Holiness for the MP3 generation – Part 2

dchCicero in 46 BC observed: “Not to know what happened before you were born is to remain forever a child.” In Part 1 of Discovering Christian Holiness (Beacon Hill, 2010), Diane LeClerc examines the biblical foundation for holiness. (You can read my essay on Part 1 by clicking here). Now in Part 2, true to Cicero’s adage, she fills us in on the history of holiness doctrine, on “what happened” before our time, providing a panoramic view of the centuries. What emerges is strong evidence that – far from being a oddity – holiness has remained an important theological concern for thinkers across the ages.

The terrain LeClerc traverses is vast. In this short essay, we turn our attention to three selected themes (or persons) that she covers, namely: 1) holiness and asceticism; 2) Jerome, and 3) Mildred Bangs Wynkoop.

Holiness and asceticism

Western evangelicalism is recovering an appreciation for ancient faith, including the spiritual disciplines practiced by monks. In Chapter 3, LeClerc lists “radical asceticsim” among the “important elements in the development of an early theology of the holy” (p. 80). When persecution of Christians waned following the rise of Constantine in the early 4th century, treating one’s body harshly became an alternative to martyrdom.

Though LeClerc does not develop the theme too deeply, it is worthwhile to consider the rise of renewal movements historically. For example, in 18th century England, a non-demanding form of Christian faith held sway, similar to how being a Christian became socially advantageous under Constantine. The Methodist movement – like ancient monasticism – demanded much more of its adherents. There were rules of conduct, and if individuals refused to follow them, becoming what John Wesley called “disorderly walkers,” they were unceremoniously booted out of the Methodist societies. So while there were no early Methodist monks, the Methodist spirit certainly contained ascetic elements.

In Wesleyan-Holiness churches today, have we maintained ascetic elements, or have we “lowered the bar” much like in Constantine’s time? In her foreword to Gregory Crofford’s Mere Ecclesiology: Finding Your Place in the Church’s Mission (Wipf & Stock, 2016), JoAnne Lyon observes: “I believe that one reason for overall declining membership in the church, particularly in the West, is that there is no challenge” (p. ix). LeClerc reminds us that monasticism was accompanied by a concern for rigourous living, a non-conformity to the broader societal dubious moral norms. While the danger of legalism is always present, we would do well to revisit what spiritual challenges we offer youth who have grown weary of the libertinism of our day.

Jerome (347-420 AD)

In addition to asceticism, LeClerc gives two pages to Jerome. Known mostly for his Scripture translation (the Latin Vulgate), I was fascinated to learn the strong influence Jerome had on early Christian views of marriage. Jerome came to teach that those who are married are in some sense less holy than those who live a life of celibacy.  LeClerc notes: “He (Jerome) praised countless women for leaving husbands and children behind so that they could be entirely devoted to God” (p. 96).

What are we to make of this? It is undeniable that Christians across history have had an uneasy relationship with sexuality. It is unfortunate that something holy made by God to be celebrated is instead denigrated, even in backhanded ways, like that of Jerome. Though most evangelicals today would deny that there is a hierarchy of sins, it is striking how often sexual sins get top billing and other sins that Scripture mentions far more frequently – such as neglecting the poor – receive little attention. It is time that we get over our fixation upon things sexual and recast the pursuit of holiness in far broader terms.

Mildred Bangs Wynkoop (1905-97)

In Chapter 4, LeClerc moves to a survey of important holiness figures from 1703 to 2000 AD. Beginning with John Wesley, she profiles a total of 32 men and women who have contributed subsantially to the Wesleyan-Holiness theological heritage. It is a source of pride for those in our tradition to see both genders on this list, yet gender aside, Mildred Bangs Wynkoop rightfully receives positive treatment by the author. LeClerc credits her for having “revolutionized the way the doctrine of holiness was articulated in the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition” (p. 127). This revolution was conceptualizing holiness in terms of relationship rather than in terms of eradicating sin, a recovery of a neglected emphasis in the theology of John Wesley (1703-91), namely, holiness as loving God and neighbor (Mark 12:28-31).

