I suspect that one of the legacies of The United Methodist Church will be its stripping away of specificity and a detailed account of Methodist doctrine and discipline in favor of its attempt to erect a big-tent Methodist Church. It is hard to overstate this change.
Early Methodists were a people who were on a journey together. They knew that they were headed to the same place because they were united around a set of concrete and specific beliefs and practices. These were regularly preached and taught throughout Methodism.
From 1968 to the present, United Methodism seems to have pretty consistently favored breadth over depth. To be fair, I don’t think many United Methodist leaders would endorse such a statement explicitly. In fact, I suspect most would be offended even at the suggestion that Methodism cares more about gathering as many people as it can than in raising them up to be deeply committed Christians.
But are we producing deeply committed Christians?
United Methodism’s experiment in big-tent Methodism has resulted in a people whose theological diversity goes beyond the boundaries of mere Christianity. When confronted with this bewildering array of beliefs, the UMC has typically addressed our theological incoherence by moving farther and farther away from giving a specific and detailed account of the good life.
Over the past few years, I have noticed a sloganizing of our theological heritage. We lift up sayings that appear to carry the weight of tradition and a connection to our past, but in a way that strips away the detail and specificity that they included in their original context. Here are two examples:
Frustratingly persistent misuses of Wesley’s “Catholic Spirit.”
There are several favorite proof texts in Wesley’s sermon “Catholic Spirit” that are dragged out again and again to show that Wesley was above all open-minded and committed to letting people “think and let think.” Nevermind that Wesley referred to “being driven to and fro, and tossed about with every wind of doctrine” as “the spawn of hell, not the offspring of heaven.”
Turning the “General Rules” into a cheap cliché.
The renewed interest in the “General Rules” quickly moved from a substantial consideration of the detailed way of life to which all Methodists agreed (as seen in the details of each rule) to a slogan.
I think this hit me the hardest when I noticed Annual Conference Cokesbury displays had decorative pieces of wood that condensed (and distorted) this document into “Do no harm. Do good. Stay in love with God.” [We will leave aside for now that “stay in love with God” is, at best, an extremely questionable way of rephrasing what the third rule actually says.] The United Methodist Publishing House has since further invested in the distortion of the “General Rules” by having it written on their walls (shown above).
Turning the “General Rules” into a slogan strips away the actual discipline found in the rules, which distorts the document itself and the understanding of Methodism found therein.
The slogan is alluring because it gives the impression that we all know what it means. “Do no harm.” “Do good.” “Stay in love with God.” Who wants to argue with “Do no harm”? But, what does it mean?
“Do no harm” is a meaningless pious platitude unless you define what harm is. Which, of course, is exactly what John Wesley and the first Methodists did in the “General Rules.”
I highly encourage you to read the original document for yourself. (It is about the same length as this post!) Notice that it is describing a common way of life that is defined in some detail and is not merely a list of vague aspirational statements. And it concludes by stating that those who do not abide by it will “have no more place among us.”
Methodism is in the details.
Wesley led Methodism by insisting on the importance of the details. Methodists were held accountable to the commitments that they had willingly and freely made. And if they would not, he removed them from membership in Methodism.
A common objection at this point is to note that Methodism was a renewal movement within the Church of England. It was not claiming to be a church. The problem with this argument, especially for United Methodists who make it, is that Wesley formed a church – our predecessor body, the Methodist Episcopal Church. And when Wesley formed the MEC, he did not strip away all of the accountability and the details of Methodism. On the contrary!
Methodists, in the denominational form of Methodism that was created by John Wesley, were required to attend a weekly class meeting and they were required to keep the “General Rules.” If they persistently neglected either, according to the polity of the church and its documented practice, they were expelled from the Methodist Episcopal Church.
Contemporary Methodism has emphasized breadth and unity beyond the breaking point. It is past time to recognize that Methodism is not a theological tradition built on generic aspirations to let people think whatever they want to think. It is not built on a vague commitment to do good, avoid harm, and stay in love with God.
Methodism is a theological tradition built on a specific and detailed account of the Christian life.
Methodism involves a determination to see people grow in holiness, to go deeper and deeper in their faith in Christ. Unity comes from a willingness to pursue that particular vision. This, quite literally, is the method that gave Methodism its name.
Kevin M. Watson is a professor at Candler School of Theology, Emory University. He teaches, writes, and preaches to empower community, discipleship, and stewardship of our heritage. Click here to get future posts emailed to you.
Thanks for this historical perspective.
