You’ve also brought up a pet peeve of mine. The contemporary use of the phrase “social holiness” has become completely divorced from Wesley’s usage. We use “social holiness” as code for the church’s engagement in issues and activities related to peace and justice. When Wesley wrote that “there is no holiness but social holiness” he was making the point that Christians must experience and grow in holiness of heart and life only in community, with other Christians. It means that Christians are responsible for one another, for helping one another to become the best, most dependable disciples of Jesus Christ possible. For Wesley “social holiness” was code for the necessity of disciplined Christian community that forms persons in the image of Christ and helps them to go onto perfection in love. Wesley also taught that holiness is nothing more or less than loving God with all the heart, soul, mind, and strength and loving our neighbors as ourselves. Wesleyan social holiness will necessarily engage in what we today call “social holiness” when we engage in what Wesley called “works of mercy” which include acts of compassion and acts of justice.
I find Steve’s clarification incredibly insightful and helpful. On the one hand, I had always suspected this was the case with Wesley’s turn of phrase. On the other hand, it raises the question of how often we do this sort of thing with Wesley. How often do we take Wesley’s theology and radically reinterpret it to mean what we want it to mean rather than what he actually meant?
My suspicion is, we all do this far more than we realize. The problem with that, though, is that we risk losing the uniqueness of what Wesley was really trying to communicate. How different it is when we think of “social holiness” as living a fully Christian life in community than just social action and social justice.
Social justice is incredibly important, but perhaps more so is this notion that if I claim to be Christian, I perhaps ought to actually act like that around other people. If I am loving and kind and good only in private “all by myself,” then that’s not really saying much. But, when at last we manage to act that way around real-life, stubborn, ornery people, then we’ve begun to accomplish something. That’s a notion that’s worth preserving. That’s a “social holiness” I want to hear more about, while preserving the “acts of mercy” that go along with it.
I wonder, what other Wesley terms and phrases have we done this with? Your thoughts?