Why Social Holiness – Part One

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by Dr Roger Green

First presented at the Speak Out online conference and used here by permission of the author.

The question of social holiness in Wesleyan theology brings us immediately to the problem of what we mean by social holiness in a way that is faithful to the intent of John Wesley. It is possible to assume either too much or too little from Wesley’s now famous dictum that “The gospel of Christ knows of no religion, but social; no holiness but social holiness.”1 But it is clear from reading Wesley carefully that social holiness was on the one hand a reference to the holiness of the community that prevented his doctrine of holiness from being a metaphor for some kind of monastic retreat from life, what Wesley referred to in a previous sentence to “solitary religion.” On the other hand, in keeping with one of the central biblical passages for Wesley, Matthew 22:34-40, social holiness was obviously love for the neighbor. Stressing one without the other leads to problems in both directions, and keeping the balance is the task of the Church.

In keeping with these introductory remarks, this paper will deal with three matters: social holiness as personal piety in community life; social holiness as care for the neighbor; and the development of social holiness in the theology of William Booth. The third will be the longest section of the paper because it addresses questions of our own theological history and our own identity.

I. Social Holiness as Personal Piety in Community

John Wesley appreciated the early church writers as well as some of the practices and disciplines of those early Church Christians. And while he also appreciated some of the Christian growth that was appropriated through monasticism, he believed that true religion led beyond the believer to the community of saints. Life in the Kingdom of God is ultimately life lived in this world, both with believers and with the ungodly. While the necessity of belonging to class meetings was indispensable to relating to believers, caring for the neighbor was indispensable to living out the gospel in the world. Kenneth Collins has clearly stated this in the following way: “The deep, hidden, and profound work of the heart’s renewal in the image and likeness of God cannot remain hidden, for it will inevitably be displayed in the life and works of Christians as they care for a hurting world. . . .To use a familiar Wesleyan phrase, faith works by love; inward religion, so mysterious and personal, is necessarily manifested in outward religion, in public life.”2

Of course it is impossible to speak of inward religion separate from outward religion and the opposite is true. The two are interconnected by the ordination of God, the life and ministry of Jesus and the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of both the believer and the Church. Therefore two dangers are constantly to be avoided. Collins reminds his readers of both:

In light of this close connection that Wesley draws between inward and outward religion, two errors are possible: On the one hand if the interior life is merely stressed, faith will not achieve its proper end: namely, love. What will emerge, however, is a dead faith, the kind of spiritual narcissism that Wesley so rightly deplores in Discourse IV. But if, on the other hand, the life of the believer, the life of God in the soul, is not seen as the proper foundation for Christian activity in society, then the very heart, reason, and impetus for such activity will be obscured. Therefore, Wesley’s social ethic should not be employed to repudiate or to undermine his emphasis on personal religion—that renewal of the believer’s heart in righteousness and true holiness. His thought provides no warrant for this; in fact, it militates against it.3

Such inward religion, the sanctification of the heart of every believer, is the clear work of the Holy Spirit and is therefore to be prized.4 But this is always a work of the Spirit in Trinitarian context, sent from God the Father to bear witness to God the Son, and conforming the believer to the image of the Son. The believer lives out his or her life in the body of Christ. While the work of God in the believer is a very personal experience, it is never a private experience. It always manifests itself in the community of the faithful, and without life in that community the experience will die as surely as a branch dies when cut off from the tree. Life in the Church is a mandate and not a luxury for the believer.

In the sentences following his dictum on social holiness Wesley exhorts that “‘Faith working by love’ is the length and breadth and depth and height of Christian perfection. ‘This commandment have we from Christ, that he who loves God, love his brother also;’ and that we manifest our love ‘by doing good unto all men; especially to them that are of the household of faith.’” And in the next paragraph he warns that those who are saved by grace through faith are taught by God “’not to forsake the assembling of yourselves, as the manner of some is;’ but to instruct, admonish, exhort, reprove, comfort, confirm, and every way ‘build up one another.’”5 In his Upon Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, Discourse the Fourth (1748) Wesley first demonstrated “that Christianity is essentially a social religion, and that to turn it into a solitary religion is indeed to destroy it.”6

While much of the preaching and writing in The Christian Mission and the early Army focused primarily on the work of the Spirit in the life of the individual believer, there was a growing recognition that such a life is experienced and lived out in the community of the faithful. One of William Booth’s songs well exemplified this. Note the corporate language in his “Thou Christ of Burning, Cleansing Flame”:

Thou Christ of burning, cleansing flame
Send the fire!
Thy blood-bought gift today we claim
Send the fire!
Look down and see this waiting host,
Give us the promised Holy Ghost,
We want another Pentecost,
Send the fire!

However, social holiness had a second meaning that related to love for the neighbor. It is to that expression of social holiness, the more traditional notion, that we now turn.


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