By Reed Hoppe
While most eleven-year old girls wake up and attend school each day, Maria faces a daily horror most of us could never imagine. Instead of doing homework and playing with her friends, Maria is repeatedly raped by men who are allowed to do so by her own parents. Maria is a victim of human trafficking and, sadly, her story is not uncommon.
I first became aware of the issue of human trafficking after watching a special on Dateline NBC. The program featured the work of the International Justice Mission (IJM.org), a faith-based human rights agency that seeks to free victims of human trafficking and prosecute the perpetrators. I was horrified by the issue of sexual exploitation and bonded labor. The staggering statistics broke my heart.
With the help of organizations such as IJM, human trafficking has received vital media attention. The increased attention has led to increased pressure on governmental officials to intervene and create legislation designed to monitor and combat trafficking and to prosecute the people responsible for enslaving others.
In spite of the media attention, most people do not realize that the trafficking of persons is currently the third largest criminal enterprise in the world, ranking just below the sale of drugs and weapons. It is estimated that the total market value of all trafficked persons exceeds $32 billion each year. The International Labor Organization estimates that 12.3 million people are trapped in forced labor, bonded labor, and commercial sexual servitude. Fifty-six percent of those are women and young girls.
Human trafficking is manifested in a variety of ways. Some people are promised a job in another town or country, then forced to work in inhumane conditions for little or no money. Salt mines, rock quarries, gold mines, brothels, and other types of labor are common examples. The victims are threatened, beaten, and face the possibility of death if they attempt to escape.
The current economic crisis is only causing the problem of human trafficking to grow. With unemployment on the rise worldwide, many people are more vulnerable to being trafficked than before, particularly in developing nations.
The Mission Society is joining the fight to combat human trafficking through the work of Doug and Brooke Burns in Costa Rica. They are in the process of opening a safe house for girls who have been rescued from sexual exploitation. It is called, “Casa Lavinia,” which means “home of a girl who is loved and cared for.”
In Costa Rica, the trafficked women and girls generally live in their own home, as opposed to being kidnapped and held hostage as in many other nations. Most are prostituted against their wills by neighborhood gangs or their own families. Because Costa Rica is a leading sex tourism location, many girls are regularly bussed to resorts on the coast, where they are then prostituted to foreign men.
Brooke Burns discovered that, even when police were able to rescue girls from sexual exploitation situations, there were no aftercare facilities to which they could take them. She began to pray about opening a safe house which would include an aftercare program for the victims.
Brooke is now working with young women like the one who was sold for the night by her father in exchange for a supply of PVC pipe. Yet another was consistently drugged by her mother, who allowed men to rape her daughter for money from an early age.
The home which has become Casa Lavinia was donated by a Costa Rican couple who caught the vision for helping these young women. Still others have become involved as well, such as the Vineyard Church pastor in San Jose who is adopting the safe house as an extension ministry of the church. Church members can volunteer their time to teach trades, serve as mentors, or become foster parents when the girls are ready to leave the safe house. There are plans to have medical and dental care available for the girls, as well as professional counselors who can help the girls deal with the traumatic effects of being trafficked.
“We don’t want this home to be a long-term care facility. We want it to be a place of rescue and restoration, and then to have an exit strategy for each girl to send them back into the community—whether that is a home within their family of origin or a foster home through the church,” remarks Brooke.
With the work that is being done to combat human trafficking, there is hope for a handful of victims. Not only can their abusers be brought to justice, but victims can be freed from their lives of slavery to experience healing. “My hope and prayer is that Casa Lavinia will be the epicenter of care by a network of Christians working together to provide a continuum of care and love for the girls,” says Brooke.
Reed Hoppe is the associate director of communications for The Mission Society and is a deacon in the Alabama-West Florida Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. You can donate to the Burnses through The Mission Society’s website (www.themissionsociety.org), and pray for their ministry.
