The United Methodist Rule of Life

By Steve Manskar

#6. Do you know the General Rules of our Church?
#7. Will you keep the General Rules of our Church?

Historic questions #5 & #6 ask leaders about their knowledge and adherence to the General Rules. These questions tell us that leaders in the Wesleyan tradition are persons whose lives are shaped by the rule of life developed by John Wesley for the people called Methodists.

Wesley wrote “The Nature, Design, and General Rules of the United Societies” in 1743 in response to his examination of the society in Newcastle. He discovered a disconcerting lack of discipline. As he visited and talked with the people Wesley realized the societies lacked discipline because they did not have a unifying rule of life. The purpose of such a “rule” is to supply religious communities “a pattern of spiritual disciplines that provides structure and direction for growth in holiness. … It fosters gifts of the Spirit in personal life and human community, helping to form us into the persons God intends us to be” (Marjorie Thompson in Soul Feast).

Richard Heitzenrater explains in Wesley and the People Called Methodists, “In order to join a society, persons were required to demonstrate only one condition: ‘a desire to flee from the wrath to come, to be saved from their sins.’ Those who desired to continue in the societies, however, were expected ‘to evidence their desire of salvation, First, By doing no harm, . . . Secondly, by doing good, … Thirdly, By attending upon all the ordinances of God.’ These three rules, simple in outline, were fleshed out by Wesley with specific example” (page 138).

Years ago, when I lived in northern Minnesota, every summer I’d spend several days paddling a canoe and camping in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Occasionally my route included one of the large lakes along the US-Canada border. One of my favorites is Lake Saganaga. Its many tiny islands present navigation challenges. But using my map and compass I was always able to paddle across the lake safely, without getting lost. There were times when I could not figure out where we were on the map. This usually happened at points in the lake where I was surrounded by islands, all of them looking very much alike. Those times were when I had to trust the compass. I would stop and take frequent compass headings and make needed course corrections. Trusting and following the compass, with the help of the map, enabled me to reach my destination every time.

The General Rules are like the compass. They orient Christians toward the destination of discipleship: Jesus Christ. Following the three simple rules keeps you in alignment and obedience to his teachings, summarized by him in the “Great Commandment” (Mark 12:30-31; Matthew 22:34-40; Luke 10:25-37) and the “New Commandment” (John 13:34-35). The rules serve as a guide to the way of discipleship that leads ultimately to “having the mind of Christ” (Philippians 2:5).

Leaders in the Wesleyan tradition must be people who intimately know and habitually practice the General Rules. Their task is to guide others along the way of discipleship. They are equipped to help others along the way of discipleship because they have travelled it themselves. They know where the pitfalls are and can give help for others to avoid them. Knowing and practicing the General Rules helps leaders to know themselves more deeply, to know their limitations and strengths, so that they can help others along the way of discipleship with compassion and grace.

It's time to register for the Wesleyan Leadership Conference
Come to West End United Methodist Church in Nashville, TN October 14-16, 2010. We're going to explore Mainline or Methodist? by Scott Kisker. Dr. Kisker is Professor of the History of Christianity at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. He will be the keynote speaker for this important event.

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