In the preface to Hymns and Sacred Poems, published in 1739, John Wesley wrote,
“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.
Wesley was particularly concerned about any spirituality influenced by the Mystics, who elevated individual contemplation to the highest ideal – a move that, Wesley suggested, undermined the importance of loving neighbour in both both word and deed.
But we must be careful to note that, for Wesley, “social holiness” did not simply mean “social justice.” Social holiness begins in Christian community, and therefore has everything to do with the internal life of the church. The fellowship of believers is the place where social holiness is cultivated and exercised, but it also spills over the boundaries of the church and reaches out to those who are outside of the fellowship.
In 1749, in answer to the objection that the Methodist Societies were divisive and disrupted Christian fellowship in the established parishes, Wesley wrote:
But the fellowship you speak of never existed. Therefore it cannot be destroyed. Which of those true Christians ever had any such fellowship with these? Who watched over them in love? Who marked their growth in grace? Who advised and exhorted them from time to time? Who prayed with them and for them as they had need? This, and this alone is Christian fellowship. But alas! Where is it to be found?…The real truth is just the reverse of this: we introduce Christian fellowship where it was utterly destroyed. And the fruits of it have been peace, joy, love, and zeal for every good word and work. (A Plain Account of the People Called Methodists, §I.11)
Because salvation for Wesley was not simply about “souls” going to heaven, but about loving God and neighbour, he realized that the holiness was a reality which needed to be lived out in community. And not only is Christian fellowship the necessary consequence of a holy life, but true Christian koinonia is also the means whereby the Spirit forms the mind of Christ in us.
Wesley was fully aware the the life of the church is messy, and sometimes painful. But even through the difficulties of church conflict, the Christian community remains the place where Christians are formed after the mind of Christ, and learn to walk as he walked. This, of course, includes Christian discipline, as a necessary part of Christian fellowship, and a necessary part of the church’s life as a covenant community.
Therefore the mission of God requires the church as the people of God, as a living, embodied reality. The church is not an afterthought to mission, and Christian community is not an obstacle to mission, but the vehicle through which mission takes place. Though Wesley felt he needed to create new structures and new forms of community to produce true Christian fellowship, he did not suggest (as many, who are understandably disillusioned with the church do today) that we can live out our faith in the world without being a part of the fellowship of believers. This fellowship is the foundation of social holiness, and “zeal for every good word and work” is one of the fruits that grows from this root.