Foundry United Methodist Church

Rev. Dean Snyder, Senior Minister




“Three Simple Rules”

Sunday, September 12, 2010




Rev. Dean Snyder

Three Simple Rules:
Do No Harm

The first time Jane and I visited Liberia, Liberia had no functioning government and was under the control of UN forces. The UN forces focused on checking for weapons and responding to violence. They did not pay any attention to traffic or enforcing road rules. Neither did anybody else.

There were absolutely no rules of the road. Absolutely none.  

Jane and I learned this quickly when one of the bishop’s staff members picked us up at the airport and drove us to the bishop’s house. There were no rules.

Jane and I had two different reactions to this. I said, “How can I manage to avoid getting into a moving vehicle again the rest of my time in Liberia without offending anyone?”

Jane’s reaction was: “How can I get them to let me drive?”

Rules are a good idea. Not bad rules and not too many rules, but good rules make life easier. Rules cut down the number of decisions we need to make.

I am glad there are certain rules my parents taught me. When I get up in the morning, I don’t have to debate with myself – am I going to brush my teeth this morning or not? I’ve got a rule deeply instilled within me.

When John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement of which we are a part, first began to form societies of Methodists in 1739, the first Methodists decided they needed some rules. Not bad rules and not too many rules but a few good rules. They asked John Wesley to come up with some rules for Methodist societies.

John Wesley came up with what Bishop Reuben Job has called “Three Simple Rules.”

During the rest of the month of September, we want to think together about John Wesley’s three simple rules. They are still included in the United Methodist Book of Discipline to this very day. (pp. 71-74) And Bishop Job wrote a book based on them called Three Simple Rules: a Wesleyan Way of Living and our Worship Council has copies upstairs available for purchase.

John Wesley’s three simple rules are: First, “Do No Harm;” Second, “Do Good;” Third, “Attend all of the Ordinances of God,” or as Bishop Job has paraphrased it: “Stay in Love with God.”

Here is the actual language John Wesley wrote:

"There is only one condition previously required of those who desire admission into [Methodist] 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 for salvation, First, by doing no harm, by avoiding evil of every kind, especially that which is most generally practiced…."

So here’s what we want to think about this morning: The first simple rule -- First, do no harm, especially that which is most generally practiced….

Here are some of John Wesley’s examples of harm most generally practiced 270 years ago:

  • Taking the name of God in vain.
  • The profaning of the Lord’s day…
  • Drunkenness: buying or selling spirituous liquors, or drinking them, except in cases of extreme necessity.
  • 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 giving or taking of things on usury…
  • Doing to others as we would not they should do unto us.
  • The putting on of gold and costly apparel.
  • Softness and needless self-indulgence.
  • Laying up treasures upon earth.

Later Methodists added some other examples:

  • Buying or selling slaves, and
  • Uncharitable or unprofitable conversation, particularly speaking evil of magistrates or of ministers.

If you look at all of John Wesley’s examples, they fall into three categories:

First, do no harm to yourself.

What if we took this seriously? What if we woke up in the morning and said to ourselves: I will do no harm to myself today?

I will not eat or drink things that are unhealthy for me today. I will not put myself in situations that are so stressful as to be unhealthy for me today. I will not be so busy today that I do not take care of my physical, mental, and spiritual health. I will not participate passively in relationships that are harmful to me today. I will not allow myself to be demeaned today. I will not allow myself to be objectified or to be negatively categorized today. I will not have my freedoms taken away today. I will not be treated unjustly today.

What if you and I woke up tomorrow morning and began our day by making a pledge: I will do no harm to myself today. I will not willingly participate in anything that causes harm to me today. How might that change our lives?

John Wesley’s second category of examples is this: Do no harm to others. Do no harm to yourself. Do no harm to others.

One of our members told me that John Wesley’s first simple rule was her rule for internet dating. First, do no harm.

What if we took this seriously? What if we got up in the morning and said to ourselves: I will do no harm to others today.

