The Wesleyan Way of Discipleship

The General Rules

The General Rules are found in every edition ofThe Book of Discipline. They were developed by John Wesley in 1743 as guidelines for membership in the Methodist societies. The Rules are a simple and concise description of basic Christian practices, described by Wesley as "means of grace." The Rules are a guide to help the society and its individual members grow in holiness of heart and life. The General Rules are the Methodist rule of life:

"It is therefore expected … 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 …

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 people …

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."

Today these General Rules are the rule of life for every United Methodist congregation. Every United Methodist should know them and be able to recite them by heart. The congregation must then provide a system of small groups that help professing members practice doing no harm, doing good, and attending upon all the ordinances of God. When congregations implement the simple steps, they will fulfill their mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

The General Rule of Discipleship

The General Rule of Discipleship is a contemporary restatement of the General Rules. It distills the General Rules down to a single, straightforward statement that can be easily memorized:

To witness to Jesus Christ in the world and to follow his teachings through acts of compassion, justice, worship, and devotion under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

The General Rule of Discipleship is intended for those Christians who are ready and willing to be accountable for their growth in holiness of heart and life. They agree to meet weekly to "watch over one another in love." The agenda for the weekly meeting is a covenant shaped by the General Rule. This covenant is the group's rule of life. Over time, as the group meets and relationships of love and trust are formed, group members develop as leaders in discipleship for the congregation.

The General Rule of Discipleship is a succinct description of discipleship. It begins by acknowledging that a disciple is one who is a witness to Jesus Christ. This tells us that he or she knows Jesus and can tell others who Jesus is and what he is doing in the world.

Secondly, a disciple lives and witnesses in the world. This acknowledges that disciples, and the church, are to be for the world. Discipleship is not primarily about the enjoyment of personal blessings. It is much more about walking and serving with Christ who is at work in the world, particularly among the poor, the sick, the outcasts, and prisoners. When Christ calls us to follow him, he calls us to follow him into the world that he loves.

Thirdly, a disciple follows Jesus by imitating him. The General Rule tells us that discipleship is a relationship with Christ. Like any significant relationship, disciples participate in practices that draw them to Christ and keep them with him. Jesus said in Luke 9:23, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me." Self-denial is putting the needs and interests of the beloved ahead of your own. In the context of discipleship, the grace of Christ enables you to make Christ's interests your own. The cross disciples must take up each day is obedience to Jesus' teachings summarized in Mark 12:30-31: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength . . .You shall love your neighbor as yourself."

Disciples grow in loving God (the cross' vertical axis) through practicing acts of worship and devotion. Disciples grow in loving God by loving those whom God loves, as God loves them through acts of compassion and justice (the cross' horizontal axis). As disciples, the cross of obedience to Jesus' commands they open themselves to grace and grow in holiness of heart and life.

Finally, the General Rule of Discipleship tells us that witnessing to Jesus Christ in the world and following his teachings are guided by the Holy Spirit. This tells us that disciples cannot follow Jesus alone, by their own will or strength. Only the Holy Spirit, working in them by grace, makes discipleship and subsequent growth in holiness of heart and life possible.


Congregational Rule of Life

The United Methodist Church’s mission is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Local churches provide the most significant arena through which disciple-making occurs” (¶ 120, The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church-2012). This mission requires each local congregation to put it into practice.

Mission describes the congregation’s identity. It is the “who” of the local church. It is the reason for church’s existence. Mission is more than what the church does. It is more than a program or activity. It sets the church apart from other institutions and organizations. Mission “is not primarily an activity of the church, but an attribute of God. God is a missionary God. ‘It is not the church that has a mission of salvation to fulfill in the world; it is the mission of the Son and the Spirit through the Father that includes the church.’ Mission is thereby seen as a movement from God to the world; the church is viewed as an instrument for that mission. There is church because there is mission, not vice versa. To participate in mission is to participate in the movement of God’s love toward people, since God is a fountain of sending love” (David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission, page 390).

