Charlie was an active 11-year-old with autism. His parents had been thinking about attending church. They decided it was time to try to find a congregation that would love them, and love their son. About halfway through Sunday school one morning, Charlie's parents were summoned. The volunteers couldn't handle him. They were asked to find another church, because this church "just couldn't meet his needs." Other churches conveyed the same sentiment. The family finally gave up and decided that attending church was too hard.
We all know people who have been hurt by the church. People who have been so offended, wounded, or even abused that they have given up on it. Perhaps you've had this experience yourself.
Church is sometimes dysfunctional, uncomfortable, cross-purposed, and painful. We have pastors who fail God, themselves, and their congregations. We endure grumpy, self-righteous criticism reminiscent of the Pharisees. We fight each other, sometimes to the point of parting ways for good. Some observers say we are in danger of losing a whole generation of embittered souls who believe the church has lost its relevance and neglected their needs.
And yet we continue to call the church holy. According to the Nicene Creed, the church has four classical marks: It is "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic." We confess that the church is formed through the Holy Spirit and participates in God's own holiness. Sometimes we call it the "spotted bride" of Christ. At other times we proclaim, in the words of a 19th-century hymn, "'Tis a glorious Church, without spot or wrinkle." How, then, do we explain the seeming contradiction between what we believe about the church and what we experience in the church? Is it wishful thinking to proclaim the church holy? Are pain and heartache just inevitable?
Becoming Who We Are
If there were ever a dysfunctional church, it was the church at Corinth. Paul's first letter to the Corinthians reads like a laundry list of problems. Every chapter presents at least one issue where the church is missing the mark. There are scandals, disagreements, confusion, and outright sin. Members quarrel, pridefully taking sides against each other. They hurt and alienate one another.
And yet, at the very beginning of the first letter, Paul addresses members as those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be saints. Despite all their failures, Paul does not forget what Christ can do in and through them. He points them to their God-enabled potential. In a sense, Paul tells them: "You are holy. Now become who you are."
How can the Corinthian church be both holy and not holy? One way to explain this paradox is through the concept of Christ's "imputed righteousness." We usually apply this to persons, but it also applies to the church corporate. To have Christ's righteousness "imputed" to us means that it belongs to us and counts in our favor. It means having his righteousness cover over our sinfulness, so that God can perceive us as righteous, even though we aren't. Despite lacking any holiness of our own, we are clothed in the "white robe" of Christ's holiness. To claim that the church can enjoy imputed righteousness is not to ignore its failings and shortcomings. But it does remind us of an important aspect of holiness: It is derived from another source.
Human beings derive their holiness from the unique holiness of God. "I am the Lord, who makes you holy" (Ex. 31:13; Lev. 22:32). "I am the Lord your God; consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy. . . . I am the Lord, who brought you up out of Egypt to be your God; therefore be holy, because I am holy" (Lev. 11:44–45). "Consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am the Lord your God" (Lev 20:7). "You are to be holy to me because I, the Lord, am holy, and I have set you apart from the nations to be my own" (Lev. 20:26). Scripture shows a connection between God's holiness and our holiness that must not be forgotten. Our holiness is derived from relationship with God. Wesleyan theologian David Thompson writes:
Characteristically in the Old Testament, holy describes someone or something in a defined relationship. Someone or something has been separated from the profane or the unclean to specific relationship with God. . . . What is described relationally on the one hand as holy (separate) or on the other as profane/common is described ritually as clean or unclean. Thus, in these contexts clean and unclean do not substantially describe the condition of the person or thing, but characterize it with respect to its relationship to the divine. To be clean in this sense is to be holy—set in relation to God; to be unclean is to be unholy—out of and unfit for relation to the divine. In either case, the point is proper or improper relation to God.
The church is the new Israel. If we are in a proper relationship with God through Christ, his righteousness is imputed to us.
Still, the church remains far from what it is called to be. Is this all we can expect—to continue failing and allowing God's righteousness to cover for us?
No, our holiness goes further. Not only are we perceived as holy by God because of Christ's righteousness. Not only is holiness derived from elsewhere. God also seeks to remake us as truly holy, to change us from sinners to saints who live in holy communion with each other. God first declares us holy. But he then gradually imparts the holiness that enables us to "become who we are" as the church. We really are transformed from the inside out. Imputed righteousness must be followed with imparted righteousness.
With Outstretched Hands
It is important to distinguish between true and false meanings of holiness. It is very easy, for instance, to equate holiness with avoiding sinful acts. But this was the underlying disagreement between Jesus and the Pharisees. A Pharisee attempted to follow religious laws perfectly. But Jesus pointed out again and again that what matters most is the condition of the heart. They could technically call themselves faultless (as Paul does in Philippians) and yet fall short of what Christ values most: the life of love.