By Steve Beard
Dear John Paul:
For 13 years, you have been a steady and reliable source of pride and joy. No dad could be prouder than I am. I have been grateful to God for every single day of your life and now your mom and I acknowledge that you have reached a momentous achievement. Our Jewish friends teach that turning 13 marks the occasion of departing boyhood and entering manhood. “Today, I am a man…” is the phrase that a 13-year-old proclaims during his ceremony called bar mitzvah. In the eyes of his synagogue, he has come of age and is expected to obey the Commandments of God. It is not as much a religious birthday party as it is recognition that you have reached a milestone of maturity and responsibility. It is a great reason to celebrate.
Your mom and I—as well as our friends—have always viewed you as mature and responsible. I don’t suppose that anything magical happened when you woke up and had officially turned 13. Nevertheless, this is an important time for me to tell you again how much I love you and how unbelievably proud I am of you. Let this also be the time that I tell you that I agree that you have moved from boyhood to manhood. That is why you will be officially mowing the lawn from now on. Just kidding.
With all seriousness, as is the biblical tradition, I bless you in your emerging manhood and pledge to do everything that I can to make you the man that God has destined you to be.
Thirteen years ago, I wrote a column in Good News called, “A letter to my four-day-old son.” I just reread it and I am fairly confident that I have cried like a whining baby every single time I have read it over these last 13 years. The very simple message I wanted to convey was this: You were wanted and your mom and I are so grateful for the awesome gift that you have been in our lives.
You will be a great man because you have been a good boy. In order to be great, you must first be good—humble, kind, respectful, vulnerable, teachable, and honest. You have been all those things and we love every single one of those attributes and strengths in you.
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure,” observes writer Marianne Williamson. “It is our light, not our darkness, that frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. You playing small doesn’t serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We were born to manifest the glory of God within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
You have been given marvelous gifts. When you use them, it gives others the green light to use theirs. Be self-assured, confident, and proud of your heritage—the lifeblood and legacy of honorable men and women on both sides of your family. Your mother and I respect your mind and have given you room to intellectually grow and come to your own conclusions. We trust your impulses and are proud of the decisions you have made. With the love of God in your heart, you can be gentle without weakness, strong without rigidity.
Guard your mind because it has been said that your thoughts can become your words and your words can become your actions and your actions can become your habits and your habits can become your values and your values guide your future. In one way or another, everything gets connected.
During the bar mitzvah, there is a blessing that I pray for you, John Paul. “May you live to see your world fulfilled, May you be our link to future worlds, and may your hope encompass all the generations to be. May your heart conceive with understanding, may your mouth speak wisdom and your tongue be stirred with sounds of joy. May your gaze be straight and sure, your eyes be lit with the Scripture’s lamp, your face aglow with heaven’s radiance, your lips expressing words of knowledge, and your inner self alive with righteousness. And may you always rush in eagerness to hear the words of One more ancient than all time.”
Steve Beard is the editor of Good News.
In June 1975, I attended the West Michigan Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church for the first time. In two months, I would complete my final classes in seminary and take my first appointment as a deacon and a probationary member of the conference. Sometime during that week I met with Dr. Bob Smith, who was to become my district superintendent. After a few pleasantries, Bob got down to business. “Dick, I have a fine appointment for you,” he began. “You are going to serve at Ganges and Saugatuck….”
I don’t recall what he said after that. Not hailing from Michigan, I’d never heard of Saugatuck. But since I had spent the first few years of my life as a missionary kid in India, Ganges was a name I knew. I was secretly gratified that Bob obviously had gone to the trouble to find out about my childhood, and thought it was rather clever that he was playing a joke on me by telling me he was sending me back to India.
But Bob knew nothing about my early years in Asia as a missionary kid, and he wasn’t kidding. Two months later, my wife Pam and I—with a toddler and a newborn in tow—began what became 11 years of sometimes challenging, frequently thrilling, but always fulfilling ministry in southwest Michigan. Our first stop was the Saugatuck-Ganges Parish.
It really was quite natural that I’d think “India” rather than “Allegan County, Michigan” when I heard “Ganges.” Seeing life, ministry, church, and just about everything through international lenses is just what you do when you grow up overseas. Perhaps, too, it was my being the son and grandson of missionaries that especially sensitized me to what I saw happening (or not happening) in the missions program of the United Methodist Church during those years.
