“Our doctrine and our discipline” was a phrase common to early Methodists, including John Wesley and Francis Asbury. Both terms were crucial to the new movement, but they had significantly different connotations then than they do for many today.
“Doctrine” meant much more than concepts about God and God’s work in the world. True to its root meaning, it did denote what Methodists teach. But it was an eminently “practical divinity,” and that in two senses. First, doctrine is like a map that shows the way to salvation—what salvation is, how to receive it, and how to grow in it. It tells us about God’s promise of forgiveness and new life, and describes that new life. It shows the relationship between grace and faith, and how both are grounded in and lead to love.
Second, doctrine is like a portrait that paints a picture of God. Drawing on Scripture, it tells us what God has done in creation, in the story of Israel, and in Jesus Christ. It sets before us the promises of God. And in doing all this, it provides a picture of God’s character, which is centered in love. When we love God, it is doctrine (and the Scripture which underlies it) that enables us to know who God is.
If “doctrine” had to do with the goal of salvation, “discipline” referred to the means. Salvation for Wesley was by grace through faith. Discipline constituted those practices which helped nurture our faith by keeping our hearts and lives focused on God and our neighbor.
The word “discipline” is often used today in ways that encourage misunderstanding of what it meant for Wesley. For many United Methodists, “the discipline” means The Book of Discipline, a sizable volume dealing with church polity. But while today the word “discipline” brings to mind the rules for organizing a local church or a national church agency, to the early Methodists “discipline” was about how you live your life. The American version of the original “Methodist Discipline” is found inside The Book of Discipline, and is about two-and-a-half pages long.
In American culture “discipline” often refers to punishment or a restraint on our activity. Americans generally prefer a word like “freedom” to a word like “discipline.” We tend to see ourselves as essentially free, and do not like limitations on that freedom.
Wesley sees our situation differently. We are not simply free to do as we choose, because we are bound by sin. Our choices reflect our character; because we are sinners, all that we think, say, or do is compromised by sin.
Wesley believed discipline was essential for us to be free from sin and free to be the people God created us to be. He warns that “whatever doctrine is preached, where there is not discipline, it cannot have its full effect upon the hearers,” hence none can “be a real Christian, without the help of Christian discipline.” (J. Wesley, “Causes of the Inefficacy of Christianity,” 8). This discipline consisted of such things as daily prayer and searching the scriptures, regular participation in worship, including the Lord’s Supper, and service to our neighbor. The early Methodists met weekly in small groups called classes to give an account of how things had gone the preceding week as they sought to keep the discipline.
The Methodist discipline was both like and unlike the discipline of an athlete or musician. It did involve regular practices, and certainly the more people prayed or served their neighbor, the better they got at doing them. But Wesley was convinced that, as we engage in these practices, the Holy Spirit enables us to grow in the knowledge and love of God. Thus, the discipline is more than honing our skills. It is most fundamentally about opening our lives to the transforming work of God. The desire for God and the life God gives, as shown by Methodist doctrine, was the central motivation for keeping the Methodist discipline.