September 28, 2020 Kevin M. Watson
Major changes are coming to United Methodism. The denomination has been moving toward division since it was formed in 1968. Indeed, one way to read the history of the Wesleyan movement in the United States is as a history of division.
There is much to lament these days if you are United Methodist. In fact, one of the few things that seems to unite virtually all United Methodists is their common lament and mutual awareness that the denomination is not healthy. I cannot remember the last time I met a United Methodist leader who was proud of the current state of the denomination. And many people, clergy and laity, have left the denomination. It is devastating to see the negative impact the church itself has had on many people’s faith. This isn’t new. But we must never grow numb or calloused to such a devastating failure.
And yet, in the midst of the present crisis, I see some people asking probing questions, seeking to understand their faith more deeply. I see people who are hungry for more and persevering in prayer, searching the Scriptures, worship, fasting, and watching over one another in love.
It may seem strange, but I am encouraged by the hunger. I am encouraged by the desperation. I am encouraged by the people with a nagging sense that something is missing in their faith, who want more.
These things encourage me because my hope for the future of Methodism is for a new movement that stubbornly refuses to settle for anything less than the fullness of God’s presence. My hope is in the emergence of real Methodism, not the cheap imitation we’ve tolerated for far too long.
I want to be in fellowship with Spirit-filled Christians who have counted the cost and are committed to giving their lives fully to the gospel of Jesus Christ, and who will watch over one another in love. I want to be connected to Christians who will persist in prayer until they experience breakthrough to the fullness of the gospel.
What is Methodist Discipline?
Here is a core truth that I would like to see at the center of conversations about the future of the Wesleyan theological tradition: Real Methodism has no room for nominal Christianity.
One shorthand way of describing the foundations of Methodist polity is this: the early Methodists recognized they needed doctrine and discipline to provide clarity about (a) the key beliefs that unified them and (b) the key practices, or way of life, to which they committed themselves. This is why for decades before the formation of the United Methodist Church, Methodism’s polity book was called not merely the book of Discipline, but the Doctrines and Discipline.
Discipline did not mean a way of punishment. Its primary connotation was a positive commitment to a disciplined, or ordered and structured, way of life. Think about the connotation of saying “She is a disciplined person.” We almost always mean that in a positive and complimentary way. She does what she intends to do. She follows through. She makes decisions and takes action in ways that are consistent with her values.
Methodists were a people who were committed to a particular set of beliefs and a particular set of practices. This was what united them.
One consequence of these commitments is that people who profess them with their mouths, but show by their lives that they are undisciplined, must be held accountable, or else the community itself becomes undisciplined. And so, people in early Methodism were regularly removed from membership in the church because they were unwilling to honor the commitment they made to live disciplined Christian lives.
The doctrinal and disciplinary foundation of the Wesleyan tradition does not have space for those who say they are Christians on the one hand, but the confession of their lips makes no difference in the way they live on the other.
Methodism’s General Rules
Sadly, contemporary United Methodism has gone to extraordinary lengths to forget this. It has been bizarre to watch the “General Rules” come into vogue over the past ten years, while people somehow manage to overlook their most basic meaning: the document described a Methodist and the commitments one voluntarily made when one chose to join them. The “General Rules” were a means of quality control and a way of identifying who could continue to belong to Methodism and who could not.
If you haven’t read the “General Rules” in their entirety recently, I would encourage you to make time to do so. It is a short three-page statement that was one of the key foundations for Methodist identity. A quick reading will help you see it was much more than the cliché, “Do no harm. Do good. Stay in love with God.”
Here is my attempt at a short summary of the purpose of the General Rules:
Methodism started when a group of people who desperately desired salvation came to John Wesley and asked him to meet with them to shepherd their souls. They joined together to help each other “work out their salvation.” In order to do this more effectively, Methodism was divided into groups called class meetings to take an offering for the poor, “inquire how their souls prosper,” and “advise, reprove, comfort, or exhort, as occasion may require.” By “as occasion may require,” Wesley meant this was to be done based on how the individuals who made up a class meeting were actually living their lives.
We know this because the rest of the “General Rules” fleshed out the expectations for how Methodists would live their lives in detail. They were, for example, prohibited from “taking the name of God in vain” or “laying up treasures upon earth.” They were expected to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit or help those who were sick or in prison. And they were required to practice the means of grace instituted by Jesus Christ. The “General Rules” specifically named “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” as means of grace.
So what would happen if someone did not keep these rules? This question is directly addressed: “If there be any among us who observe them not, who habitually break any one of them, let it be made known unto them who watch over that soul, as they that must give account. We will admonish him of the error of his ways. We will bear with him for a season. But if then he repent not, he hath no more place among us. We have delivered our own souls.”
Given the attention that the “General Rules” have recently received in Methodism, this may be most surprising of all: the “General Rules” were not considered to be anywhere close to sufficient for a vibrant Christian life. They were nothing more than the basic foundation. Remove the foundation, and everything above it will crumble to the ground. But the foundation of a building is never intended to be an end in itself. It is a means to the end of the building that is built on the foundation.
