This Article appeared in Sharing The Practice: The International Quarterly Journal of the Academy of Parish Clergy. Volume XXIV No. 4, 2001 pages 11-19.
I. The Wesleyan Concern for Cleanliness and Sanctification.
For century after century the idea prevailed among Christians that filthiness was akin to holiness. This only helped the spread of diseases like the "Black Plague." John Wesley and the early Methodists not only called people to justification or forgiveness by the free grace of God, but also to Sanctification or perfection in love by God's amazing grace as well. On one occasion Mr. Wesley said "Cleanliness is next to godliness." His concern for personal hygiene rose out of his understanding that the application of sanctifying grace was for the cleaning up of the whole person. It also came from his concern for people's mental and physical health also coming from his understanding of sanctification, pastoral care, and Christian discipleship.
A. Both Justification Based and Sanctification Directed
The whole early Methodist mission sought to first bring people to faith in Christ and then to Christ-like character.
Wesley, as a modified Anglican, drew his understanding of sanctification from catholic Christianity, especially the Early Church Fathers. Wesley, thus, defined sanctification primarily as a relationship of pure love to Christ. In particular, the church season of Lent provides the opportunity to examine the growth and the need for growth of our relationship with Jesus as a congregation. However, anytime is a good opportunity to seek the Holy Spirit's light via God's written Word on the state of our spiritual hygiene in Jesus.
It is very important to remain focused on the ethic of loving God with all the heart. Otherwise, we may fall into a legalistic, moralistic view of sanctification where do’s and don’ts alone define a life of holy love. At the heart of the call to the spiritual hygiene of our whole life in Christ and the whole life of Christ's church, are healthy relationships of holy love. Therefore, true spiritual hygiene does not truly exist where authentic Christian love is not present. Even if it shines brightly with an outward appearance of holiness, it is but a form of genuine religion without the empowering of God's love to perfecting people in a healthy love for God, themselves, one another, and others.
A legalistic tone concerning holiness unto the Lord is more akin to the judicial views of John Calvin and the Reformed tradition. It is also reminiscent of Ephesian church in Revelation 2.
The season of Lent is a time of self-examination and repentance. Given the influence of American individualism upon churches, we tend to only think of individual introspection and penitence. Thus, we may wrongly conclude that good spiritual hygiene is only personal but not corporate and social. From our United Methodist perspective of the Gospel, Christ’s holy Church is not only justification-based but also sanctification-directed. Such sanctified living in the Spirit leads us from private piety and holiness to our relationships with others as well as our roles in society.
II. The New Testament’s Penetrating Perspective.
The book of Revelation portrays Jesus Christ standing amidst the churches with fiery eyes examining their faith according to the measure of their love for God and others. Jesus said that by our love, people would know that we are his disciples.
The church at Ephesus had become a moralistic, over-functioning, doctrinaire church minus its first passionate love for Christ. As Jesus said, “Yet I hold this against you: you have forsaken your first love” (Rev. 2:3). George Beasley-Murray views this exhortation as focusing on the decrease of the love of the church for others. As he states in his commentary,
where love for God wanes, love for man diminishes, and where love for man is soared, love for God degenerates into religious formalism. . . . The Ephesian believers were not wholly without love. It was their early love which had failed, and the early love must be recovered. (75)
Several NT verses speak of the importance of brotherly love within the church. In particular, the NT speaks of faith as demonstrated by loving truthfully in our attitudes, actions, and speech. If a church does not have loving relationships within itself, strangers and those in need are in trouble.
If the relationships within a congregation are angry, tense, irritable, out of biblical balance and otherwise not loving, then strangers, those in need, leaders of the church and others mentioned in Hebrews chapter 13 are in trouble. They will not find the holy Christ-like love that the whole NT calls us to demonstrate.
Biblically speaking, the fiery eyes of our risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ scan the churches of the world, our country, our state, our conference, our district, our county, and our community. Jesus wonders if he will find faith on earth upon his return. He knows the love of many will grow cold because of sin hardened, embittered, unforgiving, hearts.
