By Brandon Brown
Much of the tension in the Wesleyan-Holiness traditions and the Church of the Nazarene comes down to a tension in the experience of holiness. This tension exists between the idea of holiness expressed through personal piety versus holiness experienced in community. The former sees the answer to the world as changing individual hearts and minds; if we can change hearts, the idea goes, we can change the world. That idea should not be discounted, but it ignores the example we have of the earliest Jesus followers who experienced the move of the Holy Spirit in community. Through their community, they changed the world. Those Christians desired a change in their immediate and wider world and believed change would come through a total transformation of the world through the example of their community. Their example is not one of focusing upon the individual heart and mind, but on a community living faith together and experiencing God in that community.
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-27 NRSV)
The quoted passage in Acts reveals a community of believers who study, worship, pray, fellowship, eat, and share in sacrament as community. They do not have an understanding of personal ownership as they believe that all they have is God's and should create an equality of justice in their community. Lest we fall into the temptation that this idea of a communal faith is not the norm, we can read John Wesley's understanding of Christianity:
By Christianity I mean that method of worshipping God which is here revealed to man by Jesus Christ. When I say, This is essentially a social religion, I mean not only that it cannot subsist so well, but that it cannot subsist at all, without society, — without living and conversing with other men. And in showing this, I shall confine myself to those considerations which will arise from the very discourse before us. But if this be shown, then doubtless, to turn this religion into a solitary one is to destroy it.
For Wesley, if Christianity becomes about the individual, it ceases to be. Christianity is the "essential community" in this framework. Without community, Christianity is destroyed. This may sound frightening as evangelicalism in the United States has been expressed primarily in individual terms and been an almost individualistic religion of self. But the earliest holiness folks expressed religion in community and even social justice. They saw community and working alongside those who are hurting as the primary expression of holiness. To ignore the downtrodden, outcasts, oppressed, and hurting would be considered a failure of holiness.
In community, a holiness ethic is formed, which is not bound by personal moralism. Communal piety is shaped by the diversity of people all seeking to be holy as God is holy. The only way we can be truly human and truly walk in faith is in community. Maybe we can add another Latinized phrase to our repertoire; via communitas or the communal way. May we live our holiness out in the way of community.
John Wesley and Charles Wesley, Selected Works of John and Charles Wesley, Accordance electronic ed. (Altamonte Springs: OakTree Software, 1997), paragraph 110