Earlier essays dealt with salvation and grace, two elements that more than any other constituted the distinctive doctrine of Wesley’s movement. Now we turn to the coordinate term “discipline,” by which the early Methodists designated a pattern of spiritual practices to which they were accountable. Today we would get at the same idea with terms like “spiritual disciplines” or “Christian formation.”
Sometimes Wesley’s “scriptural holiness,” with its insistence that God seeks not only our growth in sanctification but perfection in love for God and neighbor in this life, is dismissed as unrealistic if not absurd. There is much that could be said in response, including a robust affirmation of the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. But, at a minimum, the promise of sanctification and Christian perfection should never be evaluated apart from the spiritual practices and communal context that was the environment for growth in holiness of heart and life.
The early Methodists adhered to a threefold discipline called “The Rules of the United Societies” (The Works of John Wesley [vol. 9; Abingdon, 1989] 69-73). Methodists were to “continue to evidence their desire of salvation, first, by doing no harm, by avoiding evil in every kind….” This was a turning away from all that would take us away from God and our neighbor. Then, second, by doing good “to our neighbor, “to their bodies” and “to their souls….” This involves works of mercy, a turning to the neighbor in love. Then, third, by attending upon all the ordinances of God. Such are: “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.” These are the works of piety, a turning toward God, offering God thanks and praise and being open to receive grace.
An unusual feature of Wesley’s discipline was his insistence that works of mercy were as much means of grace as works of piety. Both works of mercy and works of piety are means by which we manifest love for our neighbor and God, and both are means through which God enables our hearts to become more loving. Works of mercy include not only what we give but what we say and do. Among works of mercy is assisting those who were in need. It is notable that Wesley insisted on direct relationship with the poor as well as providing assistance to those further away. Our actual relationship with the poor not only counters stereotypes but enables us to receive from them (and thereby from God) as well as give.
Methodists were held accountable to this discipline in weekly class meetings. There they would not only report on how they had done in keeping to the discipline during the past week, but would receive advice and encouragement for the week to come. It was this pattern of discipline and community that enabled Methodists to remain open to God’s grace, not only for ongoing gradual growth in the Christian life but also the instantaneous transformations of conversion and Christian perfection.
From the perspective of many in Wesley’s Church of England, the Methodist discipline was unnecessarily demanding. Wesley however was drawn early on to those Anglicans like Jeremy Taylor and William Law whose vision of the Christian life was governed by the goal of holiness of heart and life, and to the discipline that requires.
Within the eighteenth century awakening in
Wesley’s discipline and small groups were in service to both justification and sanctification, culminating in perfect love. It is this pattern of practices and community that gave early Methodism its distinctive way of life.
By Dr. Henry H. Knight III, Donald and Pearl Wright Professor of Wesleyan Studies, Saint Paul School of Theology.