Rediscovering the Covenantal Intent of Church Membership
The Church of the Nazarene’s membership covenant is called the Covenant of Christian Character. Historically, it was known as the “General Rules” and was based very closely on the structure and content of John Wesley’s “General Rules” for Methodist societies from the 18th century. While Wesley never intended for the Methodist societies to become a church, he did view the content of the General Rules as biblically essential to the Christian life.
For Wesley, these were never intended as a list of rules to be followed in order to earn God’s favor. Instead, they were necessary evidences of a life redeemed by the Lord and filled with His Spirit.
The Church of the Nazarene presents the Covenant of Christian Character much the same way. In fact, the Covenant of Christian Character paints a beautiful and compelling portrait of the saved and sanctified life. When read as a list of what the Lord wants to produce in and through a disciple’s life, any sincere Christian would be drawn to any community that purports to help them have this kind of life. It describes the life we all wish our co-workers, and family members, and neighbors would live. If everyone could somehow find the grace to live this way, God’s will would truly be done on earth as it is in Heaven.
While the Covenant of Christian Character is still the Church of the Nazarene’s official membership covenant, it does not always function as such in local churches and has even been left out of the denominational membership class curriculum and publications entitled “Nazarene Essentials.” What are we missing by allowing our primary membership covenant to fade into disuse? If we understand how the General Rules were designed by John Wesley to function in the earliest Methodist Societies, we will be closer to a vision of how the Covenant of Christian Character could function in our churches.
While Wesley’s 1738 “Rules of the Band Societies” consisted of piercing accountability questions, it did not specify for the participants which vices to avoid or which virtues to seek. The publication of the “General Rules” in 1743 was the logical next step to fill this gap. During the four years leading up to the publishing of the General Rules, Wesley had visited the societies at Bristol, Kingswood, and London and found it necessary on several occasions to purge the membership of dozens guilty of “disorderly walking.” By 1743, there were ninety-three band societies in London alone, which made assessing discipline very cumbersome. This circumstance led Wesley to “formulate and publish in the course of the year The Nature, Design, and General Rules of the United Societies in London, Bristol, Kingswood, and Newcastle upon Tyne. By doing this Wesley expressed his definitive intentions for all his societies.”
It is interesting to note that the class meeting developed quite incidentally after the publishing of the General Rules as part of a fundraising effort. When Wesley and his leaders saw the effectiveness of a leader taking responsibility for a small group’s weekly giving, they saw that the strategy could be used for even greater purposes.
Anyone who wanted to pursue a more disciplined life with God could join “on trial,” as a sort of novitiate during which one tried on this rule of life within the community. Wesley intended for these groups to be open to the most irreligious characters as long as they desired to “flee from the coming wrath” and pursue a holy life. Once admitted, participants were expected to fairly quickly show evidence of this desire and were inspected regularly regarding it. Wesley explained it as such:
Nothing can be more simple, nothing more rational, than the Methodist discipline: It is entirely founded on common sense, particularly applying the general rules of Scripture. Any person determined to save his soul may be united (this is the only condition required) with them. But this desire must be evidenced by three marks: Avoiding all known sin; doing good after his power; and, attending all the ordinances of God. He is then placed in such a class as is convenient for him, where he spends about an hour in a week. And, the next quarter, if nothing is objected to him, he is admitted into the society: And therein he may continue as long as he continues to meet his brethren, and walks according to his profession.
While it is rare today for any written statement or covenant to function as the central unifying and life-giving core of a movement, the General Rules “were the basis for everything by which Methodism was known during its formative years.” While initiatives in the church today often are handed down with the encouragement to tailor the initiative to one’s own context, Wesley insisted that the General Rules be used “without alteration.” The current United Methodist Discipline recognizes the centrality of the General Rules for the early Methodists along with their corresponding practices:
In addition to these writings, Wesley established the conference to instruct and supervise the Methodist preachers. He produced Minutes to ensure their fidelity to the doctrines and disciplines of the Methodist movement. These writings and structures filled out the Wesleyan understanding of the church and the Christian life.
Wesley’s commitment to the General Rules was not without a willingness to review and alter them. After reviewing the General Rules at Conference in 1756, Wesley wrote that they “did not find any that could be spared. So we all agreed to abide by them all, and to recommend them with all our might.” Throughout the ensuing years, his private correspondence to leaders routinely calls them to the Rules. He mentioned and extoled the Rules more and more as he grew older. This attention most likely shows that he remained personally committed to their centrality and perhaps that he was concerned about them falling into disuse.
While the General Rules themselves along with the corresponding practices would strike most modern Wesleyan Holiness evangelicals as demanding and invasive, their intent was to nurture “an ongoing relationship with God... as a continual growth in love.” Wesley was clearly passionate about faith being authentically and fully lived out toward complete “holiness of heart and life.” He never saw the Rules as an end in themselves or even as the primary means to that end; instead, he saw them as a biblical standard against which one could regularly compare his own life to ensure growth in grace. Wesley defined Methodists during his life as people who “unite together to encourage and help each other in... working out [their] salvation, and for that end watch over one another in love.” Wesley’s General Rules and the practices surrounding them, which is to say the whole of Methodism, was aimed at transformation of character:
A Methodist is one who has “the love of God shed abroad in his heart by the Holy Ghost given unto him;” one who “loves the Lord his God with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his mind, and with all his strength.” God is the joy of his heart, and the desire of his soul; which is constantly crying out, “Whom have I in heaven but thee? and there is none upon earth that I desire beside thee “my God and my all! Thou art the strength of my heart, and my portion for ever!”
