March 1, 2020

When properly interpreted, the General Rules of the United Societies provide helpful guidance for the Christian life. According to these rules, one should:

• Do no harm.
• Do good.
• Attend upon all the ordinances of God.

The first two of these are fairly self-explanatory. By the last, Wesley meant:

• The public worship of God
• The ministry of the Word, either read or expounded.
• The Supper of the Lord.
• Family and private prayer.
• Searching the Scriptures.
• Fasting or abstinence.

(This list taken from the Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, 2012, ¶104.)

These rules were reinterpreted in a short piece by Bishop Rueben Job, Three Simple Rules: A Wesleyan Way of Living (Abingdon, 2007). Job rephrased the third rule as “stay in love with God,” which is not exactly the same as what Wesley wanted to emphasize, but is nevertheless more accessible than “attend upon the ordinances of God.”

We should keep in mind, however, that these rules were developed as ways of demonstrating the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the people who attended the society meetings. They were meant as signs of an earnest yearning for salvation, “a desire to flee from the wrath to come” and to be saved from sin.

In his sermon, “Upon our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, Discourse the Fifth,” Wesley offers a caution about the General Rules:

[T]o do no harm, to do good, to attend the ordinances of God (the righteousness of a Pharisee) are all external; whereas, on the contrary, poverty of spirit, mourning, meekness, hunger and thirst after righteousness, the love of our neighbor, and purity of heart (the righteousness of a Christian) are all internal. And even peacemaking (or doing good) and suffering for righteousness’ sake, stand entitled to the blessings annexed to them only as they imply these inward dispositions, as they spring from, exercise, and confirm them. So that whereas the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees was external only, it may be said in some sense that the righteousness of a Christian is internal only—all his actions and sufferings being as nothing in themselves, being estimated before God only by the tempers from which they spring.

(Kenneth J. Collins and Jason E. Vickers, eds., The Sermons of John Wesley: A Collection for the Christian Journey, Abingdon, 2013, 537, and see also “The More Excellent Way, VI.5).

In other words, the external righteousness of the General Rules must be accompanied by an inward transformation. Otherwise it is what Wesley would call “the righteousness of a Pharisee.” He spends a great deal of time talking about inward transformation in his sermons, particularly those thirteen sermons dedicated to the Sermon on the Mount. For Wesley, holiness was an inward state that manifested itself in outward actions. The outward actions were empty without the inward change of heart, and the inward change of heart, if genuine, would necessarily result in a new way of living.

The General Rules, then, are both righteous and helpful, as long as they do not lead one to demonstrate “the outward form of godliness” while “denying its power” (2 Tim 3:5). To be a Christian, for Wesley, is to be changed by the power of God.

Three simple rules – Do no harm, do good, and stay in love with God. Can I get an amen for this week’s Methodist Moment!