The Marks of a Methodist 3: Discipline

Art credit: ​​​​​​​John Wesley preaching in Ireland, 1789. Maria Spilsbury (1777-1820). John Wesley’s House & The Museum of Methodism.

By Thomas Lambrecht

This series of articles has been looking at the marks of a Methodist, as expounded by Bishop Gerald Kennedy in 1960. How has the expression of Methodism changed or remained the same in the last 60 years? We have seen that the marks of a Methodist include Experience (a personal experience of a relationship with God through Jesus Christ that transforms all of life) and the desire to Make a Difference in this world as an expression of God’s love.

The third mark Kennedy points to is Discipline. He quotes John Wesley’s Journal from August 17, 1750: “Through all Cornwall I find the societies have suffered great loss from want of discipline. Wisely said the ancients, ‘The soul and body make a man; the Spirit and discipline make a Christian.’”

Discipline might be defined as focused and structured effort toward a goal. For a Christian, the goal is both personal holiness (experience) and pursuing the mission of God in the world (making a difference). In the mind of Wesley and Kennedy, the means to reach that goal is through discipline. Kennedy quotes Methodist Bishop Edwin D. Mouzon as saying, “Methodist discipline is as much a part of Methodism as Methodist doctrine.”

Disciplined Time

Kennedy illustrates this focused effort by how we spend our time. He quotes one of Wesley’s “Historic Questions” that have been propounded to every aspiring Methodist preacher since the 1750’s. “Be diligent. Never be unemployed. Never be triflingly employed. Never trifle away time. Neither spend any more time at any one place than is strictly necessary.”

These instructions strike us as somewhat obsessive. One wonders if Wesley ever took a vacation! Unrelenting effort is a recipe for burnout. There are occasions when it is appropriate to waste time. Certainly, the Sabbath principle points to the need for rest and restoration, both physically and spiritually.

On the other hand, many today lack focus and purpose in their lives. When we understand what we are to do with our lives, there needs to be focused time and effort to be faithful to that understanding. We will not accomplish what God has for us to do by sitting on a couch and playing video games. Part of making a difference is devoting our time and energy to those things that will result in making a difference. The more we can give that focused effort, the more we are able to accomplish.

Kennedy sums up his viewpoint, “One of the most serious sins is to waste time. God does not give us a more precious gift than the years of life which are made up of hours and minutes. I find myself more and more in harmony with Wesley’s acute sense of the importance of using every minute of every day with ‘sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,’ as Kipling said.”

Wesley’s General Rules

A primary way that discipline was manifested in the Methodist movement from its earliest days was through Wesley’s three General Rules. Kennedy reminds us that Wesley welcomed anyone with “a desire to flee from the wrath to come, and to be saved from their sins” to be admitted to a Methodist society, “but once admitted, members either followed the rules or they were dismissed.”

The first rule states that Methodists will evidence their desire of salvation “by doing no harm, by avoiding evil of every kind.” The examples given in the original rule include “profanity, breaking the Sabbath, drunkenness, fighting and quarreling, dishonesty, buying or selling without paying the tax, usury, speaking evil, doing anything that is not to God’s glory, self-indulgence, borrowing without the probability of repaying.” As Kennedy put it, “great living often begins with a resolution not to do some things which other people are doing. Many people have lost their moral standards because they have accepted the silly idea that a ‘thou shalt not’ is always wrong. Life is made noble by the people who dare to say No.”

The second rule is the flip side of the first. Methodists are to evidence their desire of salvation “by doing good in every possible way, and as far as possible to all.” We are to do good “to their bodies” by relieving physical needs of people and providing food, shelter, clothing, and companionship. We are to do good “to their souls” by engaging them spiritually, instructing and encouraging them to grow in faith. We are to do good “especially to them that are of the household of faith,” our brothers and sisters in Christ, favoring them in business and taking special care to minister to the needs of fellow Christians. Most importantly, we are to do good whether we feel like it or not!

Finally, the third rule is to evidence our desire for salvation “by attending upon all the ordinances of God.” These are: public worship, the ministry of the Word, the Lord’s Supper, family and private prayer, studying the Scriptures, and fasting or abstinence. Kennedy affirms Wesley’s promotion of “holy habits” that build our spiritual lives. “[Wesley] was careful to dismiss those who fell away from their obligations, for he knew that such carelessness could destroy the societies. We are not a people under law but under grace. Still, we will lose our way unless we have guideposts and regulations.”

What strikes one is the systematic way that Wesley and Methodism pursues salvation and holiness. This important pursuit is not left to chance, but is carried out in intentional, methodical ways. Just as discipline focuses our use of time, it also focuses our efforts on doing good, avoiding evil, and engaging the spiritual disciplines, the means by which God has ordained for us to grow in likeness to Christ.

High Expectations

Methodism was characterized by the expectation that God would grow the Christian into spiritual perfection. As Jesus said, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). As Wesley understood it, this does not mean perfect in the sense that we never make a mistake. Rather, it is a level of spiritual maturity whereby we are so filled with the love of God that we do not commit any intentional sin. A familiar saying among Methodists is that we are “going on to perfection.”

Most of us may never reach that goal in this life. Wesley himself never professed to have reached perfection. But if we stop striving toward it, we will settle for being much less than we could be.

These high expectations were manifested in an approach to church membership that was characterized by discipline. Kennedy states that of all the thousands of people who professed conversion in the great revivals on the American frontier, “probably not more than a fourth ended up as members [in the Methodist Church]. Candidates for church membership were carefully examined, taught, sifted. They had to attend classes and testify as to the condition of their souls. Nor was it unusual to have members dismissed for failing to live up the rules of the Methodist Church.”

This high expectation has been lost in many churches today, Methodist and otherwise. Studies in church growth over the years have shown that “high-expectation churches” tend to experience greater numerical growth, as well as (hopefully) greater spiritual maturity. The 1950’s before Kennedy wrote his book was a period of some of the highest church attendance in U.S. history. He alludes to the fact, however, that such a “return to church” had not had the equivalent expected impact on the culture of the time. “If the return to religion in our day has not resulted in the moral and spiritual renewal of our society, it is the fault of the churches. If we fail to make clear what Christianity demands, we need not be surprised if our members take the whole affair lightly. The Church only cheapens itself when it fails to make demands and hold up standards.”

Kennedy particularly singles out ministers for needing discipline in their lives. “True it is that our society has no more difficult profession than the ministry. Indeed, it is an impossible task as can be proved easily if you analyze what is expected from the minister by the congregation. No [one] is up to it. But it has always been true that no [one] can carry this load without divine help. The minister is driven back upon God if he [or she] is to ‘walk and not faint.’”

Indeed, this is true in a larger sense of all Christians. We are not able to live up to the high expectations God has for us. That is why we learn to depend upon God to grow us into that spiritual maturity, rather than thinking we can do it all on our own effort. Kennedy reminds us, “we never discover what God can do until our weakness drives us to Him.”

“The time has come when we must hold up The Methodist Church as something that demands the best and insists on discipline. … The Methodist Church has had its great periods of power and influence which were always times of witnessing. We still worship the same Lord, and we believe the same doctrines. If we would accept the same discipline, we could expect the same mighty results. The essential mark of our Church is a disciplined, witnessing fellowship.”

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