Archive for the ‘Holiness’ Category

For Oneness Pentecostals, the Christian life is a holy calling, reflective of the nature & character of the One Who has called.  For us, the Church is neither fully immersed nor fully engaged in larger culture.  For us, the Church is separate, set apart, sanctified, counter-cultural, existing as an alternative society that is in the world, but not of the world.  For us, the command to “Be holy, for I am holy” is just as much a part of the call of God today as it has ever been.  It is then incumbent on us as both the inheritors of the Holiness Tradition, and those who view God as first and foremost holy, to ensure that we embrace the holiness ethic with all our hearts & lives.

For us, the Holiness Ethic is a worldview based on the idea that God is Ultimately Other.  He is Not-Us.  This is the root of God’s command, “Be holy, for I am holy.”  The Holiness Ethic finds its taproot in God’s Otherness, God’s separateness.  And as God is Other, as God is Separate, so we are called to be other, to be separate.

Those who embrace the Holiness Ethic seek to understand how God expressed His “otherness” to humankind, and then apply that understanding to the entire scope of human life-experience.  In this manner, God’s holiness becomes the measure of how we as Christians understand and engage grand ideas of politics, economics, & justice (criminal, civil, social, and economic).  God’s holiness also becomes the governing principle of how we engage relationships, creation, and our career.  The Holiness Ethic becomes the guide to how we approach all aspects of daily living, the filter through which our thinking passes, and the measure by which we estimate what is good and true.  The Holiness Ethic forms our entire approach to life.

Once we accept the notion that the root of the Christian idea of holiness is that God is Other, we move to the stage of trying to assess just how God is “other”.  Fundamentally, God’s “otherness” is expressed by the values that He has declared are His own.  Discovering what those values are is critical to the Holiness Ethic, because if God’s “otherness” is expressed by His values, then for all intents and purposes, personal holiness eventually becomes a matter of living out God’s values in the world. So, the Holiness Ethic is about living out what God has identified by His own commitment as the most important values for His People to live by.

Now that we have some idea why we emphasize the things we do regarding personal holiness, let’s try to be candid about some of the effects our traditional emphasis may have…both positive and negative.

One of the positive effects of our traditional emphasis on personal holiness includes the realization that being in relationship with the Holy God will have profound impact on the realities of life.  Another is the understanding that since we represent the Holy God in a sinful world, we are fundamentally counter-cultural. Our Christian distinctiveness should set us apart.  Finally, another positive is the knowledge that sanctity is ultimately practical; sanctification is not merely theological and spiritual. It works itself out in how Christians behave and how they present.

But there are also negatives effects…negatives that include an easy slide from sanctified living to legalism.  Of course, we recognize that legalism is not the insistence that Christians behave and present distinctively.  Legalism is, however, an emphasis on the letter of such laws, while ignoring their intent or spirit.  Further, legalism is reflected in the tendency of some to make issues of practical sanctity salvific. In other words; if one isn’t living in accordance with them, one is probably not saved.  (This is always a puzzler, knowing how greatly these concepts may vary from region to region.)  Another negative effect of our traditional emphasis is the adoption of a critical and judgmental spirit…which even though we understand doesn’t have to be present, those of us who are experienced in such matters know how often it usually is.  A final negative effect, and perhaps the most dangerous, would be the tendency to continually expand the “list” of prohibitions to include things that are not Biblical, or are based on very questionable Biblical exegesis.

So, while the understanding that God is holy and calls us to be holy people is of undeniable significance, and while appreciating that a holy life most certainly will work itself out in practical matters, we must also be very careful not to add to the great pressure of an already counter-cultural life a list of codes that are based on a leader’s feelings, and things that will not pass Scriptural muster.  Every prohibition or code should be required to come under the scrutiny of sound exegetical practice.  Not only should we ask, “What did the apostles say?”, but we should also ask, “Why did they say it?”

Finally, it’s important to realize that, at the core, holiness is about living out God’s values…about demonstrating in practical ways what God considers important.  One can easily lose track of this when one begins to think that holiness “is all about me…about what I do, about how I feel, about what I want, and how it makes me better.”  Instead, the adoption of a holiness ethic calls for us first to consider holiness and sanctification from God’s point of view.

Though many North American Oneness Pentecostals like to think of our movement as having suddenly been born on earth from heaven with no earthly theological antecedents, little could be further from the truth.  Historically, the organized efforts of the Oneness Movement in North America have their roots in early trinitarian Pentecostal organizations, most notably the Assemblies of God.  Further, the Pentecostal movement in North America has it’s theological roots primarily in the Holiness Movement of the 19th century.

The Holiness Movement was itself a loose association of denominations and mission organizations that arose primarily in the latter half of the 19th century.  They were Methodist in theology, but held certain distinctive beliefs that formed the core of their emphasis.  While they shared with Methodism belief in a “second work of grace”, they were distinctive in their emphasis on how this experience would result in sanctified living.

They believed that aspects of God’s Law were pertinent, and expected their members to follow strict behavioral rules.  Among these strict rules were equally strict & modest dress codes.  Among those strict dress codes were prohibitions on makeup, jewelry, sleeves above the elbows, and the wearing of pants by women.  Women were also expected to have long hair.

The point of this very brief & necessarily simplistic examination of the history of the Oneness Pentecostal movement is to help you understand why many Oneness denominations have traditionally placed such emphasis on “personal holiness”.  We didn’t invent this emphasis; we’re simply a contemporary expression of it. From Methodism, to the Holiness Movement, to trinitarian Pentecostals, to us…  Turns out we’re not that original after all.

Holiness is a touchy subject in most of our churches.  We feel conflicted because on the one hand most of our ministers and congregations don’t really want to focus on it specifically…not very much, anyway.  (Though sometimes we bow to denominational pressure to do so.)  On the other hand, God’s call for us to be holy people is Scripturally undeniable.  This conflict arises in no small part because of the way we’ve defined & applied “holiness” in our movement, and now in the minds of most Oneness Pentecostal people the very word is fraught with tension.  This is the tension that exists between our awareness of God’s call, and our frustration with the traditional Oneness Pentecostal approach to it.

In spite of this tension, or perhaps even because of it, it’s more important than ever before for us to know what a “holiness ethic” is and why it’s important.  It’s important for us to grasp what having a holiness ethic might mean for us and our interactions with the world.  This understanding is important because God is holy, and because He has called us to be holy people.  A holiness ethic is important because our appreciation of God’s nature and calling must transcend a narrow, culturally delineated application of holiness.

But everything starts somewhere.  Every idea has a root, and ground from which it grew.  The Oneness Pentecostal movement’s focus on a particular view of “holiness” is not original with us nor unique to us.  The concept we generally embrace as “holiness” is an inherited one, and has been shared by other movements both previous to ours and contemporary with ours.  Having a basic understanding of how this particular heritage came to us would help us grasp the current focus…even while maintaining reservations about it.  Understanding where we are from and how we got to where we are now is important in order for us to truly appreciate where we are going.

Next; a brief history of the Oneness Pentecostal movement.

Starting Monday, May 9, I’ll be publishing excerpts from a series of lectures I’ve recently given on The Holiness Ethic.  Obviously, as excerpts, they’ll be limited in scope; the meat being reserved for those faithful students who endure my teaching.  Still, there may be enough in them to stimulate your thinking.

So, God being willing, we’ll “see” you Monday!