No Holiness But Social Holiness

By Steve Manskar

The General Rule of Discipleship (To witness to Jesus Christ in the world, and to follow his teachings through acts of compassion, justice, worship, and devotion under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.) shapes the life and work of Covenant Discipleship groups, class leaders, and the congregation. It helps them live as witnesses to Jesus Christ in the world as they follow his teachings, summarized by him in Matthew 22:37-40

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

Jesus said to his disciples, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15) and “You are my friends if you do what I command you” (John 15:14). The Christian life is shaped by obedience to Jesus’ teachings.

In the Baptismal Covenant you promise to “confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the church ….” The congregation, in turn, promises to proclaim the good news and live according to the example of Christ; to surround you with a community of love and forgiveness, that you may grow in your trust of God, and be found faithful in your service to others; to pray for you, that you may be a true disciple who walks in the way that leads to life.[1] Living the Baptismal Covenant is how Christians obey Jesus’ “new commandment”

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another (John 13:34-35).

When Christians “watch over one another in love” and help each other to grow in holiness of heart and life they keep this new commandment. Congregations keep Jesus’ new commandment when they intentionally develop a path to discipleship that meets people where they are and provides guides along the way in the form of small groups and the guidance of seasoned disciples.

This is what John Wesley meant when he wrote:

Solitary religion is not to be found there. “Holy Solitaries” is a phrase no more consistent with the gospel than Holy Adulterers. The gospel of Christ knows of no religion, but social; no holiness but social holiness. Faith working by love, is the length and breadth and depth and height of Christian perfection.[2]

The General Rule of Discipleship is a practical guide for Christians to love God and neighbor together. It makes social holiness possible in that it helps Christians to center their life together in Jesus Christ. The rule points Christians, and the congregation, towards the risen Christ. It leads them to join in what he is up to in the world.

Holiness is social because God is social. He created human beings in his image to be relational creatures. We become fully human when we share in the relationships God initiates with us through the people he places in our way.

Social holiness is the practice of obeying Jesus’ commandments to love God with all your heart, soul, and mind, loving your neighbor as yourself, and loving one another one another (fellow members of your local congregation) as Christ loves.

When Wesley says that holiness is social he means that the depth of your love for God is revealed by the way you love whom God loves. The writer of 1 John describes the social nature of holiness:

We love because he first loved us. Those who say, ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also (1 John 4:19-21).

If you truly love God then you must love your brother and sister in Christ and your neighbor. This requires you to be in relationships with the people God places alongside you in the church, and the people of your neighborhood, city, and the world. You need community, what Wesley called “society”, for grace to nurture you into the persons God created you to be. The Baptismal Covenant describes the relationship between God, the baptized, and the Church. The General Rule of Discipleship provides the means for living the covenant and becoming agents of social holiness.

[1] The United Methodist Hymnal, “Baptismal Covenant I,” page 34-35.

[2] John Wesley, Hymns and Sacred Poems (1739), Preface, page viii.