A rule of life is how the church participates in mission. Marjorie Thompson, in her wonderful book, Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life, writes “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.” This means a rule of life gives Christians the basic practices that help them to live missional lives. In the process they form holy habits that equip them to join Christ and his mission in the world.

You become what you love more than what you believe. Your love is shaped by your habits. A rule of life provides a set of practices taught by Jesus to shape the habits and hearts of his disciples. The goal is to move Christians towards maturity in love, what John Wesley called “holiness of heart and life.” As they habitually practice works of piety (loving God) and works of mercy (loving who God loves) holy habits are formed (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control; Galatians 5:22-23), resulting in love filling the heart and governing the life.

The General Rules are the United Methodist rule of life. If your congregation has Covenant Discipleship groups in the foundation of your disciple-making process, then I strongly recommend the adoption of the General Rule of Discipleship as the congregation’s rule of life: To witness to Jesus Christ in the world, and to follow his teachings through acts of compassion, justice, worship, and devotion under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. It is a contemporary adaptation of the General Rules that describes the balanced discipleship needed to form leaders in discipleship the church needs for its disciple-making mission.

The General Rule of Discipleship describes the balanced and varied practices of discipleship that are needed to effectively help members live the baptismal covenant and live and serve as mission-shaped disciples of Jesus Christ. It is easily memorized and shared with others. When members of the covenant discipleship groups are commissioned to serve as class leaders they will serve as discipleship coaches for fellow members of the congregation, helping them to apply the rule of life in their daily lives. Thus helping more members live as mission-shaped disciples of Jesus Christ.

In summary, congregations seeking to participate in God’s mission in the world by forming mission-shaped disciples of Jesus Christ need a rule of life. The Wesleyan United Methodist tradition provides us with a proven and effective rule of life for the 21st century. The General Rule of Discipleship concisely describes the habits required of mission-shaped disciples.


General Rule of Discipleship

Witness to Jesus Christ in the world …

A witness has personal knowledge and experience of a person, place, thing, or event and is prepared to give evidence. Christians are witnesses to Jesus Christ because they know him, experience his love, and testify to what he is up to in their lives, in the church, and in the world.

Witnesses are sometimes welcomed. Their testimony is received as good news that brings joy and liberation. They are celebrated and honored as truth-tellers. Other times witnesses are received with indifference. Their testimony is ignored. People pay it little or no attention. They are seen as curiosities or light entertainment, but not taken seriously. At times witnessing to Jesus Christ and his gospel of God’s coming reign is not welcome. It is questioned and rejected. At times it will bring violence and persecution upon the witness.

Jesus’ knew his disciples would face fear and opposition. That is why he appeared to them saying, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” He then breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:21-22). In this encounter with the risen Christ the disciples are commissioned to go into the world as witnesses to him and his good news for the world. He equips them with his peace, which is his presence alongside them. He also gives them the power of the Holy Spirit to inspire and guide them along the way.

John Wesley knew very well the blessings and challenges of living as a witness to Jesus Christ in the world. On April 2, 1739, the day he first preached outdoors he recorded in his journal

At four in the afternoon, I submitted to be more vile and proclaimed in the highways the glad tidings of salvation, speaking from a little eminence in a ground adjoining to the city, to about three thousand people. The Scripture on which I spoke was this (is it possible anyone should be ignorant that it is fulfilled in every true minister of Christ?): “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the broken-hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord” (Luke 4:18-19).

His preaching was received as good news by some while many listened with indifferent curiosity. On the other hand, it was not uncommon for his audience to throw stones and garbage at Wesley, and other Methodist preachers, while witnessing to Christ and salvation by grace through faith.

Witnessing to Jesus Christ in the world requires baptism by water and the Spirit. It is possible only when you are part of the community-centered in the life and mission of Jesus, equipped and empowered by his Holy Spirit. To live as his witnesses in the world requires us to participate in a congregation devoted to doing all in its power to increase our faith, confirm our hope in Christ, and to perfect us in love.

