Atonement and the Method of Methodism-Part 4: Following Jesus
By Steve Manskar
The Wesleyan Way of Discipleship
The Wesleyan tradition provides a powerful compass heading for following Jesus (the third ingredient of Jesus' recipe for discipleship in Luke 9:23). The engine of Methodism was the compulsory small groups known as class meetings. The Wesleyan “Rule of Life”—The General Rules—provided guidance for living the “cross-bearing” life that is the way of Jesus. “A rule of life is a pattern of spiritual disciplines that provides structure and direction for growth in holiness. … It fosters gifts of the Spirit in personal life and human community, helping to form us into the persons God intends us to be” (Marjorie Thompson, Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life, 138). The General Rules functioned as a rule of life for the Methodist societies. It oriented the network of societies toward obedience to Jesus' teachings and fostered a culture of holiness; inward love of God expressed in outward love of those whom God loves.
The class meeting taught Methodists how to live as Christians in the world by gathering for prayer, Bible reading, exhortation, hymn singing, and accountability for discipleship shaped by the General Rules. These small groups of 12-15 people, men and women together, met weekly for 1-2 hours. They were led by an appointed leader who was a seasoned follower of Jesus. The class leaders where persons who possessed the pastoral gifts needed for the work of disciple-making. All Methodists were required to meet with their class every week. The weekly discipline of the class meeting formed relationships of trust and mutual affection among the Methodists. As the people grew closer and closer to one another their love for God grew and matured.
The discipline of the class meeting served to equip the Methodists to join Christ in his mission among the poor of the world. The dynamic of Methodist discipline led Wesley to state:
Solitary religion is not to be found there. "Holy solitaries" is a phrase no more consistent with the gospel than holy adulterers. The gospel of Christ knows of no religion, but social; no holiness but social holiness. "Faith working by love" is the length and breadth and depth and height of Christian perfection. "This commandment have we from Christ, that he who loves God, love his brother also;" and that we manifest our love "by doing good unto all men; especially to them that are of the household of faith." And in truth, whosoever loveth his brethren, not in word only, but as Christ loved him, cannot but be "zealous of good works." He feels in his soul a burning, restless desire of spending and being spent for them. "My Father," will he say, "worketh hitherto, and I work." And at all possible opportunities he is, like his Master, "going about doing good" (Preface to Hymns and Sacred Poems -1739).
The class meeting fostered growth in holiness of heart and life by bringing people together weekly under the leadership and care of a mature follower of Jesus. The community of the class meeting, along with the regular Sunday evening society meetings, Love Feasts, and annual Covenant Service encouraged the habitual practice of the means of grace among the people.
While the class meeting was the one compulsory group, other groups contributed to the formation of holiness among the Methodists. Trial bands were for inquiring Methodists. People could “try on” Methodist discipline to see if it was for them. Band meetings were groups of 6-8 people grouped according to gender and marital status. Leadership was shared. The focus of the meetings was confession of sin and prayer. The sharing within the band was on a deeper, more intimate level than the class. The theological focus was on justifying grace. The select society focused on perfection in love. Membership tended to be drawn from the leaders of the society.
Early Methodism was characterized by an integrated network of small groups. They had groups designed to meet people where they were and helped them to grow in holiness of heart and life. As persons matured in love of God and neighbor groups, such as the band and select society, were available to help build upon the growth. The expectation was that all Methodists would come to saving faith in Christ. The goal was to do all in their power to increase faith, confirm hope in Christ and do all in their power to perfect one another in love.