The thing that strikes me as I look at John Wesley’s examples and the examples of later Methodists, is that they understood doing no harm to others includes not only personal harm (avoiding fighting and brawling or saying harmful things about somebody else) and avoiding speaking evil of others, especially ministers, but also, avoiding borrowing from someone when there is no way you will be able to pay him or her back.  

John Wesley’s examples aren’t only about avoiding harming others personally; they are also about not participating in systems that harm others.

John Wesley was an opponent of gin drinking. He himself drank ale and wine and published home brewing tips and campaigned for real ale. But he thought the use of gin and hard liquor was destructive. He not only taught that Methodists themselves shouldn’t drink gin, but he taught that Methodists should not buy or sell gin because he believed participating in the hard liquor industry harmed others.

John Wesley believed participating in businesses that charged high interest rates, what he called usury, caused harm to others.  Later Methodists added participating in slaveholding and slave trading since the industry caused harm to others.

What would it mean to wake up in the morning and say: I will not participate in systems today that cause harm to others? How might it change the things we buy? The work we do? The way we travel? The way we spend our spare time? 

What if we got up in the morning and said: I will not treat any other person today in any way as to cause them harm? I will not participate in organizations and systems that are harmful to others today. I will not participate in anything that demeans others today. I will not participate in anything that objectifies or to be negatively categorizes today. I participate in anything that takes others’ freedoms away today. I will not stand by passively while others are treated unjustly today.

What impact might this have on our lives?

The third category of John Wesley’s examples is this: I will do no harm to God. John Wesley believed that we can do things that harm God. His examples included taking God’s name in vain and not honoring God with a day of Sabbath.

God, we believe, is the author of justice, inclusion, and beauty. God loves justice, inclusion, and beauty.

Our Scripture lesson includes a verse that I think is one of the most beautiful and most difficult in the Bible:

Romans 12:17, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought of what is noble in the sight of all.”

As I read all the 9/11 commentaries yesterday, all the news stories about Koran burnings, I kept thinking of that verse: “Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought of what is noble in the sight of all.”

What if we expected of our national leaders that, in all they do, their highest value be nobility – to take the high path? Not to repay evil for evil but to take the high path.

Then there is the matter of doing no harm to God’s creation. To harm God’s creation harms God.

Bob Johnson is a United Methodist pastor who serves Chapelwood United Methodist Church in Houston, Texas. A couple of years ago he preached a sermon series on Three Simple Rules. While he was preaching about them he tried to live them. He kept a blog about his experience.

At the end of the experiment he published the top things he’d learned. Here are the top three things he learned:

  • My wife recognized — and commented upon — the changed behavior in me. Living by the rules is visible to others. 
  • Doing no harm is probably the most difficult rule to live out since harm can come in so many flavors.
  • Doing no harm to the environment was probably the area that I was least conscious of prior to the experiment.

I don’t know if it is possible to live in America and to do no harm to creation. I suspect for most of us it is possible to become much more aware of the harm we do. And to do less harm.

We are completing a Summer of Great Discernment. We are discerning whether to be bound by a rule in our United Methodist Book of Discipline which some of us think may be a bad rule … a rule that does harm.

But I want to be clear that for me the question isn’t whether or not we should have rules. The question isn’t whether United Methodists throughout the world should or shouldn’t have a covenant of rules and practices we agree to.

I like being Methodist. I like having a Book of Discipline. I like having bishops and district superintendents and Boards of Ordained Ministry.

We have some rules that need to be changed. We may have some rules that we can not conscientiously follow. And it may be that we have accumulated over time too many rules.

One of our members suggested that we propose to our United Methodist General Conference that our Book of Discipline be cut in half. He said he didn’t care which half was cut out just so long as it was cut in half.

We began – we Methodists did – with three simple rules: First, “Do no Harm;” Second, “Do Good;” Third, “Stay in Love with God.” They are still rules worth living by.

What if we got up tomorrow morning, and at the very beginning of our day, we said First, I will do no harm today? I will not passively participate in systems that harm others. I will not harm God or God’s creation today. God, let me do no harm today.