A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Monday, August 18, 2014

The General Rules and the Baptismal Covenant for United Methodists #1: Do No Harm

The following post is the first of a three part installment on the General Rules and the baptismal covenant of the United Methodist Church, which have been subject to some loose interpretation in recent years. The author, Steve Manskar, the Director of Wesleyan Leadership of the General Board of Discipleship of the United Methodist Church, has a keen understanding of Wesleyan leadership. I asked him several months ago to offer guest posts on this important subject. Part 2 will be posted on Wednesday and part 3 on Friday.
The General Rules & The Baptismal Covenant (part 1 of 3)
By Steve Manskar

The General Rules are the United Methodist rule of life. “A rule of life is a pattern of spiritual disciplines that provides structure and direction for growth in holiness…. It fosters gifts of the Spirit in personal life and human community, helping to form us into the persons God intends us to be” (Marjorie Thompson in Soul Feast). This series of essays will explore the close relationship between our historic rule of life and the Baptismal Covenant. I contend the purpose of our rule of life is to equip Christians to live out their baptismal covenant with God. You will find the Baptismal Covenant in The United Methodist Hymnal on pages 33-39. I will focus my attention on the three questions found on page 34. The General Rules are found on pages 75-78 in The United Methodist Book of Discipline-2012. The rule of life is also available as a downloadable pdf here. 

The first question asked of persons to be baptized addresses renunciation of evil and sin:

“Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and 
repent of your sin?”

The covenant begins where we are as human beings. Right of the bat we acknowledge the world as it is, broken and ruled by powers and principalities opposed to God and God’s reign. We live in this world and are subject the powers of wickedness and evil that alienate us from God, our neighbor, and ourselves. The world teaches that I am the center of my universe, that my wants and desires come first, and that I do not need God or anyone else in my life. It’s all about me getting mine by any means necessary. This way of life is what the Bible calls “sin.” Sin is the way of life that is opposed to God and God’s reign in the world. It leads to behavior violates God’s law of love and justice and does violence to relationships, creation, and ourselves. 

In baptism God addresses us as we are. When we stand before the waters of baptism we confess that we are sinners in need of redemption. Repentance is the beginning of the healing process. It marks the beginning of a new way of life; turning away from wickedness, sin, and death. And turning toward new life with God in his household. 

The General Rules also begin by acknowledging our sinful human condition when we promise to “continue to evidence our desire for salvation” by “doing no harm by avoiding evil of every kind, especially that which is most generally practiced…” The first rule goes on to list behaviors and practices through which people participate in wickedness and evil in the world. The list consists of practices that do harm to persons, relationships, and communities; to their bodies and to their souls. They contribute to alienation from God and one another. Therefore, Christians ought to renounce them and refrain from participating. 

When we evidence our desire of salvation by doing no harm by avoiding evil of every kind we witness to the reality and power of God’s love and justice in the world. We become participants in God’s mission of redeeming this world and setting it free from the powers and principalities of sin and death that demean and destroy life and community. This is the beginning of and prerequisite for holiness of heart and life. With the first of the General Rules Wesley is saying that Christians must stand in the world as people who will not participate in the powers and principalities of the world. He is saying Christians are to be different from the world by resisting the powers of violence, greed, selfishness, individualism, and lust. They will do this by refusing to participate in practices that violate humanity and human community that is created in image of God. When Christians resist wickedness and evil that are witnesses to God’s law of love and justice and become agents of healing in a world that is broken and filled with suffering. The Baptismal Covenant and the General Rules tell us that choosing to live as a Christian means taking on a life devoted to renouncing and resisting evil and wickedness in whatever forms they present themselves. 

For Christians in the Wesleyan tradition, who regularly reaffirm our Baptismal Covenant we may respond to the question:

“Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and 
repent of your sin?”

by saying:

“I do! By doing no harm, by avoiding evil of every kind, especially that which is most generally practiced.”


Richard H said...

Two things:
1. I notice that an element of the General Rules that is often left out IS included here: the "evidence" they offer for our desire for salvation. I think more attention needs to be paid to this epistemic framing. The way they are provided, this epistemic framing is primary over the ethical, though inasmuch as we interpret the Rules as dealing with ethics, we see a close correlation between the two.
2. Another neglected element in some treatments of the Rules is the list of examples Wesley provided for each. It has been more popular to simplify them by lopping off the lists. While the lists find their natural home in 18th century English society, we need to pay more attention to and exercise communal discernment about examples appropriate to our own day rather than settling for the abstract rules and letting "each person do what is right in his own eyes."

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your excellent comments. I agree that leaving off the soteriological context for the General Rules is indeed problematic. The exclusive focus on ethics strips the rules of their theological and Scriptural foundation. Wesley prefaces the first two rules with, "It is therefore expected of all who continue therein that they should continue to evidence their desire for salvation..." The Rules are intended to give shape for how Christians "work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and work for his good pleasure" (Philippians 2:12b-13).

I also agree with your point about the frequent omission of the lists of prohibited (rule 1) and prescribed (rule 2)behavior. I believe Wesley's lists are just as applicable today as they were when first written.