Article XXV-Last Things-The Kingdom of God

Continuing on the series of the Free Methodist Church’s Articles of Religion (see here and here for an explanation of the series and format):

¶126 Last Things–The Kingdom of God

The kingdom of God is a prominent Bible theme providing Christians with both their tasks and hope. Jesus announced its presence. The kingdom is realized now as God’s reign is established in the hearts and lives of believers.

The church, by its prayers, example and proclamation of the gospel, is the appointed and appropriate instrument of God in building His kingdom.

But the kingdom is also future and is related to the return of Christ when judgment will fall upon the present order. The enemies of Christ will be subdued; the reign of God will be established; a total cosmic renewal which is both material and moral shall occur; and the hope of the redeemed will be fully realized.

¶131 Scriptural References

The doctrines of the Free Methodist Church are based upon the Holy Scriptures and are derived from their total biblical context. The references below are appropriate passages related to the given articles. They are listed in their biblical sequence and are not intended to be exhaustive. Matthew 6:10, 19-20; 24:14; Acts 1:8; Romans 8:19-23; 1 Corinthians 15:20-25; Philippians 2:9-10; 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17; 2 Thessalonians 1:5-12; 2 Peter 3:3-10; Revelation 14:6; 21:3-8; 22:1-5, 17.

This Article holds to the theological truth of “Already/Not Yet.” This is the idea that the kingdom of God is already present in the world, having first arrived in the person of Jesus Christ and continued through the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church to today, but it is not yet fully formed. In other words, anywhere the will of God is followed and people deny themselves to walk in the ways of the Lord, the kingdom of God is present. Any time a denomination or congregation or even a small group of Christians (or individual) follows the guidance and direction of the Head of the Church (Jesus Christ), the kingdom of God is present.

Yet the reality is that the Church does not perfectly live out the will of God. Beyond the Church, the world is still full of death, decay, and corruption. The kingdom is not fully here, and will not be until Jesus Christ returns and the New Creation is completed.

This is an Article of immense hope, but also an accurate and realistic reflection of the state of the Church and world today.

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Article XXIV-The Church-The Lord’s Supper

Continuing on the series of the Free Methodist Church’s Articles of Religion (see here and here for an explanation of the series and format):

¶125 The Church–The Lord’s Supper

The Lord’s Supper is a sacrament of our redemption by Christ’s death. To those who rightly, worthily and with faith receive it, the bread which we break is a partaking of the body of Christ; and likewise the cup of blessing is a partaking of the blood of Christ. The supper is also a sign of the love and unity that Christians have among themselves.

Christ, according to His promise, is really present in the sacrament. But His body is given, taken, and eaten only after a heavenly and spiritual manner. No change is effected in the element; the bread and wine are not literally the body and blood of Christ. Nor is the body and blood of Christ literally present with the elements. The elements are never to be considered objects of worship. The body of Christ is received and eaten in faith.

¶131 Scriptural References

The doctrines of the Free Methodist Church are based upon the Holy Scriptures and are derived from their total biblical context. The references below are appropriate passages related to the given articles. They are listed in their biblical sequence and are not intended to be exhaustive. Mark 14:22-24; John 6:53-58; Acts 2:46; 1 Corinthians 5:7-8; 10:16; 11:20, 23-29.

This Article is one on which, as a denomination, we are actually on shaky ground. The classic Methodist understanding of the Lord’s Supper, also called variously Holy Communion, the Eucharist, or the Sacrament, is that somehow Christ is present in the sacrament. We do not know how he is present, only that it is not the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation.

John Wesley, who was a faithful Anglican priest through the day he died, believed that the elements of Communion themselves became the means by which God communicated his grace to us. He did not believe that the elements transformed on a microscopic level into flesh and blood, but they were the actual, physical vessels that communicated the body and blood of Christ to those who would receive them in faith. This is the classic Methodist understanding of the Eucharist as well.

This article shows how the Free Methodist Church has a convoluted understanding of the sacrament. The first section is the classic understanding inherited from Wesley, and thus the Church of England. The second section is more anabaptist in its denial of any meaning to the bread and wine. This may sound like splitting theological hairs, but here is the issue: In the first section, the bread and wine are necessary for the sacramental experience of receiving God’s grace. In the second section, only faith is necessary.

