Wesley and Church Discipline

Les Longden

Les Longden

By Les Longden –

John  Wesley had a “boot camp” style of small group life. The rigor and strictness of his standards for the Methodist societies make it clear that contemporary Methodist congregations look much more like the Anglican church that Methodism was trying to reform. A look at how Wesley exercised “discipline” will cause us even more discomfort.

Wesley both taught and practiced church discipline. His teaching was based on Scripture and early church practice. He preached many times on Matthew 18 (The Cure of Evil-Speaking), which contains a three-step process for exercising rebuke and restoration within the fellowship of the congregation. Wesley regarded Christ’s words in this text as a “plain command of God. Christ does here as expressly command all Christians, who see a brother do evil, to take this way, not another, and to take these steps in this order, as he does to honor their father and mother.”

He appealed to the practice of the early church in his famous sermon “On the Inefficacy of Christianity.” Wesley stated, “It was a common saying among the Christians in the primitive Church, ‘The soul and the body … the spirit and discipline make a Christian.’”

Wesley went on to argue that there could be no authentic Christianity without discipline, and identified this as the pressing problem of the churches of his day. “For where is Christian discipline? In what part of England (to go no further) is Christian discipline added to Christian doctrine? Now, wherever doctrine is preached, where there is no discipline, it cannot have its full effect upon the hearers.”

Our age, with its prioritizing of tolerance and inclusiveness, is bound to be scandalized by Wesley’s frequent practice of removing people from the Methodist societies. “Better forty members should be lost than our discipline lost. They are no Methodists that will bear no restraints,” he wrote to one of his assistants.

But Wesley was no drill sergeant or legalist. He carefully combined the practice of discipline with practices of prayer and loving humility toward those receiving the church’s correction. The Lord’s servant, says Wesley, must “avoid everything in look, gesture, word, and tone of voice that savors of pride or self-sufficiency.”

The early Methodist societies sang this doctrine of loving discipline in Charles Wesley’s hymns. See, for example, numbers 561 and 562 in The United Methodist Hymnal. John, himself, quoted one of Charles’ hymns in his sermon on Matthew 18: “Love can bow down the stubborn neck / The stone to flesh convert / Soften, and melt, and pierce, and break / An adamantine heart.”

Many scholars would argue that a key element of Methodism’s originating genius was its practice of corrective and loving church discipline. But it was always a struggle. Wesley had to continually argue for it in his own day. It was lost eventually in the practices of ever more respectable church membership. Those who wished to retain such practices tended to cling to them in unloving, reactionary, and legalistic ways, thus making it harder in our time to reclaim them, or even to remember when discipline was part of the loving power of Methodism.

Wesley ends his sermon with a remarkable claim: to end all “evil-speaking” of fellow Christians and to exercise the loving discipline of mutual correction — “By this chiefly would God convince the world, and prepare them also for his kingdom.” Thus, Wesley shows that the recovery of discipline is intimately connected to fulfilling the Church’s mission.

Leicester R. Longden is Associate Professor of Evangelism and Discipleship, Emeritus, and Director of United Methodist Studies at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary. To learn more about Wesley’s practice of church discipline see Charles E. White, “John Wesley’s Use of Church Discipline” in Methodist History, vol. 29, January 1991. I am indebted to Dr. White for the Wesley quotes I have used in this column.

 

Comments

  1. “Better forty members should be lost than our discipline lost. They are no Methodists that will bear no restraints,”

    We have lost discipline, and we lose thousands of members every year. Our lack of discipline and accountability, in doctrine and in practice–in the name of political correctness–is destroying us. We truly need to practice church discipline according to Jesus’ words in Mt 18:15-18, and I believe Wesley’s small groups are key,.

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