Wednesday, July 17, 2024

David W. Scott - United Methodist Disciplines: Discipline and Discipleship

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

Among the many actions of the recently concluded General Conference was to approve continued work on the General Book of Discipline. The creation of a General Book of Discipline is an idea that’s been around The United Methodist Church for some time and is laid out in ¶101 of the Book of Discipline.

In short, work on the General Book of Discipline involves designating certain portions of the Book of Discipline as adaptable and certain portions of it as non-adaptable. Adaptable portions of the Book of Discipline could be changed by central conferences (and regional conferences, should Worldwide Regionalization be ratified). Non-adaptable portions of the Book of Discipline are binding on all branches of the church.

Clearly in the non-adaptable portion of the Book of Discipline is the Constitution, the Doctrinal Standards and Our Theological Task, the Ministry of All Christians, and the Social Principles. Work on the General Book of Discipline is thus focused on the largest portion of the Discipline, Part VI: Organization and Administration. The instructions in ¶101 call for Part VI to be split into adaptable and non-adaptable parts.

This work is primarily assigned to the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters (SCCCM) and the Committee on Faith and Order (CFO), with some additional groups consulted on portions of the work. A movement at General Conference to give the SCCCM and CFO the power to reword portions of the Discipline rather than merely categorize them as adaptable or non-adaptable ran out of time to revise the authorizing legislation.

Worldwide Regionalization was one of the major foci for General Conference, and the work on the General Book of Discipline intersects in important ways with the push for regionalization. The regionalization legislation (which still requires ratification by annual conferences to go into effect) would clarify and strengthen the power of what would become regional conferences to adapt portions of the Book of Discipline. A General Book of Discipline would clarify where that power to adapt should be focused.

For some portions of the Book of Discipline, the decision about whether to categorize them as adaptable or non-adaptable is fairly straightforward. Portions of the Discipline dealing with US clergy pension programs, for instance, are clearly relevant only to one part of the church, and other parts of the church should be able to remove them or replace them with their own clergy retirement provisions.

Other portions of the Book of Discipline are less clear. Should the order of deacons be an adaptable part of the Discipline, since some places in Africa still practice the transitional diaconate, or should that become a standard practice everywhere? Should the agencies be seen as part of the global infrastructure of the church, or are they primarily vehicles for the US church to do its work? Should the process of organizing a new congregation be the same in all places?

Such questions push the church to think carefully about theological issues around contextualization, subsidiarity, unity, and mission. They impinge upon relational issues such as trust, differentiation, control, and reciprocity. These are all good and important issues to think through.

Yet if we go one level further up, work on the General Book of Discipline raises a further question: Why do we have a Book of Discipline? What is its role in the United Methodist understanding of the Christian life? How does the concept of discipline and the existence of a Book of Discipline shape The United Methodist Church as a Christian community?

Discipline is a central concept in Methodism, dating back to the days of John Wesley. In secular meanings, discipline has connotations of instruction, knowledge, training, and adherence to rules. All of these fit with Methodism’s understanding of discipline.

But the best linguistic connection through which to understand Methodist discipline is the connection between discipline and discipleship. Discipline is, in essence, a reflection of the Methodist understanding of how discipleship should work. For Methodists, a life of discipleship is a disciplined life.

John Wesley believed, and subsequent generations of Methodists have maintained, that a life of Christian discipleship should be focused on growing in holiness through sanctifying grace. That process of growth involves spiritual and moral training, which is best carried out in Christian community through a set of regularized practices that structure the Christian life.

In Wesley’s revival, such lives of Christian discipline were initially structured through small groups – the classes and bands. Eventually, as Wesley and the preachers associated with him began to meet in yearly conferences, the minutes of those conferences wrote down “what to teach, how to teach, and how to regulate our doctrine, discipline, and practice.” These written minutes were the beginning of the evolution of the present UMC Book of Discipline.

Yet it should not be lost that the point of these formalized minutes was to assist the individual Christians who were part of Wesley’s revival in living out disciplined lives of Christian holiness. The point of disciplines (and a written Discipline) was ultimately spiritual, not administrative, legislative, or legal. Disciplines existed to standardize best practices from the revival so that people could incorporate these practices into their Christian discipleship and thereby grow in holiness.

Thus, as United Methodists think about work on the General Book of Discipline, it is critical to keep in mind the spiritual intent of having a Book of Discipline. The question is not merely, “What rules can we afford to allow variation in around the world?” Ultimately, the question must be, “How do we craft a General Book of Discipline that helps United Methodists around the world be successful disciples of Jesus Christ?”

With this lens of discipleship in mind, I will suggest a few additional concepts over the next several posts to help United Methodists think through how disciplines and a Discipline can contribute to living out lives of holiness in Christian community.

Wednesday, July 3, 2024

Recommended Viewing: American Society of Missiology 2024 Conference Plenary Videos

The American Society of Missiology, the premier ecumenical professional organization dedicated to mission studies in North America, held its annual meeting a couple weeks ago. This year's theme was “Mission with Children, Youth, and Young Adults.” The theme was chosen by 2023-2024 President (and Association of Methodist Professors of Mission member) Rev. Dr. Benjamin L. Hartley.

The conference included a schedule of plenary presentations and paper presentations, all focused on the yearly theme. The plenary presentations were videotaped and have been posted on the society's YouTube channel. They are well worth viewing, especially Hartley's fine presidential address.

Benjamin Hartley: John R. Mott amidst the Students

Dwight Radcliff, Jr.: Remixing the Center

Andrea Toledo Baker: Sacred Spaces