Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Wesleyan Rule Makers and Rule Breakers

I recently read Michele Gelfand’s book, Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World.  It is a fascinating read that explains culture clashes around the world, around the office and even around the family.  Of course, the church can also sit up and take note.

Gelfand explains that our behavior is corrected (or not) by various social norms imposed by the societies we encounter through life.  She states that “Tight cultures have strong social norms and little tolerance for deviance, while loose cultures have weak social norms and are highly permissive.”  It is important to understand that there is not a specific judgement placed on loose or tight – they are just different responses to various norms.

Those of us of a certain age remember a tighter culture in Oklahoma on Sundays.  Blue laws once restricted shopping, theaters, sporting activities and dancing on the Christian Sabbath.  Today, you will still have trouble shopping (in-person) for a car on a Sunday here.  I’m not sure why this one has endured!

Our culture has gradually become more “loose” with regards to Sunday observance.  We also have moved away from worship attendance as a country.  Did one influence the other?  If so, which came first?

United Methodists are a tighter denomination regarding our observances.  You don’t have to look any further than the name of our governance document: “The Book of Discipline.”  Within our polity, a search of the word “shall” shows that it occurs 4,869 times in 898 pages.  In contrast, the more permissible “may” occurs 1,451 times.  Nonetheless, I would say that we are becoming looser as a body in practice.  For example, we have a much larger variety of accepted worship order when you attend one of our churches than when I was a child.  The acceptable Sunday attire was much tighter when I was growing up as well!  

Our founder, John Wesley, was a “tight” person.  He organized people into classes (small groups) and societies (larger groups) and would expel people who were not compliant in their faithful attendance or practice.  In fact, one had to be faithful in attendance to a class before attending a society.  You received a ticket in the class that allowed you into the society.  The ticket would change after a few months indicating that you better keep up if you expected to continue!

However, to help us understand Gelfand’s application of tight and loose culture, we understand that all of us are tighter on some customs and looser on others.  For instance, Wesley was loose with regards to where he would preach.  When he preached out of doors to reach the masses who didn’t attend church services, he was criticized.  If these sinners wanted salvation, they should come to worship in the church!

Wesley was also loose with regards to ordination (although he didn't like it!).  According to the rules of the Church of England, only a bishop could ordain a clergyperson.  Wesley was clergy but no bishop and proceeded to consecrate Thomas Coke as “superintendent” for the church in America.  American Methodists changed Coke's title to “bishop.”  Wesley opposed the name change - maybe because he recognized that he was not allowed to consecrate a bishop!

So ironically, United Methodism as a tight denomination began with loose origins!

In your own life, it is helpful to look at what is loose for you and what is tight.  Feel free to comment below.  For example, I once served a church where those helping with the dinners in the kitchen remembered a recent time when the pies could only be cut by certain “approved” people!  This was a tight pie slice culture.

Within the church today, we have a clash over tighter and looser application of our rules around weddings and ordination of LGBTQ persons.  There is anxiety over an impending General Conference over how we will address this issue.  In my next blog, I’ll continue to examine how Gelfand's ideas apply to how we address this issue and others within United Methodism.  In the meantime, I feel that it is helpful to realize that being loose or tight around a variety of issues is normal for people and depends on a great variety of cultural factors.  And there is always going to be variance.  The things that unite us such as our understandings of Wesleyan Grace can continue to be foundational for us.  We remain "in Christ" together!

In Christ,


Photo by Devlin Thompson via  Used under the Creative Commons license.


  1. Looking forward to further insights from this book, Sam.

    1. Thanks - I feel that it is a rich way to discuss differences without the usual judgment!