mildred bangs wynkoop
Mildred Bangs Wynkoop

This took courage for Wynkoop at a time when most holiness preachers envisioned the “flesh” or the “sinful nature” as a thing, like a bad tooth that needed to be extracted, or a tree stump that God uproots. Wynkoop moved past these problematic subtantival conceptions and in their place taught a more dynamic way of picturing sanctification, as the ongoing pursuit of relationship. Summarizing Wynkoop’s theology, LeClerc concludes:

Our capacity for relationships, for loving relationships, is our God-given purpose and destiny. There is a God-designed holy manner for relating to God, to others, and even to ourselves. Sin distorts these relationships. God-derived love restores them. Holiness, then, is found most clearly when we love as God first loved us (p. 127).

Today’s holiness preachers take for granted the relational way of talking about God’s work in our lives, not realizing that Wynkoop ushered in a paradigm shift of immense proportions.

Summing it all up

Ascetism, Jerome, and Mildred Wynkoop are just three elements in Part 2 of Discovering Christian Holiness. Diane LeClerc traces many others in two chapters that are a veritable smorgasbord of information about our holiness forebearers, each one worthy of a book-length treatment of their own. LeClerc does a good job of pointing us to the forest. Let the reader journey into the woods and discover the many trees.


 

Image credit (Mildred Bangs Wynkoop): Asbury E-Place

 

Holiness for the MP3 generation: Part 1

What is the central theme of the Bible? For the theological descendants of John Wesley (1703-91), the answer has always been holiness. Yet if the holiness legacy is to continue, each generation must articulate it in contemporary terms. Otherwise, the message risks becoming a dusty relic, like an old 78 record you’d find in your great-grandparents’ attic. You know it holds great music, but if anyone is going to hear it today, you have to translate it into MP3 format.

Diane LeClerc does for holiness theology what has been needed for some time. In Discovering Christian Holiness: The Heart of Wesleyan-Holiness Theology (Beacon Hill, 2010), LeClerc is a bridge between generations. Conversant with the way Wesleyan theologians have articulated our message in times gone by, she updates it for today’s readers. In so doing, she conserves what is best from our 18th, 19th, and 20th century heritage then converts it into a format more likely to communicate effectively in the 21st century.

Discovering Christian Holiness has become the go-to textbook for courses on the doctrine of holiness. It is not hard to understand why. At just over 300 pages, it is expansive enough to over all the major themes yet concise enough to not intimidate the newcomer. The book is divided into four parts:

Part 1 – Biblical Holiness

Part 2 – Holiness History

Part 3 – Holiness Theology for Today

Part 4 – Holy Living for a New Century

In the remainder of this essay, we will look at selected themes from the Introduction and Part 1. Subsequent essays will address the content of Parts 2-4.

Key elements of Wesleyan theology

In the Introduction, Diane LeClerc lays out five “key elements” of Wesleyan theology (see pp. 19-30):

  1. It arises out of the biography of John Wesley;
  2. It is soteriologically founded;
  3. It is thoroughly optimistic;
  4. It is practical;
  5. It is foundational to holiness theology

I especially appreciate the third point, sometimes called the “optimism of grace.” As a parent, I’ve noticed that children in general will live up (or down) to expectations. If we expect kindness  from our son or daughter, most of the time they will be kind, even if from time-to-time they are not. In the same way, if our preaching emphasizes that the Holy Spirit enables us to live above sin, we usually will, even if from time-to-time we stumble (1 John 2:1). LeClerc summarizes it well: “Sin need no longer reign in the heart. An outpouring of love into the heart ‘excludes sin.’ We can live truly holy lives” (p. 27).

While the five points provide a good summary, LeClerc follows conventional wisdom on John Wesley’s ministry in Georgia, calling it a “debacle” (p. 22). However, Geordan Hammond in his John Wesley in America (Oxford, 2014) provides a more postive picture, seeing Georgia as a “laboratory for implementing his views of primitive Christianity” (Preface, vii). It is doubtful whether Hammond’s research was available at the time LeClerc was writing Discovering Christian Holiness. Nonetheless, a second edition would do well to reference Hammond’s work as a balancing voice.

