By Les Longden
General Conference 2008 launched a major push from the Council of Bishops and the program boards of the United Methodist Church to transform our denomination by teaching and practicing the “Wesleyan view of the world.” To this end, Bishop Reuben P. Job’s book Three Simple Rules: A Wesleyan Way of Living (Abingdon Press, 2007) has been widely endorsed as a “blueprint” for the Wesleyan way of living.
Many conferences have sent copies of it to every pastor and congregation as a means to recover the three general rules of early Methodist societies. A good number of local churches are using the book in study groups. Study guides have been made available from the General Board of Discipleship and the Reuben P. Job Center for Leadership Development. Sermons on the three rules are appearing on church websites and pastors’ blogs.
What are we to make of all this? I am skeptical about such a programmed institutional push on one interpretation of The General Rules. As a denomination, we have a long history of declaring Quadrennial emphases, launching new curricula, and inventing new programs to shore up our declining effectiveness and confused identity as a church.
Is this emphasis upon reclaiming one element of early Methodist discipline a genuine return to the sources that launch us forward—a resourcement, as the scholars call it—or just one more campaign of slogans to treat the symptoms of our malaise? Such questions require a theological and spiritual analysis of Bishop Job’s book in order to open a genuine conversation about the role and character of spiritual discipline in the Wesleyan way of life. Such a conversation might lead beyond our old pragmatic habits of pillaging our past for present purposes.
Job’s book is the first commentary on The General Rules in 100 years. Since it is a popular treatment rather than an academic one, it should not be held to a high scholarly standard. Still, written by a bishop of the UM Church, and endorsed by the Council of Bishops, this widely-distributed book exercises a teaching function that is worthy of our careful attention.
The conversation might best be opened by reading Bishop Job’s book side-by-side with the original General Rules, then asking the following questions: Does Three Simple Rules provide an accurate paraphrase of the original rules for our contemporary setting? Does it capture the intention and spirit of early Methodism, the real dynamics of its internal discipline? What does it discard as well as carry forward? When changes are made to the original rules, do they maintain the integrity of the original practices in the process of adapting them to the present? Most importantly, does the theological updating offered by Three Simple Rules maintain continuity with the core claims of early Methodism regarding God’s saving work in Christ?
When the two texts are compared it is immediately obvious that a great deal of content in the original is left behind, and further, that the context and intent of the original is ignored (if not silenced).
The General Rules begins with a description of people “deeply convinced of sin, and earnestly groaning for redemption.” Three Simple Rules begins with contemporary anxiety over a “fast-paced, frenzied, and complex world” where “we search for a way to overcome the divisiveness that…leaves us wounded and incomplete.” The language of sin is transposed into a worry that “the path we are on is not healthy or morally right.” The earnest desire to participate in God’s salvation found in the original document becomes a moralistic appeal in Three Simple Rules to “live more and more as Jesus lived” and thus accomplish “the transformation of the world.”
The compelling reason for the gathering together of early Methodists, according to The General Rules, was to be “united in order to pray together, to receive the word of exhortation, and to watch over one another in love, that they may help each other to work out their salvation.” Three Simple Rules restates this purpose in astonishingly utilitarian form: “What was it that bound them together in a common endeavor that challenged and transformed them into a holy and righteous movement? They needed and obviously found some instrument that, when used, brought them to a place of transformation.”
The instrumentalist and pragmatic slant of Three Simple Rules is its most worrisome aspect. The first sentence of the book claims, “There are three simple rules that have the power to change the world.” Such transformational language continues throughout, touting the rules as working “wonders in transforming the world.” In stark contrast, Wesley speaks of Methodists as a “company of people having the form of and seeking the power of godliness.” For him The General Rules are a “form of life” that is a necessary, but not sufficient, means to the end. In his sermons he can even use The General Rules as the primary example of the dead formal religion of which Methodists should be wary!
Two-thirds of the way through the book, Bishop Job pauses for a qualification: “We practice the rules; but God does the transforming.” Nevertheless, the emphasis throughout is placed so strongly on what human effort can accomplish with these rules, that it distorts Wesley’s deeper theological vision.
Three Simple Rules also eliminates Wesley’s conviction that the Rules were a means of accountability “that it may the more easily be discerned whether [class members] are indeed working out their own salvation.”
