The Missional and Apostolic Nature of Holiness

Ever since the publication of Unclean I've been wrestling with the missional aspects of holiness.

To recap, in Unclean I argue that a suite of psychological factors related to disgust and purity psychology hijack our notions of holiness prompting social exclusion and withdrawal. Thus, I argue in Unclean that, if we are to become missional people of welcome, we must desire "mercy and not sacrifice" by intentionally overcoming these psychological dynamics.

And yet, is there not a place for holiness and moral purity in all this? And if so, how are we to pursue holiness while avoiding everything I warn about in Unclean?

The basic argument I want to make by way of an answer is that holiness is a means to an end rather than an end in itself. Holiness is a bit of missional equipment, a missional tool. What sort of tool?

I take my cue here from Jesus, how he frames the relationship between holiness and mission in his High Priestly Prayer in John:
John 17.15-19
My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified. 
The language of holiness--"sanctify"--and mission--"sent"--intermingle in the text. Jesus prays for his disciples to be sanctified--to be set apart, to be holy. But why? As an end in itself? No, as a means to an end, a missional end, being sent out into the world.

More specifically, holiness is revealed to be a form of protection that equips us to be missional people. In this, holiness doesn't take us out of the world but is the means by which be become radically available to the world.

Let me give a concrete example of what I'm talking about.

Let's talk about sex.

Why should we pursue sexual purity? Why should we be holy when it comes to sex?

The answer that we have tended to hear is that sexual purity is "what God wants." Consequently, the pursuit of sexual purity becomes an end in itself. But what I'm suggesting is that sexual purity should, rather, be seen as a means to a missional end. Specifically, sexual purity is a form of protection that allows you to be radically available to others.

Let me describe what this looks like from my social location as a married man. How can I be radically available to others--women in particular--if I'm not sexually pure, if I'm not holy? Pushing further, let's say God is sending me into very dark places in the world, sexually speaking. Let's say I find myself ministering to sex workers, women in the adult entertainment industry or with women caught up in sex trafficking. How can I be in the midst of these very dark sexual places if I'm not holy?

And the examples don't have to be dramatic. I'm around lots of women at work. I find myself in mentoring relationships with female undergraduate and graduate students. In friendships with female co-workers. How can I be radically available to these people in my life, an agent of grace, if I'm not sexually holy? Think of examples from your own social location.

I hope all this illustrates why I called holiness a form of protection. Holiness is a form of moral protection that equips us to be missional people, a people radically available to the brokenness of the world. Holiness is apostolic in nature, the equipment needed for those sent into the world as God's emissaries of love and grace.

Tick through other examples beyond sexuality. Think of other "sins" and how each compromises your ability to be radically available to others in particular situations.

In short, holiness isn't a separation from the world. Holiness is what allows us to be radically in and available to the world.

Just as Jesus was radically in and available to the world.

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

22 thoughts on “The Missional and Apostolic Nature of Holiness”

  1. Wow. This is a awesome. I've been contemplating how screwed up evangelical thinking can be as it relates to modesty (and how it smacks of Sharia Law). See: This survey is a perfect example of how holiness gets hijacked and the disgust these men feel towards women is on display. Nevermind the fact that the question is a loaded one...anyway. I appreciate these thoughts and your real world example speaks volumes to me as a woman.

  2. This is great, and I think it is a lens that provides profound insight into a lot of scripture. I think you can find a through-line in this to a whole lot of Biblical texts. Watching your eyes (instead of blaming the woman you were staring at); Christ purifying the people he touches, instead of being contaminated; Paul's missional understanding of purity, etc. Thanks for this!

  3. I think sin often boils down to using people. Holiness, in this view, is simply having your shit together--morally speaking--so that when you are with people you are actually WITH people with no strings attached. You don't have to lust over them, or brag in front of them, or gossip with them, or lie to them, or be mean to them or any of the innumerable things we do to use people for our own ends.

  4. Wow indeed. I followed that link and now I am feeling sick. Sometimes I have felt bad for not pushing my daughter to be part of an evangelical "youth group" like I was. Now I don't feel so bad. She's probably safer with the "pagans"!

  5. Awesome. I'd only add that, for my 2 cents, "simply having your shit together" can be the hardest thing to do--that people will engage in great works for the oppressed, will pour themselves out in service, will surrender their bodies to the flames, before they allow themselves to admit that their shit isn't together and they are therefore, inevitably, using people.


  6. I think that "holiness" in honesty may, in some of our moral calculus, seem like a failure of charity. So I've heard over and over: Wouldn't it be more charitable to lie to people about whether a dress makes them look fat? Wouldn't it be more charitable to lie to a Nazi about whether there is a Jew hiding in the house? Etc., etc.

    And yet think of all the pastoral, one-on-one situations where the only possible way to be of use at all is for the person you are talking with to know, absolutely, that you will not bullshit them. You will not tell them what you think they want to hear, primarily because it's easier for you. You will speak truth.

  7. Growing up in rural and small town south I had numerous relatives and family friends who were preachers....and racists. I can remember as a 13 year old watching, with a preacher relative, the Birmingham police on the news use water hoses, dogs, and clubs on African Americans and hearing my relative yell out, "Hit that _ _ _ _ _ _ !!". So, I too, yelled, "Yeah, hit that _ _ _ _ _ _ !". Why? Because that 13 year old had often watched this preacher relative walk up into a pulpit with his Dickson Bible held high under his arm while being held in awe by the people in the pew; and that 13 year old felt proud of him.