Here’s how Wesley put it in one of the sermons in the doctrinal 44 Standard Sermons (“Upon our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, Discourse the Second”):
The religion of the world implies three things: first, the doing no harm, the abstaining from outward sin – at least from such as is scandalous, as robbery, theft, common swearing, drunkenness; secondly, the doing good – the relieving the poor, the being charitable, as it is called; thirdly, the using the means of grace – at least going to church and to the Lord’s Supper. He in whom these three marks are found is termed by the world a religious man. But will this satisfy him who hungers after God? No. It is not food for his soul. He wants a religion of a nobler kind, a religion higher and deeper than this. He can no more feed on this poor, shallow, formal thing, than he can ‘fill his belly with the east wind.’ True, he is careful to abstain from the very appearance of evil. He is zealous of good works. He attends all the ordinances of God. But all this is not what he longs for. This is only the outside of that religion which he insatiably hungers after. The knowledge of God in Christ Jesus; ‘the life that is hid with Christ in God’; the being ‘joined unto the Lord in one Spirit’; the having ‘fellowship with the Father and the Son’; the ‘walking in the light as God is in the light’; the being ‘purified even as he is pure’ – this is the religion, the righteousness he thirsts after. Nor can he rest till he thus rests in God. [II.4]
Wesley is here saying that “doing no harm,” “abstaining from outward sin,” and using the means of grace” are necessary but not sufficient conditions for a person who “hungers after God.” If this person is not following these basics, they have no hope of thriving as a Christian. But keeping the “General Rules” is not an end in itself. It is a means to something much greater: “The knowledge of God in Christ Jesus;” “the having ‘fellowship with the Father and the Son.”
In other words, a Methodist is someone who wants to be filled with the love of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit so that he or she can love God and other people. A Methodist wants to be radically changed by God.
Watching Over One Another In Love
The “General Rules” reveal another essential aspect of real Methodism: Methodists “watched over one another in love” through small groups like the class meeting and the band meeting.
Class meetings were an essential part of Methodist discipline. They were groups of seven to twelve people who gathered once a week to discuss the current state of their relationship with God and the extent to which they were living faithful lives. Class meetings were not Bible studies or book studies of any kind. Rather, they were places where people learned to speak the language of their souls and share how they had experienced God in their lives over the past week.
At a basic level, a Methodist was someone who regularly participated in a class meeting. If you missed your class meeting more than three times in a three month period, you would typically be removed from membership.
Band meetings were smaller than classes, with three to five people. They were divided by gender and focused on confession of sin in order to grow in holiness. These intense accountability groups were a key context where Methodists experienced Methodism’s grand depositum of Christian perfection or entire sanctification.
Here is the key: Being a Methodist meant that you were committed not only to a set of beliefs about God and about how to follow God (which it certainly did), it also meant that you were committing to living a very specific kind of life. Some things were ruled out for Methodists that non-Methodists would regularly do. And other things that the world saw as trivial or a waste of time, Methodists were committed to doing whether they felt like doing them or not. And they were committed to this pursuit together in community, especially their class meetings.
Put simply: an uncommitted Methodist is a misnomer. A Methodist who never shows up is an oxymoron. A Methodist who prioritizes the things of the world above the things of God would not remain Methodist for long.
The implications of real Methodism are uncomfortable for many of us. I am concerned that far too many of Wesley’s heirs are Methodist in name only, but not in spirit and in truth.
A real Methodist church cannot have membership numbers that are three to five times the average attendance. During the years when Methodism was growing the most explosively, membership was lower than the average attendance. At a very basic level, members showed up. And because God had turned their lives inside out for His glory, many other people showed up to see what was going on.
A real Methodist church will not have a legalistic understanding of membership that requires a three-year process to remove someone from membership who no longer lives in the community and no one even knows how to reach them. Our current membership is undisciplined, to say the least.
Put positively, a real Methodist church will expect all of its members to participate in something like the class meeting, not out of a lazy legalism, but because they are certain that we need each other to grow in our faith. Or, as Wesley put it, “preaching like an apostle, without joining together those that are awakened and training them up in the ways of God, is only begetting children for the murderer.” Community is not an optional accessory for the Christian life. It is essential for a disciplined membership.
A real Methodist church will be filled with people who have counted the cost and settled their hearts and minds that Jesus is the answer and their only hope. It will be manifest through the way that they spend their time and their money that the gospel is their number one priority, without rival.
Some will worry that this vision will lead to a Methodism that would be too small. In a church that has an almost entirely undisciplined membership, it may well be the case that many are not willing to live disciplined Christian lives. I’m not sure.
From my vantage point, I see many faithful people who want more. They are looking to the church to help them grow in their faith. They know something is missing and they are humble enough to seek out answers from the leaders in their denomination. There might be a whole lot more people who want the real thing than we’ve realized. Maybe one of the biggest surprises over the next few years is that we will realize that United Methodism’s biggest mistake was tragically underestimating its laity and their willingness to lay down their lives for the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Regardless, new expressions of Methodism should not be crafted based on how likely a handful of leaders think it is that they will succeed based on an attractional, consumeristic model of Christianity, because this itself is a false gospel.
If we are Methodists, we need to do what John Wesley and those who walked in his footsteps did. They told the truth about the human condition and every person’s need for salvation by faith in Jesus. They sought to awaken those who were asleep and to bring people to repentance. They did their very best to help other people come to faith and then grow in their faith.
We need to rediscover who we are. We need to be clear about our commitment to a particular set of beliefs and a particular set of practices and our deep conviction that these reliably lead people to abundant life in Christ. We also need to be honest that we believe that neglecting these reliably leads to destruction.
May God give us the wisdom, strength, and courage for such a task.
Dr. Kevin M. Watson is Associate Professor of Wesleyan and Methodist Studies at Candler School of Theology, Emory University, and he serves on Firebrand’s editorial board.