The Basic Rules

I am preaching at Lake Mahopac United Methodist Church this Sunday, the 21st Sunday after Pentecost (5 October 2008).  The service is at 10, location of church.


Once, when asked about paying taxes to the Roman authorities, Jesus replied “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, give to God that which is God’s. It was an interesting answer to a question asked by the Jewish authorities in an effort to trap Jesus into openly declaring that He was in opposition to Roman authority. Needless to say, as in every case where the power establishment sought to trap Jesus into saying something that could be used against him, they failed.

So how do we reconcile this explanation of our sectarian and secular lives with the vision that many have today where modern day Pharisees want to make God’s laws mankind’s laws?

There is, to be sure, a relationship between the Ten Commandments and our modern day legal system. But our legal system is built on more than just the Ten Commandments; other legal systems, both from ancient history and relatively modern history, have gone into its development.

The problem isn’t that we should not seek a world based on God’s laws but rather that we don’t often understand what God’s laws are based upon. God gave the Ten Commandments to the Israelites to establish a covenant between the people and Himself. These Ten Commandments set the relationship between God and His people and between the people themselves. But while the Commandments are relational in nature, we have tried to turn them into a set of regulations, laws, and codes that will guide and direct our lives.

When we use a list of rules and regulations as a means of maintaining a relationship, we will find ourselves quickly falling into a pattern of sin. But we quickly and easily embrace the letter of the law as a reasonable substitute for its meaning. We do this because we think we can somehow regulate human behavior in such a way that it prevents sin when it merely points out the folly of doing so. We have to be careful that in creating laws and regulations that we do not substitute the law and adherence to it for the real thing, following God. This was the problem that caused God to cry out in Isaiah

God is asking, “Why this frenzy of sacrifices? Don’t you think I’ve had my fill of burnt sacrifices, rams and plump grain-fed calves? Don’t you think I’ve had my fill of blood from bulls, lambs, and goats? When you come before me,  whoever gave you the idea of acting like this, running here and there, doing this and that— all this sheer commotion in the place provided for worship?

“Quit your worship charades. I can’t stand your trivial religious games: Monthly conferences, weekly Sabbaths, special meetings— meetings, meetings, meetings—I can’t stand one more! Meetings for this, meetings for that. I hate them! You’ve worn me out! I’m sick of your religion, religion, religion, while you go right on sinning. When you put on your next prayer-performance, I’ll be looking the other way. No matter how long or loud or often you pray, I’ll not be listening. And do you know why? Because you’ve been tearing people to pieces, and your hands are bloody. Go home and wash up. Clean up your act. Sweep your lives clean of your evildoings so I don’t have to look at them any longer. Say no to wrong. Learn to do good. Work for justice. Help the down-and-out. Stand up for the homeless. Go to bat for the defenseless. (Isaiah 1: 11 – 17)

Paul’s words to the Philippians speak volumes about those who would use the Law to justify their position and their authority. As Paul wrote it, there is a great difference between the type of righteousness that comes from setting and following a set of rules and the type of righteousness that comes from embracing Christ and living the type of life that He showed us. How many times have we seen leaders, be they public or otherwise, who hold the law before our eyes but seek to go around it in their own lives?

In a world where the focus of the Bible is justice for the poor and the oppressed, why is it that we pass laws that favor the rich and the oppressors? In a world where equality is needed, why do our laws seek to divide and separate?

Why is it, when Jesus went among the people to bring them back to God, do we seek to create laws and requirements that keep people from God? We quite willingly create laws and regulations, both in the sectarian and secular sense, that make sin illegal. But all such laws do, it seems, is to make sin seem more sensible and inviting. We write laws that are based on our own ignorance and bias and claim them to be the thoughts of God. We are told that God’s laws are fixed and unchanging, yet we are unwilling to follow them unless they fit our own view of the world.

There are those who would have us post the Ten Commandments in our classrooms and our courtrooms or as stone monuments outside such buildings. But the very act of carving a stone monument threatens to violate the Second Commandment that there will be no graven images. And if you are going to use the commandment that one shall not murder as the basis for the argument that abortion is wrong, why are those who protest against abortion not among those who protest against the death penalty? And shouldn’t they be among those who protest against unjust and illegal wars or against war in general?

The parable in the Gospel reading for today is a warning, not just for those who heard the story two thousand years ago but for those today who seek to build the Kingdom of Heaven for their own purposes. They are the ones who will be punished, as those who heard the story two thousand years ago clearly understood. Those who build the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth and share the results of the vineyard will be rewarded; those who seek to keep the profits for themselves will fall under the weight of their own destruction.

It is one thing to make a law that protects you; it is an entirely different thing when you make a law that prevents you from doing something. We are required by law to wear our seat belt when driving or riding in a car. For some, especially when these laws were first passed, this was a nuisance. The attitude of many was that they had driven for several years without them and nothing had happened so why should they start wearing them now.

