I take the Bible seriously.
I grew up in a Christian home, was on Bible quiz teams, majored in biblical literature in college, eventually got a PhD in the New Testament, and now I teach the Bible to college students. You might say that my whole life has revolved around the Bible. I care about what it says and believe its message is consistent and true.
Because I believe the Bible is true, I struggled with what at first looked like contradictions, especially related to the variety of ways the message of holiness was expressed in the preaching I heard growing up and in the apostle Paul's writings.
My confusion was resolved when I began considering the context in which Paul was speaking. Spiritual understanding is different for different ages and cultures. My parents say when I was five years old I asked, "Does Jesus have to stoop down to get into my heart?" Because of my age and accompanying ability to think only in concrete ways, I misunderstood the simple statement that we must invite Jesus into our hearts.
As I grew older, I began to understand the abstract concept of this metaphor for accepting God's grace and salvation in my life. Imagine trying to tell the story of Good Friday and Easter to a three-year-old class, then to a youth group, and then to great-grandparents. The three-year-olds and some of the youth group think only in concrete terms and most have no idea what a cross or a tomb is—let alone a tomb from the ancient Middle East! They have no experience with death or resurrection.
The great-grandparents, on the other hand, see death and the afterlife as more of a reality, and have likely experienced a loved one's death. In telling the Easter story, we'd use different words and emphasize different aspects of the story, depending on to whom we're talking. The apostle Paul did the same thing. His audiences were of varying cultures, so they differed in their understanding of the Old Testament. Some groups, such as the Corinthian church, were culturally mixed, with both Gentiles and Jews.
Churches such as the one in Philippi were probably comprised of Gentiles. People at the church in Galatia seemed to have been extremely influenced by Judaism after having become Christians under Paul's teaching. Depending on the understanding and needs of his readers, Paul used different words and concepts to talk about holiness.
The specific Greek words usually translated holy, holiness, sanctify, and sanctification had very different meanings for the Jews and Gentiles. For the Gentiles, ritual, customs, temples, and gods were holy and not accessible to the public.
But people were not holy.
In first century Jewish tradition, anything related to the Jewish person's religion was holy—God, human beings, things, space, and time. God was a spirit, and holiness described the core of His being. Human beings who were holy were ethical and pure in their relationships. Things and people could be made holy in the sense of being dedicated to God—they belonged exclusively to God and were not used for any other purpose than to serve God. Holiness in the Jewish tradition meant "keeping distinct the categories of creation . . . To be holy is to be whole, to be one; holiness is unity, integrity, perfection of the individual."¹
Paul's letters to the Corinthian church were written to mostly Gentile Christians. In the days before they followed Christ, these people had been involved in pagan worship or "mystery religions" that included mystical, cultic beliefs. In these religions, they'd practiced worship forms that theologians refer to as "ecstatic."
These were uninhibited, overwhelmingly emotional worship forms that focused on such things as speaking in tongues, prophesying, and miracles. When these believers converted, they brought many of their old, uninhibited worship practices into their new faith. So Paul used the commonly understood Greek terms for holiness (hagios and its synonyms). In this context he emphasized the need for order and unity in worship.
The Corinthians understood their freedom in Christ and Paul used the holiness language to remind them that they needed order and self-control to be Christlike. In the Galatian church, believers had accepted the legalism of the Jewish circumcision party. When writing to them, Paul did not use the common Greek term for holy (hagios). He didn't even address the Galatian Christians as "saints," which was his regular practice. Instead, he emphasized freedom in Christ.
Since understanding "holiness" as a practice in order would only feed their legalism, Paul changed his language to help them balance the need for structure and freedom in their lives.
Ron Benefiel, former president of Nazarene Theological Seminary, has observed that within the Church of the Nazarene we use different languages to talk about holiness. He notes that these are the languages of purity, power, love, and character.² All of these languages are found in the New Testament as ways to understand the broadness and complexity of what we mean when we talk about holiness.
History teaches us that holiness looks different or means different things depending on the context.
For those of us who live in a sexually immoral world, holiness preaching needs to emphasize purity. Those of us who struggle with God's call on our lives need to understand that the experience of holiness gives us God's power to do what He has asked us to do. Those of us who grew up in a church that required us to keep certain rules to be holy need to understand that holiness is about relationships of love—with God and with each other.
Those of us raised in the "Jesus and me" context need to know that true holiness is found in community and not just in our private experiences with God. We need to embrace the broadness of holiness and the self-control, power, love, and community that it brings into our lives.
The enemy would love for us to fight for our favorite definition of holiness instead of enjoying the love, power, and community it brings to us. As Paul demonstrated, holiness includes order, unity, and integrity as well as freedom.
C. Jeanne Orjala Serrao is dean of the School of Theology and Philosophy, and professor of biblical literature at Mount Vernon Nazarene University.
¹Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (New York: A. Praeger, Pub., 1966), pp. 53-54.
²Ron Benefiel, Languages of Holiness, Unpublished paper, June 2004.
Holiness Today, Nov/Dec 2006