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Timeless Teachings of John Wesley
for the Modern-Day Christian
John Wesley’s Teachings is the first systematic exposition of John Wesley's theology that encompasses all of his writings. Wesley was a prolific writer and commentator on Scripture—his collected works fill twenty-four volumes—and yet it is commonly held that he was not ...
Timeless Teachings of John Wesley
for the Modern-Day Christian
John Wesley’s Teachings is the first systematic exposition of John Wesley's theology that encompasses all of his writings. Wesley was a prolific writer and commentator on Scripture—his collected works fill twenty-four volumes—and yet it is commonly held that he was not systematic or consistent in his theology and teachings.
On the contrary, Thomas C. Oden demonstrates that Wesley displayed a remarkable degree of internal consistency over sixty years of preaching and ministry. This series of four volumes is a text-by-text guide to John Wesley’s teaching. It introduces Wesley’s thought on the basic tenets of Christian teaching: God and providence (volume 1), Christ and salvation (volume 2), the practice of pastoral care (volume 3), and issues of ethics and society (volume 4).
In everyday modern English, Oden clarifies Wesley’s explicit intent and communicates his meaning clearly to a contemporary audience. Both lay and professional readers will find this series useful for devotional reading, moral reflection, sermon preparation, and for referencing Wesley’s opinions on ecological recovery, moral relativism, enthusiasm, catholicity, experience, paradise, final justification, providence, and countless others.
Nurturing the Community of Faith
Introduction: Molding the Practice of Faith Active in Love
Wesley sought to mold the actual practice of the life of faith active in love in small face-to-face communities. The dynamics of these communities are best revealed in five key early documents: "The Rules of the Band-Societies" (1738), "The Character of a Methodist" (1742), "The Principles of a Methodist" (1742), "The Nature, Design, and General Rules of the United Societies" (1743), and "Directions Given to the Band-Societies" (1744). We will take these documents in chronological order to show the development of faith and life in the early evangelical revival. Wesley was not primarily an ethical theorist but was an astute enabler of the practice of ethical behavior.
A. The Rules of the Band-Societies (1738)
1. Giving Birth to Faith in Practice
Wesley's contributions to Christian ethical teaching have been significant and long-lasting. Wesley had clear and well-developed ideas on perennial ethical issues such as character, virtue, justice, right, obligation, intention, action, purpose, duty, and consequence. But his contributions to the practice of these teachings were far more significant. Wesley's moral discourses had palpable historical influence not only on religion but on society. Wesley's era was a time of significant reflection on ethical theory and practice, and he was an active participant in the ongoing discussions.
There were many major theorists of ethics in the eighteenth century who still deserve serious critical reading. Among them I name only a few, most of which Wesley had read: John Locke (1632–1704), Samuel Clarke (1675–1729), George Berkeley (1685–1753), Francis Hutcheson (1694–1746), Joseph Butler (1692–1752), David Hume (1711–76), David Hartley (1705–57), Montesquieu (1689–1755), Richard Price (1723–91), Denis Diderot (1713–84), Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–78), Adam Smith (1723–90), and Thomas Reid (1710–96).
Wesley is seldom listed among these major ethical thinkers of the eighteenth century, but I will show reasons why he should be. Wesley was familiar with the writings of most of the above, and he made explicit responses to many of them. His empiricism was significantly influenced by Locke, but with some serious reservations. Wesley's work was directly opposed by Bishop Joseph Butler, which occasioned a lengthy defense against Butler's assistant, Josiah Tucker. Wesley was entirely unimpressed with Montesquieu. He was horrified at the family and educational consequences of the ideas of Rousseau. He wrote a trenchant defense against the reductive naturalism of Hutcheson and Hume. He resisted Richard Price on anarchic revolution. And although Kant was twenty-one years younger than Wesley, Kant's categorical imperative (act according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law) was anticipated by Wesley in his treatment of empathy in the Golden Rule (Do unto others as you would have them do unto you).
I often put the above list before my PhD students in ethics, inviting them to present an argument that any one of them cared more than Wesley about the practical implementation of their ethical theories in committed communities of mutual accountability. They always had a hard time making a case for any one of these.
All of the above ethicists were concerned to a certain extent with the practice of their ideas. But few undertook to nurture actual communities in which the ethical life could be systematically cultivated and practiced. Wesley's main contribution was as a coach or mentor for personal accountability.
a. Building Small-Scale Communities of Moral Accountability
Wesley was intent on actually cultivating communities of faith through which the holy life could be nurtured. He offered wise counsel for living the good life he taught.
In 1738 Wesley set out deliberately to build small bands of believers all across England, Scotland, and Ireland. They were committed seriously to calling each other to accountability in their actual practice of the spiritual and moral teachings of Christianity. He was mentor and chief teacher for this whole movement. Person by person he tutored the leaders of these societies.