But it is a fundamental law of physics that things in motion will remain in motion and things at rest will remain at rest (Newton’s First Law of Motion). If you are involved in a car crash and you are not wearing your seat belt, you will find yourself obeying this law as you continue moving forward while the car has come to a stop. Wearing seat belts is the law because there are other laws, laws of nature, which will cause you greater harm than the discomfort of wearing the seat belt.

Laws in science may be changed, but it is only done with great reluctance and after much experimentation and thought. Our scientific process would be very questionable if the laws that govern nature were easily changed. Laws in science are, for the most part, unchanging and fixed; they are, if you will, carved in stone.

And the problem of any law is that you have to think through all the consequences of such laws. Those who would ban abortion are not willing to provide the help and aid that these newborn infants will need. If we are to have Biblically inspired laws, they have to be consistent. You cannot create laws and call them Biblical if they benefit one group of people while denying the same rights and privileges to other groups.

We have to have laws but they have to be laws that are based on relationships rather than prevention. They have to be laws that build, not destroy. The Law, as first embodied in the Ten Commandments, was not meant to replace our relationship with God; it was meant to increase that relationship.

But what happens when we make laws that prevent that relationship from being built; what happens when we make laws that prevent relationships and we claim that such laws are the natural order dictated by God. What happens when we make rules for membership in the United Methodist Church that are based on our own biases and, perhaps, ignorance? If we deny membership to someone because of those biases and ignorance, then are we not guilty of violating the very rules that we set forth? Are we not violating one of the basic tenets of the Bible that says that we should not judge, lest we be judged ourselves?

Now, as it turns out, we do have rules for membership in the Methodist Church. These rules were first articulated as the requirements for joining the early Methodist societies. There is no evidence that Wesley ever applied them to membership in the Church of England since there were no Methodist churches at the time he wrote these rules. (See “Did Wesley boot out “bad” Methodists?”)

It is quite clear, however, when you read Wesley’s General Rules that 1) many people would have trouble meeting the membership requirements and 2) the early Methodist churches in this country probably ignored them. After all, one of the rules prohibited the owning and selling of slaves, yet we know that there were Methodists in this country who were involved in the slave trade and owned slaves. It was the ownership of slaves through marriage that lead to the first schism in the Methodist Church, a split that lasted longer than the actual Civil War.

So are the rules just archaic reminders of the beginnings of our denomination; are we to say that how one leads their life has no bearing on their membership in a church or society?

What are Wesley’s three basic rules? Wesley insisted, however, that evangelical faith should manifest itself in evangelical living. He spelled out this expectation in the three-part formula of the Rules:

It is therefore expected of all who continue therein that they should continue to evidence their desire of salvation,

First: By doing no harm, by avoiding evil of every kind, especially that which is most generally practiced, such as:

The taking of the name of God in vain

The profaning the day of the Lord, either by doing ordinary work therein or by buying or selling

Drunkenness: buying or selling spirituous liquors, or drinking them, unless in cases of extreme necessity.

Slaveholding; buying or selling slaves

Fighting, quarreling, brawling, brother going to law with brother; returning evil for evil, or railing for railing; the using many words in buying or selling.

The buying or selling goods that have not paid the duty

The giving or taking things on usury—i.e., unlawful interest

Uncharitable or unprofitable conversation; particularly speaking evil of magistrates or of ministers

Doing to others as we would not they should do unto us.

Doing what we know is not for the glory of God, as:

The putting on of gold and costly apparel

The taking such diversions as cannot be used in the name of the Lord Jesus.

The singing those songs, or reading those books, which do not tend to the knowledge or love of God

Softness and needless self-indulgence

Laying up treasure upon earth

Borrowing without a probability of paying; or taking up goods without a probability of paying for them

It is expected of all who continue in these societies that they should continue to evidence their desire of salvation,

Secondly: By doing good; by being in every kind merciful after their power; as they have opportunity, doing good of every possible sort, and, as far as possible, to all men:

To their bodies, of the ability which God gives, by giving food to the hungry, by clothing the naked, by visiting or helping them that are sick or in prison.

To their souls, by instructing, reproving, or exhorting all we have any intercourse with; trampling under foot that enthusiastic doctrine that “we are not to do good unless our hearts be free to it.”

By doing good, especially to them that are of the household of faith or groaning so to be; employing them preferably to others; buying one of another, helping each other in business, and so much the more because the world will love its own and them only.

By all possible diligence and frugality, that the gospel be not blamed.

By running with patience the race which is set before them, denying themselves, and taking up their cross daily; submitting to bear the reproach of Christ, to be as the filth and offscouring of the world; and looking that men should say all manner of evil of them falsely, for the Lord’s sake.

It is expected of all who desire to continue in these societies that they should continue to evidence their desire of salvation,

Thirdly: By attending upon all the ordinances of God; such are:

The public worship of God.

The ministry of the Word either read or expounded.

