The General Rule of Discipleship as Means of Social Holiness

By Steve Manskar

Now by this we may be sure that we know him, if we obey his commandments. Whoever says, “I have come to know him,” but does not obey his commandments, is a liar, and in such a person the truth does not exist; but whoever obeys his word, truly in this person the love of God has reached perfection. By this we may be sure that we are in him: whoever says, “I abide in him,” ought to walk just as he walked. (1 John 2:3-6)

The General Rule of Discipleship shapes the life and work of Covenant Discipleship groups and the congregation, with the help of class leaders working as partners with the pastor. I recommend congregations adopt the General Rule of Discipleship as their rule of life. A rule of life is a set of agreed upon spiritual disciplines aimed at helping the members to grow together in holiness of heart and life; loving God with all their heart, soul, and mind and loving those whom God loves, as God loves them. The General Rules are the rule of life of The United Methodist Church. The General Rule of Discipleship is a contemporary adaptation of the General Rules for use in United Methodist congregations:

To witness to Jesus Christ in the world,
and to follow his teachings through acts of
compassion, justice, worship, and devotion
under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

The General Rule of Discipleship shapes the life and work of Covenant Discipleship groups, class leaders, and the congregation. It helps them live as witnesses to Jesus Christ in the world as they follow his teachings, summarized by him in Matthew 22:37-40

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

The General Rule of Discipleship provides practical guidance for Christians, and the congregations they serve in, to obey Jesus’ commands. Jesus said to his disciples, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15) and “You are my friends if you do what I command you” (John 15:14). The Christian life is defined and shaped by obedience to Jesus’ teachings. In the Baptismal Covenant you promise to “confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the church ….” The congregation, in turn, promises to proclaim the good news and live according to the example of Christ; to surround you with a community of love and forgiveness, that you may grow in your trust of God, and be found faithful in your service to others; to pray for you, that you may be a true disciple who walks in the way that leads to life.[1] In other words, participation in the Baptismal Covenant is how Christians obey Jesus’ “new commandment”

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another (John 13:34-35).

When Christians “watch over one another in love” and help each other to grow in holiness of heart and life through mutual accountability for living the Christian life they keep this new commandment of Jesus. Congregations keep Jesus’ new commandment when they intentionally develop a path to discipleship that meets people where they are and provides guides along the way in the form of small groups and the guidance of seasoned disciples along the way.

This is what John Wesley meant when he wrote:

Solitary religion is not to be found there. “Holy Solitaries” is a phrase no more consistent with the gospel than Holy Adulterers. The gospel of Christ knows of no religion, but social; no holiness but social holiness. Faith working by love, is the length and breadth and depth and height of Christian perfection.[2]

The General Rule of Discipleship is a practical guide for Christians to grow in love of God and neighbor together. It makes social holiness possible in that it helps Christians to center their life together in the life and work of Jesus Christ in the world. The rule points Christians, and the congregations that form them, towards the risen Christ and what he is up to in the world. Holiness is social because God is relational. He created human beings to be essentially relational creatures who become fully themselves only when we are connected to him and to one another. Social holiness is the practice of caring for relationship with God through building one another up in love. Human beings cannot become fully the persons God created us to be when we are alone. We need community, what Wesley called “society”, to nurture us into the persons God created us to be. The Baptismal Covenant describes the relationship between God, the baptized, and the Church. The General Rule of Discipleship provides the means for living the covenant and becoming agents of social holiness.

[1] The United Methodist Hymnal, “Baptismal Covenant I,” page 34-35.

[2] John Wesley, Hymns and Sacred Poems (1739), Preface, page viii.