“From the beginning, upholding Wesleyan standards of discipline constituted one of the cornerstones of American Methodism,” writes John Wigger in his excellent distillation of early American Methodism, Taking Heaven by Storm (p. 99). Thomas Rankin, John Wesley’s representative in America in the mid-1770’s, noted, “I am more and more convinced that unless the whole plan of our discipline is closely attended to, we can never see that work nor the fruit of our labours, as we would desire” (p. 99).
“The uniformity of Methodist discipline gave the movement a cohesiveness unknown to any other large-scale religious movement of the time” (p. 99). It is precisely this cohesiveness that is missing from United Methodism today, and one of the primary causes is the lack of uniform discipline or accountability.
“Making sure that new members lived up to Methodist standards was one of the primary responsibilities of all preachers and class leaders. Frequently this involved expelling recalcitrant members, the stiffest penalty available to the church” (p. 100). It is often alleged that it was possible to have strict discipline when Methodism existed only as a reform movement within the larger Anglican Church, but not practical once Methodism became its own church. But after the founding of the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1784, Bishop Asbury led the way in continuing this strict accountability. “Unless the discipline of the church is enforced,” wrote Asbury in defense of his actions, “what sincere person would ever join a society, amongst whom they saw ungodliness connived at?” (p. 100).
Members were confronted about swearing, drunkenness, pretentious dress, sexual immorality, and neglecting class meetings, among other vices. If they refused to respond to the counsel of their class (small group) leader or their pastor, they were often expelled from membership in the church. Later in the 19th century, such cases of discipline were heard by a “jury” of persons from the local church, who ascertained the facts and rendered judgment.
Always, the purpose was to bring back the brother or sister into conformity with Methodist standards and restore their place in the church body. Discipline was meant to be redemptive, but at the same time, consistent violations of the standards could not be countenanced. Such would lead to discord in the church and a falling away from the holiness that all were striving for.
In light of the current conflicts in the church, I found interesting one case cited by Wigger (p. 90). At an 1812 quarterly conference (roughly equivalent to our charge conference meeting) in Madison, Kentucky, one David Hardesty was “charged of having inveighed against the Doctrine and Discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church” and expelled. (To “inveigh” means “to protest or complain bitterly or vehemently.”)
Exactly 200 years later, Bishop Melvin Talbert said the following, ““I declare to you that the derogatory language and restrictive laws in the Book of Discipline are immoral and unjust and no longer deserve our loyalty and obedience … I call on the clergy who have signed the pledge to stand firm in their resolve to perform marriages among same-sex couples and to do so in the normal course of their pastoral duties. “ If that is not “inveighing against the Doctrine and Discipline” of The United Methodist Church, I don’t know what is. Yet, there has been no discipline exercised against Bishop Talbert, even for his outright disobedience of the church’s standards, let alone only for calling for such disobedience.
We often talk about the “ethos of Methodism.” There is no question that the ethos of Methodism has changed dramatically in 200 years. Unfortunately, the lack of discipline in our church is one of the contributing causes to the four-decade decline in vitality and membership. Can we recapture a commitment to hold one another accountable in love and to seek to conform to Methodist standards of living as a means of grace on the road to holiness?
Taking Heaven by Storm: Methodism and the Rise of Popular Christianity in America, by John H. Wigger; New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.