During the course of the Uniting Methodist Conference, author David N. Field, lead the group by lecturing from some of the material of his book, Bid Our Jarring Conflicts Cease: A Wesleyan Theology and Praxis of Church Unity.
One of the key points Mr. Field unpacked was the role of holiness in the Wesleyan theological framework. For the sake of brevity in this post I wanted to highlight one major clarification about holiness in the Wesleyan tradition.
Growing up I was told that holiness was meant to mean “that which is set apart”. So holy things are things that are set apart for a special use. The Bible is holy and Sabbath is holy. Objects and places can be holy, but so can God. And since God is holy, God is “up there” separated from us. There are spirits but there is only one Holy Spirit, which is a part of God but we talked about the Holy Spirit as though it was separated from God in some way. The things that are holy are the things that are set apart and to be treated with reverence. It was not too far off the mark that holiness was just another word for complete and pure.
When we conflate holiness with completeness and purity then we are off the mark. Holiness in the Wesleyan tradition is not an adjective that describes an object, but a verb that describes the Christian life. The holy life is not a pure life but a life that is driven by love. Thus the holy one is the one who moves toward others. When holiness is seen as something that is set apart so in order to avoid contamination, we confuse holiness with purity.
To quote Field’s book:
Holiness is that which distinguishes the Christian community from the broader society. Paradoxically, when the core of holiness is love, then that which is to be the primary distinguishing marker of the Christian community is that which directs the Christians, as individuals, and the church, as a community, away from themselves toward God and others.
Or more acutely: “Holiness can only exist and grow in the context of relationship with other people” and “we can only grow in holiness as we interact with diverse people.”
And so sitting in the Uniting Methodist Conference it was made even more clear that when we call for a personal holiness and/or a social holiness we are often talking about a personal purity and/or social purity.
Traditionalists tend to elevate personal holiness, which is great. However, when we talk about personal holiness it sounds a lot like personal purity. Personal holiness means you read your Bible and attend worship but you also don’t cuss, smoke, chew drink, have pre-marital sex, etc. If you read your Bible all day long but then cuss while you have a drink at night, your personal holiness (read: purity) is at stake.
Progressives tend to elevate social holiness, which is great as well. However, when we talk about social holiness it sounds a lot like social purity. Social holiness means you march in the streets and advocate for the marginalized, but if you step out of line on a liberal platform you are cannibalized (just google examples of “liberals cannibalizing liberals” for endless examples). If you march all day for equal treatment but then support a candidate who is pro-life your social holiness (read: purity) is at stake.
When the Church confuses holiness as purity then we really all have lost our way as a Church. Holiness is a verb. Purity is adjective.
Christians live verbs not adjectives.