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THE GENERAL RULES REVISITEDTwo centuries ago, Bishops Coke and Asbury described the "General Rules of the United Societies" as "one of the completest systems of Christian ethics or morals, for its size, which ever was published." It is difficult to imagine any UM bishop saying this in 1997. To acknowledge this fact, however, says more about how little we expect of church membership and the limits of our own moral imaginations than it does about the Rules.
(1) Neglected, Misunderstood But Not Irrelevant
To revisit the "General Rules" at the end of the twentieth century is to be reminded of how much our disciplinary practice has changed. Consider three related facts: (A) While the UM Publishing House provides interpretive resources for "The Articles of Religion" and "The Social Principles," there is no comparable resource for the "General Rules." (B) Whereas pastors were once enjoined to read and explain the Rules "once a year in each congregation," this is no longer listed as one of the duties of pastors. (C) In fact, the only listing in the index to the 1996 Book of Discipline for the "General Rules" is to the document itself. In current practice, then, the "General Rules" have little or no connection to the wider set of UM disciplinary practices.
United Methodists living in the last half of the twentieth century have tended to react to the language of discipline; rules and requirements are seen as negative. This negative view prevents the recognition of the positive moral practices that were embodied in relation to these Rules. The "General Rules" arose from an ecclesial context and a theology of grace that informed how the Rules were practiced. The ethics of love embodied by the Methodist using the Rules was as much a virtue ethic as it was an ethic of obligation. Far from being rules to be obeyed for their own sake, these practices were a means to an end of loving God and neighbor in the context of Christian community.
The early Methodists raised the bar of moral performance for themselves as a witness to the transforming power of God in their lives. Wesley’s conception of the "covered promise" informed their self-understanding on this point. It is God’s empowerment of ordinary people to obey divine commands that makes it possible to clear the "high bar" of moral performance—not what we are capable of doing on our own. The weekly meetings of the classes mandated by the Rules functioned as guided conversations informed by faith that the Holy Spirit would guide these Methodists to discern God’s purposes. We dare not forget that the provisional list of rules specified under the headings "by doing no harm" and "by doing good of every kind" presupposed that members of the Methodist societies were enabled by the means of grace.
(2) Revisiting the History of the Practice of the General Rules
It would be a mistake to ignore the complex and tangled history of Methodist disciplinary practice in relation to other social movements. In some sense, these conflicts have been present with us from the beginning. As seminarians learn in courses on UM history, doctrine, and polity, the General Rules became canonically fixed when the General Conference of 1808 enacted the "Fifth Restrictive Rule," stating that the Rules could not be revoked or altered. However much this action clarified constitutional issues of authority, it hardly stopped the debate about how to interpret and apply the Rules.
The most divisive of these disagreements surrounded the "General Rule on Slavery," which after 1808 read "Slaveholding, buying or selling of slaves." Ultimately, the Methodist Episcopal Church could not agree about how to apply this rule, leading to the 1845 split which would not be healed until 1939. During this same period, various "Holiness" churches—which insisted on abiding by the strictures about dress, jewelry, and entertainment found in the Rules—came out from the M.E. Church (North) and M.E.C. South, both of which they perceived to be in danger of forgetting Wesley’s moral admonitions on the danger of riches.
In the meantime, Methodists began to develop other resources in the midst of the discrepancies of moral practice. The adoption of "Our Social Creed" (1908) simply formalized a process that had been underway ever since the class meeting had been eclipsed by the Sunday School. This document expanded on some stances that were implicit in the "General Rules," but it went beyond the language and practices of early Methodism. Drawing on the rhetoric of the Social Gospel Movement, "Our Social Creed" provided a new platform for engaging the complexities presented by various social evils associated with industrialization. This legacy, in turn, informed the UM support for and participation in the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
These shifts, in turn, created the need for new explanations about the role of the Rules. One result of the 1939 merger was the articulation of a revisionist interpretation of discipline first incorporated in the 1940 Discipline. Interestingly, this new orientation appears to have come into being not by action of General Conference but was cobbled together in the Council of Bishops. The first line of this prefatory "Episcopal Address" states: "THE METHODIST Discipline is a growth rather than a purposive creation." After stipulating that the founders did not work with a set plan, but dealt with conditions as they arose, the bishops then offer a pragmatic explication of the "evolution" of Methodist Discipline. They observe that what is significant about the Discipline is not that it became a "book of definite rules...but rather a record of the successive stages of spiritual insight attained by Methodists under the grace of Christ...We do not regard the machinery as sacred in itself; but we do regard as very sacred the souls for whom the Church lives and works. We...hope that the prayerful observance of the spiritual intent of the DISCIPLINE may be to the people called Methodists a veritable means of grace."
