I first stepped into a band meeting in 2002. I was a new seminary instructor, without tenure, in my first real teaching job. Having pastored in rural Iowa, I had come to take a position as instructor of evangelism. Teaching evangelism was going to be a challenge. I had a passion for evangelism, discipleship, church planting and revitalization, but I had been trained as a church historian.
The first few months on the new job were difficult. The instructor’s salary was insufficient. The search for a house was frustrating. My wife gave birth to our third child, who ended up in the hospital with a form of pneumonia. I needed to finish my dissertation for a promotion and a bump in salary. I needed to learn the field of evangelism, and how to teach a course I had never taken. Everything pushed my control and performance buttons. To be frank, sin in my life was exercising increasing power over me. I shared these struggles (though not in great detail) with a colleague I knew was a committed believer, and he invited me to a group of men who had adopted early Methodist practice of bands.
As a scholar of Methodism, I knew what bands are. In John Wesley’s Plain Account of the People Called Methodist, classes and bands were the structures that defined the people called Methodist. Both of these small groups, thought distinct, had been essential to Methodism’s salvific economy. All Methodists gathered in classes to “watch over one another in love.” Bands were not prescribed for membership. Classes had up to twelve people. Bands had from three to five. Classes included men and women, married and single together. Bands were divided, putting “married or single men, and married or single women together” (John Wesley, “A Plain Account of the People Called Methodists,” in Works 9:267.) Most significantly, classes were intended for those seeking belief, desiring to “flee the wrath to come.” Bands were for believers, who knew “the forgiveness of [their] sins” and had “the witness of God’s Spirit with [their] spirit that [they] are a child of God” (John Wesley, “Rules of the Band Societies,” in John Wesley, ed. Albert C. Outler [Oxford University Press, 1980], 180–81.)
Bands reflect Methodism’s realism about being a “new creation” (2 Cor 5:17). “The war was not over. … [Believers] had still to wrestle with flesh and blood, and with principalities and powers; so that temptations were on every side.” (Wesley, “A Plain Account of the People Called Methodists,” in Works 9:266) In bands, Christians dealt with “temptations of such a kind as they knew not how to speak in a class [where] persons of every sort, young and old, men and women, met together.” In band they could “pour out of their hearts without reserve, particularly with regard to the sin which did still ‘easily beset’ them, and the temptations which were most apt to prevail over them” (Wesley, “A Plain Account of the People Called Methodists,” in Works 9:266-67) In bands, those with “forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith” (Acts 26:18) confessed their “sins to one another, and pray for one another, that [they] may be healed” (Jas 5:16).
Band members answered five questions:
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? (“Rules of the Band Societies”)
Being in a band meant willingness to abandon pretense before a brother or sister in Christ. It meant acting as a priest, in love toward someone whose sin you knew. It meant allowing someone, who knows your sin, to act in love toward you. Banded believers experienced being known and loved. Shame and isolation ebbed. The power of temptation and sin was disarmed. In these seminars of sanctity, believers exercised compassion and humility, and were strengthened to submit even more of their lives to Christ’s compassionate lordship.
Bands, then and now, are the structural articulation of Methodism’s twofold theology of salvation: saved from wrath and saved from sin. When Protestants talk about salvation, we often mean being forgiven, being “born anew” (1 Pet 1:23). Both are necessary, but for Methodists, they are only the beginning of salvation. Salvation is not a transaction to grant us paradise. It is a process of bringing us to life and weaning us from all that leads us to death. That healing (spirit, soul, and body) begins when we are first incorporated into God’s triune relational love. It continues as God’s Spirit “with our spirit” (Rom 8:16) gives identity and agency to cooperate with God in God’s will, “even [our] sanctification” (1 Thess 4:3).
Methodism asserts that, as we learn to “abide in [Jesus’] love” (John 15:10), by the “Spirit of Truth,” who “abides with [us], and … in [us]” (John 14:7), we receive “the outcome of [our] faith, the salvation of [our] souls” (1 Pet 1:9). We learn to keep Christ’s commandments. We become able to present our “bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is [our] spiritual worship” (Rom 12:1). Ultimately, we gain “the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that [we] may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph 3:18-19).
Methodism understands that salvation happens in community. Humans are created for relationship with God, each other, and creation, all as a reflection of the intimacy of the Trinity. God is perfectly loving and perfectly harmonious, and God’s desire for creation is ordered harmonious interrelating. Sin, generally and our own, is discord not harmony. We see it in ourselves, in our families, in our churches, in our nation, and in our world. And God’s purpose of salvation is bigger than individuals. “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God” (Rom 8:19) Our salvation is part of a grander purpose for the salvation of all creation to which the church, the incarnate sacramental community of redemption—both means and mediator of God’s grace—bears witness.
Bands are Methodism’s smallest unit of church, “where two or three are gathered” (Matt 18:20). In bands, women and men come to expect that, as they “confess [their] sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive [their] sins and cleanse [them] from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). They learn that “the path of the righteous” is a process, “like the light of dawn, which shines brighter and brighter until the full day” (Prov 4:18). They begin to “walk in the light as he himself is in the light.” And they have genuine “fellowship with one another,” knowing that “the blood of Jesus … cleanses [them] from all sin” (1 John 1:7).