By the mid-1980s, what had begun as a gnawing concern among evangelicals in the denomination had grown to alarm and had finally resulted in dramatic action. That came in the form of the launch of The Mission Society for United Methodists, an “alternative” mission agency, as some called it. It was established by an ad-hoc group of pastors and former missionaries who met in St. Louis on November 28, 1983. Within days they tapped the Rev. Dr. H. T. Maclin, a 31-year veteran of the General Board of Global Ministries, to become the founding president. The new agency was incorporated on January 6, 1984.
Chief among the concerns that led to the formation of The Mission Society were: (1) the perceived movement of the General Board of Global Ministries (GBGM) away from programs that had the specific objective of bringing people to faith in Christ; and (2) the dramatic reduction in the number of missionaries being sent by the UM Church around the world.
To put the decline of the missionary force in perspective, at the time of the merger of the Methodists and Evangelical United Brethren churches in 1968, approximately 1,650 missionaries served around the world under those two denominations. But by the early 1980s, the GBGM—which by then had slashed its missionary ranks to slightly over 500—announced the goal of reducing that number even further to just 300, or fewer than one adult missionary for every 100 United Methodist congregations.
Against that backdrop, you can imagine my response to the formation of a new, evangelical, sending organization for United Methodists. In a word, I was thrilled! Finally, someone was actually doing something about renewing biblical missions in my denomination. I determined I would do all I could as a young pastor to support these efforts.
During the summer of 1985, I had the privilege of meeting H.T. Maclin when he spoke at the Michigan Area Pastors’ School. Blessed with a humble spirit, the grace of a true southern gentleman, and convictions of steel, H.T. represented The Mission Society in a way that was received well by many of my colleagues.
A month or two later, we were blessed to have the Rev. Virgil Maybray as the keynote speaker at our congregation’s annual missions conference. Prior to the formation of The Mission Society, Virgil had led the Evangelical Missions Council, an arm of Good News devoted to promoting missions within the denomination. Although The Mission Society was not established by Good News, Virgil and many others who were connected with Good News had been part of its formation. Shortly after The Mission Society was launched, Virgil had become its first vice president.
In the providence of God, I had met Virgil 18 years earlier—the summer before my sophomore year of college. Now, he was preaching in my church, challenging the people of my congregation to commit their lives and their resources to God’s mission, and thrilling us with reports about the new sending agency.
After the conference concluded, I made an offhand comment that would prove to change my life. “If there’s ever anything I can do to help out The Mission Society,” I said, “please let me know.”
Now don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t looking for a job. I was having the time of my life with the wonderful people at the Leighton UM Church.
But Virgil proposed that I apply for the position of director of missionary personnel with the new agency. When I replied that I didn’t know anything about doing such a job, he was quick to respond that since I was a missionary kid and a pastor, what more did I need to know? I didn’t have a ready answer. (As they say, you don’t know what you don’t know.) By God’s grace, nine months later in 1986, Pam and I moved to Stone Mountain, Georgia, and I became the eighth member of the staff of The Mission Society for United Methodists.
The Mission Society’s original bylaws stated that it was to be a missionary sending agency “for United Methodists and others of Wesleyan persuasion” (italics added). In point of fact, however, for its first decade, “MSUM” (as it came to be known) only accepted candidates who were active members of the United Methodist Church.
However, being an independent “faith mission” while at the same time maintaining a visible identity with one particular denomination was something of an anomaly. As The Mission Society became better known, candidates from a variety of Christian communions began to apply for service. Sadly, for nearly 10 years, we turned down many splendid applicants for the simple reason that they were not active members of the United Methodist Church. (Interestingly enough, that litmus test was not required by the GBGM.)
Beginning in the mid ’90s, however, we came to the growing conviction that The Mission Society could accomplish its desire to be leaven within a mainline denomination while at the same time serving the wider Christian community. The result was that we began to accept candidates who were Wesleyan in spirit and conviction though not United Methodist.