If we define human holiness as being sinless, we have defined it merely by an absence. But holiness is never a passive condition of having abstained from certain wrongs. It requires the purposeful desire to walk rightly. The best definition of holiness, then, is love—an active, engaged, embodied love for God, each other, and the world.
In the context of the church, holiness means living out this call of love in relation to one another. In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul outlines how a holy church should function.
First, the church's purpose is to represent Christ on earth. We become the body of Christ in his bodily absence. We are to go where Christ would go and do the ministry Christ would do. We are to minister to the poor, the outcast, the stranger, and the vulnerable. We are to feed them, invite them in, heal them, and show them hospitality. Our hearts are cleansed by God; this impels us, as the church, to get our feet dirty in the world's messiness. If the church is to be holy, it must fulfill its ultimate purpose as Christ's body, with outstretched hands.
Second, the church is meant to fulfill its purpose by living with each other in a vital, interdependent way. There is no individualism in the body, no such thing as a solitary Christian. The ear or eye cannot say of another part, "I don't need you." Rather, every part of the body needs every other part if the body is to fulfill its purpose on earth. Although we are called to love the whole world, there is a particular love we owe to each other. When one part mourns, all mourn. When one part rejoices, all rejoice. We depend on each other when life becomes difficult. We depend on each other to lift our praises to God. If the church is to be holy, it must be characterized by relationships of mutual love and care.
Third, the body of Christ is called to value all of its parts in equal measure. This would have been surprising to Paul's audience. "Equality" was not a concept in Greco-Roman society. Everyone had a particular part to play, but it was very clear who had value—who had power and authority—and who didn't. Paul dares to proclaim that in God's economy, the less presentable parts have equal value. The "disabled" parts are treated with special honor. If the church is to be holy, it must affirm that every part—every person—is highly valued, equally needed, and deeply loved.
And, of course, 1 Corinthians 12 is followed by chapter 13, the grand "love chapter." Paul implies that all the problems he has addressed up to this point would work themselves out if only love reigned as it ought. Love is at the very center of holiness. Love is how holiness expresses itself. We could even venture to say that holiness itself is love.
Surrendering Our Lives
If love is what holiness is and does, the only question remains: How do we get holiness? How do we become the sort of people who naturally love others? The answer is that God makes us this way. Sanctification is the word we use to describe imparted righteousness, the kind that moves us beyond imputed righteousness—beyond God's perception of us as holy because we're clothed in holiness belonging to Christ.
God seeks to make us truly, actually holy, and he has commanded that we cooperate with this process. When we first come to Jesus Christ, God begins making us holy. We then grow spiritually. One element of this growth is what theologians call "progressive sanctification." This means that we are being transformed in our inner being to become more like Jesus. Progressive sanctification also involves being renewed in the image of God. God's essence is love. God's image in us is our capacity to love and be loved. As we grow in sanctification, we grow in our renewed capacity to love as Christ loved, and we grow in our willingness and ability to surrender our lives to God.
This surrender (the Wesleyan Holiness movement of the late 1800s called it "entire devotion") is not a chore. It is the only proper response to God's love for us. If we truly understand God's love in a deeply personal way, knowing ourselves to be accepted and forgiven, we will naturally surrender our hearts to God. As we grow in our understanding of what God has done for us and in us, our love for God will grow as well. In Romans 8, when Paul felt assured of God's love, the Spirit testified that he was a child of God. And what was Paul's response to this deep sense of acceptance? He cried out to God with passion and a sense of intimacy, "Abba! Father!" In this sense, our love for God comes from our experience of God's love for us.
Entire devotion means a deep, consistent love for God. This kind of complete surrender displays a singleness of heart toward God, leaving no room for rivals. If sin amounts to idolatry—idolatry of self or of others—then entire devotion is the cure. When we devote ourselves to God entirely, we enable him to work deep in our hearts, transforming us into people who love God, the world, and each other.
Don't Stay Put
This does not make us more than human. Even in a church full of surrendered believers, human frailty alone will lead to problems. But many problems in the church are caused by sin. And we are never told to stay put in our sinfulness. Paul expected the Corinthian church to change and grow. God expects the same progress in our churches today.
Yes, the church is holy because God, on the basis of Christ's imputed righteousness, proclaims it so. But if we desire to move beyond being called holy—if we desire to be holy—then we must cooperate with such grace. In this sense, the holiness of the church is dependent on the holiness of its people. But always and forever, the holiness of its people is dependent on the sanctifying grace of God, who is in essence holy love.
We are God's people. The church is God's church. God, help us to become who we are.
Diane Leclerc is professor of historical theology at Northwest Nazarene University in Nampa, Idaho. She is the author of Discovering Christian Holiness: The Heart of Wesleyan-Holiness Theology (Beacon Hill Press).
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