Three Simple Rules: The General Rules of Our United Societies

Below are John Wesley’s General Rules for Our United Societies which are doctrinal standards for United Methodists:

The Nature, Design, and General Rules of Our United Societies

In the latter end of the year 1739 eight or ten persons came to Mr. Wesley, in London, who appeared to be deeply convinced of sin, and earnestly groaning for redemption. They desired, as did two or three more the next day, that he would spend some time with them in prayer, and advise them how to flee from the wrath to come, which they saw continually hanging over their heads. That he might have more time for this great work, he appointed a day when they might all come together, which from thenceforward they did every week, namely, on Thursday in the evening. To these, and as many more as desired to join with them (for their number increased daily), he gave those advices from time to time which he judged most needful for them, and they always concluded their meeting with prayer suited to their several necessities.

This was the rise of the United Society, first in Europe, and then in America. Such a society is no other than “a company of men having the form and seeking the power of godliness, united in order to pray together, to receive the word of exhortation, and to watch over one another in love, that they may help each other to work out their salvation.”

That it may the more easily be discerned whether they are indeed working out their own salvation, each society is divided into smaller companies, called classes, according to their respective places of abode. There are about twelve persons in a class, one of whom is styled the leader. It is his duty:

1. To see each person in his class once a week at least, in order: (1) to inquire how their souls prosper; (2) to advise, reprove, comfort or exhort, as occasion may require; (3) to receive what they are willing to give toward the relief of the preachers, church, and poor.

2. To meet the ministers and the stewards of the society once a week, in order: (1) to inform the minister of any that are sick, or of any that walk disorderly and will not be reproved; (2) to pay the stewards what they have received of their several classes in the week preceding.

There is only one condition previously required of those who desire admission into these societies: “a desire to flee from the wrath to come, and to be saved from their sins.” But wherever this is really fixed in the soul it will be shown by its fruits.

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 giveth, 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 repent not, he hath no more place among us. We have delivered our own souls.

Three Simple Rules: A Covenant Prayer

John Wesley was an avid reader of the religious and philosophical books of his day.  One of his regular works was to edit and prepare for publication other people’s work in A Christian Library.  In 1753 Mr. Wesley published Richard Alleine’s Vindiciae Pietatis:  or, A Vindication of Godliness in the Greater Strictness and Spirituality of It (1663).  On August 11, 1755 Wesley first used a chapter of the book as the basis of the first Covenant Service among the Methodists.  Within a few years, praying through this Covenant Service became an annual event for the Methodists in London to perform on New Year’s day and most Methodists would have said a variant of it whenever Mr. Wesley came through their community.  Below is a shortened version of the main prayer that we use regularly in our worship celebrations followed by the longer, more formal version of the Covenant Renewal Prayer from our United Methodist Book of Worship.


I am no longer my own, but thine.

Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.

Put me to doing, put me to suffering.

Let me be employed by thee or laid aside for thee,

exalted for thee or brought low by thee.

Let me be full, let me be empty.

Let me have all things, let me have nothing.

I freely and heartily yield all things

to thy pleasure and disposal.

And now, O glorious and blessed God,

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,

thou art mine, and I am thine. So be it.

And the covenant which I have made on earth,

let it be ratified in heaven.




Commit yourselves to Christ as his servants.  Give yourselves to him, that you may belong to him.  Christ has many services to be done.  Some are more easy and honorable, others are more difficult and disgraceful.  Some are suitable to our inclinations and interests, others are contrary to both.  In some we may please Christ and please ourselves.  But then there are other works where we cannot please Christ except by denying ourselves.  It is necessary, therefore, that we consider what it means to be a servant of Christ.  Let us, therefore, go to Christ, and pray:

Let me be your servant, under your command.  I will no longer be my own.  I will give up myself to your will in all things.  Be satisfied that Christ shall give you your place and work.  Lord, make me what you will.  I put myself fully into your hands: put me to doing, put me to suffering, let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you, let me be full, let me be empty, let me have all things, let me have nothing.  I freely and with a willing heart give it all to your pleasure and disposal.

Christ will be the Savior of none but his servants.  He is the source of all salvation to those who obey.  Christ will have no servants except by consent; Christ will not accept anything except full consent to all that he requires.  Christ will be all in all, or he will be nothing.  Confirm this by a holy covenant.  To make this covenant a reality in your life, listen to these admonitions:

First, set apart some time, more than once, to be spent alone before the Lord; in seeking earnestly God’s special assistance and gracious acceptance of you; in carefully thinking through all the conditions of the covenant; in searching your hearts whether you have already freely given your life to Christ.  Consider what your sins are.  Consider the laws of Christ, how holy, strict, and spiritual they are, and whether you, after having carefully considered them, are willing to choose them all.  Be sure you are clear in these matters, see that you do not lie to God.