Leclerc
Diane LeClerc, Professor of Historical Theology, Northwest Nazarene University

The hermeneutic of love

How should Wesleyans interpret Scripture, especially the doctrine of holiness? We do so through the lens of love. LeClerc explains:

Other traditions might interpret God’s holiness in light of God’s power or God’s sovereignty or God’s justice. The Wesleyan-Holiness interpreter does not ignore these themes about God. But by interpreting God’s holiness in light of God’s love, he or she may reach different conclusions about God’s character than those reached by others (p. 54).

Having ruled out the possibility of not having an intepretive lens – or, as LeClerc calls it, being “just a Bible Christian” (p. 34) – LeClerc admits that employing love as a Wesleyan hermeneutical lens is “not without its difficulties” (p. 54). Currently, I am singing tenor in a production of Handel’s “Israel in Egypt.” One song celebrates that God “smote all the firstborn of Egypt.” Paul – a fellow tenor and fellow believer – whispered to me during one of the pauses: “Why would God do that?” The tradition of a “death angel” sometimes is invoked, but Handel was correct: It was not an intermediary that did God’s bloody bidding; it was God himself who directly acted (Exodus 12:29). For these reasons, I question whether love by itself is sufficient as a hermeneutical lens. In stories like the killing of the firstborn of Egyptians, some other characteristic in God’s nature is in view. One may forgive Calvinists for thinking love is too narrow a hermeneutic even if Wesleyans likewise charge that sovereignty has the same weakness. For this reason, it is useful to maintain the adjective “holy” when describing the essence of God as holy love, as do Wesleyan theologians Ray Dunning and Ken Collins. It is in the phrase “holy love” that the importance of God’s honor comes into view, a key consideration in many non-Western cultures that speaking only of “love” does not seem to encompass.

Holiness as the “presence of the good”

In a section entitled “New Testament Images of Holiness,” LeClerc describes holiness in the New Testament as “holistic.” By this she means that “holiness is not just the absence of sin but also the presence of the good. The holy person, then, acts in love and does not simply avoid the unholy” (p. 64). This insight first came home to me in Ken Abram’s book, Positive Holiness: Enjoy the Freedom of Holiness (1988). In short, holiness is not just what I don’t do; more importantly, it is what I do. Some – such as Old Testament scholar Dwight Swanson – have gone further, underscoring the infectious nature of holiness in the New Testament. Whereas in the Old Testament individuals withdrew in order to avoid having their holiness in some way contaminated, in the New Testament – such as when Jesus heals the leper (Matthew 8:1-4) – the direction is inverted; it is cleanness that “infects” uncleanness. LeClerc’s comment about holiness being the “presence of the good” is in-line with Swanson’s observation, a recognition that any holiness sermon that never gets to the positive side of the ledger is incomplete.

Passages “pushed beyond their limits”

In Chapter 2 – “The Whole Holy Tenor of Scripture” – LeClerc does a masterful job. In the space of just 23 pages, she paints the broad panorama of holiness in both Testaments. However, in the middle of the presentation, she asks: “Are there any passages that have been pushed beyond their limits in attempt to support a specific theology of sanctification?” (p. 63). She subsequently does name a few Scripture portions that have been variously intepreted, such as Romans 6-8 and the Spirit baptism passages in Acts. However, I could find nowhere where LeClerc corrects exaggerated interpretations. It’s possible that she wrote something that was subsequently cut by the editor. In any case, the question ends up unnecessarily raising hopes that are then unfulfilled.

Summing it all up

Preachers who are looking for study material for holiness sermons will find a rich deposit in Part 1 of Discovering Christian Holiness. Diane LeClerc succeeds at both introducing the topic of the book and – by addressing what the Bible has to say about holiness – accentuates that Wesleyan-Holiness doctrine first-and-foremost is based upon Scripture. I look forward to reading the remaining parts of the book and reviewing them for my readers.

Catchy slogan, bad theology

not-perfect-just-forgivenYou’ve seen the t-shirts, ball caps, and bumper stickers:

“I’m not perfect, just forgiven.”

It’s a catchy slogan. The problem is, it’s bad theology.