Early in the great evangelical revival, he wrote "The Rules of the Band-Societies" (drawn up on December 25, 1738, in some editions "Rules of the Bands"), so that those who had responded to his preaching and moral teaching might benefit by his continual guidance in the life of faith active in love. This document formed the ground rules for entering into the Methodist societies.
"Bands" referred to those who covenanted together to be honest to God and with each other. A band was voluntary, and it was small, because it sought a level of intimacy not possible in a large group.
In this plain two-page document, Wesley placed in the hands of every individual in his connection of spiritual formation the premises for entering these small groups or "bands." One who entered agreed to proceed with a searching weekly examination of conscience in the presence of a small group of caring and confessing believers committed to living out of God's justifying grace.
This short document was divided into three sections: (1) what would be expected of any who join and continue with this small band of believers seeking the holy life, (2) questions to be asked of each person before admission to this intensive experience, and (3) rules for self-examination by each participant at every weekly meeting.
b. The Design for Accountability in the Societies
The aim of Christian living is quite simply "to obey the command of God." It is not to feel good about oneself but to will what God wills. Any who do not sincerely seek that aim would not likely find the society meetings a companionable environment. The bands were not primarily for increasing life's pleasures or aesthetic refinement or intellectual acuteness, but quite simply for walking daily in the way of grace.
It was clear to all participants what would happen in these meetings: "Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed." "Healed" does not refer primarily to bodily healing but to the healing of the soul. Through being in an empathic community of friends who shared the same goal (obeying the will of God), participants would open up their lives before one another that they might counsel and admonish one another on how to better obey the will of God.
2. Rules for Gathering a Band of Believers Seeking the Holy Life
A key maxim of Wesley's ethic is a simple equation: "To be happy is to be holy." The holy life is received by grace through faith. The happy life is the holy life.
a. Six Preconditions for Participation in a Community Seeking a Holy Life
Wesley offered six rules for defining the rigorous process of serious seekers of life in Christ. Those who did not wish to bind themselves to these six commitments would not be ready for this conversation. No one should enter without clearly understanding what this process was about.
They needed to understand that learning how to follow God's will requires time and a deep commitment of the heart. The first four rules involve stewardship of time:
1. They would first agree to "meet once a week, at the least." Ruled out of this frame of reference were any obstacles that would detract from the regularity of the process. This was "set-aside time," time sanctified for the purpose of nurturing the holy life.
2. In order for one member not to abuse the valuable time of others, these time commitments had to be understood from the outset. "To come punctually at the hour appointed, without some extraordinary reason." Those who did not want to be under this discipline should not consider beginning.
3. The conversation was from the outset placed in the context of the praise of God. "To begin (those of us who are present) exactly at the hour, with singing or prayer." Without the plea for God's hearing presence, the context would be wholly misunderstood. This was a place where people not only talked with one another but talked and listened to God in prayer. Prayer might take the form of the music of praise.
4. Participants agreed "to speak each of us in order, freely and plainly, the true state of our souls." This process was not for the faint of heart or for those who wanted to sit back and observe. It was profoundly participatory from the outset. Contemporary readers can easily see the analogies between this interactive process and modern intensive group processes. Some degree of analogy may be found in today's primal therapy; Gestalt therapy; Bethel Human Relations Laboratory Training; transactional analysis; and various forms of group psychotherapy, humanistic psychological treatment, and existential therapy. The difference is that those forms do not begin with prayer and do not require participants to stand before God and speak the true state of their souls. Otherwise the level of depth in communication, empathic listening, and candid self-disclosure is remarkably the same.
The band societies utilized a group process in which every participant was expected to listen and contribute from the heart to the hearts of the others. They did not function in a professional setting but as a voluntary group of laypersons guided by Scripture and pastoral care. The process was not concerned with learning the jargon of personal transformation or a technical vocabulary or analytical speech according to a theory. Rather, ordinary people spoke "freely and plainly." They spoke of the true state of their souls, with special attention to "the faults we have committed in thought, word, or deed, and the temptations we have felt, since our last meeting."
Those who were not interested in confession of their sins were asked to reconsider beginning, since that was at the heart of the purpose of the small voluntary bands. Since the subject matter was repentance that lead to faith in grace, the beginning point for each conversation was the candid disclosure of recent (during the previous week) temptation and confession within a caring community. This meant that participants freely and personally revealed the condition of their souls during the preceding week. They were not just to deal with feelings but to confess what they had been thinking, speaking, and doing in any way they perceived was inconsistent with God's will. By removing the obstacles, they learned together to listen to God's will for their lives.
