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Pursuing Freedom in the Body of Christ

This article appeared in “Pathway in Process”, the magazine of New Direction for Life Ministries. www.newdirection.ca/home.htm


Pursuing freedom in the Body of Christ


Dr. Shepherd, a former professor of mine at Tyndale Seminary, has been an enthusiastic supporter of the work of New Direction. When he offered to help the ministry, I immediately knew what to ask of him: “Please write an article for our newsletter.” As you read it, I trust you will understand my request. In Dr. Shepherd’s exposition of John Wesley’s development of the integration of holiness and community we see some of the foundational principles that undergird our work here at New Direction.

Those who struggle with homosexuality need to discover the authentic hope, practical application, and tangible results that Wesley’s adherents found. In our support groups we seek to apply the same principles: to love the same-gender attracted struggler unconditionally, and to create a safe, trusted environment of confidentiality, where strugglers can be transparent and truthful. The goal of our ministry is to support same-gender attracted individuals “to obey that command of God, ‘Confess your faults one to another, and pray for one another that ye may be healed.”.

Some of our readers who are same-gender attracted may reconsider their need for consistent support and accountability after reading this article. If you live in Ottawa , Windsor , Guelph , St. Catherines, Sarnia , Winnipeg or Toronto we can get you connected with a support group. If you are too far from these cities, contact us anyway. We are increasing our contacts throughout the country. We would be honoured to explore with you the best place to get connected and to begin experiencing new freedom, healing and growth. Don’t go it alone. God gives you the gift of His Body – the Body of Christ.


I shall never forget the man who found the courage to pour out before me his heart-wrenching confession of sin. He was able to articulate it despite his shame and humiliation only because he trusted me to help him. Aware of his predicament and his fragility, I summoned up all the pastoral wisdom I could find within me and pressed upon him as persistently, patiently and convincingly as I could that forgiveness of God whose immensity comprehended the length and breadth, height and depth of human self-contradiction. After all, if God’s people are to forgive “seventy times seven,” would God himself ever do less? To my dismay the fellow remained unaffected. After a few seconds of anguished silence he blurted, heart-brokenly, “I don’t want forgiveness; I want deliverance.”

The man meant, of course, that he didn’t want mere forgiveness. John Wesley would have concurred. For Wesley knew that the early-day Methodist communities thrived on a truth that had lain dormant too long in the church at large; namely, God can do something with sin beyond forgiving it (as glorious as forgiveness is.) Specifically, God can release people from its power over them. Forgiveness or pardon relieves us of sin’s guilt, Wesley insisted; newness of life releases us from sin’s grip. Wesley knew that to offer people relief now, only to tell them that release awaited them at life’s end (all Christians agreed that release was guaranteed post-mortem) was to consign them to despair for this life. He insisted that there was no limit to the scope of God’s deliverance in this life. Years later he noted that where this truth was upheld the Methodist communities flourished; where it was submerged they withered.

The addictiveness of sin

At the same time Wesley’s people were anything but naïve concerning sin’s grip. They knew that all sin is addictive. (If it were less than addictive wouldn’t all sinners – which is to say, everyone – have long since given it up?) And they had in their midst people whose addiction was notorious: public, pronounced, undeniable and undisguisable. Either such people would find the gospel merely a pronouncement of pardon that meanwhile left them victims to their addiction or they would come to know that there is indeed One “who can break every fetter” – and do so now.

Since Wesley insisted there to be “no holiness but social holiness,” he gathered his people into small groups or “bands” of four or five individuals; these bands were the context for and occasion of his people’s deliverance. These bands were effective only if people were utterly honest at the weekly meeting, withholding nothing. For this reason, then, the bands were segregated by gender.

Since there were temptations and traps peculiar to people in particular jobs, there were bands for coalminers, bands for shopkeepers, bands for homemakers, bands for soldiers, and so on. In addition there were bands for those struggling with a particular habituation: bands for “drunkards,” for “whoremongers,” for abusers of drugs such as laudanum and opium. In addition there was a group for people who were afflicted with no notorious, besetting sin but whose spiritual maturity had brought them to see that darkness of every sort still lurked in them, and had brought them as well to crave deliverance from it as they single-mindedly craved nothing else.

You shall be holy….