In The General Rules, each specific rule is prefaced with a statement of overarching purpose: “It is expected of all who desire to continue in these societies that they should continue to evidence their desire of salvation.”
This expectation assumes that those attempting to keep the rules are in a covenant of accountability with each other, “united in order to pray together, to receive the word of exhortation, and to watch over one another in love, that they may help each other to work out their salvation.”
Bishop Job’s version cuts away the thrice-repeated statement and leaves the three rules as free-standing principles wielded by individuals freely exercising spiritual practices which must be “constructed differently for each of us because each of us is unique.” This is a clear example of the abandonment of early Methodist communal discipline for contemporary expressivist individualism.
In Three Simple Rules, all mention of salvation and accountability is muted and minimized. The Rules now become guidelines for practicing contemporary inclusivist pluralism and religious individualism. Indeed, the Rules are explained as a kind of conflict management technique.
It is argued that all our conflicts will be miraculously turned into “common ground” and a “common faith” if we just agree to “do no harm.” We prevent this kind of unity, Job claims, if we allow “loyalty to a theological position to trump our loyalty to Jesus Christ.” It is confounding to conclude that the description of “loyalty to Jesus Christ” is not, in itself, a “theological position.”
We are told that if all parties in conflict agree to be nice to each other, “we find that good and solid place to stand where together we can seek the way forward in faithfulness to God.” Apparently, divided parties must abandon their truth claims as being harmful before they can begin to search for the truth about God. This is the all-too-familiar tactic of the modern theological mind that believes the truth is yet to be discovered in a dialogue where theological commitments are left at the door.
We can surely agree with Wesley that we should “do no harm” to those with whom we disagree. Furthermore, we can affirm that disagreeing on matters of principal is not doing “harm.” Unfortunately, Job’s interpretation of the “do no harm” rule entails uncertainty and tentativeness about Christian truth. Wesley and the early Methodists were not shy about truth claims. They saw the Rules as a way of contending within the community for faithfulness and truth-telling so that disciples “must give an account” and members must “admonish” each other of “error.” Sometimes, for the integrity of the community’s identity, the judgment must be made that some have “no more place among us.”
In addition to cutting away Wesley’s defining purpose, Three Simple Rules truncates the Rules themselves. Whereas the original first Rule stated, “do no harm, by avoiding evil of every kind, especially that which is most generally practiced,” and then went on to articulate certain contemporary “evils,” Bishop Job reduces it to the first three words. The only “evils” named, without using that word, are disagreement and conflict. A similar reductionism is seen at work in the third Rule.
Bishop Job changes the original wording of the third Rule: “attending upon all the ordinances of God.” Contending that “ordinances” is a “strange word to our ears” he opts for a softer contemporary version: “staying in love with God.” The contrast between the two versions is instructive. The original assumes that the seeker after God must be immersed in all the “means of grace”—i.e., those spiritual practices of the church which mediate God’s grace in ways that form and nurture disciples. The revision, while mentioning the same list, repeatedly asserts that we modern folks “name our spiritual disciplines differently,” and all mention of accountability in participation is dropped.
Is the attempt to retrieve The General Rules a step in the direction of recovering a “rule of life” for the Wesleyan Way? Or is it a paraphrase of those Rules for the status quo agenda revealing more about contemporary institutional worries than original Methodism?
We must not forget that The General Rules are just one resource within a larger ecology of five documents which make up our United Methodist Doctrinal Standards. These five are listed in our Discipline as Articles of Religion, Confession of Faith, Sermons, Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament, and The General Rules. The Rules do not stand alone in our tradition, and are misread apart from this cluster of resources.
On a more positive note, Three Simple Rules does re-introduce us to a neglected part of our tradition. This may be an important service to the church by stimulating the writing of a serious commentary. More than one renewal has been sparked in church history by reclaiming relics and releasing their authentic renewing power.
We should be thankful that Bishop Job has drawn forth from our heritage a text that has too long been forgotten. He has provided the occasion to begin a conversation. To fail to take up the conversation, and to settle for a merely popular and programmatic presentation of the Rules, would be to dishonor both our tradition and Bishop Job.
Les Longden is Associate Professor of Evangelism & Discipleship at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary.