To most Protestants, the term "Rule of Life" would most likely be something new, or at least largely unheard of. It certainly was for me until a couple of years ago. So, if you haven’t heard the term, you’re not alone.
If I was to help my fellow Protestants understand what I’m talking about, I might illustrate that a Rule of Life is an ancient form of the modern teaching that suggests each of us needs to have a personal vision. Now, before you respond with an "Oh, now I get it" .. let me tell you that there’s a major weakness with that comparison. The difference is subtle at first glance, but it is a difference that has massive ramifications the further you "flesh it out".
In essence, a personal vision is generally a set of goals outlining what you want to achieve with your life, while a Rule of Life is essentially a structure in which spiritual formation is facilitated. And therein lies the difference. A personal vision is mainly about "doing", while a Rule of Life has its primary focus on "being".
The Latin term for "Rule" is "regula", from which we get our English word "regulation". It is also the root of the word "trellis". In other words, a Rule of Life is meant to be a framework upon which growth takes place and fruit is developed. But, as Pentecostal or Charismatic Christians having gotten free of "religion", the last thing that most of us want are rules that restrict us. Right? But stop and think about that for a minute.
For most of us in Pentecostal or Charismatic churches who have been taught all about leadership, authority and submission, we have ultimately found ourselves confusing obedience with asking for permissions. Likewise, the way we exercise authority generally does not serve life. Rather we tend to create repressive dictatorships, full of polite manipulation protected by an institution, invoking what is sacred in order to strengthen our control. How is that reality not restrictive?
The difference between what so many of us have been conditioned with in our Pentecostal or Charismatic faith traditions and the adoption of a Rule of Life is, that the Rule is not meant to tie you up and stunt your growth by loading you up with Pharisaical practices. Rather, like a young sapling tied to a stake, a Rule of Life is intended to guarantee you safe and consistent growth through the storms of the world, rather than simply creating "storms" inside the hot-house!
You might be interested to know that the Catholic church has seen the benefit of Rules of Life for almost two thousand years. Most monasteries and convents operate by one of them, such as the most commonly known Rule of St Benedict, upon which, incidentally, most of the practices of the Anglican church has been built. But there are other Rules of Life, such as for the Carmelites, the Jesuits, the Franciscans and other Catholic orders. Sadly, however, for most Protestants, the minute there’s the mention of anything Catholic, we tend to throw out the baby with the bathwater.
I would like to think by now, that many know me well enough to not publish anything that could mislead or be in error. I only desire that what’s published here should be to your benefit. Therefore I urge you, please don’t just write this off because it may be outside your experience. Rather, as the Scripture says, "Test everything. Hold on to (only) what is good." 1 Thessalonians 5:21
In Catholic monastic contexts, a Rule of Life is usually a small(ish) but detailed document that helps anyone joining these vocational communities to understand the inner workings of the community’s life and structure, but more importantly, it is to help regulate the spiritual formation and growth of each individual as members of the community. The Rule is usually hard and fast, yet flexible .. in other words, it’s designed to bring balance to all of the community’s life according to the specific calling upon them.
Now, I know most modern Christians in general and Protestants in particular don’t like to think about rules because we generally see them as constraints, but each person’s own Rule is intended to regulate their life in a way so as to help them grow. The adoption of a personal Rule, whether it be St Benedict’s, another established Rule or a Rule that’s come by personal revelation, should be a method of application, through which you bring the life of the Gospel to bear in your circumstances. It should also be a filter, through which you are able to pass your options to come to wise decisions consistent with both your conscience and your specific calling. A Rule should be something you yearn to live by, because its fruit is life and not death like the Law. It is a tool or framework for growth, not a set of shackles.
But, so we are clear that this concept and practice is not in the exclusive domain of the Catholics, allow me to highlight that a Rule of Life was at the core of Count Ludwig von Zinzendorf’s Moravian community. You can click here to read the full Moravian Rule of Life.
This community, known for a single 24/7 prayer meeting that lasted more than 100 years non-stop and for sending missionary teams all over the known world, was in essence, a Protestant monastery; a community of believers committed to living together with a focus on both seeking God and outworking His will on the earth in accordance with a Rule of Life that later became known as the Order of the Mustard Seed.
In an article entitled "Zinzendorf and the Moravians" in Issue 1 of Christian History and Biography Magazine, we read … "With five other students at Halle, Zinzendorf formed a society which eventually developed into The Order of the Mustard Seed. A distinctive shield and insignia were developed: “No man liveth unto himself. ” Its express purpose was to be a leaven among all Christians and to labor for the salvation and fellowship of all regardless of denominations. In later years, churchmen and statesmen of many origins, including the Archbishops of Canterbury and Paris, the King of Denmark and General Oglethorpe, became members of the order."