Other rules included the following:
5. Describing participants' relationship with God in the present was the central concern of the conversation. The whole dialogue was to be infused with the key elements of prayer: confession, petition, intercession, and doxology. It began in praise and ended in a way suitable to what the participants had been confessing. Therefore they were to "end every meeting with prayer, suited to the state of each person present." 10 Each person was singularly lifted up in prayer by all.
6. The conversation was not nondirective. It had a specific question as the starting point. One person would begin by addressing a question such as this: "Describe the present state of your soul—your emotive life, the gains and losses you have experienced in the last week."
The final precondition for participation was to be willing to call upon "some person among us to speak his own state first, and then to ask the rest, in order, as any and as searching questions as may be, concerning their state, sins, and temptations." 11 The conversation began with an invitation for someone to speak voluntarily of their own condition of soul, openly confessing their sins and temptations. The expectation was that others would voluntarily follow. Each person had the privilege of coming before God in the presence of the believing community to come clean and enjoy a clearer conscience.
Then it was up to the Holy Spirit to awaken an honest heart. This process did not begin with a particular Scripture but with a particular experience—seeking wisdom from Scripture.
3. Before Admission to the Band Societies
a. Questions to Be Answered before Admission
Trenchant questions for self-examination were proposed to anyone wishing to be admitted into this small circle of weekly confession. They all have to do with readiness to participate:
1. "Have you the forgiveness of your sins?" Personally experiencing the pardon of God through the atoning work of God on the cross was a premise of all that would follow in the interaction. If they did not know that God forgives all penitent sinners and that they had experienced that pardon, they would not be ready for the ensuing conversation about living out that pardon through examining their sins and temptations.
2. "Have you experienced the peace that passes understanding that comes into a life lived under saving grace? Have you peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ?"
3. "Have you the witness of God's Spirit with your spirit that you are a child of God?" The Holy Spirit poured into the church at Pentecost has the mission of witnessing with a believer's own spirit of God's intention to make God's embrace known. Do you realize you have joined a new family as a child of God?
4. "Is the love of God shed abroad in your heart?" Have you welcomed the Holy Spirit into your daily life? Have you received the gifts the Spirit is seeking to give you?
5. "Has no sin, inward or outward, dominion over you?" Note that anyone who knew Wesley's preaching knew the distinction between sin reigning and sin remaining: believers have been saved from sin; sin remains in believers though it does not reign. The act of trusting in God's pardon ends the reign of sin, but the roots of sin may remain to be further plowed, raked, and rooted out in practice. The meetings' conversations were designed to identify and root out any sin that held participants in its power, that had dominion over their will so they could not will God's will.
6. Potential participants were asked candidly before they entered the conversation, "Do you desire to be told of your faults?" In order to proceed with this process of rooting out the dominion of sin in their lives, they should expect to listen to friendly fellow believers who wanted to help them see their faults clearly. They were not there to accuse, but to illumine for the participant's benefit.
7. "Do you desire to be told of all your faults, and that plain and home?" In other words, do you want admonitions to be plainly spoken for the good of your soul?
8. "Do you desire that every one of us should tell you, from time to time, whatsoever is in his heart concerning you?" "From time to time" means as the occasion arises. If a person wanted to go deep in rooting out his voluntary misdeeds, was he ready to listen deeply to how others saw what he was saying about himself? To put it another way, "If you want to open up your heart to God, do you want your neighbor to open up his heart to you?"
9. "Are you ready to take seriously what others are feeling about you? How deep do you want disclosure to go?" That was a determination a person needed to make before proceeding. Hence, "Consider! Do you desire we should tell you whatsoever we think, whatsoever we fear, whatsoever we hear, concerning you?"
10. "Do you desire that, in doing this, we should come as close as possible, that we should cut to the quick, and search your heart to the bottom?" To "search your heart to the bottom" means to go as deeply as possible to get to the bottom of things that may cause sin to have dominion over some aspect of your life. Participants needed to decide whether they were going to give permission for friends to go straight to the point, to speak heart to heart.
11. Participants needed to answer whether they were willing to be open to others if others were willing to be completely open with them. "Is it your desire and design to be on this, and all other occasions, entirely open, so as to speak everything that is in your heart without exception, without disguise, and without reserve?" This set a very high value on candor that reached from heart to heart. Are you ready for that? If so, you would be ready for participation in a Methodist society. The question of the readiness for self-disclosure "may be asked as often as occasion offers."
4. Questions of Self-Examination for Every Session
The "rules of the bands" end with four penetrating questions that are expected to be asked in every meeting. If avoided, the meeting objective will not be achieved. They are as follows:
1. "What known sins have you committed since our last meeting?" Voluntary known sins are distinguished from involuntary failings due to infirmity or human finitude. Think primarily of the misdeeds you know you have done willfully and recently.
Excerpted from John Wesley's Teachings, Volume 4 by Thomas C. Oden. Copyright © 2014 Thomas C. Oden. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN.
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