Within United Methodist circles, the last five years have seen an increasing emphasis on reclaiming the General Rules for the Christian life and the mission of the church today. That interest is reflected in the book Three Simple Rules: A Wesleyan Way of Living by Rueben Job, a retired bishop in the UMC. The popularity of Job’s work has led to other related publications by Job such as a student edition, a DVD with additional teaching, and a leader’s guide for group study. Based on these materials as well as others, it seems that there is a renewed interest in Wesley’s rules to guide Christian living today. That is a promising development in my judgment.
Part of that project has included interpreting and even updating the rules for a contemporary context. For instance, Job changes the third rule from “attend upon all the ordinances of God” to “stay in love with God.” This expression has become increasingly widespread, not only in print but also in ecclesial practice. At a recent session of the Susquehanna Annual Conference, the bishop asked the ordinands, “Do you know our General Rules?” Dutifully, they replied, “Yes.” The bishop then asked, “What are they?” The candidates responded in unison in a way that I can only presume they were instructed to respond: “Do no harm, do good, stay in love with God.”
I have heard numerous people in various ecclesial and academic contexts use this reformulation as if it were the direct equivalent of the original. What I have not heard, however, is much in the way of critical reflection upon such usage. “Stay in love with God” is perhaps easier to say (and memorize) and sounds more modern than the rather cumbersome original, “attend upon all the ordinances of God.” Yet does that new, popularized rendering accurately express the point that Wesley was trying to make? At a deeper level, is the phrase “stay in love with God” theologically adequate?
Before I address these questions, I want to point out that the benefits of Job’s work are numerous. For years he has been a leading voice calling for the church to reconnect with its spiritual roots for transformative, missional engagement with the wider world here and now. Job makes many illuminating connections between our United Methodist heritage and the challenges and opportunities facing the church today. Nevertheless, I personally have deep concerns about this paraphrase of the third General Rule.
I do not believe that it accurately expresses Wesley’s point. According to Wesley, a third way that those who wish to remain in Methodist societies should “continue to evidence their desire of salvation” is “by attending upon all the ordinances of God; such are: 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.” Those examples are specific practices that God’s people should engage in regularly as commanded by God. The attempt to summarize this list by simply saying “stay in love with God,” however, creates a problem because it lacks such specificity. Even though Job does mention particular spiritual practices in his book chapter regarding that rule, I am not convinced that the idea of “staying in love with God” by itself necessarily points people to what the love of God requires of us, namely, a certain way of life that reflects vital Christian faith through the power of the Holy Spirit. Wesley, by contrast, referred even in the title of the third rule to particular disciplines that should be part of life for those who genuinely know Christ and actively serve the Lord.
Beyond the question of accuracy, I also find the paraphrase wanting in terms of theological adequacy. Whatever the intentions behind “stay in love with God,” on its own it sounds not only too vague but also too sentimental. What is to prevent someone from claiming something like this: “Sure, I still love God even though I don’t get up for church on Sunday mornings, no longer read the Bible, and see no need to serve the poor or anything of the sort. I can still stay in love with God because it’s about a feeling in my heart, a feeling between God and me of being ‘in love.’”? Such sentimentality raises all kinds of theological problems, not least of which is a profound distortion of the nature of Christian discipleship.
For those reasons, we should seek more accurate and more adequate ways of expressing the third General Rule. The following alternatives are not original to me but are, in my judgment, worthy of consideration: “use the means of grace” or “practice the spiritual disciplines” (a phrase, notably, used in a book about reclaiming the General Rules that deserves a wider reading, A Blueprint for Discipleship: Wesley’s General Rules as a Guide for Christian Living by Kevin Watson, currently Assistant Professor of Historical Theology and Wesley Studies at Seattle Pacific University). Or we might simply say, in a slightly looser rendering, “grow to know, love, and obey God more.” While these are certainly not the only three ways it could be expressed, they reflect greater accuracy and adequacy than “stay in love with God” because they directly point to or at least imply specific practices and avoid the pitfalls of theological sentimentality.
At the very least, more careful consideration of the language that we use to articulate the General Rules, especially the third rule, could help foster deeper discussion among Wesley’s heirs today. That discussion, in turn, could spur us on to more faithful living, which was after all such a driving concern for Wesley. Otherwise, we run the risk of doing no more than professing love for God without practicing it or showing it in tangible ways—and that, I think we could all agree with Wesley, would simply be unacceptable.