What unifies Methodism? This is a basic and crucial question in the current moment of Methodism, particularly The United Methodist Church. The importance of unity has often been asserted. However, denominational leaders who strongly emphasize unity have not always offered substantive theological reflection on what it is, exactly, that unifies us.
Historically, I would argue that holiness, particularly the corporate pursuit of holy living, was the key to the unity of the people called Methodists.
One of the key documents that gave identity to the people called Methodists from its beginnings was a short piece written as the Methodist movement was just getting underway, titled “The Nature, Design, and General Rules of Our United Societies,” which is commonly referred to as the “General Rules.” This document provided the basic framework for Methodists throughout Wesley’s lifetime. The “General Rules” were drafted as a means of quality control as the Methodist movement began to gain steam. The entire document is worth reading closely and with attention to detail. It can be found in its entirety here.
The “General Rules” have received quite a bit of attention in the past decade. This renewed attention has mostly been cause for celebration. One downside has been the tendency to create slogans that distort the content of the “General Rules” themselves. Catch-phrase familiarity can obscure that this document was a practical guide to holiness that contained a specific list of behaviors and practices to be rejected and to be embraced in the daily lives of Methodists.
Methodists were united by their common commitment to live the kind of life that the “General Rules” outlined as much as anything else. Wesley was fearlessly specific about what holy living did and did not look like in the “General Rules.” He wrote:
“There is only one condition previously required of those who desire admission into these societies: ‘a desire to flee from the wrath to come, and to be saved from their sins.’ But wherever this is really fixed in the soul it will be shown by its fruits.”
It is therefore expected of all who continue therein that they should continue to evidence their desire of salvation,
First: By doing no harm, by avoiding evil of every kind, especially that which is most generally practiced, such as:
The taking of the name of God in vain.
The profaning the day of the Lord, either by doing ordinary work therein or by buying or selling.
Drunkeness: buying or selling spirituous liquors, or drinking them, unless in case of extreme necessity.
Slaveholding; buying or selling slaves.
Fighting, quarreling, brawling, brother going to law with brother; returning evil for evil, railing for railing; the using many words in buying or selling.
The buying or selling goods that have not paid the duty.
The giving or taking things on usury – i.e., unlawful interest.
Uncharitable or unprofitable conversation; particularly speaking evil of magistrates or of ministers.
Doing to others as we would not they should do unto us.
Doing what we know is not for the glory of God, as:
The putting on of gold and costly apparel.
The taking such diversions as cannot be used in the name of the Lord Jesus.
The singing those songs, or reading those books, which do not tend to the knowledge or love of God.
Softness and needless self-indulgence.
Laying up treasure upon earth.
Borrowing without a probability of paying; or taking up goods without a probability of paying for them.
After listing the “harm” that was to be avoided, the “General Rules” listed the concrete positive acts Methodists were expected to do (give food to the hungry, clothe the naked, visit or help them that are sick or in prison, and more) as well as the specific practices (public worship, the ministry of the Word, the Supper of the Lord, prayer, searching the Scriptures, and fasting) by which all Methodists pursued a deeper relationship with God.
And here is how this core document, which is still included as a part of United Methodist doctrine and is protected by the Restrictive Rules of the UM Constitution, concluded:
These are the General Rules of our societies; all of which we are taught of God to observe, even in his written Word, which is the only rule, and the sufficient rule, both of our faith and practice. And all these we know his Spirit writes on truly awakened hearts. If there be any among us who observe them not, who habitually break any of them, let it be known unto them who watch over that soul as they who 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.
Wesley’s purpose in writing the “General Rules” was fleshing out what holy living looked like so that there could be sufficient clarity of mission to be unified in a meaningful sense. Throughout John Wesley’s life, and well beyond, Methodism was constituted by this kind of specificity. Methodists were deeply serious about what they did with their bodies, how they spoke, what they drank, how they used their money, how they treated others, and more.
A basic familiarity with Wesley’s writings makes it unimaginable that he would have advocated an agnostic posture by Methodists on the most controversial and contested issues of the day. Wesley was adamantly opposed to any form of “latitudinarianism,” (indifference in matters of belief or practice) which he referred to in the well-known sermon “Catholic Spirit” as “the spawn of hell, not the offspring of heaven. This unsettledness of thought, this being ‘driven to and fro, and tossed about with every wind of doctrine’, is a great curse, not a blessing; an irreconcilable enemy, not a friend, to true Catholicism. A man of a truly catholic spirit has not now his religion to seek.”
Wesley spoke plainly to those who had this kind of unsettledness of thought: “Be convinced that you have quite missed your way: you know now where you are. You think you are got into the very spirit of Christ, when in truth you are nearer the spirit of antichrist.”
Read the list of concrete things that Methodists were required to avoid throughout Wesley’s lifetime again. Read the end of the “General Rules” again and remember that if people consistently violated this standard they were informed that they “hath no more place among us.”
The ways Methodists were required to avoid harm were not common sense. And they were not in step with the culture of 18th century Britain. The “General Rules” show that unity was, at a minimum, about a corporate commitment to pursue holy living. Holiness was the basis for early Methodist unity.
John Wesley did not believe Methodism could exist apart from clarity about what holy living looked like.
So, how have we gotten here? How can any United Methodist say with any credibility that the solution to the denominational crisis related to gay marriage is to agree to disagree, to do one thing in some places and the opposite in other places?
I wonder if one of the greatest threats to contemporary Methodism is the idea that we can have meaningful unity without agreement on holy living, that such incoherence and confusion is a kind of virtue, a form of tolerance and charity. The truth is that there can be no meaningful unity for the people called Methodists apart from a shared commitment to a specific vision for holy living, which inevitably includes sexual ethics.
An attempt to be unified as Methodists by intentionally rejecting the possibility of unity around holy living is at the same time an abandonment of Methodism itself.