by Chet Klinger
A group of sheep is called a flock. A group of geese (on the ground) is called a gaggle. A group of lions is called a pride. A group of baboons is called a congress. What would John Wesley call a group of men coming together “seeking the power of godliness.” In late 1739, John Wesley called this company of men a society, more specifically the United Society; people who were deeply concerned of their sins, people he wanted to spend some time together with in prayer and advise them how they could “flee the wrath to come.” The United Society needed to divide into classes each composed of twelve persons with one appointed a leader. To remain in a class, an aspirant had to demonstrate evidence of their desire for salvation by adhering to three general rules: (1) avoid evil; (2) do good; and (3) employ the means of grace- all this to foster repentance from an old way of life to a new one. One could advance in a Methodist class and assume a leadership role on the basis of faithfulness and spiritual progress, elements that were open to all, rich or poor, educated or not.
A member of a class had the option to participate in a band, a group that, with its more rigorous discipline, remained voluntary. Bands had no designated leaders, because it was assumed at this level of spiritual experience participants had assurance of forgiveness of sins, mutual accountability and care. Methodist bands and classes normally met separately, but came together once every quarter for a love feast. Those Methodists who walked in the light of God, who Wesley regarded earnest and mature Christians, those he could offer up as an example to others as a pattern of love, holiness, and good works, he organized into a “select society.” Because they were on the threshold of Christian perfection, Wesley maintained they need not be encumbered by many rules or have any stated leader. The only rules were confidentiality, obedient submission to his minister, and weekly contributions to a common stock. [This summary appears in Kenneth J Collins “The Theology of John Wesley – Holy Love and Shape of Grace. Pp 249-252]
This raises the question as to what is the group we call the Florida United Methodist Evangelicals?. Or the Wesleyan Covenant Movement? Or the Confessing Movement? Or the Methodist Federation on Social Action? Is each a group of dedicated Christians Wesley would call a society? A class? A band? Or a select society? Would John Wesley call FLUME or the Wesleyan Covenant Movement a band of the Methodist Church? A “select society” of Christians?
Wesley’s early method-ism seems like an attempt to reverse the path the Hebrews took leading up to the time they asked their prophet and judge Samuel to get them their own king, to be like their neighbors. Before that time the Israelites were a family of parents and grandparents communicating the will of God in a righteous community. These families made up tribes who carried the names of their patriarchs – Benjamin, Judah, Dan, Issachar, and others. They didn’t have big government, like the Egyptians, Babylonians, and Assyrians. They didn’t need big government. They had Yahweh as their Lord, and a few holy men or women to guide them in understanding the will of God and the desires of righteousness and righteous living. Then came judges to help lead the people – the tribes – to resolve internal matters and external matters with their enemies, with the hand of God to protect them and to do wondrous things for them. Then came the cry for big government – the young declared Samuel to be old and whose sons no longer walked in his ways. Therefore the elders wanted “change”, hope and change to accommodate the new ways of the young. They wanted their own king. God told Samuel they rejected God himself, not Samuel, that they were being lured by other gods of their day, and Samuel should heed to their voice. He commanded Samuel to warn them of what they are about to enter into with a new king – they would first lose their individual freedoms, as people, as families and as tribes. The king will take their children as unto his own to serve his purposes and to run his chariots, and plow his ground and reap his harvests, and to make his weapons to fight his wars. He will take their daughters to bring fragrance to his palaces, make them into servants, cooks, and bakers. They will be made to pay taxes to him on everything they grow and made while they still paid their own tithes and offerings to God. They refused to heed Samuel’s warnings from God and went on to having their way.
The founding fathers of America understood this and tried to reverse this trend by rejecting the authority of the king of England and by establishing a Constitution attributed to our Creator and guaranteeing our freedom to worship God.
Down through history, the Hebrews, Israelites, the Jews have given over their God-given freedoms to big governments. They still do today. And Christians today who heard Jesus preach to desire less and give more and to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s, are becoming more like the Jews, allowing big government to take care of matters for which the church has been called. It seems Wesley’s ideas tried to reverse this in the days when big government, big churches, and big institutions depended more on a king or on secular humanism and less on God to ways where the church would meet the needs of poor and the governments were faithful to God rather than man. Much like what the people were warned about back in Samuel’s days, Wesley warned us in his time and ours that salvation is not from our government who makes us slaves, but from us who find salvation and freedom in turning to God. Today, it seems that many descendants of the Wesleyan movement are about to give over to big government the authority to rule our lives and the kingdom of God.