Sharing Means Caring, Part I: Holiness is Not Just for the Conservatives

Viola and Mina Sharing Food, courtesy Kathy Simon.
Viola and Mina Share Food, courtesy Kathy Simon.

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


  1. I just don’t see conservatives allowing holiness to be anything other than their idea du jour. Conservatives seem to only offer to people a social ethic that funny always emphasizes those behaviors that they demonstrate and demonizes any other behaviors even if it is not in the scriptures. What I really don’t like as a liberal is that they take those holiness ideas and wrap them up in the American flag. That is clearly heresy. Our faith is not political and should be skeptical of government and any faux patriotism.

  2. You ask “can this be done?” at the end of your post. Maybe we are too quiet about it, but I am a progressive who has been teaching and preaching holiness for years. At the seminary that I attend, which is United Methodist and more toward the progressive side, holiness is taught and embraced as Christianity lived out in our lives in the world.

    I agree with your sense of the history of the decline of holiness, but I have witnessed holiness being reclaimed by United Methodists, although perhaps without making a point of naming it as such. Those who know something of the holiness movement may be shy of being mistaken for the crowd that reduced holiness to prohibitions against drinking, smoking, dancing, card playing, and even roller skating (something my Methodist mother was not allowed to do in Mississippi because it was a “sin”).

    It seems to me that the greater threat to “holiness” is a theological understanding that has justification as the sole goal of Christianity and as synonymous with salvation. I do know many people in the pews who suffer from that truncated notion, but their ignorance does not define the church, Methodism, nor progressives.

  3. Not convinced that social gospel / liberal Methodism was weak, watered-down, pablum. “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.” I’m read Rauschenbusch and the five generations of Boston Personalists: Bowne, Knudson, Brightman, DeWolf, Schilling. Not anemic. Powerful, like Blake, who was no slouch (“and we shall build Jerusalem / on England’s fair and pleasant hills”.

    The second and third-hand summaries of Methodists social gospellers looks anemic. For many readers, it seems a “given”, a something that “everyone knows”, even though they don’t: a false doxa. Most critics (starting with Niebuhr) assert that Knudson, Brightman, DeWolf, Bishop McConnell assumed that human society evolves toward something better. German Social Democrats of 1905 thought that way, and orthodox communists (from all the self-proclaimed “orthodox sects” had a view that a perfect society would emerge from great cataclism…although they could not explain how.

    Dewey and pragmatist leftists believed with AJ Muste and Methodist socialists that society could turn better, worse, or (they faced Nazis) the worst of all.

    Explanations of the decline of the Boston Personalists sound like a description of any ordinary academic school: you have the founders, then their disciples, and then a third generation moves to the Next Big Thing. Boston Methodists lasted four academic generations…unusually long. Read Knudson’s “Dogmatics”, Brightman’s “Moral Values”, Josiah Royce “Problems of Christianity V1 (the volume that demonstrates the importance of The Great / Beloved Community), and, for a neat summary, either edition of DeWolf’s “Theology for a Living Church”. We’ve been reading CS Lewis’s “Letter’s to Malcolm” (chiefly on prayer); compare to DeWolf’s handling of prayer which says the same as Lewis, but bases it on a discussion of church-as-community-and-tradition, communion. Lewis is more personal, but DeWolf more comprehensive.

    Liberal Methodists suffered when the New Deal coalition broke up over integration and the War in Vietnam. We — the country and the world — suffered because we could not square up a global warm-war against communist liberation movements with a Great Society at home. Corporations never agreed with the “corporate liberal” analysis that corporations bought “labor peace” by guaranteeing steady employment, good pension plans, and good health-insurance.

    By 1980, major US industries were moving production wherever they could escape what had been called the “corporate social contract”. Overseas. Outsourcing. All hedged around, guarded, by an ideology of “me first, me last, me always”, and assumption that government (somehow) has more bureacracy than a mega-corporation, is more efficient, and a “religious” belief that it is evil for employees to band together to demand better pay, better work, and adequate retirement plans. This has only gotten worse.

    What was Rauschenbusch’s slogan? Replace a system in which good people are forced to do bad things with a system in which bad people are forced to do good things. He had no assumption that it would just happen. I’d call it an empirical argument for “original sin”, or, at least, for finding that there is something fundamentally wrong with human beings. That is no reason to give up trying.

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