The “General Rules” of United Methodist Christians include three basic principles which guide our practice of the spiritual life. John Wesley first proposed these in the mid-1700s as he began a number of small group meetings (called classes or societies) to encourage, spiritually develop and support his new Methodists. The three principles, each with some detailed instructions, are condensed and paraphrased here from our book of theology and order, The United Methodist Book of Discipline:
First: by doing no harm: avoiding evil of every kind, especially that which is most generally practiced; such as…taking of the name of God in vain…profaning of the day of the Lord…Drunkenness…Slaveholding…Fighting, quarreling, brawling, returning evil for evil. Uncharitable or unprofitable conversation. Doing to others as we would not they should do unto us. Doing what we know is not for the glory of God. Softness and needless self-indulgence.
Second, by doing good: by being in every kind merciful after (our) power; as (we) have opportunity, doing good of every possible sort, and as for as possible to all: to their bodies by giving food to the hungry, clothing to the naked, by visiting or helping them that are sick or in prison…to their souls, by instructing, reproving or exhorting all we (converse) with…to fellow Christians by the means we have available.
Third, by using the means of grace: public worship, listening to the Scriptures read, receiving the Lord’s Supper, family and private prayer, searching the Scriptures (in private study), and Fasting or Abstinence.
Spiritual Practices: Means of Grace: United Methodists encourage spiritual growth. Our heritage begins with John Wesley, a clergyman of 18th century England and the founder of the Methodist movement. Wesley taught that Christian spirituality should include “the means of grace” or “works of piety”. The means of grace included:
Centering in Prayer: Wesley encouraged daily private devotion, usually in both the morning and evening, as well as time for family or household devotions. He suggested that these prayers should include expressing: (1) love and gratitude to God, (2) regret for our failures to love and serve others, (3) telling our thoughts, feelings and requests to God, (4) intercessions for others’ needs, and (5) simply listening for what God might want to say to guide or correct us.
Searching the Scriptures: Wesley encouraged daily reading of the Scriptures. He suggested that we read the Bible seriously (with prayer), systematically (reading entire books or through the Bible), carefully (with good commentaries and scholarship), and fruitfully (immediately putting into practice what we learn). We are also urged to medidate on what we read, and to take every opportunity we can find to hear the Bible read by others in worship or small groups. Wesley asked Christians to always keep a Bible with them so they could read whenever they had time available.
Conferring with Others: Methodists welcome the opportunity to “confer” or converse individually and in small groups in order to encourage one another in the spiritual life, and to help each one to be accountable for responsible discipleship.
Worship and the Lord’s Supper: Methodist Christians are encouraged to worship often, at least weekly, and to share in the Lord’s Supper or Communion as often as possible, as a means of union with Christ and with other Christians.
Fasting: It’s not a discipline that is familiar or popular these days, but in Wesley’s era his Methodists were instructed to fast a day or so every week. The motives included: self-denial (how many of us could use a little humility today?), voluntary simplicity, giving our surplus of food or money to the needs of the poor, and as a measure for good health.
United Methodist Theology
There is nothing esoteric or exotic about United Methodist theology. The 18th century founder of Methodism, John Wesley, said that a “Methodist” was nothing other than a plain “scriptural Christian”.
The Standards of Our Doctrine: The doctrines we teach are based upon basic Christian standards: the Bible, the Apostle’s Creed, the twenty-five Articles of Religion (borrowed and adapted from the Church of England’s Articles, along with portions of the Book of Common Prayer), Fifty-two Standard Sermons by John Wesley, his Notes on the New Testament (which is a brief commentary on the New Testament), and the Confession of Faith of the Evangelical United Brethren (a denomination which united with Methodism to form the United Methodist Church in the mid-1960s).
Basic Christian Affirmations: With Christians of other communions we confess belief in the triune God–Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We hold in common with all Christians a faith in the mystery of redemption or salvation in and through Jesus Christ. We share the Christian belief that God’s redemptive love is experienced in our lives by the activity of the Holy Spirit, both through personal experiences and in the community of believers. We understand ourselves to be part of Christ’s universal church when by adoration, proclamation, and service we become more like Christ. With other Christians we recognize that the reign of God is both a present and a future reality. We share with many Christian communions a commitment to the authority of Scripture in matters of faith, a trust that our justification as sinners is by God’s active grace through our faith, and the sober admission that the church and human society are in need of continual reform and renewal.
Distinctive Wesleyan Emphases: We give distinctive emphasis to what is called the “order of grace”. All humanity is surrounded by divine love, God’s prevenient grace, that prompts our first wish to please God and which gives us our first glimmer of understanding about God’s will. This grace also first moves us to recognize our own sins against God’s love and our neighbor’s needs. This grace awakens in us a desire to repent, to be profoundly changed, so that we might live in love toward God and neighbor.
God’s justifying grace reaches out to us through Chrsit with acceptance and forgiveness, so tht our hearts might be decisively changed. We hope through Christ to experience profound personal transformation. We receive God’s assurance that we are accepted children of God.
God’s sanctifying grace works in us to nurture our growth in love. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, we become more like Christ and are enabled to increase in the knowledge and love of God and in love for our neighbor. We increasingly receive the mind and the motives of Christ.
Faith and Works of Mercy: United Methodists express our gratitude to God through a happy outlet, compassionate service and work for justice among all the God’s human family. Scriptural holiness involves both personal piety or intimacy with God, and a strong desire to love the neighbor God gives to us. We work for justice and the renewal of life in the world. The Social Principles of the United Methodist Church offer detailed analysis and guidance about the social, economic and political responsibilities of United Methodist Christians. Copies are available at local United Methodist churches all over the country.