What The Holiness
Who Are We?
I see a growing divergence of holiness and an obnoxious-holiness. Holiness is traditionally an invitation to transformation through an encounter with the love of God. The latter is an emerging attitude of propositional restrictions using the language of fear with a veneer of claimed love. It is the holiness of relational love versus the holiness of enforced uniformity and fear. I lament the tone that holiness folk have been taking lately. Using fearful language and an inquisition style stems from an individualistic approach to a zero-sum game mentality. It is almost as if there has been a syncretic melding of political vitriol with a legalistic belief that human beings need fear to turn toward God.
We use the metaphors of body, marriage, and such, but then use the language of empire and fear, hoping to stir belief in human beings. The language of othering and dehumanizing becomes the stock in trade of clergy who claim holiness. This is a disconnect between a claim of hope and an embrace of fear. Instead of finding a hopeful and welcoming middle (or different) way, some even denigrate those they lament do not seem open to their message. Why would someone want to hear anything when we denigrate and use their politics, concerns, and humanity as fodder for points in an imagined game? Our modern amnesia has even forgotten the early holiness folk who drove suffrage, temperance, and other social change in order to help human beings by reimagining society without harmful systems.
I cannot help but see how different we see holiness or even the work of Christ. Brent Peterson explains in his excellent book The Church the nature of redemption Wesleyan-Holiness ethics and theology embrace. “The method of this redemption is not one of empire that seeks to control by violence and domination. Instead, the cruciform power of the crucified God becomes the model and means for the church, which is fully birthed by the sending of the Spirit. In this way the people of God are formed into the body of the crucified and resurrected Christ as the martyr church that resists the seduction of liturgies and imaginations of empire.” (Peterson loc 135) Empire uses violence, dominion, and fear to control and drive decisions. Empire is the very opposite of the picture of a Church born in self-sacrificing martyrdom of solidarity.
Empire delights in the vanquishment of enemies, while the martyr Church gracefully abandons the idea of enemy by loving and serving all. Empire likes enforced uniformity, but seductively hides that within individualistic language that drives ideologies. Brent Peterson again has prescient words for this phenomenon. “Within an empire imagination, our personal liberties and freedoms must never be transgressed—even if that means other humans will suffer. Economic and political violence are tools wielded to eliminate real or perceived threats to our way of life.” (Peterson loc 154) This extends to the ecclesial use of economic and political violence. Running up to the 2016 and 2020 election seasons, several Nazarene clergy were targeted by people attempting to use polity to defrock people for either not voting for Donald Trump. Or, even worse in their estimation, daring to vote for any candidate with Democrat after their name. Leave aside the American centric ideology at play, consider the ideology of thought crime present in that list.
Empire celebrates when its “enemies” are defeated. The mention of lists of pastors being readied to “go after” and glee at the recent defrocking of a longstanding member of clergy in the Church of the Nazarene (COTN) should cause lament rather than celebration. Except for very heinous reasons, losing a member of clergy should be mourned and not celebrated. Martyrs do not revel in the pain of others. Lest everyone feel safe, the reasons for that dismissal will not be the only political violence brought to bear on clergy in the COTN. To understand the desires of those making lists, you can read the original charges brought against Rev. Dr. Tom Oord in 2022, which included misguided attempts to define Nazarene doctrines and general orthodoxy in a more fundamentalist context exclusive of the central charge.
With the recent changes to judicial statements to change “teaching against” to become “promoting against”, I can imagine the use of book reviews, shared quotes, and other innocent actions to be used as evidence to charge clergy and stoke fear into the hearts of faithful pastors. I can’t imagine that those charges stick, but the fear will change the way clergy interact with ideas. The central issue is that many seem more informed by their political thoughts and ideologies than with theological depth.
I will give a simple example. The term social justice is one that a particular political ideology has caused to be seen as anti-Christian by some. Social justice is a part of who Wesleyan-Holiness people have always been. The idea that structures can be opposed to the flourishing of human beings goes back to the early church. As Diane Leclerc mentions, this was also part of John Wesley’s approach to faith.