Essentially, the Archbishops of Canterbury and Paris, the King of Denmark and General Oglethorpe became Oblates (latin for "gifts") to the Moravian community. They were lay "monks in the monastery", so to speak. They didn’t actually live in the Moravian community, but they were committed to a relationship with those who did, to its ideals, its spiritual formation and the outworking of its missional call.
These men "gave" themselves to the Rule of Life at the core of Zinzendorf’s Moravian community; a Rule that could ultimately be summed up by the Moravians in three simple phrases: True to Christ : Kind to All : Gospel to All the Nations.
These Archbishops, a King and a General (and even an English Parliamentarian not mentioned in the earlier quote) lived their lives according to this Rule in the geographical place they were called to work, whether it be in England, France or Denmark. In effect, they became members of a religious order that was regulated by a Rule of Life. How Catholic is that for a bunch of Protestants??
I know that’s a cheeky question, but hopefully it conveys my point. The adoption of a Rule of Life wasn’t Catholic or Protestant. It was, and still is, simply Christian!
Ultimately, the purpose of a Rule of Life for communities or individuals, whether they be Catholic or Protestant, ancient or modern, is that life should be lived with both a rhythm and in balance, with God as the hub upon which our whole life turns. All of us know what it’s like to drive a badly tuned car where the engine is misfiring and the front wheels have not been properly balanced. Sure, the car still moves forward, but man, it’s a rough ride! Without rhythm and balance, life itself can be an even rougher ride.
It’s been clear to me that God has been working to bring both rhythm and balance to my life for some time. As a result, I have not been able to shake the need to investigate a Rule of Life for myself. With what I am about to share with you, please understand that I didn’t just pluck this Rule out of the air to "appease my religious conscience". I am also actively investigating the well established Rule of St Benedict, to see if it might be more aligned to the deep stirrings within my heart about this matter. In the meantime, since God highlighted two verses of Scripture that have gripped my heart for the past couple of years, they at least have become something of a personal Rule of Life for me to this point.
Those two verses are found in 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12 and they read …
"Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life and attend to your own business and work with your hands, just as we commanded you, so that you will behave properly toward outsiders and not be in any need."
I have read, re-read, meditated on and pondered these two verses for about two years, unable to shake the clear sense of God’s desire that I apply them to my life. I have made changes to my life to more effectively reflect my adoption of these verses of Scripture as a personal Rule. But recently, I felt God challenged me to look at them again, this time in a similar way to what I’ve studied of the Rule of St Benedict thus far. In other words, God asked me two questions about what is becoming my personal Rule of Life.
1) How do I outwork this rule for myself personally?
2) How would this rule be outworked by a group or a small community?
To satisfactorily answer those questions, I needed to take a good look at the original language of these verses to try and more clearly discern the Apostle Paul’s intent in writing them.
Based on that study, my outcomes are these …
- You are to make it a point of honour to seek a quiet, balanced, "rhythmic" life. This should be your primary ambition, allowing "your gentleness to be apparent to all". Your quietness will come from times of silence and labour, solitude and community, private prayer and public prayer, contemplation and petition, divine reading and dialogue.
- You must not leave undone the things that you ought to do, according to your specific place in life. Nor should you be involved in the things you ought not. Be satisfied with what you have rather than coveting the latest fad or fancy. You must choose your involvements wisely, to avoid overwork, over commitment, and personal turbulence. Quietness in every aspect of life must be your goal.
- Rest is important and must be taken .. regularly. But you must likewise be producing something fruitful and worthwhile, tangible and beneficial with your life. Don’t be abstract. Don’t be ethereal. Be prudent and pragmatic. Have something concrete to show for the work of your hands, the sweat of your brow and the exercise of your creativity.
- If you already have enough for yourself and your family, but you can continue to make money to do good to others, you have no right to retire from business and to live in idleness. Likewise, if you have no need to add to what you have for your own temporal comfort, it should be seen as a privilege for you to apply yourself in promoting works for public and community benefit.
- In both public and in private, you shall conduct yourself appropriately, becomingly and honourably. Your life must be one of integrity: that is, the holistic nature of the fruit of the Spirit should be increasingly evident in your life. Your words and your actions must be consistent and trustworthy. Consistent, as in the nature of Christ .. and consistent, in that they be safe and predictable. In other words, people need to be able to count on what you say and do. Your actions must be kind and courteous, meek and gentle, respectful and joyful.
