Christians are not formed in isolation. The pursuit of holiness is a communal endeavor. In my mind, one of the biggest problems that contemporary Wesleyan and Methodist faith communities have is rampant individualism that suggests Methodist beliefs (or even basic Christian beliefs) can be embraced or ignored as one so chooses.
In too many contexts, there is no foundation of common beliefs and practices that bind a Christian community together. Everything is up for grabs. And if everything is up for grabs, we have a serious identity crisis.
This is especially problematic for Wesley’s spiritual heirs. John Wesley defined Methodism through the details of its doctrine and discipline. A Methodist was a person committed to a particular set of beliefs (doctrine) who was committed to living out those beliefs through a particular—and communally agreed upon—way of life (discipline).
This was so important and so foundational to Wesley that he came up with a basic document that provided the basis for a common discipline for every Methodist. This way of life was outlined in a three-page pamphlet. Often referred to as the “General Rules,” the document outlined the expectations for everyone who was a member of Methodism.
The rules started by indicating that every Methodist belonged to a small group called a class meeting where they gave money “toward the relief of the poor,” discussed the state of their souls (or their present relationship with God), and gave each other advice, encouragement, and held each other accountable to their common way of life.
The General Rules then expressed the lifestyle expectations of Methodists under three main headings. The first General Rule discussed specific sins, or harm, that were to be avoided. This rule included things like “taking the name of God in vain,” drunkenness, or laying up treasures on earth. The second General Rule outlined the concrete ways that those connected with John Wesley were expected to do good. Feeding the hungry and visiting the sick are examples of concrete actions that were included under this rule. The third General Rule outlined an expectation that Methodists would consistently practice the means of grace, which included worship, reading Scripture, prayer, fasting, and receiving the Lord’s Supper.
The General Rules were a guide to practical holiness. Methodists committed to this specific set of practices because they were pursuing holiness together. They believed Christians grow in their faith when they join together and “watch over one another in love,” as Wesley often put it.
The earliest Methodists experienced God as alive, active, and urgently interested in their lives. This grace flowed most powerfully in the class meetings and band meetings in which Methodists were organized. And if history is any guide, God’s love and grace in our lives is experienced concretely when we meet together with other Christians in the same manner. Only in such a context, contrary to privatized Christian lives, can we truly move from surviving to thriving.
This is an excerpt from Kevin Watson’s latest book, Perfect Love: Recovering Entire Sanctification—The Lost Power of the Methodist Movement. This book calls all Methodists—the spiritual descendants of the Wesleyan revival, regardless of contemporary denominational expression—back to who we have been at our best, in times when we have been a growing, vibrant, and Spirit-filled movement. It is time to retrieve Methodism’s lost treasure, the doctrine of entire sanctification. This doctrine speaks to the radical optimism that through the work of Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, we can move from struggling to survive as Christians to thriving! Perfect Love provides an in-depth explanation of entire sanctification and helps readers pursue all that God has for us.
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