“Wesley was interested not only in feeding, clothing, and caring for the poor but also in rectifying and reforming the social structures that kept them poor. This was true of the Holiness Movement as well. It was, and is, not good enough to call such oppressive structures an unfortunate result of the evil in the world that came as a result of the Fall. This goes against the very essence of Wesleyan optimism. Acting, specific intentional acting, for what has come to be known as social justice must also be at the heart of Wesleyan-Holiness theology.” (Leclerc 4644)
Contrast that with a paper written by a member of Nazarene clergy distributed by clergy, including some in leadership. The paper in question misrepresents some major points by using exclusive sources from a far right perspective. The author of the paper quotes a book dealing with privilege and the extremes of individualism by claiming a rejection of individualism is a rejection of individual responsibility. Empire loves the selfish application of individualism that rejects social evils. The martyr church recognizes that we have both individual responsibility and shared responsibility to work to remove structures that can harm. I think the context is so important to the misused quote, I will include the part in ellipses below the use in the paper. The ideology presented in the paper might drive clergy who support our historic embrace of social justice to find themselves in lists in an empire context.
Within Social Justice the idea of individualism is rejected. In fact, some see anyone who holds the idea of individualism, and especially individual responsibility, as being racist. In White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo’s New York Times bestselling book – a book being used as assigned reading in some of our Nazarene schools – DiAngelo writes: ‘Individualism claims that there are no intrinsic barriers to individual success and that failure is not a consequence of social structures but comes from individual character. According to the ideology of individualism, race is irrelevant. Regardless of our protestations that social groups don’t matter and that we see everyone equal, we know that to be a man as defined by the dominant culture is a different experience then being a woman…These groups matter.’ (McDowell)
Here is the original from DiAngelo’s book, which expounds on how social structures create dissonance. Ironically, those who shared McDowell’s article also claim culture is evil, yet they do not seem willing to accept that social structures can be culpable in evil.
Of course, we do occupy distinct race, gender, class, and other positions that profoundly shape our life chances in ways that are not natural, voluntary, or random; opportunity is not equally distributed across race, class, and gender. On some level, we know that Bill Gates’s son was born into a set of opportunities that will benefit him throughout his life, whether he is mediocre or exceptional. Yet even though Gates’s son has clearly been handed unearned advantage, we cling tightly to the ideology of individualism when asked to consider our own unearned advantages. Regardless of our protestations that social groups don’t matter and that we see everyone as equal, we know that to be a man as defined by the dominant culture is a different experience from being a woman. We know that to be viewed as old is different from being viewed as young, rich is different from poor, able-bodied different from having a disability, gay different from heterosexual, and so on. These groups matter, but they don’t matter naturally, as we are often taught to believe. Rather, we are taught that they matter, and the social meaning ascribed to these groups creates a difference in lived experience. We are taught these social meanings in myriad ways, by a range of people, and through a variety of mediums. This training continues after childhood and throughout our lives. Much of it is nonverbal and is achieved through watching and comparing ourselves to others. (DiAngelo p 10) (Italics show phrases used in the paper’s quote within their context)
Ask any female member of clergy in the COTN about the DiAngelo quote and she will most likely confirm the truth that men and women are seen differently. Also, please see the incredibly out of context use of “These groups matter” in the paper’s quote. The words following matter are important. This is the rigor with which we might expect charges to come forth if someone decided social justice ideas needed to be punished. Individualism leads too easily to selfishness and can even be a hindrance to the fruit of the Spirit.
Fear will never create lasting change in the human heart. To extend the metaphors I mentioned earlier may show a better path forward. In marriage, partners are united in love for one another. Our relationship as the Church to Jesus is portrayed as a marriage and marriages entered into out of fear start on rather shaky ground. Our bodies are reflections of the diversity of the Church, according to Paul. When we care for our bodies, fear may be a starting point, but for lasting change to happen, there needs to be care and even love toward ourselves. If a member of our body is suffering, we work to ease that suffering. So should be the action of the Church to ease suffering for all those created in the image of God.
Invitation to relationship is what can lead to lasting change. In other words, a relationship is required for true repentance. That relationship is one of being lured by a God who is with us and desires for us to experience the reconciling truth of God’s love in relationship. I pray we are offering invitation to the transforming love of God.
DiAngelo, Robin. White Fragility: Why It’s so Hard for White People to Talk about Racism. Boston: Beacon Press, 2018.
Leclerc, Diane. Discovering Christian Holiness: The Heart of Wesleyan-Holiness Theology. Kansas City, Mo: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 2010.
McDowell, Dan. “The Seduction of Social Justice,” n.d.
Peterson, Brent D. The Church. The Wesleyan Theology Series. Kansas City, MO: The Foundry Publishing, 2023.