Toward this end, the literature ascribes a multiplicity of functions to the General Rules. It is necessary to understand with some nuance how they functioned in order to safeguard any current use against the dysfunction that would inevitably result from using the same document in substantially different ways.
The General Rules as Discipline
Every preacher was held to the General Rules and examined for their adherence, and every new society member received their own copy. As a way of examining the effectiveness of the leaders as well as the adherence of the members, Wesley would sometimes personally examine each society member in detail regarding the Rules, offering extensive explanations to each along the way. Further, he trained leaders to conduct “house-to-house instruction of the society members,” the first order of which was to “read, explain, [and] enforce” the Rules.
Requiring adherence to the General Rules may have slowed membership growth, but it also galvanized it. While upwards of twenty to thirty thousand would attend the outdoor preaching and scores would attend the societies, there were only twenty thousand members by the 1760s. Newcomers could only attend three times without joining the group. Once someone joined, they underwent quarterly examinations in order to test their continued desire for salvation. “This tight discipline resulted in a membership limited to those who were serious about Christian living and were able to demonstrate that concern in specific ways.” After all, as Kevin Watson points out, “Wesley’s goal was not to get as many people as he could to pray a certain prayer. Rather, his goal was to get as many people as he could to trust in Christ, not just for one moment, but for the rest of their lives and with all of their lives.”
To modern ears, “rules” and “discipline” are synonymous with “laws,” but The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church insists that “Wesley rejected undue reliance upon these rules. Discipline was not church law; it was a way of discipleship.” Richard Heitzenrater tells the story of a band leader who wrote to Wesley in 1744 about his inability to follow all of the directions “in the strict sense as they are penned.” Concerning the Lord’s Day restrictions, he insisted that cows must be milked and processed since they could not wait until Monday. Wesley’s response was, “Quite right.”
It is not an entirely settled matter of debate whether Wesley would have insisted on the General Rules as a test for church membership. His insistence that the General Rules do not require anything more or less than Scripture itself may suggest that he would. His allowance for a grace period of sorts between the beginning of someone’s lack of adherence to the Rules and their actual ouster suggests that he may have allowed for some latitude. That he placed so much value upon the therapeutic value of the Lord’s Supper suggests that he may have found a way for individuals to retain church membership, perhaps by means of a penitent band or similar construct. Nevertheless, the current United Methodist Church Book of Discipline suggests that the early American Methodists interpreted Wesley as having just as high a standard for church membership as he did for society membership: “Membership in the church was serious business. There was no place for those whom Wesley called the ‘almost Christians.’” While it has been the conventional wisdom since before Wesley that the church must allow room for nominal members, John Miley insists that Wesley would do exactly as Methodist polity of his own time (1850) did: class meetings were obligatory, and those who refused to participate were dropped from membership in the Methodist Church; nevertheless, it was made clear that it was for “a breach of rules, and not for immoral conduct.” Any expression of church has a responsibility to require its members to do those things constitutive of right relationship with God. A church that leaves it entirely to individual discernment invites an unbiblical antinomianism.
Wesley never demonstrated any interest in establishing a lowest common denominator of expectation for Methodists, nor did he intend the General Rules to be an unattainable ideal toward which everyone would benefit from at least getting closer. Wesley was convinced that by God’s grace, the vision of the Christian life described in the General Rules was a high and attainable calling. He did not intend to fashion for God an order of super Christians but instead actual Christians who live out a “disciplined acceptance of the obligations inherent in responding to grace, the disciple’s participation in the journey of salvation — going on to perfection in love.” When addressing what Wesley meant by perfection, Albert Outler offers this quote:
The loving God with all the heart, so that every evil temper is destroyed and every thought and word and work springs from and is conducted to that end by the pure love of God and our neighbour.
It was nonsensical to Wesley that one would be a disciple of Christ without being disciplined by Christ’s body. This discipline is not an attempt to cast out those who do not measure up. It is a method of supportive relationships that foster greater connection with the source of this pure love.
The General Rules as a Conversation
The General Rules were intended to function as the centerpiece of a conversation, which in this context is understood as an “interaction among persons seeking God together, and thus an apprehension of divine grace.” The conversation that was fostered by the Rules served as the primary means of “watching over one another in love.” The purpose of this conversation was not an invasive interrogation but rather “a process of mutual response and support,” since the leader was not immune from accountability.
There was no better instigator of growth in grace, according to Wesley, than face-to-face relationships centered on helping each other receive grace and live it out.
The General Rules as a Promise
Wesley believed that “every command has the force of a promise... it is not only a direction what I shall do, but a promise of what God will do in me.” Thus, the General Rules should also be received as general promises of what God has promised to those who believe.
