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Kevin Watson ~ Christianity with a Wesleyan Accent: Wesleyan Discipline

In “Thoughts upon Methodism,” John Wesley wrote:

I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out. (Wesley, Bicentennial Edition of the Works of John Wesley, 9:527)

This is the final post in a series that has explored the basics of Christianity with a Wesleyan Accent, especially focusing on the doctrine, spirit, and discipline that Wesley believed made Methodism a powerful movement of God. My first post emphasized that Wesleyans are more passionate about being Christian than about being Wesleyan, but that they do proclaim Christ with a recognizable accent. The second post discussed the doctrines that are at the heart of a Wesleyan proclamation of the gospel. The third post considered the spirit that was essential to early Methodism.

This post concludes this series by summarizing the most essential aspects of early Methodist discipline and their relevance for contemporary Christianity with a Wesleyan accent.

Perhaps the best way to introduce someone to early Methodist discipline would be to hand them a copy of the “General Rules.” (If you are interested in a thorough introduction to the “General Rules,” check out my book A Blueprint for Discipleship: Wesley’s General Rules as a Guide for Christian Living.) The “General Rules” reveal three key aspects of early Methodist discipline.

First, anyone could join, as long as they were earnest in their desire to find salvation in Christ. In other words, Methodists invited people to belong before they fully believed long before post-modern Christians began criticizing contemporary Christians for excluding people until they had the right beliefs or experiences that made them fit to belong.

Second, all who joined with the Methodists, regardless of whether they had yet experienced saving faith in Christ, were expected to begin keeping the “General Rules.” These rules were both straightforward and specific, so it was easy to know whether you were keeping them or not. The first rule was to do no harm. The rule was focused on things that harmed others or your relationship with God. The second rule was to do good, with particular focus on concrete acts that express love for neighbor. The third rule was to “attend upon the ordinances of God,” or practice the means of grace. Wesley included the following under the practices that Methodists must “attend to”: the public worship of God; the ministry of the Word, either read or expounded; the Supper of the Lord; family and private prayer; searching the Scriptures; and fasting or abstinence.

Finally, the “General Rules” reveal that Methodists believed that the Christian life could not be lived in isolation from others. And so, Methodists gathered together to “watch over one another in love” in small groups. Every Methodist was required to participate in a weekly class meeting where they talked about the present state of their relationship with God. In class meetings, Methodists held each other accountable for keeping the “General Rules.” Perhaps more importantly, they learned how to filter their lives through the lens of the gospel as they gathered together weekly to answer some form of the question: “How does your soul prosper?” (Check out my book, The Class Meeting: Reclaiming a Forgotten (and Essential) Small Group Experience, if you are interested in learning more about this practice.)

Wesley was adamant that people could not make progress in following Christ apart from other people. This is what he meant by the often misused phrase, “no holiness but social holiness.” Here is the context in which Wesley used the quote:

Directly opposite to this is the gospel of Christ. Solitary religion is not to be found there. ‘Holy solitaries’ is a phrase no more consistent with the gospel than holy adulterers. The gospel of Christ knows of no religion but social; no holiness but social holiness. (Wesley, Works, 13:39)

Methodist discipline, then, is open to anyone who is willing to live by it. Right beliefs or experiences were not prerequisites for joining the “people called Methodists.” But, you did have to be willing to hold to some basic practices and commit to a common life together.

In my experience, contemporary Methodists are fairly good at making it easy for people to belong, but are largely unable or unwilling to help people to keep the promises they make to God and each other when they join a Methodist church.

In contemporary United Methodism, for example, when one joins a church they make a commitment to support the church by their prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. But how many churches actually hold their members accountable for keeping these vows? Not nearly enough.

In fact, the norm now is for churches to have membership that is significantly higher than their average attendance, a practice which upon reflection reveals a failure to live into our mission to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” In contrast, historians of American Methodism have often noted how difficult it is to quantify American Methodism’s influence from the 1780s to the mid 19th century, because there were so many more people who attended Methodist services than were members of the Methodist Episcopal Church. In this period, a member was – at a minimum – someone who attended a weekly class meeting. If you failed to attend regularly during one quarter of the year, you would be removed from the membership rolls of the church (you could join again as soon as you were willing to abide by Methodist discipline).

What difference does any of this make today?

Christianity’s days of being identified with dominant United States culture are over, or at least quickly passing. (I believe this is a good thing, but that is for another post.) People are increasingly asking whether Christianity really makes any difference in their lives. If they find that it doesn’t, they often simply choose to stay home rather than attend church.

In an increasingly post-Christian context, Wesleyans need to be effective and proactive in helping people see the difference that being a Christian makes for human flourishing.

The good news is that we already have a basic blueprint for how to help people embrace faith in Jesus and become his apprentices. Methodist discipline, or the method that gave Methodism its name, was focused on helping people become deeply committed Christians, to become mature followers of Jesus Christ. This does not usually happen by accident or without forethought or effort. As Dallas Willard has said, “grace is not opposed to effort, it is opposed to earning.” (Willard, The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesus’ Essential Teaching on Discipleship)

The biggest challenge contemporary Wesleyans may face is our own unwillingness to be a disciplined people. The idea that being a Christian involves a commitment to a way of life flies in the face of the mainline Christian sensibilities that have infected the Methodist movement. And so we worry that it is too invasive or impolite to ask someone about their life with God. Or we fear that no one will come to a church that asks people to commit to participating in a weekly small group.

The Methodist tradition has experience with being a God-breathed movement that has the form and power of God. And we also have experience with resembling a dead sect, struggling for life and a collective sense of God’s presence in our midst. Which one do you think the church most closely resembles today?

As an historian of Methodism, I am convinced that the times that the Wesleyan tradition has been the most effective at helping people experience deep and lasting conversion to a new life in the kingdom of God have been the times that it has been the most committed to a disciplined approach to the Christian life.

And, thanks be to God, I already see signs of God knitting together women and men who are most passionate about regaining the form and power of godliness, who are returning to the basics of the doctrine, spirit, and discipline that Wesley prophesied were essential to spiritual vitality.

It is, after all, precisely the collective commitment to a particular doctrine, spirit, and discipline (or method) that gives Wesleyan Christians their distinctive accent.

Photo credit: Mike Peel