20 Feb 2014

John Wesley's General Rules of the United SocietiesJohn Wesley (1708-1791) published the General Rules in 1743 to provide a guide of what the practice of the means of grace should look like in daily Christian discipleship. There are three rules in all: Do no harm; Do good; and Attend Upon the Ordinances of God. Because Wesley believed that holding to the General Rules ought to be the baseline measure of accountability for remaining in a local Methodist society, the rules also served a disciplinary function. Early Methodist folk were examined by preachers, class leaders, or Wesley himself as to their faithfulness in applying the rules to their daily living.

The three rules that make up the General Rules match up with the two main categories of the means of grace in Wesley’s theology: the prudential means of grace (Do no harm; Do good) and the instituted means of grace (Attend Upon the Ordinances of God). A third category–the general means of grace–is included in the rule about doing good.

Click here to download a first edition copy of the General Rules

The most widely read popular account of the General Rules in recent years has been Bishop Rueben Job’s Three Simple Rules. Job’s book has been at the forefront of getting people interested in the General Rules again, and for that reason alone I think we can be grateful for his work. A few years ago, most Methodists wouldn’t have been aware that there was any such thing as the General Rules, much less that they are an official part of Methodist doctrine. With the publication of Three Simple Rules, we began to see a major shift in that. Now the General Rules seem to be making their way back into the language of Methodist discipleship.

There are some issues with the way Job interprets the General Rules for a contemporary audience, though. The most significant of these is that he alters the third rule from the (admittedly awkward) “attend upon the ordinances of God” to the more user-friendly “stay in love with God.” Job’s rendering of the third rule is an attempt to give it fresh expression using a phrase more understandable today. But in presenting it as he does, has Job fundamentally changed the third rule’s meaning?

Dr. Ken Loyer, the pastor of Otterbein United Methodist Church of Spry, PA, has written a sensitive but much needed critique of Job’s treatment of the third rule in this recent article. Loyer makes a couple of important points worth sharing here. He notes first that “stay in love with God” lacks the specificity of Wesley’s original language, where the ordinances of God are presented as concrete practices of worship and devotion. In Wesley’s account, the ordinances are simply those means of grace instituted by Jesus Christ’s teaching. Wesley lists six of them: the public worship of God, the ministry of the Word, the Lord’s Supper, prayer, searching the Scriptures, and fasting. In Job’s third rule, on the other hand, what it means to stay in love with God is much more vague. His description of the third rule in Three Simple Rules is geared toward individual choice: “This simple rule will be constructed differently for each of us because each of us is unique” (p.55). So essentially Job suggests that staying in love with God is not about what Christ has told us to do but rather what we choose out of our personal preference.

Three Simple RulesLoyer’s second point is that a phrase like “stay in love with God” tends toward the sentimental. Abstracted from the concrete practices given to us in the New Testament, we are left on our own to define both what love means and how we go about loving God. Love in this sense need not be anything more than a warm feeling, and we can experience that kind of thing just as easily mowing the yard or reading in bed as we can anywhere else. So in a culture where we are already awash with a kind of syrupy, Hallmark sentimentality, Job’s refashioning of the third rule gives us permission to import that sentimentality into our discipleship.

I would add one more point to those Loyer makes, and it is this: We cannot state that the third rule is to “stay in love with God,” because that would suggest that only those who already love God should follow the General Rules. In point of fact, the early Methodists welcomed many people into their Societies who had not experienced new birth and the assurance of the Holy Spirit that they were children of God. Many of those awakened under Methodist preaching were added to the membership of class meetings in the hopes that they would come to love God. And each of those who sought Christ in faith in this way were expected to abide by the General Rules. The ordinances named in the third rule were means by which one could come to love God, but they did not assume one already did.

I recently wrote an essay for the Asbury Journal on “The Practical Theology of the General Rules,” and in it I narrate how Wesley came to publish the General Rules in the first place. The setting was Newcastle in 1743 and the reason was that the Society there was out of control. Wesley imposed the rules as a way to determine who was serious about wanting to seek Christ in faith and who was not. Those who were serious were allowed to remain in the Society. What Wesley would never have done, though, was make the presence of a love for God the litmus test for membership. In that sense, to render the third rule as “stay in love with God” threatens to remove any evangelistic thrust from the General Rules by making them applicable only to mature Christians.

Click here to read “The Practical Theology of the General Rules”

Ultimately, staying in love with God calls for us to explain our terms in a way that provides content to the idea as a whole. Who is God? And what does it mean for us to be “in love” with this God? Wesleyans would answer these questions by saying that the God whom we are called to love is the God revealed to us in Scripture—the God who has come to us in Jesus Christ. God has given us his law and his gospel, and these two gifts are for our salvation. Within that law and gospel, God shows us how to love him. In particular, God offers us means of grace that we might be drawn close to the very heart of Christ.

I worry that the language of love is so cheapened in our culture that it often goes no deeper than the mushy sentiments expressed on a greeting card. God’s love for us is different than that. Our love for God ought to be as well. Jesus Christ has made us into a Church, and within that Church, there are practices of worship, devotion, and discipleship by which we come to know God’s love and to love God in return. They are ordinances, as Wesley says in the General Rules, but to use the term he does elsewhere, they are also means of grace.

A Blueprint for Discipleship by Kevin WatsonLike Loyer, I’m grateful to Job for bringing the General Rules back into the landscape of Wesleyan discipleship. His misinterpretation of the third rule changes the meaning of it, though, and it does so in ways that undercut the purpose and potential for the General Rules as a whole. A better treatment of the General Rules is Kevin M. Watson’s A Blueprint for Discipleship, and it is the text I always recommend when anyone asks me about good resources on Wesleyan discipleship.

So how should we phrase the third rule? I admit that “attend upon the ordinances of God” has an 18th-century ring to it that might not be helpful when teaching the General Rules today. My own preference is “practice the means of grace,” which after all is what Wesley was talking about. Choosing language that makes sense to modern ears when we are communicating vital concepts from our tradition is important, but so is making sure that the language we choose accurately translates the concepts themselves.

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5 Responses to What does it mean to stay in love with God?
  1. Andrew,

    Thank you for this post. I am grateful for Bishop Jobs work in bringing the “General Rules” back to Methodist consciousness. However, I must admit I do cringe a bit every time I hear someone site these rules using his language rather than Wesley’s, particularly “stay in love with God.” It is encouraging to see the more focused and careful attention given to the GR by you and Ken Loyer. I particularly appreciate your addition (which is a very important one!) to the conversation that the GR were not only for those who were already Christians. Tom Albin has argued that about 50% of early Methodists became Christians within the context of the class meeting, which underscores the significance of your point.

    Finally, thank you for your kind words about my book. I really appreciate them!

  2. Andrew: Thanks for engaging my work. I agree with Kevin about the significance of your additional point.

  3. Good post, Andrew. I agree: “practice the means of grace” is a much better way of expressing what Wesley was getting at. Thanks.

  4. […] Andrew Thompson asks what it means to stay in love with God. […]

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