The Book of Discipline is the authoritative document of the United Methodist Church, and boy, doesn’t it sound authoritative. It is not light reading, but it is neither entirely dull either. The book begins with the history and theology behind the United Methodist Church, including our foundational documents like the Articles of Religion, the Evangelical Confession of Faith, and the General Rules of the Methodist Societies. These things can’t be changed. That is, there can’t be a group put together that votes against the Trinity or the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
That being said, almost everything else in the book, all 800 plus pages is open for debate and discussion at a General Conference of the United Methodist Church which meets every four years.
What is the point of having all this written down, you may ask. It may seem like the UMC is filled with disciplinarians always concerned with telling others what to do and how to act.
The United Methodist Church was only founded in 1968 but Methodists have been meeting since 1784 and have learned a lot since then. The earliest edition I have is from 1874 (pictured above) and though it is smaller physically, many of the same issues are covered. It contains the articles of religion, how to become a member, etc. Organizing a church in 1874 is rather different than organizing one today, but we don’t have to reinvent the wheel.
Even though there are more than 2000 paragraphs that can be cited, there is tremendous flexibility within the document itself. What being bound by something like the Book of Discipline forces on us is an intentionality of ministry. Why do we do the things we do? As well, what should we do when things are not working out?
Each local church has a lot of authority given to it by the Book of Discipline that only exists because it was written down. If we were a church with a much smaller authoritative document, all it would mean is that more authority resides with the Bishop’s and other central officers.
It is not a perfect document but it is also not a finished document. That is part of the beauty of it. Nothing other than doctrine is set in stone. Much of it will come under revision next year at the called General Conference (which we will talk a lot more about soon). Our faith is not in the Book of Discipline but in Jesus Christ. There will be no Book of Discipline in heaven, but in this broken world, it is helpful to keep track of how to run a church.