Steve Perisho said:
A fine characterization of what has been happening across most of the churches in recent (if not also more distant) decades. It’s what’s been done to Scripture, too. I got so tired of hearing (in essence) the following in Episcopalian circles quite repeatedly: What’s so wonderfully distinctive about being an Episcopalian is that you don’t have to *believe anything* or *live in any particular way* (construed as narrowly prescribed). As a consequence I became more alert to the presence of the very same refrain in so many other churches as well, including, even, some sectors of my own:
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Thank you! When I first started cruising the internet monitoring the UMC, I was dismayed and frustrated at how people within the UMC would use God, Jesus, the Bible and John Wesley to justify conflicting and sometimes downright contradictory understandings. A Wesleyan understanding of the catholic spirit was then used as justification as to why these different views could survive in the same space. Then I spent some time with John Wesley himself and my frustration increased exponentially. Methodists absolutely need to reclaim our depth
Such an important word…
Paul Franklyn said:
The late bishop Reuben Job drafted an accessible commentary on the General Rules, which was published in 2007 as The Three Simple Rules. Reuben’s brief book drove nearly a million Methodists to rediscover and remember their Christian purpose and practices in a deeper and relevant way. Bishop Job was among the most serious students and teachers of the Wesleyan way that Methodism has ever produced. He lived the general rules and means of grace every day. He made enormous contributions through the Upper Room (Guides to Prayer) and the United Methodist Publishing House. Bishop Job was also unusually humble, and his humility is a worthy example of vital piety among those who teach the faith.
Kevin M. Watson said:
Thanks to all for the comments thus far.
Paul, Thank you for your response. I may be reading you incorrectly. But your comment reads to me like you took my post to be a personal criticism or even attack of Bishop Job. I did not have that in mind in writing the post at all. I respected Bishop Job and I respect his legacy. I was not able to meet him in person, but from everything I know of him he was a faithful follower of Jesus Christ and a man of deep prayer. I am also grateful for the work that he has done to bring the General Rules back into Methodist consciousness. My sense is that before Bishop Job’s Three Simple Rules the General Rules were almost entirely forgotten within Methodism. Anyone who writes about the General Rules today owes a debt of gratitude to Bishop Job and his work.
I hope there can be room for disagreement with his decision to rewrite or rephrase the third general rule without it having to also be an attack on him as a person. Unpacking why I feel that way would be a different blog post.
For what it is worth, in my mind this post was not about Bishop Job at all. It had more to do with the culture of Methodism itself. I would be very surprised if Bishop Job had anything to do with the sticks with the slogan on them that I mention in the post. Bishop Job wrote a book about the General Rules that sought to bring them back into prominence and invite us to return to the way of life they outlined. My post is concerned with turning the General Rules into a slogan that lacks any detail other than the short phrase itself. John Wesley was not advocating for three generic sentiments of “Do no harm.” “Do good.” And “Stay in Love with God.” And neither was Bishop Job, for that matter. Rather, they described a detailed way of life, a rule of life, that all who were Methodists committed to live by. The sloganization of the General Rules is just one example I was trying to use to illustrate the deeper concern of contemporary United Methodism emphasizing breadth so strongly that our formation of a people no longer has sufficient depth to be worthy of the name Methodist.
Pursue Holiness said:
Not to disparage Bishop Job or his legacy in any way, but I always wished that his paraphrase of the third rule would have been “Grow in love with God.”
While his book did reintroduce many to the idea of the General Rules, I agree with Dr. Watson that what we’ve done with Bishop Job’s book is to dumb down our Methodist commitments to the equivalent to the old Burger King mantra: “Have it your way!”
Steve Harper said:
Dear Kevin, to paraphrase Senator Lloyd Bemtsen’s.comment to Dan Quayle, “I knew Rueben Job, and you’re no Rurben Job.”
Kevin M. Watson said:
To “Pursue Holiness”, I am actually not in agreement that Bishop Job’s book made an equivalence to something like “Have it your way!” That was not my takeaway from reading Three Simple Rules. I just think it conveys a feeling towards God when the the third rule is focused entirely on basic Christian discipline. It is more unfortunate from my perspective because Bishop Job was without peer in his generation in emphasizing the importance of the “ordinances of God.” He absolutely believed that Methodists needed to attend on the ordinances of God and wrote about this at length and provided many helpful resources to particularly help Methodists – and many beyond Methodism – to grow in a life of prayer.
Steve, I am not sure how to respond to your comment. Your own work has impacted my life at several key points. Devotional Life in the Wesleyan Tradition was especially important when I was in college. It is hard for me to receive your comment as really anything other than trying publicly shame me. If you missed my response to Paul, that might help clarify my intentions here.
John Bryan said:
Having been raised in the Episcopal and then Lutheran churches, my wife and I learned about “Methodists” when the church we attend in the summer in WNC got a new pastor. We attended the church with neighbors and have grown to love our summer church home.
The next pastor did a series of messages on Methodism. I took sermon notes as I have for years. He explained that Wesley and his group were called “Methodists” by others because they followed certain methods or ways of doing things. Wesley’s legacy was to lead people to revival.
The Methodist church did not create a new religion. It is Christ centered and Bible centered. The progressive movement in the Methodist church (and the Episcopal, Lutheran & Presbyterian churches) has moved away from being centered on Jesus and the Bible. In that movement, there is no need for the type of revival Wesley brought about because they seem to propose that there is no real sin and there no need for repentance and revival. Jesus loving everyone is being morphed into Grace being all that matters, regardless of Biblical truths.
