Most historical accounts of the Wesleyan General Rules have stressed their disciplinary role in early Methodism. It was through a quarterly examination based on the the General Rules, after all, that tickets to class meetings were renewed (or not!).
I’ve become convinced recently that discipline should not be seen as the most important aspect of the General Rules’ significance. The disciplinary function—while important—should actually be seen as having only a secondary importance to what the Rules were intended to do. The primary importance of the General Rules was actually to provide a summary of the means of grace to the rank-and-file of the early Methodist movement. In the user-friendly language of “do no harm” and “do good,” as well as the command to attend upon all of God’s ordinances, John Wesley was offering his people a pattern of what the Christian life according to the means of grace looked like.
In other words, the primary significance of the General Rules was in the positive role of catechizing Methodist folk about how faith is lived out through the means of grace. The Rules’ negative role of providing disciplinary guidelines was present, too; but it was only used when it had to be. Were the General Rules normative and designed to govern behavior? Yes, they were. But first and foremost they were formative, designed to facilitate growth in holiness.
Interested to read more?
I’ve just had a new essay published in the Asbury Journal on this subject. Its title and bibliographic info is: Andrew C. Thompson, “The Practical Theology of the General Rules,” Asbury Journal 68:2 (2013): 6-27. You can download the article from the Asbury Journal’s website (which is open access). I’ve also added the bibliographic information to my Academic Essays page on this website.
The article begins by telling the story of John Wesley’s General Rules: Do no harm; Do good; and Attend upon the ordinances of God. I also try to do a bit of a literature review of the major examinations of the Rules that have been done in the last 30 years or so. Then I move into my own analysis of the General Rules’ primary significance as offering a guide or pattern for the use of the means of grace. So you’ll find that the article is broken up into three main parts: first, a historical account of how the General Rules came into being in 1743 (which you may find interesting if you don’t know the backstory); second, a review of contemporary studies on the General Rules; and third, my own analysis of the relationship between the General Rules and the means of grace.
What is at stake
My primary academic work is in the area of the means of grace in Wesley’s theology. In doing research on that topic a few years ago, it occurred to me at some point that the General Rules are really the formal expression of Wesley’s major categories of the means of grace put into language that would be more accessible to ordinary Methodist folk. (In other words, not in lengthy doctrinal essays or even sermons, but a 5-page manual with plenty of practical examples.)
The connection with the means of grace is most obvious with the third rule—“attend upon the ordinances of God”—because Wesley’s list of the ordinances is an example of what he considers the instituted means of grace to be. What is less obvious is that the first two rules—“do no harm” and “do all the good you can”—are expressions of the Wesleyan logic around the prudential means of grace (with the second rule also containing elements of the general means of grace). I demonstrate this point, which is key to the essay’s argument, with reference to some of Wesley’s earliest references to the means of grace in letters written to his brother Samuel and his friend Mary Pendarves in the year 1731. In those letters, he connects the logic of the prudential means of grace with early versions of what will become the first and second of the General Rules.
So why does any of this matter? I think it matters, first, because it simply gives us a fuller understanding of how the General Rules function both in Wesley’s practical theology and in his leadership of the revival.
But secondly, there might also be some use in contemporary ministry by connecting the General Rules with their positive role as the practical expression of the means of grace in summary form. Historians have typically viewed the significance of the General Rules as lying in their disciplinary function—both as an instrument of personal discipline for the early Methodists and as a mechanism of organizational discipline for the movement as a whole. If this is their only real role, then they are nothing more than historical artifacts for us. Whether or not it would be a good thing to bring in old fashioned Methodist discipline to church life today, the fact in a religious free marketplace is that it isn’t going to happen. One other view of the General Rules in recent times has been that of Rueben Job in Three Simple Rules, where the Rules are geared towards personal, individual devotion. If the historical view of the Rules has focused too exclusively on their disciplinary function, then Job’s revisionist account simply empties them of the most important aspects of their Wesleyan theological content (a point I argue in my review of Job’s book within the article itself).
By emphasizing the way in which the General Rules guide faithful Christian believers in the means of grace, on the other hand, they become eminently useful for our own context. We can offer them as a pattern for discipleship—or in Kevin Watson’s apt phrase, a “blueprint for discipleship.” The way I would put it is this: Wesley did not formulate the General Rules as a form of discipline so that Methodist folk could regulate their behavior and thus hope to find ways to encounter God’s grace; rather, the General Rules are expressions of the means of grace themselves and by following them the early Methodists were participating in the regular channels of God’s love to his people. That is a concept that people who live in a fragmented and individualistic society need to hear.