Witnesses to Jesus Christ in the world are formed, equipped, and supported best in small groups with other witnesses. The early Methodist class and band meetings are excellent examples of such groups. Blockages to grace are removed when Christians meet weekly to watch over one another in love, to pray for one another, to sing hymns of praise to our Lord, to give an account of what they have done to witness to Jesus Christ in the world. Christians learn how to stop resisting Christ’s grace when they meet weekly in his name for mutual accountability and support for living as his witnesses in the world. As trust grows among them, their faith in Christ increases. They grow closer to Christ as they grow closer to one another. 

… and to follow his teachings through acts of compassion and justice

Christians witness to Jesus Christ in the world by following his teachings. Jesus himself tells us, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15 & 15:14). The General Rule of Discipleship serves as a compass heading to guide Christians in their obedience to Jesus’ teachings.

Jesus summarized his teachings in his two great commandments:

He said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets’ (Matthew 22:37-40).

We are able to respond to God because God first loved us (1 John 4:19). God’s love is revealed to us in the life, death, and resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ. We see what love looks like in Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, forgiving, and proclaiming the reign of God that is breaking out in the world, and is coming. He teaches his disciples how to love by inviting them to do what he did. Love as practiced by Jesus is much more than passionate affection for a lover or friend. Jesus’ way of love is more about virtue than passion. By this I mean love governs your thinking and behavior toward God and his justice, mercy, and truth.

Works of Mercy: Acts of Compassion & Justice

If you love God with all your heart, soul, and mind then you must love who and what God loves. That’s what Jesus meant when he said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” And “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you” (John 15:12-14). Jesus calls and equips his followers to live as people who love. Their love for God is revealed in the ways they love who God loves: people who are poor, hungry, sick, prisoners, homeless, strangers, outcasts, lonely, and hopeless. Followers of Jesus even love their enemies and people who persecute and defame them (Matthew 5:43-48). They can live this way because they know and experience God’s love in the love they give to one another who are sisters and brothers in Christ.

Charles Wesley expresses the relationship between loving God and loving who God loves in one of his hymns:

Touched by the lodestone of thy love,
Let all our hearts agree,
And ever toward each other move,
And ever move toward thee.

A “Lodestone” is a magnet. Wesley is saying that God’s love draws us to him like a magnet attracts pieces of metal. As we move closer to God we must necessarily move closer to our neighbors. The only way to get close to God is to be in relationships of justice, mercy, and truth with our neighbors. God teaches us how to love by giving us people who love us and teach us to obey Jesus’ commands to “lover your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39) and “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34b-35).

“Works of mercy” are what Jesus taught Christians to do as they follow his teachings. They are both personal and social. Acts of compassion are personal works of mercy. They are what you do with a person who needs help. When you meet someone who is hungry, give her something to eat. When someone’s loved one dies, you go and comfort him. When someone is a stranger in the congregation or your home you extend hospitality. These are examples of acts of compassion Jesus practiced and taught his disciples to imitate. They are simple kindness that shares God’s love through you.

Acts of justice are social works of mercy. They are performed by you and others united with the church and other institutions working for the common good. Jesus tells us to feed the hungry. He also expects us to ask why people are hungry and then to organize and act to address the causes of our neighbor’s hunger. Christians are commanded by Christ to care for the vulnerable, voiceless, and outcast by alleviating their suffering and to be the voices asking why. Followers of Jesus are charged with getting at the causes of our neighbor’s suffering. Write letters to elected representatives, call them on the telephone, sign petitions, march, protest, be a well-informed voter, and volunteer to serve on a social justice campaign (Bread for the World, Amnesty International, One, Red, GBCS, etc.).

John Wesley believed we meet Christ himself when you go to serve with, and get to know people who are suffering. When you get outside your comfort zone to spend time with Christ he opens your heart to grace. If you regularly serve with Christ, then he forms new, “holy,” habits in your heart: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

When you habitually obey Jesus’ command to love your neighbor as yourself by practicing acts of compassion and justice his grace works in you; helping you to love like him and become more and more like Jesus. When people meet you through acts of compassion and justice they get a glimpse of Jesus. 

