The first time I ever heard the hymn “Called Unto Holiness” I was at the Midsouth Nazarene District Assembly in Dickson, Tennessee. I was 26 years old. By then, I was closely acquainted with Wesleyan Holiness as a doctrinal concept, having studied in the school of theology at a Nazarene university, but I was still getting my sea legs as an actual church person. As it turned out, the theology I had learned about in class takes on a life of its own in the pews.
Instead of singing it, shouting it loud and long, it seemed most people were hesitant to even whisper “holiness.” I found that, in a real sense, it was actually considered something of a dirty word outside the Holiness traditions–even in other church spaces. It makes people visibly uncomfortable. And don’t even try to bring up “Christian perfection.” Even the most seasoned church folk start looking for the door. Most surprising was when United Methodists would balk at my easy allusion to what I thought was our shared ethos. Surely these people called Methodists were down with holiness, if nothing else! But more and more I encountered Methodists who had drunk the mainline Kool-Aid of white liberal niceness, who, true to evangelical caricatures of them, cringed at any talk of sin or holiness.
As I began to move through various church, seminary, and academic spaces, being my unabashedly Nazarene-influenced self, I made it a kind of personal goal to bring holiness back into conversations about the Christian life, particularly in Wesleyan contexts. After all, to claim Wesley as forebear without arguably the most central identifying marker of his theology is not only a shame but a sham. Wesley without holiness is like Calvin without predestination.
What we need is a reworking, relearning, resourcement. A rehabilitation of holiness and a reincorporation of it into the larger church’s imagination.
In my opinion, the best work on Wesleyan holiness is Mildred Bangs Wynkoop’s A Theology of Love. Wynkoop was a Nazarene theologian who, through the cultural changes of the 1970s and 1980s, challenged the traditional understanding of American Holiness as evangelical pietism, going back to John Wesley as source material and rethinking his work for her present day. Whereas previously holiness was understood as a single moment of the eradication of sin, the baptism with the Holy Spirit, and entire sanctification, these new interpretations focused primarily on love and relationality with God and neighbor as the core of holiness. Wynkoop made the case that over and above holiness, a more fitting characterization of Wesley’s theology would be a theology of love. Her assertion is that, for Wesley, holiness is nothing else than perfect love of God and neighbor.
Traditionalists feared that changing the terminology or interpretation of holiness would result in a complete crumbling of the doctrine that elevated human work and will and rendered God only marginally engaged in sanctification. But the rise of these new readings of holiness and the challenges to them put on display the fact that, while there had been something of an agreement on the doctrine of holiness, in truth there had always been a diversity of understandings at play in the tradition. The preexisting variety of Wesleyan conceptions of holiness was an invitation to additional creativity in reading the doctrine in light of tradition, culture, and the works of John Wesley himself.
Rethinking holiness for today and reinvigorating a doctrine of holiness for the Wesleyan tradition is sure to have generative consequences for our churches and our lives. When we begin to rightly equate holiness with love, the idea of holiness as a discipline and practice becomes much more concrete. When we realize that Wesleyan holiness is not in fact an impossible moral purity, whose rules and regulations seem suspiciously more like 1950s bourgeois white American virtue than anything approaching true Christlikeness, we can begin to think about holiness in terms that make it realistic and achievable for all Christians, which is exactly where Wesley was always pointing us.
Where this becomes useful, particularly in our complex postmodern society, is the insistence of love to be contextual. Love is singular. It’s individual. It changes from year to year, moment to moment. It changes person to person, place to place. As Wynkoop says, “Love can exist only in freedom. It cannot be coerced.” It takes seriously the idiosyncrasies of person, place, time, and need.
To be holy in a given situation is to act out of love in the appropriate measure for that situation. Holiness is not a timeless state of moral being, detached from our bodies and desires and relationships, but rather it is the proof of love in the action of our real, lived lives. As Wesley says, there is no holiness but social holiness. It’s always worked out in community.
The difficult messiness of caring for others in our families, neighborhoods, and societies is precisely where we see holiness come to bear. Loving others well requires contextual, thoughtful care, not one-size-fits-all universal rules. And the diversity of reality, the diversity of actual loves lived out in the real world, reflects the diversity of holiness at play in the kingdom of God.
It’s time for mainline Wesleyans to have a bit of an altar call. We could all do with an infusion of evangelical holiness preaching. After all, to be called unto holiness is to be called into love. And love is as varied and wild as anything–asking for our attention and intention, our honest confrontation with our neighbors, and our openness to the surprise of real connection and engagement, with all its beauty and challenge. A return to Wesleyan holiness is a return to love, which is something we can agree is sorely needed today in the church and the world.
Keegan Osinski is the librarian for theology and ethics at Vanderbilt University and author of Queering Wesley, Queering the Church. You can find her on Twitter @keegzzz.