Consider Wesley

Doctrine and Discipline

Henry H. Knight III

In the previous Consider Wesley we looked at the promise of holiness, that is, of restoring the image of God to humans such that they love as God loves, as the orienting core of Wesleyan doctrine. But holiness as both content and goal of the Christian life also shaped Wesleyan practices. This is seen most clearly in the intrinsic connection between “doctrine” and “discipline.” Doctrine describes the Christian life centered on holiness as a desirable and attainable reality; discipline consists of those practices that enable one to receive and grow in that life.

Discipline was so central to Mr. Wesley’s Methodism that it became the key factor in becoming a Methodist. Simply put, a Methodist was someone who, being awakened to their condition as a sinner and God’s promise of forgiveness and new life, agreed to do two things: try to keep the Methodist discipline and attend a weekly class meeting, which would keep them accountable to that discipline.

The original discipline consisted of three rules. The first was to do no harm—to refrain from doing all that one has come to recognize as disobedient to God, or unloving to our neighbor. It was to turn away from a life marked by lack of reverence, uncharitable conversation, dishonesty in business or relationships, consumerism, the accumulation of needless wealth and possessions, and the like.

The second rule was to do good to both the bodies and souls of others. These are the “works of mercy,” and are a turning toward the neighbor. They include a concern for the physical well-being of others—food, shelter, medical care—as well as for their being treated with justice and respect. They also include a concern for the spiritual wellbeing of others—sharing the good news of Jesus Christ and helping nurture growth in the Christian life.

The third rule was to attend the ordinances of God. These are the “works of piety,” and are a turning toward God. They include attending public worship as well as a daily devotional life. They have as their content such means of grace as prayer, searching the Scripture, the Lord’s Supper, and fasting.

Discipline thus encouraged active participation in means of grace within which one encountered the living God and through which the Holy Spirit transformed one’s life such that it increasingly imaged the love of God. It is this doctrine and discipline together, centered as they are on holiness of heart and life, that gives Wesleyanism its distinctive identity.

The class meeting was a weekly gathering of ten-to-twelve persons. The early Methodists knew that, once a week, they would be asked how they had done in keeping the discipline. If you know that each week you will have to give an account, you are much more likely to be faithful. This counteracts the inevitable pull of the business of life away from God and reinforces the focus on God and neighbor.

But the class meeting was not only a means of accountability; it was also a regular occasion for what Wesley called Christian conference. It was a time to discuss concretely what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ in one’s own life and context. It is not always clear what obeying God or loving our neighbor requires in a given situation; the class meeting was a place where one could attain greater clarity.

If we compare present-day Wesleyanism with the original, the contrast is stark, at times to the point of reversal. Holiness and the renewal of the church are no longer central to our mission. Doctrine has been watered down and Christian perfection largely abandoned. Discipline and class meetings have mostly disappeared. If this is true even as a generalization, is it any wonder there is a pervasive crisis of identity throughout the Wesleyan movement?

The reasons for all this are complex and probably not fully known. The decline of discipline in America may have to do with the unwieldy size of class meetings due to the exclusion of women leaders, as well as the replacing of a vibrant lay ministry with an increasingly clergy-centered church. Certainly, accommodation to culture and middle-class respectability took its toll.

But whatever the causes, the effects have been seriously detrimental to the Wesleyan vision. For unless one is earnestly seeking holiness of heart and life, the discipline, classes, and practices of Wesley’s Methodism make no sense. And, unless there are Christians engaged in something like that discipline and those practices, the doctrine of Christian perfection is scarcely credible. And—if all this is the case—then an evangelism centered on holiness will not be credible either, lacking as it does the existence of a people who give evidence of growth in holiness in their own lives.

Wesley’s Methodists were a renewal movement within the Church of England. Through the Methodist preaching, societies and discipline Wesley hoped to provide what was lacking in the church and at the same time enliven what was already there. There are many churches today that consider themselves Wesleyan or Methodist who, based on Wesley’s criteria, need renewal. Can there be a new Wesleyan movement to meet this need, and how will it be received?

Posted Nov 24, 2021