To be fair, who wouldn’t want to celebrate forgiveness? God’s pardon of our sins, after all, is at the heart of the Gospel (Romans 5:1, 1 John 1:9). This is known as justification. Because of Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf, God has accepted us. When we welcome Christ into our lives, turning away from our sin, we are adopted; we become part of God’s family (John 1:12; Romans 8:15; Acts 3:19).

Where the “I’m not perfect, just forgiven” mantra goes off the rails is in the first phrase: “I’m not perfect.” The problem is, Jesus himself called us to be perfect in love:

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:43-48, NIV).

Too often, people quote only v. 48, not taking into account the preceding verses. Jesus is not calling us to an absolute perfection. Such a state of affairs does not exist this side of the Second Coming. John Wesley (1703-91) correctly taught that we will always live with a thousand “infirmities,” which include forgetfulness, misunderstandings, good intentions gone wrong, and the like. But this does not exempt us from perfection in love. The Common English Bible catches this nuance well: “Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete” (v. 48).

Wesley always asked about his preachers: “Are you going on to perfection?” He longed for them to grow, for their love to become complete. Justification (forgiveness) is not the end, just the beginning! Sanctification (the ongoing process of cleansing) begins when God forgives us. The one who has experienced the lavish grace of Christ naturally wants to go deeper with God, what Peter calls growing in grace and in the knowledge of Jesus (2 Peter 3:18). Like a healthy baby doesn’t stay a baby for long but progresses through life’s stages – toddler, child, teen, adult – so a new follower of Jesus grows up in his or her faith.

But let’s go back to the “I’m not perfect, just forgiven” mantra. As currently promoted, it stunts the growth of Christians. A follower of Jesus who is growing up in their faith will naturally be filled more-and-more with God’s love (Ephesians 3:14-21). If being “forgiven but not perfect” becomes an excuse for not loving, for mistreating a fellow believer or one who has no profession of Christian faith, then the saying may become a weapon in the hands of the devil.

It might not be a catchy slogan, but a more accurate ball-cap would read:

“Are you forgiven, too? Let’s grow together.”

My love is not yet complete. Is yours? If not, then let’s toss aside slogans that stamp a misguided seal of approval on sin. Let’s spur each other on and refuse to excuse each other’s failings as if no other outcome is possible. There is victory in Jesus!

Incarnation and holiness

mangerIt’s a persistent theme across the centuries. Spirit is good; flesh is evil.

Some of the ancient Greek philosophers taught the exaltation of the soul and the denigration of the body. Plato extolled the immortal soul while Gnosticism later picked up the theme, infecting early Christianity with the notion that salvation is achieved only when the soul is liberated from the prison house of corrupt flesh. Augustine never escaped the lure of this view, implying the dirtiness of the body by teaching that original sin is passed down through the procreative act.

The negative Greek view of human flesh is what makes the reaction to Paul’s teaching in Acts 17 understandable. He met with a group of Epicurean and Stoic philosphers at Mars Hill in Athens (17:18). At first, they gave him a polite hearing as he attempted to build a bridge to them, speaking of the altar he had discovered which bore the inscription “to an unknown God” (v. 23). But then Paul lost his audience as quickly as he had gained it. What did he do wrong? He affirmed that God had raised Jesus from the dead (v. 31). Nothing bespeaks the value and goodness of the human body like God’s willingness to restore one to life. The philosophers would have none of it.

But we’re getting a bit ahead of the story. Long before Easter comes Christmas. While Easter is the feast of the resurrection, Christmas is the feast of the incarnation:

The Word became flesh and made his home among us. We have seen his glory, glory like that of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth (John 1:14, CEB).

The eternal, Triune God who had made all that is and pronounced it “good” (Genesis 1) tabernacles among us as Emmanuel, God with us (Matthew 1:23) thereby dignifying humble flesh. If the Gnostics were correct to believe that the pure spirit of divinity could never stoop to inhabit a corrupt human body, then the incarnation becomes a non-sense. Yet we are not Gnostics and should resist their false teaching. Christian orthodoxy affirms that whatever the disobedience of Adam and Eve may have done to the human condition, God still sees in our body something already very good, something worth saving and perfecting.