Jesus is looking for faith filled churches whose love for God and others is not lukewarm. Jesus is looking for faithful churches who have not left their first love for God, each other, the stranger and those in need. He tells churches with only a lukewarm love that he feels like throwing up and calls them to repent. He warns those who have left their first love like the church at Ephesus that unless they repent, he will take their lamp stand for God is a consuming fire.
The good news is that as the Ephesian church heard Jesus’ words calling them to repent, churches are returning to their first love Jesus Christ. Other congregations have acquired the fire of God’s love afresh so that they are no longer lukewarm in their love for God, each other, and others.
As he did in the book of Revelation, Jesus is encouraging the faithful to keep on for their labor of love in the Lord is not in vain. May the cry of our hearts be “Lord, I want to be a Christian, Lord I want to be more loving in my heart.” May God’s love divine descend upon our hearts and set our hearts aflame a new with love for God, for each other, for strangers and for those in need. May we together serve God acceptably by holy, Christ-like, loving attitudes, actions, and words for our God is a consuming fire!
A good question to ask during Lent or anytime for that matter is “How does Jesus see _____UMC?” A good way to prayerfully discern the answers is by reading the NT Epistles (see some examples below the end of this article.).
As you read, look for the examples of holy love for God and others the Apostles compliment. Also, look for the examples of its lack that the Apostles call for. Then ask the Holy Spirit to show you what is true of your church? Such spiritual discernment is God’s calling upon you to intercede for your church in prayer, never to fault finding. Then ask the Holy Spirit to help you see where such a lack of holy love might be true of you.
A. A Great Tragedy of Love.
If someone asked you to tell them the greatest tragedy of the American Church within our lifetime, what would you name? Was it the scandals of the TV evangelists several years ago? Is it the increased interest in non-Christian religions like the New Age movement, Islam, and Buddhism? Is it the decrease of biblical values and morality among church people? No, as Robert Moeller wrote in 1994 in his book, Love In Action,
The well-publicized televangelist scandals of the late eighties did minimal harm to the reputation of the church in our culture—that is, in comparison to the true scandal of our time. The true scandal is the way Christians mistreat one another, fighting and conducting uncivil wars against one another in churches across our nation. (41)
Even the recent scandal in the Roman Catholic Church does overshadow this reality.
Space does not allow for the startling statistics concerning unloving relationships within so many churches in America. The findings of a study by the Board of Higher Education of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod People give us a representative view of the American church scene. Their report includes the following statements.
People, both laity and clergy, are verbally and emotionally beating on each other;
Outward oriented clergy are consistently mismatched with inward oriented churches;
Failing to send only the most mature pastor and strong pastoral family in hopes of bringing peace into a fighting congregation;
The extremely low level of trust held by pastors concerning denominational means of assistance;
A large number of pastors are in the advanced stages of professional and personal burnout;
Pastors’ wives and children stand in greater need of support than pastors;
Grossly unreasonable expectations too often lead pastors to neglect their own health and family;
Allowing churches with a long history of chewing up one pastor and family after another continue without any substantial intervention;
A few congregations who are held hostage by an EGO-centered minority who Edge God Out;
and the need for pastors to address what drives them in ministry and live balanced lives. (Klaas and Klaas)
Some may vainly hope that only the Lutherans are experiencing such church health problems. H.B. London and Neil Wiseman’s book, Pastors at Risk, wakes us up from such a dream with the following statistics about pastors as a whole in America.
Consider the following sobering survey results of the personal and professional lives of the clergy:
80% believe that pastoral ministry has affected their families negatively.
33% say that being in the ministry is a hazard to their family.
70% say they have a lower self-esteem than when they started in the ministry.
70% do not have someone they consider a close friend.
40% report a serious conflict with a parishioner at least once a month. (22)
Sometimes the unloving relationship styles of either church members and/or pastors as well as their families arise from either family-of-origin issues and/or personality disorders hiding behind various religious masks and a shallow spirituality.
This description helps us understand why people are writing so many books about church health. They also make clear the reason for the recent works about spiritual abuse, sick churches, unhealthy conflict, exit interviews, and the de-churched. To see more statistics and my references, read “A Sick Body”.
