Tuesday, February 8, 2005

RECOVERING A HOLINESS SOCIAL ETHIC. I grew up in a Protestant Christian faith tradition that traces its roots in the ministry of John Wesley’s 18th-century Methodists and the 19th-century American holiness movement. One of the privileges of a theological education is the awareness--and hope for recovery--of a definitive holiness social ethic that has all but dissipated today. It is this deeper heritage, instead of contemporary shallowness, that fuels my daily service.

NOT JUST WITH WORDS. Church of the Nazarene founder Phineas F. Bresee (pictured above) and Free Methodist Church founder B.T. Roberts not only believed that ministry to the urban poor was important, they intentionally stood with the poor in blighted communities. They defended the poor, advocated against the injustices that fueled poverty, and developed spaces of belonging and access in which the poor were not only welcome but at home.

CHALLENGING SOCIAL INJUSTICES. Both leaders challenged their church brethren to move from merely preaching a holiness of heart (spiritual) to expressing holiness of life (social, material) in solidarity with the marginalized. Such late 19th-century Wesleyan holiness revival advocates not only perceived evil lurking in worldly entertainments and personal vices, but saw the social injustice in condoning unbridled capitalism, in the denial of workers rights, and in rapacious stock market schemes.

BECAUSE OF THE POOR. Bresee and Roberts called for radical simplicity of church facilities, not only because the ostentatious styles were a put-off to the poor, but the sheer cost of unnecessary embellishments were poor stewardship of resources of God’s people. Tithes and offerings should be used to serve the poor, not build impressive structures. Likewise, words, dress, and lifestyle were to be simple...because of the implications for the poor.

A WITNESS DISSIPATED. Over time, radical solidarity with the poor deteriorated into mere charity and infrequent compassion. Holiness groups pulled back from challenging oppressive social structures and marketplace practices. They became known as people who didn’t smoke, dance, drink alcohol, wear jewelry, gamble, or frequent movie theaters. This caricature became the extent of the holiness social ethic.

WHAT WE KEPT AND DISCARDED. I have repeatedly asked: Have holiness folk held on to distinguishing aspects of early Nazarenes and Free Methodists that are not eternally important and at the same time discarded some critical stands in relationship to social ethics that may be critical to reclaim? And I answer my own question with a resounding “Yes!”

FOUR WITNESSES TO RECLAIM: I think the holiness churches have four major witnesses to a holiness social ethic to reclaim in this and the coming generation:

1. SOLIDARITY WITH THE POOR. Re-commit to a radical solidarity with and service among the urban poor of North America. This is our heritage...and calling. I personally wonder if Wesleyan theology and practice make much sense outside this context.

2. RADICAL SIMPLICITY. Re-commit to a radical simplicity of lifestyle, particularly in light of a global economy, in which American consumerism and unbridled, trans-national capitalism directly feeds injustices for laborers and the poor around the world. With what is saved: give, share, redistribute more equitably.

3. PROTEST STOCK MARKET PRACTICES. Re-commit to a radical protest against the stock market because of its rapacious direct, indirect, and residual impact of injustice to common laborers and the poor in America and around the world. Holiness folk should expose stock market practices, companies, and funds that degrade human life and community everywhere. If it is necessary to participate in stock investments at all (as most do indirectly through retirement accounts), utmost care should be taken to examine local labor and market practices of every company in which one is investing…and call for social responsibility.

4. AGAINST ALL FORMS OF VIOLENCE. Re-commit to a radical stand against violence against human beings in all its forms. This is a stand against the violence of war, to be sure. It is also a rejection of the language and norms of violence in our society. Alternatively, it is a pursuit of methods of conflict resolution and shalom-bearing that are a positive testimony to the power of a holy God whose way is love.

So, let me know of a Nazarene or Free Methodist or other holiness church contemporary who is ready to walk this way with me in faithfulness to our holiness heritage and Biblical witness...


  1. Anonymous10:18 PM

    Amen and amen, but please don't leave the rural poor out. I pastor a small Nazarene church in the middle of one of the most economically impoverished areas in the country - the Arkansas delta. Having been raised in Houston, TX, I came here with the mind set of doing compassionate ministry. As Wesley said, there is no holiness without social holiness.

    Dave Pettigrew,
    McCrory, AR

  2. Sign me up, John, on your holiness train. Kind of like Cat Stevens' Peace Train, only different. Let's get radicalized.


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