In fact, the first sentence of the second section is actually contradicted by the rest of that section. Either Christ is present in the bread and wine or he is not. If the presence is spiritual, i.e. through the Holy Spirit, he is still present. It really does not matter whether we can explain how Christ is present (especially because we can not do so).

Methodists have always been a part of the Church that believed in Christ’s real presence in the Lord’s Supper. It is a mystery how that occurs, but we have always believed it is true. Not only does Scripture back up this interpretation, but so does almost all of the history of the Church’s understanding of the Eucharist. We may have debated exactly how Christ is present, but we have always believed he is present in the bread and wine.

The portion of the Article that reads, “No change is effected in the element; the bread and wine are not literally the body and blood of Christ. Nor is the body and blood of Christ literally present with the elements…The body of Christ is received and eaten in faith,” runs counter to that understanding.

We would do well to stop trying to define exactly how Christ is or is not present in the sacrament and simply state that we believe Christ is present in the sacrament. We would be on much more solid biblical ground, as well as historical ground with the entire Church (not to mention our own Wesleyan heritage).

Article XXIII-The Church-Baptism

Continuing on the series of the Free Methodist Church’s Articles of Religion (see here and here for an explanation of the series and format):

¶124 The Church–Baptism

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.

¶131 Scriptural References

The doctrines of the Free Methodist Church are based upon the Holy Scriptures and are derived from their total biblical context. The references below are appropriate passages related to the given articles. They are listed in their biblical sequence and are not intended to be exhaustive. John 3:5; Acts 2:38, 41; 8:12-17; 9:18; 16:33; 18:8; 19:5; 1 Corinthians 12:13; Galatians 3:27-29; Colossians 2:11-12; Titus 3:5.

If you want to get into some heated discussions with church people, bring up the topic of baptism. There are so many different understandings of what actually happens in the sacrament (or even whether it is a sacrament) that even usually docile people become irate.

The Free Methodist Church affirms and expects older people who become believers in Jesus Christ to be baptized. If a Church exists in communities where people are not yet Christian, and that Church is actually doing what it is commanded by Jesus Christ of spreading the Good News and introducing people to him, there ought to be adult converts. Therefore, there ought to be new believers getting baptized.

The Free Methodist Church affirms and expects Christian families to bring their children to be baptized as well. There are three main reasons for this belief. First, we stand in the main stream of the history of the Church for the past 2000 years in that we affirm and practice infant baptism. That is a position with a strong historical precedent. The Church in the most places in the most time touching the most Christian lives around the globe for the last 2000 years has baptized infants, and we remain faithful to that practice.

Yet we also know that just because something is ancient in its practice does not necessarily make it right. Therefore, second, we affirm that the world is made up of only two kinds of people: those in the Kingdom of God and those outside of the Kingdom of God. There is not a third category of “children of those in the Kingdom who are waiting their turn.”

Finally, we affirm and practice infant baptism for theological and biblical reasons. If all have sinned in Adam, that includes infants. Psychology teaches an age of accountability for our actions, but the Bible is clear that all have sinned. As well, entire households were baptized in Acts, and even Paul baptized the entire household of Stephanus in Corinth. And if baptism is truly the mark of the new covenant just as circumcision was of the old covenant (as referenced by the Colossians passage above), then there ought to be no reason to keep children out of the covenant since the same God instituted both covenants, and he is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

Theologically, we believe that God is the primary mover in all of our relationships. God’s presence and grace go before us and we react and respond to it. Baptism of infants is our liturgical and ecclesiological way of showing our belief that God is the primary mover in our salvation. God’s grace is already being poured out on us, even in infancy.

Article XXII-The Church-The Holy Sacraments

Continuing on the series of the Free Methodist Church’s Articles of Religion (see here and here for an explanation of the series and format):

¶123 The Church–The Holy Sacraments

Water baptism and the Lord’s Supper are the sacraments of the church commanded by Christ. They are means of grace through faith, tokens of our profession of Christian faith, and signs of God’s gracious ministry toward us. By them, He works within us to quicken, strengthen and confirm our faith.

