Social Holiness, Then and Now

I was reading the comments in a post by John Meunier on the use of doctrine when I ran across the following post by Steve Manskar:

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?

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3 responses to “Social Holiness, Then and Now

  • John Meunier

    Great question, Lauren. Of course, there are many folks who find Wesley so “out of date” that they would shudder at the idea of letting his ideas stand.

    I find Wesley constantly interesting, often inspiring, and frequently challenging to my understanding of Christianity. I think being in conversation with him and his understandings would be a great boon for United Methodists.

  • Lauren

    Agreed, on both counts. But the challenge of Wesley is hearing him in his own context and then figuring out a way to think and act in similar ways in our day. That is most definitely a conversation worth having. We can’t recreate Wesley’s early Methodist revival, but we certainly can learn from it.

    Thanks for your thoughtful reply.

  • Eli. Odell C.

    God bless brother Wesley but the man’s dead, his teachings are not the Word of God and I do not rely on man for my Salvation.
    Furthermore what is this ‘social justice’?

    I understand y’all are all modern day Methodists here but I’ve only ever heard the term used by infidels as they attempt to make of this world the next, what do you mean by that?

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