ESSAY: Band as Accountability, Care, and Evangelism (The Spiritual Principles of the Band Societies and Their Implications for the 21st Century)

ACCOUNTABILITY-quoteThis is an essay I wrote for my Protestant Spiritual Traditions Class on the importance of reclaiming accountability for sin despite the relatively apathetic societal views of sin.

Introduction

The twenty-first century is filled with religious lethargy, apathetic spirituality, and the dismissal of sin. For many North American Christians, sin remains elusive with excuses given for engaging in inappropriate behaviour. This lack of guilt often results in the Church failing to boldly proclaim the Gospel through her lifestyle. Understanding today’s lack of Scriptural engagement to sin provides the reason movements such as John Wesley’s Band Societies are needed. These small intentional accountability groups foster a desire to live a Christian life, shifting one’s previously held mindset into a new conviction to be holy. Thus, the Holiness of Intent, or inward desire for righteousness, recognizes the gravity of sin, encourages mutual care within the context of discipleship, and subsequently imparts grace to the world.

Background                                                                                                                                                    

John Wesley, the father of Methodism, desired a church where intimacy and accountability were fostered. This desire, rooted in Wesley’s own conversion experience at Aldersgate following a personal conversation with Peter Bohler in which his faith was challenged, provided an apparent change in the way he understood life’s purpose.[1]   In his journal, Wesley recounts his new drive for inward holiness, his deep desire for Christian living, and his avoidance of sin compared to his previous spiritual life.[2] Wesley admits that although temptations and trials did not dissipate at the moment of conversion, a gradual shift began in the way he perceived them. He states that although he always fought not to succumb to sinful gratification, he formerly was “sometimes, if not often, conquered; now I was always conqueror.”[3] This new inward strength and courage to resist temptation resulted in a keen desire to share this search for holiness with others.

Gravity of Sin

A hallmark of Wesley’s theological framework is his direct correlation to sin and corruption. Through Adam’s sin, all generations are affected by evil desires which only Christ can heal and deliver a person from.[4] Christ calls sinners out of this state of death into a new awakened state where they cease being apathetic and instead become convicted of their need for a Saviour.[5]  Wesley describes this inward working of the Holy Spirit in a believer’s heart as removing former carnal pleasures, replacing them with the fruits of peace, joy, and love instead.[6] Although the Holy Spirit creates newness in a person, due to one’s sinful nature he continues to be pursued by old sins. According to Wesley, humanity is continually wooed into a state of perfection where perfect love reigns and all of one’s inner motives and being are possessed by this love.[7]  Yet, David Lowes Watson concedes that Christian perfection is not “a stage which can be attained, so much as a stage in the process of sanctification.” [8]   Rather, Wesley describes a gradual event in which believers are encouraged to shun pleasures which hinder evangelism and to embrace good works instead. [9] Nevertheless Watson notes that achieving this perfection is difficult because “it does not lie through neutral territory” but instead must be “forged in the immediate reality of a world resistant to its God.” [10]

In order to address issues of sin and encourage Christ-likeness, voluntary small groups known as Band Societies were formed.[11] These meetings included elements of prayer, hymns, and teaching, followed by a personal time of sharing. Watson notes the leader’s vulnerability in opening these sessions with personal reflections, followed by confession from other members, and lastly guidance for improvement [12]

These meetings, often including piercingly private questions, allowed individuals to be open about their struggles with the group. Through intense reflection, members were encouraged to take responsibility for all aspects of their lives, with additional responsibility for those in leadership roles.

Pastoral Care

Another element of the Band Societies is the mutual care and discipleship they offered each other. Watson explains that in the early days of the Band Society, leaders were given the responsibility of going to each congregant’s house to collect the weekly offering. [13] This provided an opportunity for leaders to give spiritual support and guidance and to “not only receive the contributions, but also watch over the souls of the brethren.” [14]   Although originally this pastoral care came in the form of leader to class, it soon included the care of members for each other. Watson notes how this intimate setting was ideal for nurturing affection for one another leading to an openness to share and “bear one another’s burdens.”[15]

Watson portrays how intimate fellowship and overarching spiritual insight is produced by the leader being vulnerable at the beginning of the session [16] Such a bold action certainly propels one towards the goal of active discipleship rather than static acceptance of the Gospel. [17]