…and to follow his teachings through … acts of worship and devotion …

This is the third article on the General Rule of Discipleship that shapes the covenant that serves as the agenda for a Covenant Discipleship group’s weekly meeting:

To witness to Jesus Christ in the world, and to follow his teachings through acts of compassion, justice, worship, and devotion under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

In this article I will look at how Christians love God with all their heart, soul, and mind (see Matthew 22:37-39) through practicing what John Wesley called “works of piety.” In the General Rule of Discipleship these practices are referred to as acts of worship and devotion.

Acts of devotion are the personal works of piety. They are practices performed alone with God. John Wesley recommended at least three acts of devotion (see “The United Methodist Rule of Life”):

  • Personal and family prayer
  • Searching the Scriptures
  • Fasting or abstinence

In the film “Shadowlands” Anthony Hopkins played C.S. Lewis. He gave one of the best definitions and rationales for prayer: "I pray [A1] because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time—waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God—it changes me."

Wesley wrote, “God [A2] does nothing but in answer to prayer. . . . On every occasion of uneasiness we should retire to prayer, that we may give place to the grace and light of God, and then form our resolutions, without being in any pain about what success they may have.”

Prayer and searching the Scriptures are daily practices that often accompany one another. Reading and meditating on the Scriptures often leads into time in prayer. Lectio Divina is an ancient practice in which reading Scripture leads the Christian into prayer. Reading and meditating upon devotional classics or a resource like “The Upper Room” helps to center the day in Christ.

Fasting is another ancient means of grace. Wesley practiced fasting at least one day a week for most of his life. He believed it to be a very important practice because Jesus fasted and taught his disciples to do the same (Matthew 6:16-18). Fasting leads to prayer and self-giving. It is a simple way Christians can imitate Jesus who “emptied himself” (Philippians 2:7) and become one with humankind as a humble servant. Charles Wesley describes Jesus’ self-emptying love in the third stanza of his great hymn, “And Can It Be That I Should Gain,”

He left his Father’s throne above,
So free, so infinite his grace;
Emptied himself of all but love,
And bled for Adam’s helpless race;
‘Tis mercy all, immense and free;
For, O my God, it found out me.

When you fast you empty yourself and become more aware of your dependence upon God’s good gifts of food and drink that sustain your life. Fasting also places you in solidarity with the people of the earth for whom fasting is not a choice. Christ suffers for them every day. Wesley encouraged Methodists to give alms to the poor when they fast.

Acts of devotion keep the heart open to grace that keeps you centered in Christ and what he is up to in your life. When the heart is open to grace it becomes more and more open to the world that God loves, which means that acts of devotion help equip you for acts of compassion and justice.

Acts of worship are the social and public works of piety. They are what Christians do together when they gather in Christ’s name. Through praise, confession, Scripture, proclamation, prayer, giving, confession, thanksgiving, sacrament, and blessing the Christian community builds one another up in love and offers itself in service to God and the world that God loves. In worship the church lifts the world and itself to God in prayer. Christians come to worship to experience God’s presence and power, to be forgiven, eat and drink Christ’s body and blood, and sent into the world to serve as Christ’s witnesses.

John Wesley lists three acts of worship in the third General Rule:

  • The public worship of God
  • The ministry of the Word, whether read or expounded
  • The Lord’s Supper

Methodists need to participate in worship on Sunday morning in their congregation and other times throughout the week. Wesley wanted the Methodist people to be “salt and light” for the Church. This meant being faithful in the worship of God through praise, prayer, word, sacrament, and service.

The “ministry of the Word” is listening to the Word of God as it is read aloud. It is also listening to preaching and interpretation of Scripture by preachers and teachers.

In addition to being an evangelical renewal movement for the Church, the Methodist movement was also a Eucharistic renewal movement. Charles Wesley wrote and published a collection of 166 hymns on the Lord’s Supper. The Wesley brothers believed the sacrament is an essential practice and means of converting and sanctifying grace. The Methodists were encouraged to participate in the sacrament as often as possible, at least once a week.