Christmas as the moment when the Word became flesh is the celebration of God’s good creation as symbolized by the tiny body of a baby boy. Our body was never meant to be viewed as a brake on our spiritual progress, as something that weighs down our escape from this world. Far from a hindrance to our relationship with God, the body – properly viewed – becomes an instrument of praise. For every follower of Christ, our body becomes the very temple of God’s Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19). Our body – what God already pronounced “supremely good” (Genesis 1:31, CEB) – we give back to the Lord so that it may be purified and set apart for sacred use (Romans 12:1-2). We worship God with our body. In so doing, our body becomes a vehicle the Lord can use for holy purposes.

The next time you are tempted to think of your body as an obstacle to fulfilling God’s mission in your life, remember that the eternal Christ never spurned a body. Instead, he saw the incarnation as necessary, a human body as essential to fulfilling his divine calling. This Christmas, let us thank God for the body he has given us, and with joy give our body back to him for his sacred use.

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Image credit: Tou Logoi Logou

 

Holiness as compassionate advocacy

wesley
John Wesley often spoke up for the poor and their squalid living conditions in 18th century England.

When asked the nature of holiness, John Wesley (1703-91) often pointed to Mark 12:28-31. All of the commandments are summed up in just two: Love God and love your neighbor. This love is the essence of holiness and it is the foundation of all compassion.

In recent years, we’ve spoken of compassionate evangelism. Now it is time to lift the banner of compassionate advocacy. Advocacy is concerned for social justice. As such, it is hardly a distraction from Gospel work. Rather, it is part-and-parcel of the church’s holistic Good News. In his article, “Social Justice in the Bible,” Dominik Markl notes:

Prophets such as Isaiah and Amos raise their voices on behalf of the poor and the marginalised, those belonging to the ‘weaker’ social groups. God himself prescribes a brotherly and sisterly social order in his Torah, and, in the same divine wisdom, Jesus develops a Christian ethics of love.

Those who are not followers of Christ will judge those of us who are by how we treat people who have nothing to offer in return. Right now on the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation in North Dakota, a few thousand Native Americans – water protectors, as they call themselves – are peacefully resisting the construction of a pipeline across their land. Their concern is that the pipeline is to pass under the Missouri River, potentially fouling its waters with oil in case of a spill. This is hardly an imaginary threat. On July 1, 2011, such a spill polluted the Yellow Stone River. So muscular has been the response to the current standoff in North Dakota that Amnesty International is sending human rights observers.

Why should followers of Christ care? The simplest answer is that we should care about what Jesus cares about. Isaiah 42:1-4a (CEB) is a prophecy of the coming Messiah:

But here is my servant, the one I uphold; my chosen, who brings me delight. I’ve put my spirit on him, and he will bring justice to the nations. He won’t cry out or shout aloud or make his voice heard in public He won’t break a bruised reed; he won’t extinguish a faint wick, but he will surely bring justice. He won’t be extinguished or broken until he has established justice in the land.

As a nation, we’ve done a lousy job of co-existing with those who were here before our European forbearers arrived. We haven’t cared much for these “faint wicks” or about justice in our dealings. But what about the church, particularly the Wesleyan-holiness tradition that I call home? If we are about making Christlike disciples – and that is a crucial task – then we need to cast a broader vision of what being Christlike means. It is more than abstaining from sins that defile us; it is also about coming alongside the weak and the oppressed in their time of need, standing with them in their fiery trial like Jesus stood with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace (Daniel 4:25). How can we read a passage like Isaiah 42 then yawn as if nothing is happening in North Dakota?

Perhaps our inaction stems in part from few of us ever being water deprived, yet water security is a growing issue around the world. Drought can drastically alter how we view this precious gift. When I visited the city of Lubumbashi in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in September 2015, they were suffering an extended drought. The missionaries with whom I stayed sometimes had to decide whether they would wash the dishes or wash themselves. Thankfully, we prayed for rain and God answered our prayer. I went away from that stay taking water a lot less for granted.

Neither do the Sioux take water for granted. They cannot drink oil nor bathe in it. You need water for that.