The transformation to an interdenominational agency of Wesleyan heritage became complete when the name of the organization was officially changed to The Mission Society in 2008. Today, although the majority of our missionaries and partners are still United Methodists, The Mission Society includes more than 200 cross-cultural workers who come from 12 denominations. (Since The Mission Society’s founding 25 years ago, 465 missionaries have been approved.)
Internationally, The Mission Society collaborates not only with United Methodist central conferences and autonomous affiliated Methodist denominations, but also with a variety of other Christian communions in 32 countries to which its missionaries are assigned.
Unlike some missions whose work focuses on a specific area of ministry (such as Bible translation, disaster relief, or radio broadcasting), the ministries of The Mission Society are as varied as they are numerous (see sidebar on page 15). Nevertheless, our core mission is very simple: The Mission Society exists to lead the Church to the world, and to lead the world to Jesus.
Pointing the Church to the world
If churches are measured by how “missions-minded” they are, mission agencies should be measured by how “church-minded” they are.
Speaking at a missions mobilization conference we had the privilege of leading in Ghana in January 2008, Robert Oboagye-Mensah, presiding bishop of The Methodist Church of Ghana (and a newly-elected member of The Mission Society’s board of directors) said, “God does not have a mission for God’s Church. God has a Church for God’s mission. Mission was not created for the Church; the Church was created for mission.”
If that is true, then it’s high time that mission agencies do a rapid 180° turn and begin to help the Church get about its mission rather than assuming that the Church somehow was established by God to support the agency’s mission.
It was precisely this conviction that led The Mission Society to establish in 2000 what is now one of the two branches of our Missions Operations division: the Church Ministry department. Over the past decade, through seminars, conferences, workshops, and coaching, we have provided training to help hundreds of congregations and thousands of pastors and leaders to more effectively mobilize themselves to reach their communities and the nations for Christ.
It’s not just American churches that we are mobilizing for missions, however. Beginning in 2003, The Mission Society has conducted missions mobilization conferences that have impacted several thousand pastors and leaders from scores of denominations in more than 20 countries, primarily in Latin America and Africa.
It is not the Church’s job to help groups like The Mission Society reach the world. It’s the mission agencies’ job to help the Church reach the world. What we are discovering is that when we work hand-in-hand with the Church, Christ is honored and his work is accelerated.
Pointing the world to Jesus
Leading The Mission Society’s more than 200 missionaries whose ministries reflect tremendous diversity can feel a bit like herding cats at times. But the diversity is only on the surface. At their core, Mission Society missionaries share one common purpose, and that is to offer people Christ. There still is “no other name under heaven by which people can be saved.”
Two biblical themes increasingly shape our understanding and practice of mission. The first is the Incarnation. Dr. Darrell Whiteman, vice president for mission personnel and preparation and resident missiologist at The Mission Society, teaches our missionaries that Jesus’ incarnation is their model for cross-cultural ministry.
God in Christ Jesus went to incredible lengths to communicate his love to humanity. Jesus, says Whiteman, did not just become a generic human. He became a first-century Palestinian Jew who spoke Aramaic with a low-prestige Galilean accent! Philippians 2 reminds us that Jesus emptied himself of all the prestige of being God’s son in order to identify with human beings. If God so fully entered a particular human culture in order to connect with humankind, should today’s missionaries do any less?
Whether it means living in an apartment in the middle of a predominantly Muslim immigrant community in Atlanta or amidst an unreached tribal group in a village in northern Ghana, living with and learning from the people we seek to lead to Jesus is not only a core value, but also a key ministry strategy for The Mission Society’s missionaries.
But the Incarnation not only defines a missionary’s lifestyle, it also shapes the missionary’s message. Although the gospel never changes, the ways in which it relates to the diverse human family must be as varied as are human cultures themselves.
That leads to the second theme that continues to both challenge and instruct us, and that is what we refer to as “radical biblical contextualization.”