Second, be serious and in a spirit of holy awe and reverence.

Third, claim God’s covenant, rely upon God’s promise of giving grace and strength, so you can keep your promise.  Trust not your own strength and power.

Fourth, resolve to be faithful.  You have given to the Lord your hearts, you have opened your mouths to the Lord, and you have dedicated yourself to God.  With God’s power, never go back.  And last, be then prepared to renew your covenant with the Lord.  Fall down on your knees, lift your hands toward heaven, open your hearts to the Lord, as we pray:


O righteous God, for the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, see me as I fall down before you.  Forgive my unfaithfulness in not having done your will, for you have promised mercy to me if I turn to you with my whole heart.

God requires that you shall put away all your idols.

I here from the bottom of my heart renounce them all, covenanting with you that no known sin shall be allowed in my life. Against your will, I have turned my love toward the world. In your power I will watch all temptations that will lead me away from you.  For my own righteousness is riddled with sin, unable to stand before you.

Through Christ, God has offered to be your God again if you would let him.

Before all heaven and earth, I here acknowledge you as my Lord and God.  I take you, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, for my portion, and vow to give up myself, body and soul, as your servant, to serve you in holiness and righteousness all the days of my life.

God has given the Lord Jesus Christ as the only way and means of coming to God.

Jesus, I do here on bended knees accept Christ as the only new and living Way, and sincerely join myself in a covenant with him.  O blessed Jesus, I come to you, hungry, sinful, miserable, blind, and naked, unworthy even to wash the feet of your servants.  I do here, with all my power, accept you as my Lord and Head.  I renounce my own worthiness, and vow that you are the Lord, my righteousness.  I renounce my own wisdom, and take you for my only guide.  I renounce my own will, and take your will as my law.

Christ has told you that you must suffer with him.

I do here covenant to take my lot with you as it may fall.  Through your grace I promise that neither life nor death shall part me from you.

God has given holy laws as the rule of your life.

I do here willingly put my neck under your yoke, to carry your burden.  All your laws are holy, just, and good. I therefore take them as the rule for my words, thoughts, and actions, promising that I will strive to order my whole life according to your direction, and not allow myself to neglect anything I know to be my duty.

The almighty God searches and knows your heart.

O God, you know that I make this with you today without guile or reservation.  If any falsehood should be in it, guide me and help me to set it aright.

And now, glory be to you, O God the Father, whom I from this day forward shall look upon as my God and Father.

Glory be to you, O God the Son, who have loved me and washed me from my sins in your own blood, and now is my Savior and Redeemer.

Glory be to you, O God the Holy Spirit, who by your almighty power have turned my heart from sin to God.

O mighty God, the Lord Omnipotent, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, you have now become my Covenant And I, through your infinite grace, have become your covenant servant.  So be it.

And let the covenant I have made on earth be ratified in heaven.


You are advised to make this covenant not only in your heart, but in word; not only in word, but in writing. Therefore, with all reverence, lay the service before the Lord as your act and deed. And when you have done this, sign it. Then keep it as a reminder of the holy agreement between God and you that you may remember it during doubts and temptations.

Three Simple Rules: Marks of Methodism

During October I will be paying attention to John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, and three rules that guided the work of the small groups that emerged to support each other in the journey of faith.  The rules from Mr. Wesley are summarized in his words this way:

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

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 …

By attending upon all the ordinances of God; such are …

These rules were prepared for the United Societies and organized the regular interaction of the class leader and the class.  Let’s take a moment to note several things:

1. The class interaction focused more on demonstrating a change in behavior than in the acquisition of knowledge, e.g. that class leader was to see each person weekly to inquire about the state of their souls.

2. The requirement for joining the societies was not a profession of faith, but it was a “desire to flee from the wrath to come!”  The requirement was an acknowledgment that my life is messed up and I need help to get it together.  By no means did this mean that the confession that “Jesus Christ is Lord” was unimportant to Mr. Wesley, but in order to see this one must begin by saying something like “my lordship of my life is failing.  I am ready to try something (or someone else).

3.  Mr. Wesley highlighted the doctrine of grace in his essay “The Principles of a Methodist Farther Explained” (1746).  Here he stated plainly: “Our main doctrines, which include all the rest, are three: that of repentance, of faith, and of holiness. The first of these we account, as it were, the porch of religion; the next, the door; the third is religion itself.” Wesley’s simple summation of the order of salvation is that God’s prevenient grace calls us up on the porch of repentance, God’s justifying grace leads us to enter through the door of faith, and God’s sanctifying grace helps us inhabit a house of holinessPrevenient grace is the grace that goes before us where God has been beckoning us to come and join him on the front porch.  God’s justifying grace sets us free from our past and points us to new life with Jesus.  God’s sanctifying grace takes us from where we are to where God wants us to be.

