The General Rules & The Baptismal Covenant – Part 2 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 explores the relationship between the General Rules and the Baptismal Covenant. I contend the purpose of our rule of life is to equip Christians, and congregations, to live out their baptismal covenant with God and one another. 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.
Baptism is deeply personal, but it is in no way private. It is initiation into the Church, which is a community centered in the life and mission of Jesus Christ that promises to “surround you with a community of love and forgiveness, that you may grow in your trust of God, and be found faithful in your service to others.” The church also promises to “pray for you that you may be a true disciple who walks in the way that leads to life.” Finally, the congregation promises to “do all in its power to increase your faith, confirm your hope, and perfect you in love.” The covenant makes abundantly clear that baptism marks the beginning of a way of life that is centered in “God’s mighty acts of salvation” revealed in the life and mission of Jesus Christ. Baptism, therefore, is both an event that marks you as a child of God and member of God’s household, and a way of life through which you are equipped to participate in Christ’s mission of preparing this world for the coming reign of God. The General Rules, therefore, give shape to life as participants in Christ’s mission in the world.
In the second question of the Baptismal Covenant you are asked if you “accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.” In the second General Rule United Methodists “continue to evidence their desire for salvation by doing good; by being in every kind merciful after their power; as they have opportunity, do good of every possible sort, and, as far as possible, to all people: to their bodies … [and] to their souls.”
When you accept the waters of baptism and your place in God’s household you are expected to use the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil and injustice. Love is the power of God that overcomes evil, injustice, and oppression. Love is God’s power that defeats sin by doing good. When you engage in acts of compassion and justice with your neighbors you put the power of love to work. Loving the neighbor is your love of God at work through you in the world. For if you say you love God with all your heart, soul, and mind you must therefore love what, and whom, God loves. This means that loving God compels you to love your neighbor as yourself. Scripture tells us that our neighbor is anyone, anywhere in the world, who is hungry, thirsty, sick, imprisoned, or oppressed in any way. Our neighbor also, according to Jesus, includes those people who are enemies. We are called, and grace empowers us, to love even those who hate us and seek to do us harm. Accepting the freedom and power God gives us to resist evil and injustice means that we will live as agents of compassion and justice in the world that God loves.
When you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil and injustice by doing good to all people you promise to become an advocate and companion with the poor and oppressed peoples of the world. Actively resisting evil and injustice puts you in the company of Jesus who identifies himself most closely with the victims of the powers and principalities of the world. Jesus said “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40). When you love your neighbor as yourself, you reveal the character of your love for Jesus. The grace of God flows through you for the world when you open yourself to grace through acts of compassion and justice. As grace flows through you you are able to receive more and more grace that heals and makes you more and more into the person God created you to be, in the image of Christ.
Jesus told his disciples you must “love your neighbor as yourself.” The writer of 1 John bluntly states: “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The command we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also” (1 John 4:20-21). The first two baptismal questions tell us loving our neighbor requires renouncing wickedness and evil, repentance from sin, and resisting the powers and principalities of the world. The first two General Rules tell us how to accept the freedom and power love our neighbor as ourselves: by doing no harm and doing good in the world.
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