When did holiness become something that only conservative United Methodists talk, preach, and write about? In both our early British days and our American frontier period, the Methodist movement was known for taking seriously Wesley’s call to “spread Scriptural holiness” across the land. For Wesley, holiness was not something optional, it was not an agenda for a particular group, it was the Christian’s calling. In his famous house analogy about salvation, repentance is the porch, justification is the doorway, but sanctification – the holiness “without which no one will see the Lord” – is the house itself. Holiness, the restoration of the Divine Image, was for Wesley the point of it all.
My amateur historian’s guess at the demise of holiness as a broad consensus for the faith, practice, and focus of the church would be the rise of Sunday School in the early 20th century. As Methodism gained prominence in the US throughout the 19th century, there was a pressure to assimilate to the emerging Mainline Protestant consensus. We stopped requiring small groups thus transitioned from a soteriological focus to a pedagogical one. In many of our churches the only sense of holiness that remained, if at all, was some version of social holiness. Two things are important here, however.
First, the artificial division of personal and social holiness is not from Wesley, who always spoke of the two together, indivisible. Secondly, this falsely divided vision of holiness was then combined with a too-uncritical appropriation of Rauschenbusch and the Social Gospel, and thus eventually even a Wesleyan social holiness was overtaken by a theologically bankrupt and anemic idea of social justice. Add to that the desire of many Mainline Methodists to differentiate themselves from the fundamentalists, who began to roar about this time, and you have a perfect recipe for a near-total loss of holiness from all but the most conservative corners of Methodism (it didn’t help, of course, that the Nazarenes and Wesleyans split off over holiness matters).
In Mere Christianity, CS Lewis’ classic take on the basics of the faith, he argues for holiness as the purpose of the church in a way that should ring familiar to those of us in Wesley’s family tree:
“…the Church exists for nothing else but to draw men into Christ, to make them little Christs. If they are not doing that, all the cathedrals, clergy, missions, sermons, even the Bible itself, are simply a waste of time. God became Man for no other purpose. It is even doubtful, you know, whether the whole universe was created for any other purpose.“
There will be no vibrant Wesleyan movement in the future unless we rediscover, ad fontes, the classically Methodist insistence that holiness leaves no corner of personal or communal life untouched. As Lewis says elsewhere in Mere Christianity, we may want God to only renovate one room, but He aims to give us the full treatment.
This teaching is too important to be left to the conservatives, who too easily make holiness a legalistic rather than holistic endeavor. Some conservative UMs talk like the Southern Baptists I left behind (pun intended) many years ago. But there is more, much more, to holiness than not drinking, smoking, and dancing (in fact, these often go quite well together). On a more relevant note, holiness is not just about sexuality, either.
Holiness means pausing to call BS on the consumerism of what the world calls Christmas, and we name Advent. It means hospitality to the stranger, whether the stranger is rich or poor, gay or straight, male or female, African-American, Latino, Asian, or Caucasian. Holiness demands justice for the oppressed and food for the hungry, and it means trying to put the ax to every form of pride we find buried in our inflated egos. In short, holiness is not, and never has been about a conservative, progressive, or moderate agenda. Holiness in its myriad forms is about God is making all things new, including us, which means it is too powerful, too beautiful, to be the possession of any one group within the church.
It’s time to stop allowing holiness to be the property only of the conservatives.
What do you think? Can this be done?
Stay tuned for future posts in this series:
Sharing Means Caring Part II: Prophetic Witness is Not Just for the Progressives
Sharing Means Caring Part III: Moderation is Not Just for the Moderates