Articles of Religion, and declared American Methodist societies to be free from Anglican hierarchical control. At the “Christmas Conference” of 1784, 60 lay preachers accepted Wesley’s proposals and formed the Methodist Episcopal Church. In the Nineteenth Century, the Methodist Church, with its circuit riders and revivals, became one of the fastest growing churches on the American frontier.

Doctrinal Standards

The 25 Articles of Religion, written by John Wesley, have long been considered a doctrinal standard among Methodists. The Articles are Wesley’s revision of the Church of England’s 39 Articles. The articles on original sin, free will, and prevenient grace show the influence of Arminianism. The rest generally follow Anglican theology. In addition to the Articles of Religion, the United Methodist Church includes the “Confession of Faith” as a doctrinal standard. These are included in the Book of Discipline (The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2000 (Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 2000), 50-86). Also, John Wesley’s Standard Sermons and Notes Upon the New Testament are often included among the doctrinal standards. It must be pointed out, however, that Methodists are not required to subscribe to these doctrinal standards, and that throughout their history deeds have been more important than creeds, and a holy life more than doctrine. This is the opposite of Lutheranism.

Source of Christian Doctrine

United Methodists believe that “Scripture is the primary source and criterion for Christian doctrine.” (Book of Discipline, 78; henceforth BOD). To this primary source are added tradition, experience, and reason. These four are often known as “the Wesley quadrilateral.” The BOD says, “Like Scripture, these may become creative vehicles of the Holy Spirit as they function within the Church. They quicken our faith, open our eyes to the wonder of God’s love, and clarify our understanding” (BOD, 79). The latter three sources of tradition, experience, and reason, are to remain subservient to Scripture. Yet, in practice, these three have heavily influenced the Methodist interpretation of Scripture. For Methodists tradition, experience, and reason “informs” their reading of the Biblical message. Though Lutherans also value and use Church Tradition, and view reason as a gift of God in interpreting the Biblical text, we would never say that tradition, experience, or reason are a “source” of doctrine that “informs” our understanding of the Bible. For us Scripture must interpret Scripture first, then tradition, reason, and experience can be brought as additional confirmation. The emphasis on experience as a source of doctrine, has made Methodism vulnerable to a crass subjectivism that often leads to serious departures from Biblical doctrine (e.g., the Holiness, Charismatic, and Pentecostal bodies, which originated from Methodism).

The Bible

The United Methodist Church teaches that the Bible is the inspired Word of God, the primary source and criterion for Christian doctrine, and that it contains all that is necessary for salvation. They do not believe the Bible to be inerrant or infallible, as do Missouri Synod Lutherans (See F. Belton Joyner Jr., Being Methodist in the Bible Belt (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 27.) As Lutherans do, Methodists emphasize a scholarly approach to the Scriptures.

Original Sin

Wesley taught that all human beings inherit Adam’s original sin and the corruption, and, as a result, they are “very far gone from original righteousness” (Articles of Religion, VII). This corruption or depravity is not total, according to Wesley. Wesley taught that, because of God’s prevenient grace, all people have freedom of the will to either choose Christ or reject him. Lutherans and Calvinists on the other hand, teach that as a result of original sin, all people have “lost” original righteousness, and that they are totally unable to contribute anything to their salvation. They do not have freedom of the will.


Methodists traditionally have believed that the sinner is justified by grace through faith apart from the works of the Law. At times they place so much emphasis on man’s cooperation in his salvation, however, that they sound as if they are promoting a salvation (at least in part) by works. Also, for Methodists full salvation involves not only justification by faith, but repentance and holy living as well. Whereas in Lutheran theology the central doctrine and focus of all our worship and life is justification by grace through faith, for Methodists the central focus has always been holy living and the striving for perfection. Wesley gave the analogy of a house. He said repentance is the porch. Faith is the door. But holy living is the house itself. Holy living is true religion. “Salvation is like a house. To get into the house you first have to get on the porch (repentance) and then you have to go through the door (faith). But the house itself--one’s relationship with God--is holiness, holy living” (Joyner, paraphrasing Wesley, 3). This approach of saying that true religion consists in holy living runs the risk of implying that our eternal relationship with God depends on holy living, which is to deny the Gospel. Our relationship with God always and only depends on his justifying grace. Holy living is a result or fruit of justifying faith. (To illustrate the centrality of holiness in the Methodist church, consider the United Methodist hymnal. This hymnal has 24 hymns on repentance, 21 hymns on pardon and the assurance of pardon, and 168 hymns on holy living). Wesley believed that “entire sanctification” or “Christian perfection” was possible in this life.