Whatever the intent of the statement, the clear effect of this concluding prefatory comment is to resituate the "General Rules." The focus is no longer a holy people raised up by God for mission, the embodiment of which is found in their shared Disciplines. The Rules are now to be regarded as "the machinery"; it is the persons ["souls"] which are to be regarded as sacred. Discipline has now been disembodied. This "Episcopal Address" appeared in every edition of the Book of Discipline of the Methodist Church until the merger with the Evangelical United Brethren Church.
While critics of the "Social Principles" have pointed to the introduction of this document in 1972 as the occasion for the diminished status of the "General Rules," this claim is unfair. The Social Principles simply represent the UMC’s effort to reconstitute its moral practices in the context of a denominational merger and the dramatic social shifts of the 1960s. The real dislocation of the Rules occurred earlier (1865-1940) as Methodist leaders reinterpreted—and thereby disembodied—Methodist disciplinary practices.
(3) Reappropriating the "General Rules" in The Methodist Church
While the text of the General Rules cannot be altered, it is possible to repair the impoverished character of our interpretation of this document and to begin to reconstruct their practice in UMism. Some positive steps already have been taken toward this end.
(A) The growth of the Covenant Discipleship movement has provided significant new orientation to practices of Christian discipleship. The reintroduction of the office of "class leader" in the 1992 Book of Discipline marks a significant landmark en route to the reappropriation of the Wesleyan conception of "accountable discipleship." Renewed interest in the so-called Wesley Covenant Service with its wonderful covenant renewal prayer and the introduction of the "General Rule of Discipleship" in covenant discipleship groups also point to the recovery of a sense of covenant consistent with the original practices of the Rules.
(B) The adoption of a new mission statement at the 1996 General Conference is also significant. For the 1996 General Conference to say that the mission of the UMC is "to make disciples of Jesus Christ" and to spell out the process by which discipleship is invited, formed, and directed is a step toward refocusing our conception of Discipline. (Some have even suggested that the entire Book of Discipline might be rewritten with this missional statement in view.)
Obstacles to the recovery of the practice of the "General Rules" still remain, however. Perhaps the most significant problem is the debased conception of church membership itself. Typically, very little is expected of church members. The promise of "prayers, presence, gifts and service" is lifted up but rarely fleshed out with specific expectations. This problem has been with us for more than a century but is now expressing itself in ways that are vexing.
This is precisely the point at which most contemporary UM’s find themselves most puzzled by the "General Rules," for while early Methodists made clear that anyone was welcome to join, membership could be revoked for practices contrary to the Rules. This is made very clear in the last paragraph of the document which specifies the sanctions for those instances where a "brother" [or "sister"] in Christ is not being accountable for his or her actions. "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 them 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."
Contemporary UM’s are struggling to discern what it might mean to be accountable to one another with respect to a variety of moral issues. In that respect, the difference between ourselves and the early Methodists is not so much an issue of historical distance as it is a profoundly moral and theological fissure. Whereas early Methodists believed that the embodiment of discipleship had to do with the state of their souls before God, contemporary UM’s find ourselves living in a legacy of the disembodiment of the discipleship. It is this more recent legacy that we must reject as inadequate, not the General Rules. To take such a position presumes that we recognize that what it means to be a member of the UMC involves giving ourselves wholly—body and soul—to the cause of Jesus Christ, as opposed to shopping for a church that "meets our needs." The challenge before us now as UM’s is to discern what it would mean for us as members in covenant with one another to "deliver our souls" to one another and to the Triune God in the twenty-first century. Revisiting the "General Rules" is a step in that direction.
By Michael G. Cartwright, Ph.D., John Wesley Fellow and UM elder (Western Pennsylvania Conference), now serving as Assistant Professor and Chair of the Philosophy and Religion Department at the University of Indianapolis.
1999 Catalyst Resources
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