- Treat all people you have dealings with, whether they be your spouse, your children, your family, your brethren or an outsider, in such a way as they were having an encounter with Christ Himself. Treat all people in the same way you would have them treat you. Be concerned first with the log in your own eye rather than looking for splinters in others.
- If you live according to this rule, you will develop favour in your dealings with people and a competency in your overall life that will see you able to provide for yourself and your family, to be generous on every occasion, to have "seed to sow and bread for food". Let every outsider see that it is to their genuine benefit to have dealings with you, trusting that only good can come from their contact with you.
In essence, I see 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12 as a distillation of the Rule of St Benedict, and the few paragraphs I’ve laid out above, as a more succinct outworking of Benedict’s entire 73 chapter rule. Likewise, the similarities between the Rule of St Benedict and the Rule of Life for the Moravians are striking. Therefore, I see these two verses from 1 Thessalonians as an Apostolic instruction on how to live the Christian life in order to appropriately convey the Gospel message through the witness of our lives. The Apostle Paul is making a clear and simple statement of how to live devotionally, communally and missionally.
If you will allow it, a Rule of Life can provide both the information and guidelines we need to get on the narrow path of the intentional practice of our faith, and the loving accountability we need to keep us on that narrow road because, at some point, we must understand that we are required to be accountable, not only to God and to others, but also to ourselves.
I recently celebrated my "30th birthday". I was born again on the 27/07/1977 and I have been a part of the church even longer. For the last 15 of those years, my place has been within Pentecostal and Charismatic church expressions. However, it seems to me, after 15 years of observation, that many Christians who are a part of these faith traditions, have little or no real fruit to show for their lives. And many of them, some after a lifetime thus far, still struggle to find stability in their devotional life, with genuine, fruitful spiritual growth and development remaining just an elusive dream.
Please be assured, I’m not taking a cheap shot. It’s important that you understand I am a man who has bucked against any kind of routine or regularity in my life until recent years. But to the degree of its lack, so too has spiritual fruit, growth and development been lacking for me. And yet, as St Benedict suggests the practice in his Rule, I have surprisingly found a daily rhythm in praying the daily Offices or Hours. This is partly because I have longed to find language that is more substantial than what I’ve lived with in my faith tradition of the past 15 years.
Who knew that using the Book of Common Prayer, or Celtic Daily Prayer, of Phyllis Tickle’s Divine Hours would be the key that unlocked finding a rhythm to life for me? That’s not to say that I don’t still pray spontaneously or have a regular ongoing dialogue with God. I most certainly do! But to be "called to prayer" with the "church universal" a number of times a day, forces me to have to order my day around encounters with God instead of hoping I might catch a glimpse of Him in my otherwise busy schedule.
Employing this practice has likewise allowed me to say and pray ancient words, such as the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostle’s Creed. These are words I haven’t used for almost as long as I can remember; since my early days as an Anglican, in fact. And yet, establishing a daily rhythm of joining the "church universal" in praying the Offices or Hours, has become like uncovering ancient paths and has helped me re-dig ancient wells of living water within my own soul.
Essentially, "filtering" my life and my decisions through this personal Rule, found in the adoption of 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12, has significantly assisted me in finding the kind of God-life I have longed for, but found so elusive, for years.
Now, more than ever, we live in an age when we make excuses for ourselves. We grant ourselves liberties that frequently lead to nothing but hollowness at best, or death and destruction at worst, for ourselves, our families, businesses, even churches and ministries. As Edwin Louis Cole used to say, "We judge others by their actions and ourselves by our intentions." In other words, we give ourselves the easy way out at almost every turn, but a Rule of Life calls us to be accountable, not only to our faith community and to God, but to ourselves for how we live our lives according to the specific Rule God has revealed to us and by which He has called us to live.
Perhaps a Rule of Life is not for you, but don’t knock it until you at least investigate it or you try living by one. All I know is, by the adoption of a Rule of Life, it will change your internal focus, from looking for "all things to be added unto you" to "seeking first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness" with rhythm and balance. So, if you’re looking for a rich, regular and lasting encounter with God, consider embracing a Rule of Life for yourself.
Come on, take a bite! As it says in Psalm 34:8, "Taste and see that the Lord is good!"
The Rule of St Benedict (in English) – Timothy Fry OSB, Editor
The (New) Order of the Mustard Seed – Website
Christian History & Biography, Issue 1 – Magazine
Monastic Mumblings – Website
The Prayer Jesus Taught Us – Bernardo Olivera, Abbot General, OCSO (Trappists) – Article