Believing what I want to


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Believing what I want to

By Bobby Neal Winters

One of the things that make me maddest, and maybe I’ve mentioned it in this space before, is hearing the statement “Methodists believe anything they want to.”

I suppose it makes me mad because I’ve made it myself.

The thing is that this sentence is true regardless of whether the word Methodist, Baptist, Pentecostal, or Catholic is the subject. While there has been so much scientific progress in so many areas, we are yet to be able to look inside someone’s head to tell what they believe. In the cartoons, they put clouds above the heads of the characters to show their thoughts, but we don’t have those in real life. You can believe whatever you want and no one will be the wiser.

What we do have is the ability to observe actions. In the Book of James we are told “Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble.” James’s emphasis was on the importance of putting faith into action: “Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works.” Actions convey what we believe, but even they are not one hundred percent accurate.

So no one has any control over what any individual believes, but, on the other hand, I’ve heard the sentence we are discussing uttered with the word “Methodist” more often than with any other Christian tradition. What is different about Methodists that make people think this way about us?

As I said earlier, one of the reasons I am sensitive to this sentence is that I myself have said it. To be precise, what I said was, “I am a Methodist because I can believe whatever I want.”

I said that because I never received any pressure from anyone to change my beliefs. I never had anyone up in my face saying that I had to believe X, Y, and Z or I would “knock hell wide open,” something which I had heard from other Christian Traditions.

This is not because the United Methodist Church has no beliefs. It does and over time I’ve come to take up those beliefs over the one’s I clung to so loyally before. But, in talking about religions, I think we have to be careful in making distinctions between what members of the religion believe as individuals and what the church teaches. Those of you who are teachers understand this concept quite well. In a particular class, you might teach about what John Wilkes Booth did at Ford’s Theater, but that might have very little effect on what your students believe John Wilkes Booth did at Ford’s Theater or whether they believe there was a John Wilkes Booth or a Ford’s Theater. Their beliefs, lack of belief, or total ignorance of the topic does not affect what was taught or its truth.

I think the same is true about Christianity in general and about Methodism in particular. Christianity teaches and sometimes the pupils just don’t get it. Jesus offered us the parable of the seeds. The seeds are cast on different kinds of ground are there are varying responses. In no case did Jesus say to force the gospel down anyone’s throat. Not only is that an un-Christlike action, but it is impossible. You can’t force anyone to believe anything. As I pointed out above, we can’t even know for sure what any given individual believes.

John Wesley said, “Offer them Christ,” and I think that is what we as Methodists do, offer Christ. As a church we tend to be listeners and head-nodders rather than talkers and finger-pointers. I think there are people who respond to each of these approaches, but I believe our calling as a denomination is to go after those who respond to the first type.

When puppies get out of the pen, some come when you yell, but others respond to a sweet voice and a bit of food held out at arm’s length. We offer Christ—which is more than a bit of food—and through Christ is provided a way to the Father.

That is my opinion, at least.

(Bobby Winters is a professor of mathematics, writer, and lay speaker. He has authored two books Grandma Dipped Snuff, available from, and Confessions of an Ice Cream Socialist, available from Amazon, Hastings, or from Bobby personally. You may contact him at
Hi Bobby--

I believe that you make an important point when you write:

"... in talking about religions, I think we have to be careful in making distinctions between what members of the religion believe as individuals and what the church teaches."

I agree whole-heartedly. The observation you offer here is too often overlooked, as well as the fact that even the teachers in any denomination are themselves individual believers.

Always a bit of insight here.:cool: