A Culture of Holiness

Most congregations believe they are open and welcoming places. They strive to be communities that welcome and accept all people. Of course, some do this better than others. After all, that’s what the denominational slogan communicates to the world: “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors; The People of The United Methodist Church.”

When congregations strive to be communities of open hearts, minds, and doors they see all people as equal. Since we believe that all people are equal in the eyes and heart of God the church should treat everyone as equals. Because Christ lived and died for all people, no Christian is more saved than another. If God does not favor persons (Acts 10:34; Romans 2:11; Deuteronomy 10:17-18) then the church should receive and accept all persons as equal in God’s eyes. This is the thinking behind open hearts, minds, and doors. It is also the essential nature of the church as the “body of Christ” for the world that God loves.

It is important for leaders in the church to understand that equality is not uniformity. I say this because in the laudable effort towards open hearts, minds and doors and equality, congregations treat everyone the same. Maturity in Christian faith is rarely acknowledged. When it is recognized it is often discounted. I think this is because over the past 100 years Methodists have mistakenly equated holiness, and the desire to grow in discipleship, with being “holier than thou.” No church wants members who think and behave as though they are better than everyone else. So, in the effort to discourage “holier than thou” thinking and behavior congregations end up discounting holiness altogether. Thus alienating members who want more out of church and their faith than a friendly, welcoming place that affirms them for who they are but has no real expectation that they will ever “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Ephesians 4:15).

The North American church has confused inclusiveness with holiness. While it is certainly a product of holiness, inclusiveness is an inadequate substitute. Certainly congregations must do all in their power to be welcoming, inclusive, and safe communities in a world that all too often excludes, marginalizes, and demeans broken and vulnerable people. When the church lives out its baptismal covenant it Christ is at the center of its life and mission. When congregations are centered in Christ and his mission in the world, they become communities that welcome all people, love them into holiness of heart and life, and sends them into the world to serve with Christ.

In Ephesians 4:1-16 Paul gives a template for the church’s character and mission. He gives a helpful description of holiness in verses 1-3: “I therefore, the prisoner in The Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” He leaves no room for “holier than thou” thinking or behavior. Rather, Christians are to help each other to become the persons God created us to be, in the image of Christ. All are called to the ministry by virtue of their baptism. The call is to following Jesus Christ and joining him in his mission of preparing this world for the coming reign of God.

When the congregation is centered upon Jesus Christ and his teachings holiness of heart and life (loving God with all we are and loving those whom God loves) follows. Open hearts, minds, and doors are important fruit of a culture of holiness. Building a culture of holiness requires intentional Christian formation that cooperates with the work of the Holy Spirit and the dynamic of grace (prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying). Such a system accepts people as they are and provides the means for them to grow at their own pace. While the congregation knows all people are equal in God’s heart they are not all the same. They acknowledge what John Wesley called “degrees of faith.”

John Wesley taught that faith develops in the human heart in the same way a child is formed in her mother’s womb, experiences birth, and then grows and develops into a fully formed, mature person (see Sermon 45: “The New Birth”, §II.4). Like a child, faith must be nurtured. Congregations help this development when they expect growth and provide the means for it to occur. Again, Mr. Wesley helps us by prescribing the teaching of essential Christian doctrine, openness to the work of the Holy Spirit, and the discipline provided by a system of small groups that meet people where they are and support continuing maturation in faith, hope, and love.

Open hearts, open minds, and open doors become reality when congregations determine to build and support a culture of holiness centered in Jesus Christ and his mission in the world. Inclusiveness becomes genuine when hearts, minds and doors are open to grace and the power of the Holy Spirit that transforms the world.

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8 responses to “A Culture of Holiness

  1. Steve,
    An excellent post. This is an area where we are certainly weak. I would add that it is also useful to consider the meaning of holiness as being “set apart” for God. We are called to that by our baptismal vows and the vows that we take when others are baptized. A while ago, the Lord convicted me by asking what I had done to fulfill the congregational vows I made when others were baptized into the church. Keep up the important work of emphasizing the need for personal holiness.

  2. Pingback: Holiness creates inclusiveness « John Meunier

  3. Steve, you said: “The North American church has confused inclusiveness with holiness. While it is certainly a product of holiness, inclusiveness is an inadequate substitute. Certainly congregations must do all in their power to be welcoming, inclusive, and safe communities in a world that all too often excludes, marginalizes, and demeans broken and vulnerable people.” True-True-True…
    Just the other day someone posted a picture on FACEBOOK of a person wearing a large 3-foot by 4-foot signboard around his or her neck that said “I STOLE FROM WALMART”. The person was then ordered to walk back and forth in front of the WALMART store for several hours over several days. A circuit court judge in Florida ordered this as punishment for having stolen from the store. Now my question and the relevance to this forum: “how in this world can this person find a welcoming faith community after having seen him being punished for his theft in this manner?” … Honestly it is a rare, rare church that will accept him or her without remembering their past. As you and others continually remind us a culture of Holiness is a nurturing process that begins with church members committing themselves to be willing to learn to love like Christ, forgive like Christ and be used by Christ to include the marginalized in their lifestyle. Honestly we’re asking people to take a risk, to put themselves and their families in jeopardy when we ask them to do this. But, what is being people of faith in Christ if we never learn to trust our safety and security to Christ?… This is HOW we grow in Christ, by deliberately putting ourselves in positions of risk and vulnerability so there is nowhere else but to trust our safety and security to Christ. So do we become martyrs and contact our criminal justice system and offer to walk that store front for the criminal? Maybe yes! But then why not become partners with our justice system and work with them to redeem those guilty of crimes against society? We’d be asked to pay retribution? Yes, most likely. Be responsible for future lawlessness?
    Most likely… But oh what an opportunity to share the Lord Jesus and enrich our lives in ways beyond this world. Oh my but we are a peculiar people “For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does.
    The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. II Corinthians 10:3-4.

  4. Craig brings out an excellent point in standing in solidarity with the marginalized. I seem to recall that Wesley himself stood with a condemned man on his way to the gallows at least once.
    Hoiness is contagious, but in the congregation it is a long nurturing/coaching process. It will take a lot of work. As we say in the recovery community, “It only works if you work it.” This is one of the reasons I am a United Methodist Christian.

  5. I think one of the points Steve is trying to make is that we don’t have an adequate way of lifting up the congregational examples of radical inclusiveness and solidarity with the marginalized as seasoned models folks ought to emulate. In many “social groupings” in our world, there is a process for seasoned people to say to beginners “do it this way.” Have we lost the ability to say that when it comes to discipleship?

  6. Glad I found this blog. After years of identifying more with the Wesleyan vision than my current denomination (SBC), my family is seriously thinking about making the move to a Methodist congregation. We have lots of them in my city – but the problem we are running into is the same issue you are taking on in this post. We love the core beliefs, and we love the commitment to “open hearts, open minds” (a huge deficiency in the SBC). But as I visit UMC churches, what I cannot find is any depth of holiness. No systematic approach toward dying to self and conforming more and more to Christ. Isn’t this what Methodism is supposed to be about?

  7. Great article, Steve. Confusing holiness with inclusiveness was a shocker for me. Made me sit up and take notice! No one seems to want to do discipleship or accountability anymore, and it leaves me very sad about our prospects for the future. I usually include an accountability element in every Bible study or other class I may be involved in, but normally eyes glaze over when I try to encourage others to consider this. Any suggestions would be appreciated!