When was the last time that you confessed any known sins you had committed to another person, or group of people? When I discuss the value of confessing sin, people often seem uncomfortable with a practice that seems too “Roman Catholic.” Did you know that confessing sin was a very important practice that was at the heart of the early Methodist revival? Did you know the band meeting was the most concrete way Wesley put his understanding of sanctification and entire sanctification into practice?
Early Methodists were known for their organization and multiple layers of meetings and groups. In England, early Methodists gathered together in annual conferences, quarterly conferences, society meetings, class meetings, band meetings, love feasts, prayer meetings, select societies (or select bands), and even penitent bands. Historians have often noted the importance of conferencing for early Methodism.
Methodists gathered together because they were convinced that growth in holiness was most likely to happen in community, by “watching over one another in love.” Early on in his ministry, Wesley believed community was so important to the pursuit of holiness that he criticized the isolated individual’s pursuit of holiness as similar to pursuing holiness through the practice of idolatry. He wrote:
Directly opposite to this is the gospel of Christ. 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. (John Wesley, “Preface”; in “Hymns and Sacred Poems, 1739”)
This is the one passage where Wesley uses the phrase “social holiness,” which has so often been misused in contemporary Methodism. The best example of what Wesley meant by social holiness was the early Methodist band meeting.
In discussing the early Methodist approach to small group formation, people often confuse the class meeting and the band meeting. The class meeting was required for everyone who was Methodist and it often included women and men in one group. There were typically seven to 12 Methodists in a class meeting (though they were sometimes much larger). The basic question of the class meeting was: “How does your soul prosper?”
The band meeting was optional, though highly encouraged, for all Methodists who had experienced justification by faith and the new birth. Bands had about five people in them and were divided by gender and marital status. There were several prerequisites for joining a band meeting. Once you joined a group, five questions were asked at every weekly meeting:
1. What known sins have you committed since our last meeting?
2. What temptations have you met with?
3. How was you delivered?
4. What have you thought, said, or done, of which you doubt whether it be sin or not?
5. Have you nothing you desire to keep secret? (John Wesley, “Rules of the Band Societies”)
The band meeting was a place of deep vulnerability and intimacy. It was a place where Christians were completely honest with each other about the ways in which they knew they had fallen short of who God was calling and enabling them to be in Christ. When Methodists discussed the rules or organization of band meetings, they nearly always started by stating that they gathered together in bands in order to be faithful to James 5:16, which reads: “Therefore, confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.”
The purpose of band meetings was not to shame one another or heap guilt and condemnation on one another. On the contrary, in telling each other the truth about their lives, particularly where they had fallen short, Methodists brought each other to the bottomless wells of God’s amazing grace. They sought to drench one another in God’s healing grace so that they could experience freedom from all that kept them from complete freedom in Christ.
Might this be a practice that God is calling members of the Wesleyan/Methodist family to retrieve? Confession of sin is a means of grace in multiple ways. Confession is a concrete act of repentance. As a result, it is a gracious act that paves the way for a new experience of one’s forgiveness and restoration as a beloved child of God. Confessing sin also expresses a belief in and desire for ongoing growth in holiness. One purges what is not of God to be freed from it, and in order to be further filled with the life of Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.
In the past, revival and renewal within Methodist communities tended to be preceded by humble, forthright confession of sin. This practice is not common in many contemporary Wesleyan/Methodist communities. This fact may say more about the extent of our current desire to hide, to cover up, and to avoid deep intimacy with brothers and sisters in Christ than it says about the ongoing relevance of such a practice today.
May the Triune God enable contemporary Wesleyan/Methodist churches to boldly reclaim this practice. And in so doing, may we find genuine repentance for any sin that lingers in our lives, a new experience of the Father’s audacious and neverending love for us through what has already been accomplished for us in Christ, and a freedom and desire by the Holy Spirit to entirely love God and neighbor, to the exclusion of sin.