Wesley not only had confidence in how far down God in His grace would reach in order to save the lost but also in how high God in His grace would lift those who trust in Him.
This distinctive of Wesleyan theology is powerful, for it allows statements such as the General Rules to have the force of a promise that Christians can help each other realize rather than a legalistic law through which they earn a particular spiritual standing.
The General Rules as Both a Pathway to and Product of Divine Presence
Following all of these rules does not fulfill the promise in and of itself. Wesley said:
They well know, that although none can be a real Christian, without carefully abstaining from all evil, using every means of grace at every opportunity, and doing all possible good to all men; yet a man may go thus far, may do all this, and be but an Heathen still.
“Repentance and its fruits” are themselves the result of grace and will lead to a greater experience of the “healing presence of the Sprit,” which will bring further renewal and transformation. The General Rules are designed as helps to holiness through methodical attention to avoiding obstacles to God’s presence, paying attention to the positives of God’s presence, and staying plugged in to the pipelines of His presence. The Rules serve as a poor substitute for God’s Word and God’s presence, but they have proven to be a helpful guide into both.
The General Rules as the Content of Christian Fellowship
Kevin Watson writes that the basic goal of the General Rules and the corresponding practices was to make it more likely that Christians would live out their faith. “With this stress on accountability within voluntary societies, the Methodist movement within the Church of England offered an alternative account of what Christian fellowship meant.” Wesley argued that “the rediscovery of mutual accountability in fellowship” was the single greatest mark of Methodism:
If it be said... “you destroy the Christian fellowship...,” I answer, That which never existed, cannot be destroyed... Which of those true Christians had any such fellowship with these? Who watched over them in love? Who marked their growth in grace? Who advised and exhorted them from time to time? Who prayed with them and for them, as they had need? This, and this alone, is Christian fellowship: But, alas! where is it to be found? Look east or west, north or south; name what parish you please: Is this Christian fellowship there? Rather, are not the bulk of the parishioners a mere rope of sand? What Christian connexion is there between them? What intercourse in spiritual things? What watching over each other’s souls? What bearing of one another’s burdens? What a mere jest is it then, to talk so gravely of destroying what never was! The real truth is just the reverse of this: We introduce Christian fellowship where it was utterly destroyed. And the fruits of it have been peace, joy, love, and zeal for every good word and work.
The General Rules as a Preventative to Backsliding
Some locales had such numbers of converts in response to field preaching that little attempt was made to organize them into societies. Wesley’s account of Pembrokeshire underscores the critical role the General Rules and their corresponding practices played in preventing the once-awakened from falling “faster asleep than ever.” Wesley believed that one of the miracles of grace was the restoration of one’s freedom to obediently choose further cooperation with God’s grace, but also to do the opposite.
The General Rules as a Pre-Conversion Guide to “Works Meet for Repentance”
During a “Christian conference” in London in 1743, Wesley spoke of the General Rules’ value as a guide to the unconverted to “works meet for repentance:”
Q. 2. Is faith the condition of justification?
A. Yes; for every one who believeth not is condemned; and every one who believes is justified.
Q. 3. But must not repentance, and works meet for repentance, go before this faith?
A. Without doubt; if by repentance you mean conviction of sin; and by works meet for repentance, obeying God as far as we can, forgiving our brother, leaving off from evil, doing good, and using his ordinances, according to the power we have received.
Wesley grew into this view in part due to a controversy with the Moravians in 1740 over the “undermining of the fruits of repentance such as doing good works and using the ordinances of God in the name of faith.” Wesley viewed works as a therapeutic cooperation with grace and never as a means to earning salvation. Randy Maddox perhaps captures best this “catechumenate” function:
Participation in the society came to serve for newly awakened members like the catechumenate in the Early Church, preparing them for entry into restored relationship with God. As the revival matured it became common for assurance and revitalized spiritual life to come only after participating for a year or more in the foundational levels of the society.
The General Rules as a Post-Conversion Preparation for Entire Sanctification
As Ted Campbell says it, through these methods “one’s will and affections were progressively transformed, so that by grace a person came to the point where she genuinely disliked evil and genuinely desired to do good.” The General Rules had no higher function than this: “to nurture the reshaping of their character into Christ-likeness.”
The Sustainability of These Functions
As has been noted above, Wesley showed increasing concern throughout his life about the commitment of Methodists to the General Rules. This interest may have resulted from a hunch that they were slipping from the role he intended them to serve, or from a growing belief in their importance, or both. Whatever their source, his concerns proved to be well founded. Later in his life, he summed up his greatest concern this way:
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 both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.
What would happen if there were to be a resurgent movement of people covenanting together for mutual support and accountability around an agreed-upon biblical vision of the Spirit-filled life?
What would happen if our basic membership covenant, which has its literary roots in John Wesley, also began once again to function as Wesley intended? If we were to focus more on the quality of disciples rather than the quantity, would we lose the quantity all together? Did Wesley?
For cited sources, please read the article in Issue 2 of Remnant.