In all of this Wesley had in mind the “root” commandment of scripture: “You shall be holy as I the Lord your God am holy.” (Leviticus 19:2) Yet in the wake of his Puritan ancestry (both his paternal and maternal grandfathers had been outstanding Puritan ministers) he knew that all God’s commands are “covered promises:” what God requires of his people God will unfailing work in his people. Linking the “root” commandment of Israel (and the church) with the “great commandment” of Jesus – “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and your neighbour as yourself” – Wesley’s “band” aimed ultimately, for everyone regardless of the expression of one’s sin, deliverance from every impediment and inhibition right here. In other words, the bands aimed at a deliverance that began in release from one or another, more or less dramatic, addiction, only to end in release from a “selfism” that found someone self-abandoned in self-forgetful love of God and neighbour. Wesley knew this alone to be the “freedom” that the gospel promises.

Never naïve about the grip with which sin grips us, Wesley was aware that several things were essential if the bands were to operate effectively. (Needless to say, if the bands weren’t effective they would disappear overnight.) In the first place, those who tentatively, tremblingly stepped into one had to know they were loved and would continue to be cherished. In the second place they had to know that those before whom they disburdened themselves could be trusted – trusted not to be affronted by what they heard, trusted not to ridicule the suffering of someone whose habituation was as painful as it was embarrassing, and above all trusted not to betray anyone by blabbing on the street what had to remain in the meeting. In the third place band-members themselves had to be without disguise and without dissimulation but rather transparent and truthful.

Rules of the Band Societies

On Christmas Day, 1738, Wesley drew up the “Rules of the Band Societies.” He stated the band’s purpose unambiguously: “The design of our meeting is to obey that command of God, ‘Confess your faults one to another, and pray for one another that ye may be healed.” Then he specified the “rules.” For instance,

Rule #1: To meet once a week, at the least.” Rule #4: To speak, each of us in order, freely and plainly the true state of our souls, with the faults we have committed in thought, word or deed, and the temptations we have felt since our last meeting.” Then Wesley wrote, “Some of the questions proposed to every one before he is admitted amongst us may be to this effect:” – and proceeded to list some such questions. For instance,
Question #6: “Do you desire to be told of your faults?” Question #7: “Do you desire to be told of all your faults, and that plain and home?” Question #11: “Is it your desire and design to be on this and all other occasions entirely open, so as to speak everything that is in your heart, without exception, without disguise, and without reserve?”Wesley, however, wasn’t finished. While the preceding questions “may” be asked, the “five following [must be asked] at every meeting.” For instance,

Question #4: “What have you thought, said or done of which you doubt whether it be sin or not?” Question #5: “Have you nothing you desire to keep secret?”Plainly the self-disclosure asked of the band-members was stark and startling. Wesley knew, however, that only such searing honesty and accountability in a context of pledged support would suffice as the environment for the One who could and did “break every fetter.”

Small groups thrive on self-disclosure

The “small group movement” in the church today owes everything to Wesley. And so do the para-church groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous. They thrive on the frankest self-disclosure, self-abandonment to the group and the group’s “Higher Power,” accountability that is near-brutal in its confrontation, and a willingness to endure any inconvenience at any hour for the sake of a fellow-sufferer whose pain has become unendurable and who cries out desperately for a deliverance whose alternative is despair.

At one point in my theological education I studied under a psychiatrist who related to the class a simple experiment that has been documented many times over. Ten people are placed in a room. Nine people have been “clued in” beforehand as to what’s going on. The tenth, however, has been told nothing. A box is brought forward containing twenty marbles. Everyone is asked to count the marbles. Then each person is asked to state how many there are. One after the other says “Nineteen; exactly nineteen.” The “not-clued” person, having carefully noted that there were twenty, begins to doubt himself. Soon he capitulates, admits he must have miscounted, and agrees: nineteen.

My psychiatrist-instructor pointed out that sooner or later everyone capitulates; we differ only in how long it takes different people to capitulate. Then the experiment is changed slightly: there are two people in the “game” who haven’t been clued in. When they count the marbles and announce “Twenty” they hold out far longer in the face of those who insist “Nineteen.” When a third person is added, the three together don’t capitulate.

The experiment, of course, operates merely at the level of the natural. How much more is promised a group of sufferers when the power of “Our great God and Saviour” is added.

Victor Shepherd