"The Spirit and Discipline Make a Christian"
The following is the introduction to the presentation I'll give at the Wesleyan Institute this week. The Institute will be held at Faith Community UMC in Xenia, OH. My presentation will the the third of three plenary sessions on Friday. Paul Chilcote, Daniel Flores and I will provide some reflection on the meaning of the famous quote from John Wesley's "Thoughts Upon Methodism": "I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or
Paul will speak on the meaning and role of doctrine in disciple-making, Daniel will address the spirit of Methodism and the work of the Holy Spirit, and I will give a presentation on the nature and role of discipline in the United Methodist way.
Here's the introduction to my remarks:
“Members of the household of God,
I commend these persons to your love and care.
Do all in your power to increase their faith,
John Wesley knew Christians, the people we call today disciples of Jesus Christ, are not born. They are made. Making disciples requires generous doses of grace and discipline. Wesley says in a couple of his sermons, “It was a common saying among the Christians in the primitive church, 'The soul and the body make a man; the spirit and discipline make a Christian'—implying that none could be real Christians without the help of Christian discipline.”2
Today God continues to provide an ample supply of grace and the Holy Spirit. The church has, however, been somewhat lacking in providing the discipline needed to open sin-damaged hearts to the healing, reconciling power of that grace. The result has been a church that is in decline in numbers and in mission.
Methodists have historically been people whose lives are guided by three books: The Bible, The Hymnal, and The Discipline. The Bible is the word of God containing all that is needed for salvation and life in the reign of God. The Hymnal contains tradition that has been handed down and lived by faithful disciples since the time of the Apostles. The Book of Discipline provides the guidance for living the life laid down in Scripture and tradition. It has been developed and changed over the years. The changes have been shaped by the church’s experience as it seeks to be a faithful witness to Jesus Christ and his coming reign on earth as it is in heaven.
Today the Bible continues to be primary as a source of faith and practice. The Hymnal is receding in importance and influence as more and more congregations turn to projection screens, praise music, and other sources for worship. The Discipline has become equated with church bureaucracy. It is the last place most people look for guidance for living as disciples of Jesus Christ in the world.
All this is to say that discipline is not generally associated with discipleship today. Today discipline is often more closely associated with polity and punishment. If you ask a typical member of a United Methodist congregation about what comes into their mind when they hear the word “discipline,” I suspect he or she may say something about the Book of Discipline. Or he or she may recount some memory of punishment for some childhood misbehavior. Neither of these likely bring to mind fond thoughts or memories. It’s fair to say that discipline has an image problem.
It’s also fair to say that if The United Methodist Church is going to take seriously its mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, then we must wrestle with the need for discipline. I say this because we know from Scripture and tradition that disciples cannot be made apart from discipline. This is why John Wesley wrote the lines at the beginning of his tract, “Thoughts Upon Methodism” we have heard today:
“I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or
What does Wesley mean by “discipline”? To get at this we need to understand that for Wesley discipline is closely related to doctrine and the spirit of Methodism. For him, as you have heard from Paul and Dan today, discipline is the practical application of the doctrine and spirit of the Church and of Methodism. Wesley believed that doctrine is meant to be lived. This means that for the Methodists being a Christian meant much more than simply believing or giving assent to the creeds and the Articles of Religion. Christianity is both a religion and a relationship with the living God. It is a system of belief and a way of life. Wesley believed you can’t have the one without the other.
Discipline, therefore, is how you hold the two together. Charles Wesley puts it this way:
Unite the pair so long disjoined,
Knowledge and vital piety:
Learning and holiness combined,
And truth and love, let all men see
In those whom up to thee we give,
Thine, wholly thine, to die and live.3
Knowledge is gained through the study of doctrine. Vital piety is seeking after God and striving toward holiness guided by the spirit. Without discipline the two tend to go their separate ways.
Some pursue knowledge about God. But without piety they end up know about God without actually knowing God. They turn God and faith in to objects of study. This is a way of treating God like a thing and keeping God at a distance that can be managed and controlled.
Others pursue intimacy with God. These are the folks who, in Wesley’s time, were known as “enthusiasts.” Today we call them “religious fanatics.” They emphasize emotion and feelings and are suspicious of scholarship.
Both claim to “know” God. But the God they “know” is a God of their own creation. Those who emphasize learning tend to turn God into a distant character of history who has very little to do with the world as we know it. Those who emphasize holiness tend to see God as their good buddy who is intimately involved in their lives and the world. Both have glimpses of who God really is, but because they lack discipline and tend to act according to their own temperament and prejudices, this God is of their own creation. Because they do not practice the discipline of holding learning and holiness together, they cannot know the fullness of God revealed in Scripture, tradition, and in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.