There is no agenda for band meetings beyond the five questions. Someone opens in prayer and someone volunteers to go first. Each, then, answers the five questions: sins, temptations, deliverances, uncertainties, and secrets. In our band we allow the answer to the fifth question to be “yes” with no immediate follow-up. As one confesses, the rest hear, ask questions, and challenge any credence given to “the tempter” (Matt 4:3; 1 Thess 3:5), “the accuser” (Rev 12:10), “the father of lies” (John 8:44). Hearers check language that seems evasive, defeatist, or irresponsible. They call out passivity. They help the one confessing to see areas of blindness, where sins of omission have led to sins of commission. They offer encouragement against scrupulosity. Knowing what to say, when to confront, and when to keep silent is training “by practice to distinguish good and evil” (Heb 5:14). Participants learn to listen to the penitent and Holy Spirit simultaneously, to be a means by which God’s Spirit communicates audibly.
Hearing confession changes the hearer. Hearers learn the complexity of the human condition, the varieties of brokenness. They identify common triggers to sin and tendencies toward idolatry. They recognize their struggles in others’ struggles. They embody “holy priesthood” (1 Pet 2:5), exercising Christ-like compassion with accountability. God works to remove our “heart[s] of stone and give … a heart of flesh” (Ezek 36:26). Metaphorically, we wash each other’s feet—tenderly receiving parts of others they keep covered, and allow others to receive the parts of us we keep covered. And we offer Christ’s cleansing.
After a confession, a member prays out loud “in the priestly service of the gospel of God” (Rom 15:16) for the one who has confessed. The rest lay on hands. The prayer ends with a quotation from Scripture. “God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all. … If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:5–7). Forgiveness in Christ, secured on Calvary, is announced. “In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.” Bands cannot neglect this office as “ambassadors for Christ” (2 Cor 5:20) The relief can be palpable.
I had come to faith at the age of sixteen, experienced forgiveness, and new birth. I had been in Bible studies, discipleship groups, and prayer groups. I had studied Wesley. I had published on Wesleyan soteriology. I knew about bands. But confession? A new seminary instructor confessing sins seemed awkward and professionally dangerous. Voices within and without told me this was overstepping boundaries, risking my job and my family’s income. But I knew this invitation from my colleague was a lifeline, and I yearned for companions who knew my struggles. My “carnal mind was nailed to the cross; yet it was not wholly destroyed” (John Wesley, “On Sin in Believers,” in Works 1:325). I needed something. I was terrified of the band. I was terrified of not going.
Of course, there is always risk to vulnerability. That is the definition. Fear of people taking advantage of our confidence, and using information about us to harm us, is the primary reason people will not risk confession to other human beings. It is real. Jesus was rejected and denied by those closest to him. But the rewards are just as real. Remember, “on the night in which he was betrayed,” he nonetheless “took the cup, gave thanks,” and established a “new covenant” where his blood would be “poured out for” us, “and for many for the forgiveness of sins” (“A Service of Word and Table I,” The United Methodist Hymnal, 10). Jesus’s risky vulnerability provided our redemption.
In nearly two decades of this discipline, I have never experienced someone abusing knowledge of my sin, and there has been plenty of it. One reason for this is spiritual. Those in band come to genuinely love one another. Real compassion prevents real harm. Another reason may be fleshly, a kind of “honor among thieves.” In a band, you know things about me that would be damaging outside that context. I also know things about you. Enough said. For both spiritual and fleshly reasons, in band risk is mitigated, but not eliminated. We must “work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12), but we cannot, and were never intended to work on our own. As a close friend often reminds me, sanctification is not a cognitive problem. It’s a courage problem.
Stepping nervously into the room off the dining hall for my first band meeting, I assumed I would say something vague, confess sins I was willing to admit, not my deeper thoughts, words, and deeds that could cause me to suffer “shipwreck in the faith” (1 Tim 1:19). I went last. Each spoke about the actual sins they had committed, real struggles with temptation, and how God had worked to “provide the way out so that [they would] be able to endure it” (1 Cor 10:13). Each was vulnerable to me, the stranger. I witnessed truth as never before in a church, or small group. Four men confessed and were prayed over. I heard evidence that “no testing has overtaken [us] that is not common to everyone” (1 Cor 10:13). My sin was not original.
I spoke. I found I was able to be honest. I experienced genuine concern and compassion from my brothers. I heard the truth of Christ’s love and forgiveness spoken over me. Did I share everything that held me in bondage in that first meeting, everything I had ever done, everything that impaired my ability to walk in the freedom of the Spirit? No. Much of it, I was not aware of for years. But I took a step out of the shadows and into the light. I began to get serious about the healing of my own soul.
The Methodist path of sanctification is not “climb, climb up sunshine mountain.” It is a journey downward and inward, to deeper levels of self-knowledge, humility, and dependency on the cross. Bands are not the goal. They are a well-tested means toward the goal of loving God without sin and shame, and loving others who need forgiveness and resurrection life as much as we do. Transparency and freedom are our future. “Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, nothing secret that will not become known” (Luke 12:2) The discipline of bands is training in holiness, to love “without disguise, without exception, and without reserve” (“Rules of the Band Societies”).