What is a Rule of Life and Why Do I Need It?

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A rule of life (regula vitae) is a Scripturally based guide for living in holy, happy fellowship with God and others. The Latin word regula is the root of our English words “regular” and “regulate.” The purpose of a rule of life is to create regular habits that are virtuous and foster holy, happy fellowship with God and others.

The idea of a Christian rule of life came from the Desert Fathers of the third century who sought to systematically apply the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles, remembering that Jesus said, “Teach them to obey what I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:20). The fathers extrapolated the moral teachings of Jesus and the Apostles then added practical instruction for virtue and remedies for vices. John Cassian, a fourth-century monk, traveled to Egyptian monasteries and recorded his conversations with the Desert Fathers. He published his recordings in The Conferences and The Institutes (c.420). These became the basis for the most widely used rule of life in the church today, Benedict of Nursia’s Rule of Life (516). The Imitation of Christ (1427), Holy Living (1650) and Holy Dying (1656) by Jeremy Taylor, Dialogues (1651) by François Fénelon, and A Devout and Holy Life (1729) by William Law are examples of a rule of life. As a side note, Jeremy Taylor and William Law were especially formative for John Wesley and the Methodist tradition.

Rule of Life and Rule of Faith

A rule of life is not unrelated to doctrine. In fact, a rule of life (regular vitae) is grounded in a rule of faith (regula fidei). Protestant Christians affirm that the written Word of God, the Bible is the only rule of faith (Westminster Shorter Catechism 2). The Apostles and the apostolic fathers found it necessary, however, to summarize the Gospel in creedal form in order clearly to distinguish orthodoxy from heresy (cf. Eph. 1:3-14; 1 Cor 15:1-5). In the second century, Irenaeus wrote about “the order of the rule of our faith” (The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching) and in the third century Tertullian popularized the term “rule of faith” in his writings. By the end of the 5th century, three creeds—The Apostles’ Creed (3rd century), the Nicene Creed (381), and the Athanasian Creed (5th century)—were accepted universally as statements and orders of the rule of faith. The creeds are rules of faith in the derivative sense that they are summaries of the rule of faith, Holy Scripture. These ecumenical creeds also help us to order our faith so that we know what to emphasize above all things. Herein lie the first-order truths which all believers confess.

Rule of Life in Concept and Practice

“Rules” seem restrictive to the modern mind, but Christians have found that a rule of life is liberating. A rule of life helps to free us from vices that enslave our body, our spirit, our mind, and our emotions. We were designed by God to love him and to love one another, and a creature is happy only when it is doing what it is designed to do. Thomas Aquinas correctly states that happiness is a likeness of the divine goodness (Summa contra Gentiles 1.11). John Wesley wrote, “The more holy we are upon the earth, the more happy we must be; seeing that there is an inseparable connection between holiness and happiness” (“God’s Love for Fallen Man”).

The purpose of a rule of life is to create regular habits that are virtuous and foster holy, happy fellowship with God and others.

A Rule of life provides instructions for living a holy, happy life. Some Rules are given as practical wisdom, such as this one from Fenelon’s Dialogues: “You need certain free hours in which you could recollect yourself….Above all, save your morning, and defend it as one defends a besieged city.” Benedict writes in his Rule: “We must be assured that it is not in many words but in purity of heart and tears of compunction that we are heard.” Sometimes Scripture explicitly accompanies a rule, and sometimes the rule itself is an apparent allusion to Scripture. Often authors organize their Rule according to an order of virtues, drawn heavily from the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles.

The Rules are intended to increase our contemplation of God and greater care for living an active life of holiness. Although the early Rules were written by anchorites, time has shown that they are also useful for us in a secular culture. The all-of-life-inclusiveness of these instructions may make them seem hard or impossible to employ.  Yet, if each of us begins where we are, prayerfully reading and contemplating one rule at a time until it becomes a habit in our life, we too can glean the blessings from them that our spiritual predecessors did.

My Favorite “Rules of Life”

  1. The Imitation of Christ, Thomas a Kempis (1427)
  2. Holy Living, Jeremy Taylor (1650)
  3. The Conferences, John Cassian (426)
  4. Dialogues, François Fénelon (1651)
  5. Holy Rule, Benedict of Nursia (516)
  6. A Devout and Holy Life, William Law (1729)
David Fry
Senior Pastor at the Frankfort Bible Holiness Church. PhD in Systematic Theology (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School). MDiv in New Testament Theology (Wesley Biblical Seminary).