    Then when my religious views started changing in my twenties, I was hit hard with a choice. Not so much a feeling, but a very lonely choice. Was I going to be one way when around "my own", then another way around Christians and friends of color, or did I have the faith to say to myself each day, "No more steriotypes, no more slurs"? Because, you see, the steriotypes and slurs started standing in the way; they stood in the way of honesty, they stood in the way of my prayer, "God help me be a man after your own heart, help me be your child, help me be humanity's child", they stood in the way of actually looking for God in the man or woman with me at the time, regardless of race.

    The answer was obvious. The choice I had to make was to see God in every "next" person I see. But not as one who had arrived and could, with great pride announce, "I accept you now, aren't you impressed?"; but as one who could, hopefully, "from one degree of glory to another", look into the eyes of those I ridiculed before, and see God looking back.

  8. This is wonderfully helpful. Thanks Richard.

    I don't have the time to offer my own two cents (or rather, to think about what that might be), but I'd be interested to explore the specifically *visible* aspect of holiness that could tie into your ideas here.

  9. I have a question. How is holiness different from love? If sin boils down to using others, and being with them with no strings attached is holiness, what then is love? Is holiness a form a love? Does love encompass holiness and then some?

  10. the responses bother me too, but, from my church upbringing, they seem standard and correct, so much so that am having difficulty articulating to myself what is wrong. can you please articulate what is wrong or twisted about those responses and give a better response to the question?

  11. I'd suggest that holiness is the suite of virtues that make love possible, the suite of virtues that move us from being self-oriented to other-oriented.

    Love is hard. It is grinding sacrificial work. So love is going to need to be built atop virtues that sustain love when warm, fuzzy feelings are hard to come by.

  12. Totally agree. I don't know if anyone really has their "shit together." I think all of us are compromised in various ways, walking wounded. And insofar that we are wounded in certain ways there are limits to where we can go in the world and what we can do in the world, morally speaking.

  13. The problem with the responses is that they dehumanize. They take an outward action ("flaunting" a body) and, instead of looking at underlying causes (low self esteem?) and likely outcomes (degrading and objectifying this woman), they act as though the outward action defines that person's character and worth. Many of the responses are expressed in language that can only be described as cruel--tearing down a person's worth in the eyes of God.

    Perhaps a more appropriate response might be to reserve judgment, to affirm the worth of the person "flaunting" her body, and (perhaps) to offer some sort of compassionate correction--some recognition that the activity is not, ultimately, helpful for the full dignity that God intends for that young woman. Of course, this can ONLY be communicated by someone who is above all AFFIRMING her dignity--it is paradoxical and hypocritical to correct one dignity-reducing activity (inappropriate immodesty) by partaking in an even MORE dignity-reducing activity (name-calling, slurring, imputing ill motives, etc., etc.).

    Concretely: I was at a summer camp that had strict clothing rules (largely aimed at the young women, since the clothing styles that summer for young men were not particularly provocative). These clothing rules were communicated at the very beginning of the camp with words very like these:

    "We know that in your world, there are people who are going to be judging you by your appearance, who are going to be basing their interactions with you based solely on your perceived attractiveness. Some of you will feel used because your sexual attributes attract attention; others of you will feel neglected because your sexual attributes are not attracting attention. We want you to make this summer camp a completely safe place from this sort of surface judgment. In order to help us with that goal, we'd like you to dress so as to cover the skin between your collar bone and your knees, not just to give those hormone-drenched young men a break from their own temptations, but more importantly so that we can better learn to value you for the person who you are."

  14. I would add that these responses put the onus on women to dress in such a way keep all boys/men they encounter from "stumbling". While females need to address heart issues that might cause them to dress in ways that betray their dignity, it is up to males to address heart issues that might cause them to lust. Lust is a heart issue that must be dealt with by God. Simply creating modesty "rules", even if they were followed, would not keep males from lusting after females. They don't promote lasting holiness in the sexual arena. In fact, they can have very negative consequences for both men and women. Some feminist Xians see the modesty/purity culture and secular culture's hyper sexualization as 2 sides of the same coin.

  15. For me I think it might be as much about letting go of the parts of me that are about not having my shit together as it is about getting/keeping my shit together.

    I was somehow struck by this today, and the idea of pulling our shit together when it seems like so much is falling apart around us:

    "We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not
    forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.But just as we have the same spirit of faith that is in accordance with scripture—"I believed, and so I spoke"—we also believe, and so we speak, because we know that the
    one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence. Yes, everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase
    thanksgiving, to the glory of God. So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what
    cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal." 2 Corinthians 8-18

  16. If we want to connect direct theological themes to the notion that people are ends in themselves, we might say that this is part of our image-bearing status. We reflect God's end-in-selfness by also being ends in ourselves, and we honor God by honoring this aspect of people. This also connects back to holiness and purity, since the recognition of this status results in individual and shared experiences of elevation. I think Jlh11a's discussion about what is wrong with certain purity cultures nails this: "It is paradoxical and hypocritical to correct one dignity-reducing activity (inappropriate immodesty) by partaking in an even MORE dignity-reducing activity (name-calling, slurring, imputing ill motives, etc., etc.)"

  17. I think you've hit gold (or whatever the ethically sourced equivalent is) here, Richard! Once again, you are able to express a profound corrective truth in wholly accessible terms. In the light of 'Unclean', your thoughts here become a powerful squaring of a theological circle. I love your application of "radical availability" to the theme of purity. You provide us with a vocabulary to express something of deep importance, I think.

    I remember struggling to plan a talk a few years back based on Jesus's "I am" sayings, with the catchy title, "God wants to meet all your needs, so you are free to meet your neighbour's", but I was struggling to get past the language of complaint into words of divine love. I ended up shelving it. Perhaps now I have those words.

Leave a Reply