The Importance of Church Discipline

9780195355826_p0_v1_s260x420“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.

9 thoughts on “The Importance of Church Discipline

  1. How many of our UM Churches – liberal or conservative – have classes, bands, or any sort of specific mode of spiritual formation? Sunday school does NOT provide the sort of spiritual formation that was found in early Methodism – neither does small groups that focus on topics rather than “how is it with your soul?” Our current crisis is the fruit of our ecclesiology and there’s blame to go around the entire church.
    Timothy Tennant just posted about how winning the homosexual fight in our church is not a victory. Evangelicals/conservatives really have won . . . there’s no way with the current situation and projection for the future that the discipline will be changed to allow homosexual behavior. The left is just making a lot of noise in an attempt to go out in a blaze of glory. But what are we going to have left when all this over . . . An unsustainable system, unhappy people, and little consensus on what the Methodist way of life is.
    Oh, by the way, I totally agree with you Tom about the topic of discipline and really appreciate all that you do for renewal. But I agree with Tennant that it is time for a major paradigm shift in our thinking. Trying to defend the Discipline is draining us all – it promotes a defensive type of mindset that seeks to simply “hold own.” We need a positive vision of a powerful, Wesleyan movement with clear goals and methods. God has called us to save people – not institutions or church buildings.

    1. Thanks for writing, Josh. I agree with you that simply reforming the denominational structure will not bring renewal and revival to the church. I look at it as pulling weeds in the garden. Once the weeds are pulled, then new plants need to be set in the garden. I have an article coming in the March/April issue of Good News magazine that will broach some ideas for a paradigm shift in Methodism. We need to complement a good “defense” with a good “offense,” attending to both reform and renewal.

      1. The twin plagues on our United Methodist Church are the lack of respect for the authority of God and His word, and the lack of discipline for those who defy the word of God and encourage others to do so.

        As I’ve said often on this site and in my own blog posts and sermons, absolutely everyone right up to and especially including the bishops should be required to be in class meetings for mutual accountability in love. But as the Renewal Coalition statement declares, we need more specificity in the Discipline as to how accountability and discipline will be exercised.

        The escalating lowering of standards for leadership and for membership are destroying our church.

        Tom, I look forward to your upcoming article because we really do need a good offense. Statements are fine, but we need action and soon. Annual Conferences that will to a great degree determine what will happen at GC 2016 are right around the corner.

        Whatever happens, I believe that the long term hope for our denomination lies in a new respect for God and His word. I also believe John Wesley’s small groups will be very important, and I don’t mean watered down “modernized” versions.

        May God give us grace and renew our church.

    2. I have facilitated two Covenant groups in two UM churches in the past 10 years and have watched as old fashioned UM beliefs have been studied and strong UM are coming alive. Thanks to God.

  2. The Western and New England Conferences may be more aggressive about their stance on GLBTQ issues, but if you look at what most people assume is a traditional base such as Florida, you will find that four of nine district superintendents and the top aide to the Bishop as well as several other of the Bishop’s top staff members signed Adam Hamilton’s “A Way Forward for the UMC.” The district superintendents even signed the document with their official title as though they were signing for the districts they represented. The Gulf Central District Superintendent has been quite vocal about his position in some of his monthly newsletters.

    Even the Bishop, in recent guidance to pastors in the conference reminded them that the Book of Discipline forbids conducting same sex services in the UMC churches, offered this additional guidance:

    “If invited, and if your conscience leads you, you may provide pastoral counseling, read scripture, offer a prayer, or give the homily at a same-gender service held in an alternative setting. Whether to do so, or not, is an act of conscience. You can be pastorally present to your people in these ways, and, in my interpretation, these ways of proclaiming the gospel do not compromise the promises made in your ordination.”

    Unfortunately, it appears that Florida Conference is chomping at the bit to move to the “progressive” side of the table.

    1. The bishop should remember his ordination vows. They had nothing to do with teaching pastors to follow their conscience. One of the primary responsibilities of the bishop, and the most important one, is to preach and teach the word of God. Not to follow our conscience. They are also to uphold the Discipline and urge others to do the same. All of the things he tells pastors they can do “if conscience leads” are still officiating at a same-gender ceremony and still contrary to the Book of Discipline. This is the kind of humanistic doctrine of man that inevitably supersedes the word of God when our leaders fail to teach and preach, and practice, the word of God.

  3. Bruce,
    You point out the additional guidance that the Bishop offered. Something very disturbing is emerging in the progressive camp of late. There is an attempt underway to redefine The Gospel in a way that accomodates the gay agenda movement within the UMC. The Bishop said, “these ways of proclaiming the gospel do not compromise the promises made in your ordination”. This Bishop sees as a way to proclaim the gospel as, “you may give the homily of a same-gender service”. Taking the very essence of Christ and Christianity and distorting it in this way is beyond anything attempted to date. There seems to be no limit as to what these people will do to accomplish their ends.

  4. I believe Tom understands that contumacy is rampant in the highest echelons of the church, and that no Disciplinary maneuver will undo the damage or quell this rebellion. Tom is preparing us for the walkout, the moment when our funding of apostasy ceases and we stop listening to the babble from the false teachers among us.

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