Attend Upon the Ordinances of God

The eighteenth century was a time of fertile discovery and argument. It was an age of questions. And these questions threatened both the established answers and even the new ones being offered by other thinkers of the time. The major questions concerning knowledge and the nature of moral order always led to questions about how we live out the answers. Even the fledgling American Republic had these questions being answered in different ways by its leaders.

John Wesley searched for the answer for his “Methodists” by relying on the past. Do no harm and do good are obvious ancient precepts. Almost any thinker in the eighteenth century would have agreed on the general ideas if not necessarily the details. These two principles would be agreed upon in Western European culture in all centuries as defining how a “good person” lives. By the modern era, this would be the assumption in the Near East as well. Wesley argued that African “primitives” understood these principles through their own natural experiences. For Wesley, the Priest of the Established Church in England, being good was not enough. A Christian believer possessed a call to holiness. A Christian nation would have that same call too. The reality  of evil actions also showed that human beings, including Christian believers in community,  failed in the sense of good and right actions. There was simply one more aspect of Christian living that was required.

Historically, the Christian Church held that followers of Jesus were to keep certain spiritual disciplines to maintain holiness of the person and the community of believers. Wesley knew them as sacraments and practices. The rites of Christian initiation (baptism) and community (the Eucharist) were of paramount importance for Methodists. The spiritual actions of prayer, fasting, reading scripture, reading spiritual literature, celebration, and giving alms to the poor were very important for the believer and the community. Participating in these acts reinforced the connection to God and the goodness done.

I understand that Bishop Reuben Job rephrased the third General Rule as “Stay in Love with God.” And it certainly appears to fit the sensibilities of the self-absorbed believers of early twenty-first century America. The General Rules easily become “I” statements. I do no harm. I do good. I stay in love with God. I know those sentences are grammatically incorrect. They are also theologically and philosophically incorrect. The original statement of the third rule emphasizes a collective sense of obedience to God.

Holiness and morality are connected in Christian religious practice. One can be good without the sense of holiness. Yet, one cannot remain holy without being moral. This problem vexed Wesley. He preached that slavery was immoral. A nation could not be holy and immoral. He believed conflict among believers was definitely unholy because the conflict concerned religious truth.

Christianity was born when the Jewish understanding of a time where God would reign met Greek and Roman culture. When Antiochus IV of the Seleucid dynasty began his persecution of the Judean people, the conflict began over how Jewish identity could be maintained when ruled by people who believed their destiny was to civilize the world in their image. The Apocryphal books of the Maccabees and the Jewish celebration that became Hanukkah tell this important story in history. The military conflicts continued under Roman rule off and on for centuries. Even after Judea was no more and the Jewish people exiled from their home land, the intellectual conflict was not settled. Christianity represents one way it eventually was. The other way was the secular concept of religious tolerance which came about in the modern era.

Christianity came to rely on the Platonic philosophy of Truth being in Idealism as well as the Hebrew Canon and then later adopting the Canon of the New Testament. In his research of ancient Christian writers, Wesley brought the platonic view of “an examined life” back into individual practice. And along with it came the concepts of Idealism and Truth beyond the concept of the Good. The Aristotelian concept of ethical goodness was gaining ground in Europe and the British colonies of America.

The General Rules provide a mix of ancient and modern thinking that tends to appeal to twenty-first century Christian liberalism and evangelicalism each emphasizing one part over the other. This development leaves one to ask if what was useful in the beginning of a movement becomes the seed of destruction at the end of it? Hopefully, this is the wrong question. I doubt it.

One thought on “WESLEY’S RULES FOR LIVING (3)

  1. This series of blogs have been very nice. It seems humanity is on a constant loop…same mistakes, different century. American Christianity tends to be about the self…the individual’s journey…instead of the collective. The question raised is always “Do you have everything right with the Lord?” Instead of “Does the Church, the community, society, country, have everything right with the Lord?” Then there is the prosperity gospel…If you are living right and following Jesus, blessings will rain down upon you. Completely wrong, selfish, and not focused on others.

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