The Supper of the Lord

Family and private prayer

Searching the Scriptures

Fasting or abstinence

These are the General Rules of our societies; all of which we are taught of God to observe, even in his written Word, which is the only rule, and the sufficient rule, both of our faith and practice. And all these we know his Spirit writes on truly awakened hearts. 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 an account. We will admonish him of the error of his ways. We will bear with him for a season. But then, if he repents not, he has no more place among us. We have delivered our own souls.

Perhaps the best way to understand these rules is to remember what John Wesley said,

Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.

If anyone, be they a member of a Methodist church or not, leads a life which runs counter to either these General Rules, the Ten Commandments, or even the basic intent of life outlined in the Bible, membership in the church will be the least of their worries. On the other hand, if one follows either these rules or the Ten Commandments with the expectation that adherence to the rules without an understanding of what the rules and laws imply and require, they too will have other worries. It is only when you understand that the rules require a new life, a life found in God through Christ that victory will be gained.

John Wesley once said

I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.

And just as we heard Paul’s words to the Philippians warning us against those who would use their power and authority to create laws that destroy relationships and prevent the completion of the Gospel, so too do we hear Paul’s words telling us that he has given up the life in the law and is now leading a life in the Spirit. He saw the law as a stumbling block to his life in Christ and so he gave up the law. But now he is on his way, to a better life, to a life in Christ.

In the end, we have to make fundamental decisions about who we are and what we do, not by some set of arbitrarily designed rules but by the rules that were laid down by God on Mt. Sinai to His people, our spiritual ancestors.

6 thoughts on “The Basic Rules

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  2. To be fair, I tried read through this several times, but I find myself confused about what it is that you are conveying with this text.

    A couple of main points that confused me:

    You seem to be concerned that setting rules prohibiting behavior is a means for propogating sin when you say “When we use a list of rules and regulations as a means of maintaining a relationship, we will find ourselves quickly falling into a pattern of sin.” But then you discuss Wesley’s extensive list of rules for membership. Why did Wesley find it necessary to detail the rules so explicitly if what you propose is true? Are you criticizing Wesley here or did I misread it?

    Secondly, I think you speak favorably of laws that prevent someone from harm (the seatbelt for example), but then you go on to say “We have to have laws but they have to be laws that are based on relationships rather than prevention. ” I’m confused about whether you think a law something like a DUI law that is aimed at prevention is of any use because it isn’t based on a relationship. Or perhaps I misunderstand your use of relationship.

    The last major statement I am confused about is the discussion about law consequences. You say: “You cannot create laws and call them Biblical if they benefit one group of people while denying the same rights and privileges to other groups.” To me the first commandment immediately violates this premise especially in a pluralistic society. When we proclaim God as the only God, we are denying the rights of other religions who believe differently. I am confused about your demand here that any biblical law be of equal benefit to all people. Is that what you are demanding or am I misunderstanding that also.

  3. Thank you for your analysis. I will be honest; this was a tough one to write.

    Wesley’s rules were created for the Methodist Societies that predated the formation of the church; their intent, it seemed to me, was to insure that the people joining the societies were genuine in their intent. As I noted in what I wrote and what was said in the piece that I referred to, it is not clear if Wesley extended those rules into the actual church. I suggested that they weren’t, if for no other reason that there are rules against people involved in the slave trade from being in the society, yet members of the Methodist Church owned slaves. This was the basis upon which the early Methodist Episcopal church split, a split that lasted from 1840 to 1939.

    Wesley had his reasons for the rules and they are sound reasons. But the question arises if we, the present members, understand those rules and if we are applying those rules as they were intended or if we are applying our own bias.

    You bring up a good point about whether laws such as DUI laws are preventive or relational. Implicitly, I have a relationship with others whom I may not know but with whom I may come in contact. If that contact comes because my behavior is impaired, then there are going to be problems. If I drink too much but do not go anywhere and no one knows that I have done so, then the only harm is to myself. Here again, we have to look at Wesley’s rules and his prohibitions about the use of drugs and alcohol.

    As to the last point, I was thinking specifically of segregation and the laws mankind created to enforce segregation. I grew up in the south and “benefited” from the laws that created separate but equal schools. Those who passed the laws did so using the Bible as their justification when in fact the reasons were solely personal and could be seen as a way to keep people in servitude. And the nature of the laws did not merely separate the races; it separated the classes as well. We are still doing that today in other areas of society.

    God’s commandment that we shall have no other God is directed towards us. If either you or I create a law that says that another person cannot worship God unless they worship God as we do, then we are putting our interests above those of God. Our civilization’s history tells us what we have done in that regard. The difficulty with any line of thinking that suggests that we force others to follow our line of reasoning when it comes to God is that we are unprepared when we encounter other belief systems. And that is an entirely different area of discussion.

    I think that this is an area that requires much thought and contemplation. Do we truly understand the meaning of the laws we and our representatives write, both those in Congress and state legislatures and those we write in our churches. I welcome a continued discussion on this area but I am going to suggest that it be done as posts in our respective blogs rather than buried in the comment sections.

    If any reader has some additional thoughts, please let me know and I will post the link.

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