Work of Christ

Methodists confess that Jesus Christ died for all sinners and God desires all to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth. In this he was following Arminius and rejecting Calvinism.

Means of Grace

Methodists teach that God has established ordinary means of grace, which are the public worship of God, the ministry of the Word (either read or expounded), the Lord’s Supper, family and private prayer, fasting or abstinence. Through these God gives justifying and sanctifying grace to those who believe. Note that Lutherans teach that neither prayer nor fasting nor abstinence is a means of grace. For us, a means of grace is an objective means through which God gives forgiveness and the strengthening of faith. Methodists teach that there are two sacraments--Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.


Methodists teach that Baptism in the name of the triune God is the ordinary way that a person is brought to faith in Jesus Christ. Infant baptism is practiced, with the caveat that it is not necessary, since “An infant who dies without having been baptized is as much within the love and care of God as the baptized infant” (Thomas S. McAnally, Questions & Answers About the United Methodist Church (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 7). Methodists ordinarily baptize by sprinkling.

The Lord’s Supper

Though Wesley sought to take a mediating position, Methodists reject the real presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper: “The body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten in the Supper, only after a heavenly and spiritual manner” (Articles of Religion, XVIII). Those who commune are said to “partake of the body and blood of Christ in a spiritual manner” (Confession of Faith, VI). Lutherans believe that Christ is present “bodily” not merely “spiritually” in, with, and under the bread and wine in the Supper. According to Methodists, those who partake in faith receive a two-fold benefit: the forgiveness of sins and the strengthening of faith (E. Byron Anderson, The Meaning of Holy Communion in the United Methodist Church (Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 2000), 26). Lutherans would heartily agree with this. Methodists practice total open communion--everyone is welcome and practically no one is turned away, not even the unbaptized. This is because they believe that the Lord’s Supper is a “converting ordinance.” Lutherans view this as irresponsible and unloving in view of 1 Co 11:23-29. Children and youth are communed even before Confirmation. Grape juice is used in almost all United Methodist congregations. In fact, in the late Nineteenth Century, a Methodist dentist named Dr. Welch, was so offended by serving wine in the Lord’s Supper that he found a way to preserve unfermented wine to be used in his Methodist congregation (Welch’s Grape Juice anyone?). This was adopted by Methodists in 1876. Prior to this Christians used wine, since there was no way to keep wine from fermenting. Methodists continue this practice because of their opposition to alcoholism, concern for the recovering alcoholic, and so that children can commune.


Methodists reject the teaching of predestination: that before time God elected Christians to be saved (but what of Romans 8:28-30 and Ephesians 1:4ff.?). They reject Calvin’s teaching of double predestination.

Social Action

From the time of Wesley, Methodists have been at the forefront of seeking to change society for the better in the name of Jesus Christ. For this they are to be commended.

Church Government

Methodists follow a democratic-episcopal (they have bishops) method of church government. A congregation is referred to as a charge. Charges are grouped together into “annual (regional) conferences.” There are 68 such conferences in the United Methodist Church. Annual conferences are grouped into five jurisdictional conferences. The General Conference represents the entire church every four years. It is composed of 1000 lay and clergy delegates. Bishops are elected for life. They decide where Pastors are to serve. Methodists ordain women as Pastors. The United Methodist holds all church property in a trust. Congregations own the property if they continue to operate their congregation according to the Book of Discipline.


The United Methodist Church has long practiced Women's Ordination.


Methodists have long been at the forefront of the ecumenical movement: seeking external unity with other denominations. Their emphasis has been to base unity only on things that are essential (But what determines whether a teaching or practice is essential?) They are not so zealous for unity that they compromise on fundamental articles of faith, however.

Various Issues

Homosexuality: The United Methodist Church rejects the homosexual lifestyle as being “incompatible with Christian teaching. However this issue has been fiercely debated for the last several decades. Both homosexual ordination and homosexual marriage are rejected. (BOD 2003, 101).

Abortion: Abortion is allowed in cases where the life of the child conflicts with the life of the mother, and when “devastating damage to the mother” may result from an “unacceptable pregnancy.” (BOD 2000, 102). They oppose abortion as a means of birth control or gender selection. They also oppose partial-birth abortion.

Divorce: Divorce is allowed when, after counsel, “a married couple is estranged beyond reconciliation.” Such divorce is considered a “regrettable alternative in the midst of brokenness” (BOD 2000, 99). Divorced people may remarry. What about the Biblical teaching (i.e., Matthew 19, 1 Co 7)?

Capital Punishment: Capital Punishment is considered to be wrong in God’s sight