3 Commitments For Which John Wesley Thought All Christians Should Be Accountable

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John and Charles Wesley preaching in Bristol

Mutual accountability was such a big emphasis for John Wesley. His famous precept that the Gospel of Christ knows “no holiness but social holiness” has largely to do with this idea of accountability. For Wesley, we simply won’t grow as individuals if we aren’t growing together within communities in which there is mutual accountability. And this goes for the ways we do (or don’t!) grow through our engagement in financial practices of various kinds: how we make money and how we spend it.

Within Wesley’s early Methodist communities, new converts were immediately placed in a Methodist Society. In fact, for those who were outside the faith and were at least interested in learning more about Christianity, the invitation was to attend a Methodist Society. Societies were local gatherings of Methodists that met about once a month and included testimonies, music, and teachings.

Becoming a member of a Methodist Society meant signing up for a certain level of accountability and growth. This accountability wasn’t reserved for the long-time, mature Christians who wanted to ‘go deeper’ in their faith. Again, Societies were the point of entry into the Methodist Church. For mature Christians who did want to go deeper, there were additional small groups of ‘bands’ and ‘classes’ that probed even deeper levels of Christian accountability. But the point is that Societies were for all people at whatever stage of their Christian walk; and the accountability within the Societies was for everyone.

More specifically, there were 3 commitments you had to agree to when joining a Methodist Society.

First, you had to agree to do no harm, by avoiding evil of every kind.   These evils included fighting, drunkenness, and taking fellow Christians to court. There were also business and financial expectations. Wesley admonished business owners to refuse to engage in usury (lending at oppressively high interest rates) and to refuse to lend without reasonable assurance that the borrower would be able to make repayment. Equally, borrowers were warned not to take any good without the probability of paying for it.

Second, you had to agree to do works of mercy according to your means, as often as you could, for as many as you could. Works of mercy including providing food for the hungry and clothing for those who had little. It included visitation and caregiving to those who were sick and to those who were imprisoned. In short, you had to be committed to a regular, weekly pattern of reaching out to those who were struggling and on the margins.

Third, you had to agree to make use of the ordinances of God. The ordinances of God included services of public worship, public and private readings of the Bible, taking the Lord’s Supper, praying, and fasting. These were designed to keep one ‘plugged in’ to the transforming power of the Holy Spirit and plugged into the community of Christian disciples which God was directing and moving.

The ordinance of fasting seems the least popular today. But Wesley himself fasted every Friday during his adult life, and for a significant chunk of his life fasted also on Wednesdays, giving his food money to the poor. Wesley counseled regular fasting of some kind for all members of societies—which again includes very new and immature Christians! Wesley viewed fasting as, among other things, a safeguard against gluttony.

In the most general terms, the commitments of the Methodist Society members were aimed at helping them live by the tripart rule of life: “Do no harm, Do good, Stay in love with God.” It’s also an amazing thought experiment to think what our churches would look like today if every member were engaged in some group of mutual accountability, in which we asked each other about our weekly faithfulness to the 3 commitments of the Methodist Societies. So many modern issues—private indebtedness, childhood poverty, prison reform, dietary excess—seem directly linked to the commitments Wesley envisioned every Christian would regularly be asked about by other Christians. Something to think about.

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Kevin Kinghorn serves as editor of the Faith and Work Collective blog. He is Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Asbury Theological Seminary. His undergraduate work (Emory) was in economics and political science. His graduate work (Asbury; Yale; Oxford) and current teaching has focused on topics within philosophy of religion and moral philosophy. He lives in Mt. Sterling, KY, where he and his wife Barbara work toward community transformation, providing music and art opportunities for children.

1 COMMENT

  1. Thank you, Kevin, for pointing out these basic necessary commitments to living a life of discipleship. I think, however, that Wesley required participation in a class meeting in order to belong to a society. Your ticket to the society meeting had to be renewed by the class leader on a quarterly basis. So I think in addition to the basic three commitments, there was also the commitment to engage in intentional accountable growth through small group participation. This was also for everyone, not just those who wanted to go deeper. (The deeper walk was reserved for the bands.) Please correct me if I’m wrong.

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