Some churches are speaking up. Bishop Michael Curry of the Episcopal Church issued a statement last August in support of the water protectors. In his statement, he noted the theological importance of water in Scripture, including it being the baptism symbol of new life in Christ. I commend Bishop Curry for speaking up, but it makes me wonder: As holiness people, where is our voice? If the essence of holiness is love of God and neighbor, then here is a clear-cut chance to show a historically mistreated people that we care. These are our neighbors. Where is our love?

I’m glad that God is raising up around the world a generation of believers for whom justice isses are Gospel issues. May they be patient with us who have been around a bit longer, we who have been slower to see that holiness is both personal and social. And once we’ve seen, may the Lord move us to compassionate advocacy.

Church of darkness or church of light?

squeers
Mr Squeers, the evil headmaster at Dotheboys

There are lessons for the church in unsuspecting places. Charles Dickens’ The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby is one such place.

The 2002 film version builds around a stark light/darkness dualism. Apart from Ralph Nickleby, Nicholas’ cold and wealthy but tightfisted uncle, runners-up for the malevolence trophy are Mr and Mrs Squeers, the heartless taskmasters of Dotheboys, a hellish boarding school for males. It is here that 19-year-old Nicholas takes a job as a teacher. Soon, he sees firsthand the wickedness of his superiors, especially in their abuse of their crippled boy servant, Smike.

During this part of the film, lighting is almost entirely in dark shades. Only young Nickleby shines like a lantern, becoming a benevolent savior to the captives of Dotheboys.

When Nicholas flees the wretched school, he takes Smike with him. As they leave the forest, day dawns and with it a splash of color and light. They join a troop of merry actors and eventually end up back in London. There, Nicholas meets the fair Madeline Bray. Though poor, she selflessly cares for her grumpy and abusive father. Her suffering ennobles her; she casts a pure light on all she meets.

hathaway
Madeline Bray falls for the noble Nicholas Nickleby.

But in day-to-day human existence, there is more than pure light or unmitigated darkness. There are shades of gray, a mixture of both good and evil even in the lives of individual Christians and in the life of the church. This is implied in Paul’s words to the Ephesians:

For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (Ephesians 5:8).

At first reading, it seems Paul is describing their current reality, that they already are “light in the Lord.” The context suggests otherwise. Verses 3-5 give a laundry list of sins they were to avoid, including coarse joking, greed, immorality, and idolatry. That Paul warns against them assumes that all was not well in the church at Ephesus. Likely, dark practices had crept in; sin cast ominous shadows over what would otherwise be the joyful lives of “children of light.”

Good, bad – light, dark. When it comes to the church, have we been both, acting sometimes like Nicholas and Madeline, other times like Ralph Nickleby and the Squeers?

Could it be this strange mixture in the church of good and bad confuses our world and prevents nonbelievers from fully considering the claims of the Gospel?

Let’s try to step into the shoes of a young adult who has no profession of Christian faith but sees how the church (and its members) operate in society. Would such a person tag the church as a “church of light,” righteous, compassionate and coming to the aid of the oppressed, or as a “church of darkness,” self-righteous, concerned mostly for its own needs and silent about the oppression of others?

well

Why might others perceive us to be a “church of light”?

  • digging wells in the developing world – Churches and missionary organizations have dotted the remotest parts of Africa with wells, giving a cup of cold water in the name of Jesus (Matthew 10:42). That kind of compassion makes me proud!
  • combating human trafficking – It may be a restavek in Haiti, or a young girl trapped as a sex worker in Bangkok or Dallas. Slavery exists today in various forms. The church is waking up to the problem and swinging into action.
  • recovery groups – The Celebrate Recovery movement continues to grow. Churches across the United States sponsor small accountability groups that allow people to break free from “hurts, hang-ups and habits,” from overeating to pornography addiction. Many churches sponsor divorce care groups, bring healing to those who have suffered a failed marriage. There is new life in Christ!

Why might others perceive us to be a “church of darkness”?