God is relational. He initiates and consecrates his relationship with you and me in the sacrament of baptism. The acts of worship and devotion are God’s gifts to us. They are basic practices that enable us to participate in our relationship with Christ. They open our hearts to the grace we need to join Christ’s mission in the world through acts of compassion and justice. Your Covenant Discipleship group helps you make sure you show up daily to keep your appointment with Christ. He is always there. Are you?  

The concluding phrase of the General Rule of Discipleship tells us that “witnessing to Jesus Christ in the world and following his teachings through acts of compassion, justice, worship, and devotion” are possible only by the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Discipleship is dependence upon grace. The Holy Spirit opens the heart and mind to Christ and his grace. Only grace leads you to Christ and keeps you with him. The Holy Spirit helps you follow Jesus in the world through promptings and warnings “provoke you to love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:24).

The Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity. Jesus describes the Spirit’s work in John 14:15-17 & 26

‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. …

But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.

The word translated in the NRSV as “Advocate” is the Greek word Paraclete. It may also be translated as “Comforter,” “Counselor,” or “Helper.” Jesus tells his disciples that following his death, resurrection, and ascension to the Father they will not be left alone. The Holy Spirit will be with them and in them. He is the presence of Christ with and in them, serving as advocate, comforter, and guide. The Spirit will be their teacher. Reminding them of all Jesus taught them and equipping them to proclaim and live his Good News of God’s reign of love, righteousness, and justice.

The Holy Spirit is, therefore, Christ’s presence working in the disciple to remind you of his commands to love God with all your heart, soul, and mind, love your neighbor as yourself, and love your fellow disciples as Christ loves. As he reminds you of the commands he also supplies the grace needed to obey. As you cooperate with that grace to obey all of Jesus’ commands grace flows through you for others and for the world. You become a channel of God’s love. As love flows through you the Holy Spirit heals your sin-damaged heart, restoring the image of God to wholeness. New heart-habits are formed as your character reflects that of Jesus. Wesley called these new heart-habits “holy tempers.” You know them as “fruit of the Spirit:” love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23a). This is what Wesley called “holiness of heart and life,” and “universal love reigning in the heart and governing the life”; which is the telos, or aim, of the Christian life.

The General Rule of Discipleship (To witness to Jesus Christ in the world, and to follow his teachings through acts of compassion, justice, worship, and devotion under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.) is a simple guide for the Christian life. It serves to remind disciples of the essential practices required of those who accept the challenge of Jesus to “deny themselves, take up their cross daily, and follow me” (Luke 9:23). It aims to help disciples to keep Christ at the center of all they do as they conduct themselves in their home, workplace, recreation, and the church. As they keep Christ at the center, faithful disciples follow the teachings about Jesus no less than the teachings of Jesus.

The General Rule of Discipleship aims to help disciples maintain balance between works of piety and works of mercy, the personal and social practices of Christian discipline. It serves to remind us loving God (works of piety) compels Christians to love whom God loves (works of mercy). Charles Wesley beautifully summarizes the outcome of the life described by the General Rule:

Let us plead for faith alone,
Faith which by our works is shown;
God it is who justifies,
Only faith the grace applies.
Active faith that lives within,
Conquers hell and death and sin,
Hallows whom it first made whole,
Forms the Savior in the soul.

Let us for this faith contend,
Sure salvation is the end;
Heaven already is begun,
Everlasting life is won.
Only let us persevere
Till we see our Lord appear,
Never from the Rock remove,
Saved by faith with works by love.

(Charles Wesley, The United Methodist Hymnal, #385)

The General Rule of Discipleship is not proscriptive or prescriptive. It is open and inclusive, welcoming to all where they are, as they are. It does not tell you what to do, or not do. Rather, the General Rule points toward Jesus and provides guidance for the Christian life by reminding you of his teachings and how to do them (Matthew 7:24-27; Luke 6:46-49). It serves as a guide for living the baptismal covenant and growing in holiness of heart and life; loving God with all your heart, soul, and mind and loving your neighbor as yourself.