Accountability as Evangelism

Lastly, the Band Societies functioned as an effective evangelism tool by their bold witness to holy living. By providing high expectations of morality, many non-believers were drawn into the Body of Christ. These expectations included the Christian vocation of service and compassion to the marginalized. In fact, according to Watson, from their earliest inception as the Holy Club, these societies were marked not only by personal spiritual renewal, but also by outreach and missions.[18] This outreach soon extended beyond one’s own community to encompass other groups and leaders including evangelist Charles Finney who wrote in the Oberlin Evangelist, “now the business of the Church is to reform the world – to put away every kind of sin.”[19] Through all these experiences, Methodism was beginning to flourish and mark its identity in the world, not as an indifferent and passive Church, but rather as a group of Christians living in full obedience to Christ.[20]

Meaning for the 21st Century                                                                                                                         

The Band Societies of the 1700s were instrumental to creating an atmosphere of mutual accountability and care, but their legacy still remains to this day. Count von Zinzendorf said it well, “I believe without such an institution, the church would never have become what it is now.”[21] These times of prayer and devotional life still find their place in modern-day small groups and Bible studies happening across North America.

They serve as a clarion call for Christians to engage in their faith, to become active in service, and to promote a reign of peace and justice. Using the Band Society Rules, Christians are reminded to hold nothing secret, but to be vulnerable with one another. In an age that prides itself in independence and keeping thoughts hidden, it reminds believers of their common humanity and their need to both give and receive counsel.

Importantly, Wesley emphasized the entirety of the human person. Although spiritual issues such as frequently praying, partaking in communion, and avoiding temptation are important, Wesley also asked about the care members were taking of their physical health.[22] These rules are meaningful within a society that often disregards healthy lifestyles in favour of poor nutrition, harmful toxins, and excessive work for they serve as a reminder to be conscious of personal choices concerning consumption and the environment.

Lastly, these rules were instrumental in insuring that Christians spent their time wisely. Watson realizes this by the believer’s responsibility to account for each moment of his time.[23] This implies that Christians were to dedicate each moment to prayerful consideration of what God was calling them to do. This is especially meaningful to the twenty-first century fast-paced life-style where people often are consumed by electronic devices. It is wise for North Americans to heed the instructions of carefully evaluating their time given that with the advent of mass media, much of the day is now squandered due to mindless engagement on the internet or with television.

Conclusion                                                                                                                                                     

The Band Society rules provide Christians with an understanding of the damaging effects of sin, the need to care for one another, and the importance of evangelism. Although no Christian is exempt from the struggles and temptation of the flesh, by placing one’s intent solely on righteous living and obedience to Christ, believers are able to work together to help bring about the Kingdom of God on this earth.

Bibliography

Pedlar, James. “Wesleyan and Methodist Spirituality.” Class lecture, Tyndale Seminary, North    York, ON, February 20, 2015.

Watson, David Lowes. “Methodist Spirituality” in Protestant Spiritual Traditions, edited by Frank C. Senn, 217. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2000.

Wesley, John. “Journal and Dairies.” In The Works of John Wesley, edited by W. Reginald Ward and Richard P. Heitzenrater. Vol. 18. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1988.

Wesley, John. “The Scripture Way of Salvation: A Sermon on Ephes. ii. 8.” In Sermons II 34-70. Vol 2 of The Works of John Wesley, edited by Albert C. Outler, 153-169. Nashville:   Abingdon Press, 1985.

[1] John Wesley, “Journal and Dairies,” in The Works of John Wesley, ed. W. Reginald Ward and Richard P. Heitzenrater, vol. 18 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1988), 250.

[2] Wesley, “Journal,” 244.

[3] Wesley, “Journal,” 250.

[4] James Pedlar, “Wesleyan and Methodist Spirituality” (lecture, Tyndale Seminary, North York, ON, February 20, 2015).

[5] Pedlar, “Wesleyan.”

[6] John Wesley, “Scripture Way of Salvation,” in The Works of John Wesley: Sermons II, ed. Albert C. Outler, vol.2 (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1985), 158.

[7] Wesley, “Scripture Way,” 160.

[8] Watson, 224.

[9] Wesley, “Scripture Way,” 160.

[10] David Lowes Watson, “Methodist Spirituality” in Protestant Spiritual Tradition, ed. Frank C. Senn (Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2000), 230.

[11] Pedlar, “Wesleyan.”

[12] Watson, “Methodist,” Protestant Spiritual, 232.

[13] Watson, 231

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid, 227

[17] Ibid, 220.

[18] Ibid, 219.

[19] Ibid, 260.

[20] Ibid, 262.

[21] Ibid, 227.

[22] Ibid, 239.

[23] Ibid, 217.

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