One of the many aspects of holy living that we do not explore enough is the aspect of communal holiness. What does it mean to call the people of God a 'spiritual house, a holy priesthood, a holy nation?' Although these concepts hold many faces, I would like to explore the criteria we use to describe the church as holy, and what practices are essential to allow the church to live out of and toward holiness.
Is there a criterion we can use to convey the church as holy? Many people want to limit their understanding of Christian holiness to commitment. Some would say that if people, individually or communally, are committed to God they are holy. Commitment to God forms a significant component of holy living, but commitment alone is not a sufficient measure for Christian holiness. After all, we see examples of complete commitment to God that certainly do not reflect Christian holiness in radical Islamic terrorists.
We can find other examples from the Church's own history. The crusades, the inquisitions, the Thirty Years' War, and other instances of a desire for purity coupled with deep commitment to God show that commitment and a desire for purity are not enough criteria to define Christian holiness.
What makes Christian holiness unique is a specific vision of God that Christians share. When Christians describe who God is, we start with Jesus. He is the image of the invisible God who lived among us, ate with us, healed us, taught us, and embraced us. This Jesus is God's image and our good news destiny.
The Church is called to be the embodiment of Jesus Christ in the world today. We are to continue His work. Our purpose is to be His purpose. Anything less than the identity of Jesus Christ is not adequate criterion for Christian holiness - this would also include the holiness of His body, the Church. So now we turn to the question of what is necessary to embody Jesus Christ in our world.
I suggest that the practices necessary for communal and personal holiness will all allow the mind of Christ to be in and among His people. The presence of God in and among us enables us to work out our own salvation in fear and trembling.
I propose that the Church must participate in three essential communal practices if we are to remain open to the mind of Christ. These practices are: reading scripture in community (discerning God and the world rightly), praying the scripture in community (communing with God and making God the sole subject of worship), and embodying the scripture in community (participating in the person and purpose of God in the world).
There is a strange silence of the Bible in the common life of our congregations these days. The Bible, at most, becomes a footnote in our preaching, teaching, counseling, and administrative practices of the church. When I say footnote I mean what Hans Frei refers to when he describes 'The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative.' We have moved away from discovering the purpose and presence of the God of the Old and New Testaments, and have substituted the agenda and purposes of this age.
We look to management theory and therapy models to determine the shape and agenda for our lives, sermons, and church programming. We footnote the purposes and models of this world by running to our concordances to validate the agendas of the gods of this world.
We have failed to read consistently, contextually, and communally the old stories of the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the God who still reveals himself in Jesus our Lord.
Therefore, we fail to see the purpose and presence of God and His kingdom. This has allowed us to misunderstand greatness, power, wealth, and God's embrace. The kingdom of God is concerned with power being made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9), with the least being the greatest (Luke 9:48), with life being found in losing it. The kingdom contains neither 'Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female,' for all are 'one in Christ' (Galatians 3:28).
God's purpose is not concerned with a congregation finding its 'market group,' nor 'homogeneous unit.' God's purpose is about putting last things first because only last things last.
We have failed to discern God's purpose and presence because we have failed to read, pray, and embody the scriptures consistently, contextually, and communally.
The scriptures no longer function as a lens within to help us rightly see God, the world, and our lives. Instead, they have become at best a means to a worldly end, and a therapeutic way of coping with all that worldly ends bring to our lives.
If there is an eclipse of reading, praying, and embodying the scriptures, how can we know the mind that was in Christ? If we do not know the mind that was in Christ, how can we become His embodiment, His image, in the world?
Stephen Green is W.N. King Chair of Theology at Southern Nazarene University.
Holiness Today, November/December 2004
Please note: This article was originally published in 2004. All facts, figures, and titles were accurate to the best of our knowledge at that time but may have since changed.