Living up to the General Rules

At the end of his explanation of the General Rules of the United Societies — rules which we still hold as binding on ourselves — John Wesley wrote this:

These are the General Rules of our societies; all which we are taught of God to observe, even in his written word, the only rule, and the sufficient rule, both of our faith and practice. And all these, we know, his Spirit writes on every truly awakened heart. If there be any among us who habitually break any of them, let it be made known unto them who watch over that soul as they that must give an account. We will admonish him of the error of his ways; we will bear with him for a season: But then if he repent not, he hath no more place among us. We have delivered our own souls.

I notice several things here.

First, Wesley takes very seriously the notion that pastors and lay leaders are on the hook if they do not actively look to the salvation and preservation of souls. I was in a class once in which another pastor told me that his job was not to be anyone’s sin police. That got a lot of nods of agreement, and I was right there with the others. But Wesley would not have agreed. He would not have used the phrase “sin police,” not least of which because it is cute rather than instructive, but he would have reminded us that those who watch over the souls of others will be held to account by Jesus for what we do and what we fail to do.

Second, I notice again the rock solid commitment to the sufficiency of Scripture to guide our faith and practice. Such an idea would not get even a moment of indulgence from many pastors and most seminary professors today.

Finally, just imagine that last portion being read at Annual Conference. Indeed, I wonder what would happen at General Conference if the text of the General Rules were up for a vote. Perhaps that is why it wise that the General Rules are protected by our Constitution.

As a church that protects and preserves these rules, though, I wonder how we live them. How do we — within local congregational settings — get to the point where such a text could be read and embraced? How do we be the church in light of what we hold as our general rules?

There are two Ways

There are two Ways: a Way of Life and a Way of Death, and the difference between these two Ways is great.

The Didache

I read the words in this ancient Christian text — one that some scholars say is older than some of the books in the New Testament — and I am struck by the lack of gray in this black and white statement. These words remind me of many words printed in our Bible — Old and New Testament — that speak of this kind of radical choice.

I find no indication — perhaps my memory needs jarring — of a middle road between these two. There are two ways. One is narrow and leads to life. The other is broad and leads to death.

And yet, I know not all Christianity and all human life can be easily summed up in a choice of A or B. Even among those who appear to be walking in the Way of Life, I can think of those who appear to be walking an even more demanding and narrow road than the generality of Christians. It is as if some Christian walk on the road and others, finding this too simple, jump up on the guardrail and walk it like a balance beam.

I want to introduce degrees and levels and comparisons to the choice laid out for us by the Didache and Jesus. Even John Wesley did this. But the words of Scripture and the experience of the early church don’t give me much room for that. They hold up a simple choice. Here is life. Here is death. Choose life.

Learning to talk about God

One of the things I have noticed while taking Clinical Pastoral Education is how difficult it is for so many people talk about their faith and about God.

I’m not sure if people lack the vocabulary, the experience, or the comfort needed to converse about matters of the spirit, but for so many people the awkwardness of it all is profound.

Ask them about family and the words come easily. As them about work, and no problem. Ask them about their illness and they can give you details about their symptoms, their diagnosis, their treatment, and their hopes.

Ask about God, and most people are reduced to babbling cliches or sitting in silence.

It makes me see the value of those class meetings where people not only were invited each week to talk about their spiritual life but were able to hear others do the same. It must have built up a vocabulary. It meant that people could answer the question, “Do you know Jesus?” without stammering.

Recovering this ability to talk about the life of the spirit without empty cliches or stammering silence would help bring life to the church.

What are some ways we can do that?

Doing what God wills

Here is a question: If you could know for certain the will of God, would you do it?

There is a famous scenario sketched by Anselm of Canterbury. He asks the reader to imagine standing in the presence of God. Someone tells you to look at something off to your left or right. God tells you in that moment not to look. Would you obey God, even if obedience meant the death of someone you loved? (Anselm ups the stakes to the destruction of all creation.)

This seems to me to be a fundamental question. If we knew what God’s will was, if we had certainty about it, would we obey it?

Traditional Protestant theology says we would not, at least not until we have had a new birth. It says our will is corrupted and incapable of obeying God. A sign of that corruption is that we do not even desire to obey God.

It seems to me at times as if contemporary theology takes as a given that we should not obey God if God does not meet our standards of righteousness and love and justice.

Of course, this whole conversation is skewed by the fact that we have revelation, but not often consistent interpretation of that revelation. So, we live in a situation in which knowing for certain that we understand God’s will is rare. Or, at least, it is rare not to encounter plausible or at least rational alternative interpretations.

But the practical difficulties do not eliminate the question. Indeed, they may make it more urgent, since only a sincere desire to know and do the will of God properly motivates our encounter with revelation.

If we knew the will of God, would we do it? No matter the cost?

Not make disciples, be disciples

Sky McCraken, the blogging United Methodist District Superintendent, has a good post responding to Will Willimon’s post about small churches. It is worth reading.

McCraken and more than one commenter make the point that the church needs to learn again how to actually make disciples. The statement got me thinking: Do we know how to be disciples?

Before John Wesley went out making disciples of Jesus Christ, and inventing along the way all the apparatus of Methodism, he spent years in his own intensive discipleship program. He was a disciple for a long time before he had any noticeable success in making disciples.

How many pastors — at any level — in the United Methodist Church right now are exemplary disciples of Jesus Christ? What are they hallmarks of their discipleship programs?

In a lot of ways, Methodism is just an application of John Wesley’s own spiritual practices to other people. If the discipleship practices he found edifying in the 18th century could be expanded to others, why can’t the discipleship practices that we pursue also be expanded?

The real problem behind that question is getting people to participate.

John Wesley did that by preaching wrath.

Most of us do it today by trying to adapt the marketing and management strategies of McDonald’s.

We can worry about these questions, though, later. First, we have to figure out how to make disciples. My proposal for this is first to figure out how to be disciples ourselves.

It can be done

Here’s a comment by Bob Kaylor on a recent post that I wanted to make sure everyone had a chance to read:

Let me push back, John. I do think people would embrace a move to a more defined, clear, and challenging mission. I’ve been seeing that here at my church since we went to a required 10 week Wesleyan catechesis for new members (and existing ones at present) based on the General Rules, the expectation that all of our leaders and teachers will be involved in a discipling relationship with a group, and a culture that defines the Christian life via the Rule of Discipleship (Worship, Devotion, Justice, and Compassion). I put this in place with the blessing of my senior church leaders (we didn’t have a church vote on it) and while there was some initial resistance, we have had 130 people go through the ten week class since last September, we’ve sprouted 8 new covenant groups that came out of the class, and we have had no trouble getting leaders and teachers who are called and motivated because they have expectations. I knew that going this route would either result in what we have now, a church that is building a discipling culture, or it would result in me being re-appointed. I think people want to have the bar raised, to be part of something that matters, to put muscle and sinew on their faith. Most clergy, however, lack the will to put up with the initial pushback of the least committed Christians in the church. I believe a Wesleyan-style revival is possible because I’m seeing it happen here day by day. At a recent church visioning meeting, I asked the group what were the best strengths of the church. Their answer? We are focused on shaping people’s lives for the kingdom. We just have to overcome our fear and do it!