What does that mean? Well, throughout the New Testament, Jesus’ followers seemed to be discovering something foundational about missions (see Acts 15, Acts 17, I Corinthians 9). The manner in which the Good News of Christ is conveyed and the outward forms of expression which those who receive it exhibit must take on the look and feel of the local culture if the gospel has any hope of penetrating deeply or spreading broadly throughout a people group.
Our missionaries are trained and prepared to discover where God (whose prevenient grace reached them before they found him) is already at work among peoples who have yet to know Christ. I fully anticipate that as the least-reached peoples become followers of Jesus, their resulting worship and witness will proclaim that Jesus is Lord in ways that may look and sound very unfamiliar to our Western Christian eyes and ears. I’m confident, however, that the Shepherd will have no problem recognizing his sheep and calling them his own.
Both the call to the church to engage the world and the call to the world to embrace Jesus grow out of the Missio Dei—the Mission of God. It is as ancient as God’s call to Adam and Eve in the garden, and as abiding as the promise of the One who said he would be with us always, even to the end of the age.
As The Mission Society celebrates its 25th anniversary, it is with a renewed commitment to follow Jesus as he walks the streets of the city and the dusty pathways of the village. We celebrate the fact that mission in the 21st century is the enterprise of the worldwide Church. Even as the mantle of leadership in the global Church is being passed from the North to the South, we enthusiastically embrace the opportunity and the challenges of becoming servants to the global Church as it reaches out to the least-reached peoples of the world.
The Scripture not only gives us hope but spurs us on: “After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people, and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb’” (Revelation 7:9-10).
Dick McClain is the new president and CEO of The Mission Society. To read more about the Mission Society’s 25th anniversary, click here.
It is so hard to think about Good News without Jim Heidinger! (But 28 years ago, it was so hard to lose him from East Ohio Conference. Okay, I was wrong!) What a tremendous influence he has had churchwide. His faithful service to his Lord has been a steady guiding light for many of us within the denomination. There is not much more to be said to what was covered in the July/August Good News magazine, but please add my humble thanks to him. For many of us who have been with him in the struggles and joys over the years, have seen God place new faces in many of the groupings we are involved in. It truly is a new day and we look forward to what God will accomplish in these difficult times.
Former Good News Board Member
Jim Heidinger is a man filled with a gentle and gracious spirit. He is genuinely concerned about other people and always ready to give a listening ear. Many would understand that he is a man of deep convictions but perhaps fewer would know of his gift of encouragement as he relates to individuals. Many would perceive that he is a strong intellect but fewer would know that he is a devout believer filled with compassion. Many would believe he is passionate about church renewal but fewer would know that he is extremely committed to his local church and its ministry. I long for his faithful, gentle, warm and devout spirit to be multiplied in the lives of those of us who know and love him. May his retirement years be fruitful and joyful!
Bishop Al Gwinn
North Carolina Annual Conference
What a ride
It seemed like just yesterday that my late wife, Virginia Law Shell, was attending that crucial board meeting. She called me and said that if [Good News founder] Chuck Keysor resigned, she thought that Jim Heidinger should be the new president. Chuck did and you did! What a ride it has been for all of us, but especially for you. There is no question that you changed the tone and the influence of Good News from the beginning of your tenure. You can honestly say that you had had a fundamental role in saving the denomination from itself during this more than a quarter century.
It has been a privilege for me to share a part of that journey with you. You can be certain that Virginia would say the same if she were here. And she would be very pleased with herself for her part in your selection for the job.
Lifetime Good News Board Member
What you represent
It is hard for me to even think about my ministry dating back to the early 1980s without also reflecting on you because of who you are, what you represent and what you have done have been so influential for me. As a young pastor, I found in Good News not only an encouragement to stand fast, but also a community within which I could stand secure. During my years on the Good News board, you modeled for me what grace under fire and steadfast of purpose and conviction without either cynicism or malice looked like. Some manage to reflect that kind of spirit during during brief sprints, but you have sustained it throughout an ultra-marathon.
President, The Mission Society
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.