¶131 Scriptural References

The doctrines of the Free Methodist Church are based upon the Holy Scriptures and are derived from their total biblical context. The references below are appropriate passages related to the given articles. They are listed in their biblical sequence and are not intended to be exhaustive. Matthew 26:26-29; 28:19; Acts 22:16; Romans 4:11; 1 Corinthians 10:16-17; 11:23-26; Galatians 3:27.

The next two Articles after this one speak directly to baptism and the Lord’s Supper, so I’ll leave the discussions about those specifically for then. Right now it is important to understand our understanding of sacraments in general. First, we stand in the Protestant tradition of defining only two sacraments. This does not mean that we do not see other aspects of life as holy or sacred or even in some sense sacramental, but we only count two specific actions as sacraments.

This is because we take the classic definition that a sacrament must have two parts, a sign and a thing signified by that sign. Another way to phrase it is that a sacrament is “an outward sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” We understand the command by Christ to baptize and to celebrate the Lord’s Supper as the signs he gave to signify something greater within us.

As well, we stand firmly in the Anglican tradition (since Methodism originally came from the Church of England) in that we believe that a sacrament is an actual way in which God gives grace to us. This is what we mean by the term means of grace. They are ordinary channels, or means, by which God conveys grace to us. Specifically, we believe that there is something about the physical elements of water, bread, and wine (or juice) that God uses within the context of worship that truly acts as a medium through which God acts in our lives. It is not just a spiritual reality. The sacraments are physical objects that God uses since we are both spiritual and physical beings.

Article XXI-The Church-The Language of Worship

Continuing on the series of the Free Methodist Church’s Articles of Religion (see here and here for an explanation of the series and format):

¶122 The Church–The Language of Worship

According to the Word of God and the custom of the early church, public worship and prayer and the administration of the sacraments should be in a language understood by the people.

¶131 Scriptural References

The doctrines of the Free Methodist Church are based upon the Holy Scriptures and are derived from their total biblical context. The references below are appropriate passages related to the given articles. They are listed in their biblical sequence and are not intended to be exhaustive. Nehemiah 8:5, 6, 8; Matthew 6:7; 1 Corinthians 14:12-14.

The history of this short Article goes back to the beginning of the Protestant Reformation (something that “officially” began on October 31, 1517–exactly 500 years ago this year!). Prior to the Reformation, and even shortly after it, services were only conducted in Latin. Only the educated knew Latin any more, and the majority of people in Europe were not educated. Therefore most people did not understand one word during a worship service in the Church. Part of the Reformation was to not only have the Bible translated into local languages (English, German, French, etc.), but to have the worship services conducted in those languages. That is why this Article originally was created.

In more recent years it has been used as a basis for not allowing the speaking of tongues in worship or public prayer. In fact, the scriptural reference from 1 Corinthians gets to exactly that point. The Free Methodist Church does not deny the gift of tongues, but it does not encourage it within the context of worship. Most people who feel that speaking in tongues is an essential part of worship are already in congregations that feel the same way, so this still does not have much contemporary relevance on this topic.

The one place where this Article still has a need to speak to us today is with the topic of rhythmic and symbolic language. In other words, what types of music are appropriate for worship, and what types of symbolism or ritual is appropriate for worship? If we take this Article for what it says, our worship services ought to communicate the Gospel in such a way that people understand what is being said/sung/done. If they do not understand those things, then the worship service might just as well be in Latin.

This cuts both forwards and backwards. Younger generations do not understand much of what was in services years ago, and faithful older generations do not understand much of what is in services today. I adamantly maintain that worship is not evangelism–worship is God-focused and evangelism is people-focused–but there has to be pastoral consideration in trying to communicate what is happening in worship for the people who attend. If a group of refugees arrived from Syria in one of our congregations, we would try to communicate in Arabic so that they could worship. If younger people arrive in our congregations we have to communicate in a way they can understand. If older people arrive in our congregations we have to communicate in a way they can understand.

This puts the burden of thought, prayer, and action on the pastor and those involved in worship planning. Simply choosing to have a “traditional” or a “contemporary” service is a cop-out when it comes to having a worship service in a language that the people understand.