A Culture of Holiness

By Steve Manskar

Most congregations believe they are open and welcoming places. They strive to be communities that welcome and accept all people. Of course, some do this better than others. After all, that’s what the denominational slogan communicates to the world: “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors; The People of The United Methodist Church.”

When congregations strive to be communities of open hearts, minds, and doors they see all people as equal. Since we believe that all people are equal in the eyes and heart of God the church should treat everyone as equals. Because Christ lived and died for all people, no Christian is more saved than another. If God does not favor persons (Acts 10:34; Romans 2:11; Deuteronomy 10:17-18) then the church should receive and accept all persons as equal in God’s eyes. This is the thinking behind open hearts, minds, and doors. It is also the essential nature of the church as the “body of Christ” for the world that God loves.

It is important for leaders in the church to understand that equality is not uniformity. I say this because in the laudable effort towards open hearts, minds and doors and equality, congregations treat everyone the same. Maturity in Christian faith is rarely acknowledged. When it is recognized it is often discounted. I think this is because over the past 100 years Methodists have mistakenly equated holiness, and the desire to grow in discipleship, with being “holier than thou.” No church wants members who think and behave as though they are better than everyone else. So, in the effort to discourage "holier than thou" thinking and behavior congregations end up discounting holiness altogether. Thus alienating members who want more out of church and their faith than a friendly, welcoming place that affirms them for who they are but has no real expectation that they will ever "grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ" (Ephesians 4:15).

The North American church has confused inclusiveness with holiness. While it is certainly a product of holiness, inclusiveness is an inadequate substitute. Certainly congregations must do all in their power to be welcoming, inclusive, and safe communities in a world that all too often excludes, marginalizes, and demeans broken and vulnerable people. When the church lives out its baptismal covenant it Christ is at the center of its life and mission. When congregations are centered in Christ and his mission in the world, they become communities that welcome all people, love them into holiness of heart and life, and sends them into the world to serve with Christ.

In Ephesians 4:1-16 Paul gives a template for the church's character and mission. He gives a helpful description of holiness in verses 1-3: "I therefore, the prisoner in The Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace." He leaves no room for "holier than thou" thinking or behavior. Rather, Christians are to help each other to become the persons God created us to be, in the image of Christ. All are called to the ministry by virtue of their baptism. The call is to following Jesus Christ and joining him in his mission of preparing this world for the coming reign of God.

When the congregation is centered upon Jesus Christ and his teachings holiness of heart and life (loving God with all we are and loving those whom God loves) follows. Open hearts, minds, and doors are important fruit of a culture of holiness. Building a culture of holiness requires intentional Christian formation that cooperates with the work of the Holy Spirit and the dynamic of grace (prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying). Such a system accepts people as they are and provides the means for them to grow at their own pace. While the congregation knows all people are equal in God’s heart they are not all the same. They acknowledge what John Wesley called “degrees of faith.”

John Wesley taught that faith develops in the human heart in the same way a child is formed in her mother’s womb, experiences birth, and then grows and develops into a fully formed, mature person (see Sermon 45: “The New Birth”, §II.4). Like a child, faith must be nurtured. Congregations help this development when they expect growth and provide the means for it to occur. Again, Mr. Wesley helps us by prescribing the teaching of essential Christian doctrine, openness to the work of the Holy Spirit, and the discipline provided by a system of small groups that meet people where they are and support continuing maturation in faith, hope, and love.

Open hearts, open minds, and open doors become reality when congregations determine to build and support a culture of holiness centered in Jesus Christ and his mission in the world. Inclusiveness becomes genuine when hearts, minds and doors are open to grace and the power of the Holy Spirit that transforms the world.