Why Social Holiness? – Part Two

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II. Social Holiness as Love of Neighbor

To use an expression from the Anabaptist tradition, the Church is an intentional community, called by God to bear witness. This is part of the evangelistic work of the Church—to be a light to the world. People are attracted to that light. Theodore Runyon wrote: “The followers of Christ are called to be ‘salt’ and ‘light’ and ‘leaven.’ These are essentially social functions, argues Wesley, and for this reason we are not to restrict ourselves to associating only with Christians. Holiness is not an avoidance of the world but a challenge to it.”8 In his Upon the Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, Discourse the Fourth Wesley reminds us that “Sure it is that a secret, unobserved religion cannot be the religion of Jesus Christ. Whatever religion can be concealed is not Christianity.”9 And for the revealed religion faith always works by love (Galatians 5:6). And herein lies a challenge to the Army. Never, in my opinion, has it been so necessary for the Army to identify itself as an intentional community as it ministers in the broader Church and to the world. At this very point we are presently vulnerable, and I confess that I do not know in the history of the Church of a group that in some contexts was as anxious to lose its core identity within only a couple of generations as the Army.

Maintaining an awareness of who we are and what we do is as integral to loving our neighbor as the actual actions toward our neighbor that demonstrate our love. Christian Smith is a world recognized scholar in the fiel d of sociology, including the sociology of religion. He is presently teaching at Notre Dame, and in the interest of full disclosure is a Gordon College graduate. One of his books is entitled American Evangelicalism Embattled and Thriving, but in spite of that title there are principles that he discovered in this definitive work that are important to the wider Church. I will dwell on only one here. Christian Smith states that

We might hypothesize that religious groups that are more capable of constructing distinct identity boundaries vis-à-vis outgroups will produce more satisfying morally orienting collective identities and will, as a consequence, grow in size and strength. By contrast, religious groups that have difficulty constructing identity distinctions in a pluralistic environment will grow relatively weaker.10

Simply put, this is not the time to discard our identity boundaries for the sake of being relative to our age—in the pluralistic age in which we live what the culture deems appropriate is always a moving target. But for the sake of love of our neighbor, and therefore for the sake of fulfilling the commandment, this is the time to affirm our identity. Christian Smith has demonstrated that affirming our identity will therefore produce a “more satisfying morally orienting collective identity”—in our case an identity that wants to love our neighbor. Likewise, I am prepared to demonstrate that we grew in size and strength for one reason because we constructed an identity that was quite distinct from the broader culture. Likewise, an inability to construct or maintain such an identity will result in a weakened identity and therefore a weakened ability to carry out the mission.

I have tried to give some hints about how the Booths constructed such an identity within the Methodist tradition, and in the Coutts Lecture I will attempt to address what the task before us is today. Therefore here I will not continue to dwell on this subject except to say that it is a crucial task at this precise time in our Army history.

However, love for the neighbor is the work of the Church if the Church is to fulfill the commandment of Her Lord. Herein is the second usage of the term social holiness, and perhaps the more common understanding of what Wesley meant by his appeal to social holiness. In his article entitled “A Focus on the Holy Spirit: Spirit and Spirituality in John Wesley,” Albert Outler stated that “’Holiness’ is for Wesley, of course, another term for ‘true religion. . .the love of God and of neighbor.’ Pneumatology, therefore is never merely spiritual without an ethical imperative, or vica versa. Personal holiness and social holiness are never disjoined—and their order never reversed.”11

Love for the neighbor manifested itself in many ways for Wesley, from the use of money to enable his Methodists to assist their neighbors, to involvement in specific causes that demonstrated his love for neighbor such as his antislavery stance. These, however, are beyond the scope of this paper, and it is more important that we turn our attention now to the understanding of social holiness, specifically manifested in love for neighbor, in the history and theology of our movement.


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