The UMC needs revival. Bible literacy is a key. No where does the Bible condone unrepentant sin. If the church can get people into the Bible, hearts and attitudes might just be revived in the Wesleyan tradition.
Andrew Thompson said:
Steve, that comment is as vacuous as it is uncharitable. If you want to comment on the post, you should at least address the substance of it. Of course, if you want to just be mean, then I guess that’s your prerogative.
One of my first introductions to Wesleyan spirituality was Bishop Job’s The Wesleyan Spiritual Reader. It is a great devotional guide, written by a humble and holy man. I’ve also read Three Simple Rules, and I was disappointed at the way that the rules were reframed in a way that seemed to obscure their original intent in some important ways. (I felt like Job’s presentation tended to sentimentalize the rules whereas Wesley’s original intent had more “punch” to it.) Of course, that view has to be balanced against the important point that people here and elsewhere have made, which is that Job did reintroduce the rules to a generation that didn’t know about them before. And that is significant.
Any of us who publishes written work for public consumption is, ipso facto, inviting evaluation and critique of that work. But that said, I read Kevin’s post not at all as a critique of Bishop Job or his work but rather as a commentary on the present culture of American Methodism. Such work is valuable and needed as we move forward into the future.
Paul Franklyn said:
Thanks for the clarification above, Kevin. I invoked Reuben Job (whom I knew) because he is the deep-faith source for the memory device known as the three simple rules. For further analysis, and coming from 36 years as a publisher trying to help readers comprehend and remember what they learn, it might be useful to make a distinction between a memory device and a slogan. In only the past year of online chaos over polity in church and government I’ve often seen someone encounter divisive speech or hate or anger or racism or arrogance, and a reply reminds the readers to “do no harm” (which directly sums up the general rule). In context, this is not a slogan. It is a shared principle learned and invoked as wisdom through the memory device. Reuben Job’s three rules simplified to a sentence each should be understood as metaphorical expressions of the General Rules. As with scripture, some interpreters are uncomfortable with the inherent ambiguity of metaphorical sentences and prefer detailed propositional explanations. Like the late bishop Job, we can name other leaders (such as Kenneth H. Carter), who can navigate our uncertainty with judicious use of metaphor as well as practical or strategic applications. Peace.
Martha Berry said:
Two things you touched on – I am not “in love” with God. I love God. Those are two entirely different things. In love is an earthly physical feeling. The second has no connection with this article but made me think about it. God is NOT my daddy!! I had a wonderful earthly father and he was my Daddy. God is my Heavenly FATHER, not my daddy
Thanks for this! Love it! Bring us back!
Charles Harrell said:
As usual, this is insightful analysis and a good, cautionary word. The implied protrepric pointing back to discipline and focus is very timely. Thank you, Kevin.
Rel Ketchum said:
John Wesley did not say “Stay In love with God.” And Jesus did not say “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”
Thanks for showing us the original of Wesley’s general rules “method.”
I wish that when people use a phrase to summarize or make a meme or memorable catch phrase, that they use a direct quote from the original. “Do no harm” works that way, “Stay in love with God” doesn’t. That one struck me as odd for John Wesley to say. Unless he did say that somewhere else, did he?
Kevin M. Watson said:
I am struggling a bit to follow your comment. One of the quotes you mention illustrates the thinning out of the details of Methodism the post was discussing. The other, though there is deep disagreement related to it, is actually a detailed position on a particular ethical position, which is the kind of detail you would find in the “General Rules” themselves.
David Harstin said:
Generally speaking, I agree with you that the church has a bent toward sloganizing Wesleyan beliefs. However, I do not agree that the late Bishop Rueben Job’s definition of “attending upon the ordinances of God” as being the means by which we are to “stay in love with God” is a case of sloganizing. In fact, the purpose of the ordinances is that though them the Spirit helps to fill us with the self-giving Love of God. When properly understood, they work to deepen our relationship with God and move us to love our neighbor as ourselves. In Three Simple Rules, Job was trying to awaken a sleeping denomination to this truth in order to help us rediscover the Spirit of the Wesleyan Movement and to stop being the human religious corporation run by elite leaders of the clergy union. That being said, I believe the intentional misinterpretation of Outler’s Wesleyan Quadrilateral by ‘progressive’ clergy and other church leaders has contributed greatly to a weakening of doctrinal standards. I once heard an ordained elder declare from the floor of our annual conference that Wesley taught that scripture, tradition, reason, and experience should be held on equal footing. It was with this understanding that he said the church should determine “the way forward.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Wesley held that that tradition, reason, and experience must be understood in light of the authority of scripture over them! Again, I agree with your point: “Contemporary Methodism has emphasized breadth and unity beyond the breaking point.” Generally speaking, I believe this is the case throughout the Church Universal. Grace & Peace!
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