4.  The three simple rules may sound like works, but they were meant to be suggestions for our response to the grace that God offered us through Jesus Christ.  We do well to read them then at several different levels.

As a pastor I taught our youth these rules with this simple slogan:  Avoid Evil, Do Good, and Pay Attention to God!  In 2007 Bishop Reuben Job prepared an excellent teaching resource called Three Simple Rules: A Wesleyan Way of Living.  His summary of Wesley’s three rules is “Do No Harm, Do Good, and Stay in Love with God” seems to have now become the shorthand statement of Wesley’s rules (my daughter reminds me that occasionally I say avoid evil instead of do no harm).

We would do well to remember that these simple rules are echoes of scriptural teaching:

One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” 29 Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30 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.’ 31 The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:28-31).

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. 13 Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14 Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. 16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. 17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him (Colossians 3:12-17).

In the coming weeks we will pay attention to Doing No Harm, Doing Good, and Staying in Love with God.

Reuben Job’s Three Simple Rules

Two years ago, United Methodist Leaders gathered for a “teach-in” at Lake Junaluska. I had my own cynical thoughts about what to do with all the Bishops and District Superintendents required to attend that meeting, but God did some good in those days. They heard from some good thinkers include Gil Rendel and Reuben Job. Below is an outline of the Bishop Job’s book Three Simple Rules: A Wesleyan Way of Living (2007). Bishop Job suggests Three Simple Rules (adapted from John Wesley’s General Rules):

  • Do No Harm,
  • Do Good, and
  • Stay in Love with God.
  • (In youth ministry I used the slogan “avoid evil, do good, and pay attention to God” to help my kids come to understand Wesley’s general rules.)

The other important thing for me in Wesley’s rules were that they were intended for those “desiring to flee the wrath to come.” I find it indicative of God’s prevenient grace that knowing your life was messed up is the requirement for joining the Methodist movement and not professing Jesus Christ is Lord. Introduction: We begin our conversation with a “duh!” Our world is broken. Our nations, our families, our tribes, even our denominiations are broken. This brokenness hinders our witness to the world and Jesus anticipated this challenge when saying: “ Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one ” (John 17:11b). Wesley’s General Rules follow in the tradition of Paul who offered several sets of rules:

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony (Colossians 3:12-14).

By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another (Galatians 5:22-26).

Do No Harm (or as Wesley says, “by doing no harm, by avoiding evil of every kind, especially that which is most generally practiced …”).

If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another (Galatians 5:15).

Job suggests that following this first simple rule “provides a safe place to stand while the hard and faithful work of discernment is done” (Simple Rules, 21). This will require a radical reorienting of our lives and this leads Job to offer the following challenges to us when conflict emerges in our lives:

If I can do no harm, I can no longer gossip about the conflict. I can no longer speak disparagingly about those involved in the conflict. I can no longer manipulate the facts of the conflict. I can no longer diminish those who do not agree with me and must honor each as a child of God (Simple Rules, 22).

The hardest part of this rule may be relenting from our ideological and theological positions and “bind ourselves to Jesus Christ as both Savior and Lord of all (Simple Rules, 24). Because I may have to give up my “position” we often avoid this rule because the consequences are scary. Yet even “a casual reading of the gospels suggests that Jesus taught and practiced a way of living that did no harm” (Simple Rules, 27). Do Good (or as Wesley says, “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”).

Whoever does good is from God; whoever does evil has not seen God (3 John 11b).

God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good … (Acts 10:38).

You owe your conscience to God; to one another you nothing but mutual love (St. Augustine).

There is scarce any possible way of doing good, for which there is not daily occasion …. Here are poor families to be relieved: Here are children to be educated: Here are workhouses, wherein both young and old gladly receive the word of exhortation: Here are the prisons, and therein a complication of humans wants (John Wesley’s Journal, March 28, 1739).

To do good is not easy, despite it being a direct command from Jesus and a strong suggestion from John Wesley. We complicate the command with questions like what is it mean to ‘do good,’ where do I begin, or what are the limits to doing good (Simple Rules, 36)? Job takes time to deal with the thorny issue of control and challenges his reader to know that doing good is precisely in our control and that our questions do not allow us to abdicate the responsibility to do good. Stay in Love with God (or according to Wesley, “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, and fasting or abstinence”).

Seek the Lord and his strength; seek his presence continually (Psalm 105.4)

As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving (Colossians 2:6-7).

Ordinances, or spiritual disciplines, are the practices that keep “the relationship between God and humans vital, alive, and growing” (Simple Rules, 53). Job takes time to explore Peter and his response to Jesus’ questions “do you love me?” In these moments we are also invited to answer the question individually. Do you love me? If yes, then Jesus says “feed my sheep,” care for my children, do no harm, do good …