By Hal Knight
When we hear the word “discipline” in United Methodist Church we tend to think of the Book of Discipline, which contains rules for organizing local churches, conferences, boards and agencies. That was not what that word brought to the minds of Methodists in Wesley’s day. They would have immediately thought of the three Rules for the United Societies they had committed to follow: do no harm, do good, and attend the ordinances of God. This original discipline is still found within our book, and takes up two and a half pages.
Early Methodists like John Wesley and Francis Asbury frequently spoke of “our doctrine and discipline.” For Wesley, “doctrine” was not abstract concepts but at its heart conveys the promises of God. “Discipline” was what Methodists followed in order to stay in relationship with God and thereby receive what God had promised. Methodists didn’t follow these rules to earn God’s approval. They followed them to remain open to God’s grace and grow in the knowledge and love of God. Each rule contributed to this in a different way.
The first, “do no harm,” meant turning away from everything that takes us away from God or neighbor. This meant abandoning a lifestyle centered on acquiring or consuming, forgoing speech that uses God’s name profanely or inflicts harm on others, and ceasing to seek esteem in the eyes of or gain status over others. It is at odds with much that society values both in Wesley’s day and our own.
The second rule was to “do good” to both bodies and souls. It was a call to active discipleship that cared for those who were poor, sick, hungry, or grieving, or who suffered degradation or injustice. It was a call to share with others the good news of Jesus Christ that they might come to know his love and give their lives to him. It was a call to encourage and support those who were growing in the new life Christ gives. It was, in short, to embody the love we have received from God in reaching out to others.
The third rule was to “attend the ordinances of God.” Bishop Job, in his Three Simple Rules, rephrases this as “staying in love with God.” We stay in love with God by having a daily life of devotion where we speak with God in prayer and hear God’s word in scripture.
We also stay in love with God when we have conversation together about what it means to live out our faith. We stay in love with God when we join in worship to offer praise and thanksgiving, hear the preached word, and partake of the Lords Supper. In all of these God is present to meet us in love with the transforming power of the Spirit.
Early Methodists saw the rules as a way to stay open to God’s grace and faithfully care for their neighbor. If we desire to do the same, these rules may be as useful in our day as they were in theirs.