Thoughts Upon Methodism (Part IV)

I have been discussing John Wesley’s Thoughts Upon Methodism in a few previous posts. You can read them here, here, and here.

I have focused on Wesley’s essay, which reads:

I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.

The last two posts discussed whether Methodism in America has managed to hold fast to the doctrine and the spirit of the early Methodists. The goal of this post, then, is to seek to answer the question: Has Methodism held fast to the discipline that Wesley set before the first Methodists?

In order to answer this question, we need to first answer another, more basic, question: What was the discipline with which the Methodists first set out?

The basic discipline was the structure that Wesley created to ensure that Methodists would grow in holiness of heart and life. In other words, the discipline was the means by which Methodists expected to become holy. This discipline consisted of three key levels of organization: the society meeting, the class meeting, and the band meeting.

Today we can best understand the society meeting as being very similar to Sunday morning worship. It was the largest gathering where Methodists came together to sing songs of praise and worship, to hear the Scriptures read and preached upon, and to pray.

The center of early Methodism, perhaps surprisingly, was not the society, but the class meeting. There was even a period of time where you could not go to the society meeting if you did not go to the class meeting. At the class meeting you were given a ticket that would be used in order to get into the society meeting.

The class meeting was a group of about 12 people that was led by a lay person. Every person in the group would be asked “How is it with your soul?” Through the class meeting lay leaders were able to monitor Methodists and ensure that they were making progress along the Way of Salvation. It is also interesting to note that people often came to experience justification through the class meeting.

The next level was the band meeting. This was the most intense level of the Methodist discipline. Everyone who was a Methodist was expected to be at the weekly society and class meeting. However, Wesley did not consider the band meeting to be mandatory for all Methodists. The band meetings were smaller than the class meetings (about 7 people) and they were divided between men and women.

The band meetings asked very direct and intimate questions, like: “What known sins have you committed since our last meeting?”

Some scholars have compared this structure to the three major areas of the Way of Salvation. The society meeting related to prevenient grace, the class meeting to justifying grace, and the band meeting to sanctifying grace.

Now that we know what the general outline of the Methodist discipline looks like, we can answer the original question: Has Methodism held fast to the doctrine with which it first set out?

Answering this question is sadly easy. The answer is clearly no. We have not maintained a Wesleyan discipline in the United Methodist Church in America. My feeling is that for most Methodists discipline means either: not much, or a book (as in The Book of Discipline). But for Wesley, the Methodist discipline was a commitment to a process that enabled Methodists to grow in holiness. It enabled them to experience transformation. Far to many Christians today are not being transformed. They are no different today than they were 12 years ago. (There are of course always exceptions to the rule, and thank the Lord there are still many people who have been deeply changed by their relationship with Jesus Christ.) However, wherever people are not being transformed and renewed in the image of God, it would seem that Methodism has the form, but not the power of godliness.

To bring this discussion to a close: I think that the area of discipline is clearly the area where United Methodists in America have strayed the farthest from their Wesleyan roots. I think the area of discipline is the area where John Wesley today would be the most discouraged were he to “ride the circuit” in United Methodist churches. My guess is his question would be, where is the discipline? John Wesley knew that discipleship does not just happen, it is first the result of God’s grace and secondly the result of committing to a process that has born fruit in the past. This does not mean that the process must be static and stay the same throughout time. By no means! But it does mean that there must be a process. There must be an expectation that people actually grow in their faith.

One of the things that always amazes me in Wesley’s writing is his willingness to ask people directly about where they are in their faith. He was not afraid to ask people to give an account of their walk with the Lord. In my experience, very few United Methodists today are willing to ask those questions. We are typically afraid we will offend someone. Wesley seemed to be more afraid of offending his Lord than offending someone who was unwilling to live out their faith.

If we were to commit to resurrecting a Wesleyan discipline in United Methodism, well, honestly, I think it would be incredibly difficult. Some people don’t want to be disciplined, some people don’t seem to want to grow in their faith. But on the other hand, I think there are many people who do want to grow in their faith, but they are not sure how and they do not have anyone who is willing to invest in their lives enough to help them take a few steps forward. I believe there is power in small group accountability (which is the essence of Methodist discipline) and I get excited when I think about what might happen in United Methodism if we covenanted to be accountable for one another for actually living our faith.

There is an unfortunate amount of baggage surrounding the ideal of being held accountable. Christians are often better at being judgmental than they are at helping people to take positive steps forward in their faith. In other words, sometimes we are better at pointing out the mistakes people have made in the past, rather than helping them to see the hope of a future that is marked by faithfulness.

Recommitting to a Wesleyan discipline would definitely require a willingness to take a risk. We would have to risk trusting one another. We would have to risk being more involved in the messiness of each other’s lives. It would not be easy. However, looking back at our Methodist heritage, it seems clear to me that the Spirit of God was powerfully at work. If the risk of being accountable to one another comes with the possibility of reclaiming some of the spiritual vitality that the early Methodists had, then it is a risk that I am willing to take. What do you think?