As anyone who has seen children playing can tell you, one of the first things humans do when they get together is to lay some ground rules. (If they don’t, they rarely get around to doing the thing they got together to do.) When the ministers ordained by John Wesley established the Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC) in America in 1784 “to reform the Continent and to spread scriptural Holiness over these Lands,” they adopted as their ground rules the first of Methodism’s Books of Discipline. Three-quarters of a century later, when B.T. Roberts and colleagues were expelled from the MEC and formed the Free Methodist Church (FMC), they retained most of Methodism’s organizing practices—including the Book of Discipline. Thus, the first Free Methodist Book of Discipline (BOD) was written and ratified in 1862.
Just like the BOD today, that first edition laid out the theological, doctrinal, ecclesial, and organizational ground rules to govern Free Methodist societies, from individual membership to national leadership. The Bible is every Christian’s guide to faith and practice, but what does it look like to practice Christian faith in a distinctly Free Methodist way? What are the “hows” of being a Free Methodist in a given place and time? Each national conference’s Book of Discipline is the answer for their collective members.
Every national conference’s BOD, including that of the Free Methodist Church in the USA (FMCUSA), affirms the “Common Constitution,” which contains Articles of Religion, the Membership Covenant, and standards of Free Methodist doctrine. Change to these sections of the BOD is extraordinarily rare and requires ratification by the Free Methodist World Conference.
Substantive changes to other parts of FMCUSA’s BOD are never undertaken lightly or behind closed doors. (Compare the following open, measured, collaborative process to that of the NFL Rulebook, which is changed annually, and often quite drastically, at the exclusive discretion of 32 team owners.)
Any Free Methodist member may submit a resolution to the US Board of Administration (BOA) and then move for open floor debate at the quadrennial session of the General Conference. Additions, corrections, or other changes that are ratified by General Conference delegates are sent to the Book of Discipline editorial committee—comprised, as with all FMC decision-making groups, of an equal number of clergy and lay members—and that eight-member team collaborates to update a new edition of the BOD. The newest edition is published a year or so after General Conference and replaces the previous edition as the governing rule for all FMCUSA members and societies.
Broadly speaking, BOD topics are arranged in a hierarchy of consequence. It’s all important, of course—wouldn’t be in there otherwise!—but in general, the earlier a principle or policy appears in the pages of BOD, the more consequential it is for Christian faithfulness. Significance is ranked roughly like this:
- Big-picture theological statements in line with the creeds of the historical Christian Church
- Doctrinal statements that delineate Free Methodist distinctives
- Organizing principles for national, regional, and local Free Methodist societies
- Standards for the performance of rituals practiced by Free Methodists, including Baptism, Holy Communion, weddings, funerals, ordination of clergy, and so on
Formulating guidance for every eventuality that might arise in the life of a church or church member would be a fool’s errand, and the BOD largely steers clear of onerous if-then scenarios. The goal for each new edition is to be a usable reference manual for life in the Free Methodist Church. To that end, discrete topics and policies are ordered and labeled with a paragraph mark (called a “pilcrow”) followed by a number, like this:
¶119 (paragraph 119 addresses the FMC doctrine of sanctification)
¶3311 (paragraph 3311 specifies FMCUSA’s policy on Christian marriage)
¶4110 (paragraph 4110 spells out FMCUSA’s process for electing bishops)
For some Free Methodists, the BOD’s level of detail is reassuring. For others, it is a bureaucratic quagmire. Both dispositions are well represented in the General Conference! Together with sisters and brothers who are passionate about church governance and those who are less so, lay and clergy members of the FMC collaborate to assess and refine the ground rules by which we live and minister as Free Methodists.