  • spending mostly on herself and her own comfort – Do we really need fancier sound and lighting equipment for worship times that last only 1-2 hours weekly? Does God really want us as a church to go “first class” (like prosperity preachers claim) or could we be having a greater impact if a larger percentage of our tithes/offerings received were funneled outward toward the needs of our local community?
uncle
Ralph Nickleby, self-absorbed speculator
  • silence when others mistreat minority groups  – In Nicholas Nickleby, Smike (who had run away) is recaptured. Mr Squeers ties him up and promises to cane him within an inch of his life. Nicholas looks on in anguish; what will he do? Will he passively allow the beating or will he intervene? In righteous anger, Nicholas shouts: “Stop! This must not go on.” He rushes forward, snatches the cane from Mr Squeers and beats him (but less than he deserved), then unties the hapless Smike. The Roman Catholic Church and the vast majority of Protestant denominations correctly teach the historic view that God does not condone homosexual practice (Romans 1:18-31, 1 Cor. 6:9-11). Still, can this excuse our passiveness in the face of another caning? While rightly including commonsense provisions about which gender must use which public toilets, a recently minted Mississippi law jumped the rails, striking more broadly at LGBT individuals, permitting rental discrimination by landlords and allowing employers to fire employees solely on the basis of their sexual orientation. We’ve raised our voice against other injustices; why not now? Does not Christ’s love compel us as the church to speak up when any human being is grossly mistreated?

Nicholas Nickleby does well to portray characters who exemplify darkness and light. Where the film is less effective is showing that most people live their lives somewhere between those poles, in the shadow-land. Yet God calls us to holiness, to live according to a consistent, higher standard! Individually as followers of Christ and corporately as the people of God, we are called to forsake all that is dark and to live only as children of light. Where we have sometimes acted as a “church of darkness,” may God accept our repentance, filling us once again with his light, with unconditional love.

Is holiness our hope, or is Jesus? Reflections on a subtle idolatry

E-HOPE-CUSometimes God is gentle breezes and rainbows. Other times, the LORD is ferocious winds and thunder clouds. In Numbers 21, God is both.

The people were griping and complaining…again. They railed against God and Moses:

Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food! (Numbers 21:5, NIV).

Scripture never says in so many words that God was angry, but it’s a justified conclusion. Right after this complaint, the LORD sent venomous snakes into the camp and “many Israelites died” (v. 6).

Yet God – in steadfast love – relented. God commanded Moses: “Make a snake and put it on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live” (v. 8). So Moses made a bronze snake and did exactly what God instructed. Those who looked up at the bronze snake, though bitten by a serpent, were healed.

It’s an inspiring story to that point, so memorable that Jesus discerned in the story a parallel to his own crucifixion, a day when he would be lifted up like the bronze desert snake (John 3:14), a spiritual balm for all who look to him.

But the story of the people of Israel and the bronze snake has another  chapter. Fast forward hundreds of years. It is the time of King Hezekiah and this good servant of God is determined to purge the land and the Temple of idols. In 2 Kings 18:4 (NIV), we read:

“He removed the high places, smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles. He broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made, for up to that time the Israelites had been burning incense to it. (It was called Neshutan).”

bronze snake

What happened? Sometime between Moses and Hezekiah, what had been intended as simply a helpful way to focus their attention on the God who heals had mutated into something magical. Instead of the people looking past a mere symbol to the awesome God behind the symbol, they made the bronze snake an object of their worship, an end in itself.  Sensitive to the voice of the LORD, the king knew it had to go.

“Holiness, Africa’s Hope” is a banner that hung outside a church office, but I wonder: Can holiness become like a bronze snake? Can even the phrase “Holiness Unto the Lord” subtly shift over time to become a magical saying, falsely comforting those who mouth it as if the words themselves have power? Are we with every good intention unwittingly directing people to trust in a religious experience – however meaningful and valid – and not the Saviour who is the source of that experience? Rather than saying “Holiness, Africa’s Hope,” would it not be more accurate and biblical to say: “Jesus, Africa’s Hope”? Nowhere in the New Testament is holiness described as our hope, yet Colossians 1:27 affirms:

“To them (the saints) God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.”

Our hope is not holiness, but Jesus. Our hope is not a what, but a Who.

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