Holiness: Individual & Communal

One of the books I’m currently reviewing is Discipleship that Transforms: An Introduction to Christian Education from a Wesleyan Holiness Perspective. As I work on the review, I’ll make some peripheral comments here that might be of wider interest.

In the introduction that explains the rationale for the book, editor John H. Aukerman says, “Holiness begins with the individual, bur it must not end there. Personal holiness is necessary, but not sufficient. It is God’s will to have a holy people, not just an aggregate of holy individuals.”

Holiness of any kind is out of vogue in our culture, more a characteristic to be mocked than sought. In fact, our general culture seems so convinced that there is no such thing as holiness, that any claim to holiness usually results in immediate derision. We hear the word most often in reference to those who are “holier than thou,” by which we mean something like “judgmental,” “hypocritical,” or “Pharisaical.”

This text come out of the holiness tradition, however, where holiness is still valued. Through broader in its influences than John Wesley, the valuing of holiness is one necessity of being faithful to him and the tradition stemming from his life and work. The one who claims to be Wesleyan yet rejects holiness is an odd creature indeed.

So this text is committed to holiness. The holiness sought, as we see in this quote is not just the holiness of the individual (perhaps that which is most prone to mockery?) but also of the church.

What I wonder is whether it’s correct to say that “holiness begins with the individual. When I consider my own quest for holiness I become dubious of this claim. I didn’t know that there was such a thing as holiness until I came to faith in Christ in the context of the church, and submitted myself to its practices and disciplines. That community and those practices and disciplines come before me; as a believer, as a potentially holy person, they are prior to any holiness of my own.

Wesleyans make a primary connection between holiness and love. We talk about “holy love.” We talk about the pinnacle of holiness as “being made perfect in love.” Clearly in this context, and in the context of Jesus’ Great Commandment (“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind & strength, and love your neighbor as yourself”) there is something I do as an individual. I am called to love God and the people around me. If this action of loving causes, expresses, or instantiates my holiness, then even if it is something I do, I doubt it is adequate to say that my holiness begins with me.

Turning to the communal, I’m also uncomfortable saying that the holiness of the church, the Body of Christ, derives primarily from my holiness – or, to use Aukerman’s phrase, from “the aggregate of holy individuals,” one of which I potentially am. Rather, I would argue that the holiness of the Body is dependent on the holiness of Christ, and that my holiness is dependent on the holiness of the Body and my life in Christ.

I’m not sure Aukerman would argue with any of this; he’d probably tell me I’m nitpicking. My concern is that as a text in Christian Education, the claim that “holiness begins with the individual” is rooted in the practical claim that our job as Christian educators is to help individuals become/be holy. Yes, doubtless. But is there any sense in which our job is not directed at individuals but at the church as a whole, that our work of leadership is aiming to make the Body as a whole holy? While some of this might come about through a focus on individuals, I’m not convinced that the whole truth lies there. We need to discover more ways to educate the Body as the Body, as a whole, and not just hope that through our work with individuals the aggregate turns out ok.

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