B. Christ’s Calling of Holy Love for Members, Officers, and Clergy.
A holy lifestyle without love is like a sounding brass or a tinkling bell. A loving lifestyle without holiness lacks biblical boundaries. Neither by themselves have the moral authority to speak the truth in love. In Jesus Christ, we see the prefect expression of God’s holy love.
As responsible recipients of God’s grace, the diversity of the Church calls Christians to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace through Christian love. Our guidelines for living a life of holy love are found in both our General Rules and in our Social Principles.
A concern for holiness of heart and life of people within the Church is very often reflected in the qualifications of Christian character, and competency to serve for church officers (Book of Discipline 95, 144), and in the installation vows for church officers (UMBW 600). In the United Methodist Church, the “Installation of Church Officers” calls officers to sustain or enable a congregation as a people of love (UMBW 600). Those who are immature in Christian character are not competent for such a task.
Christ’s Holy Church’s concern for holiness of heart and life within the body of Christ is also reflected in the standards for persons qualifying for ordination, and in their ordination service. For example, since the days of early Methodism, candidates for full connection or ordination in an Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church and related denominations are asked questions like the following from John Wesley:
1. Have you faith in Christ?
2. Are you going on to perfection?
3. Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life?. Are you earnestly seeking after it? (Book of Discipline 214)
Therefore, United Methodist pastors are expected to completely dedicate themselves to the highest ideals of the Christian life.
To this end, they agree to exercise responsible self-control by personal habits conducive to bodily health, mental and emotional maturity, integrity in all personal relationships, fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness, social responsibility, and growth in grace and in the knowledge and love of God. (Book of Discipline 184)
In the United Methodist Church, the “Order for the Celebration of an Appointment” focuses on the pastor’s commitment toward sustaining or equipping a congregation as a people of love (UMBW 595).
Jesus calls all of us as members, officers, and clergy to live and minister together in the holy love of God shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. During the season of Lent and other times as well, may each church sing “Take Time to Be Holy” as a congregational prayer. May what we sing with our lips, we may believe in our hearts, and what we believe in our hearts, we may practice in our lives. (UMH 69).
Beasley-Murray, George R. The Book of Revelation. New
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Klaas, Alan C., and Cheryl D. Klaas. Clergy Shortage Study.
Conducted in November of 1999 by Mission Growth
Studies for the Board of Higher Education of The
Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. 20 Jul.2000
London, H.B., Jr., and Neil B. Wiseman. Pastors At Risk. Wheaton: Victor Books, 1993.
Moeller, Robert. Love in Action: Healing Conflict in Your
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The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church 1996.
Ed. Harriett Jane Olson. Nashville: The UM Publishing
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A list of the Epistles of the NT and their focus upon the congregation not included in this article.
Sixteen of the 22 NT Epistles address the congregation first before dealing with individuals. For example:
Romans God’s free grace is not a license for sinning more that grace may abound more, but the key to living a transformed life
I Corinthians exhorts several symptoms of divisions and spiritual
II Corinthians calls for congregational forgiveness of a repentant brother in Christ and upholds Paul’s apostleship
Galatians rebukes legalism also known as loveless holiness.
Ephesians focuses on the unity of the Church between Jews and Gentiles in Christ and the church’s high calling.
Philippians rebukes pride by focusing on Jesus’ humility.
Colossians emphasizes Christ as the head of the church and warns against trusting in worldly wisdom.
I Thessalonians exhorts a very young church to personal & social holiness, brotherly love, and being industrious in light of Jesus’ promised Second Coming.
II Thessalonians comforts those alarmed by misinterpreting parts of the first letter and rebukes those who are lazy, busybodies or stubbornly disobedient.
Hebrews calls Jewish Christians back to the central focus of Jesus Christ instead of Judaism or attaching too much importance to ceremonial observations.
James calls for good works, particularly taming the tongue and not showing favoritism to the rich and not mere profession of Christian faith.
I Peter encourages Christians throughout Asia Minor to victory over suffering as exemplified in Jesus’ life.
II Peter warns against false teachings and rebukes scoffers of Jesus’ promised Second Coming.
I John calls for holy living, love among Christians; warns against false teaching and assures them of eternal life.
Jude warns the church against immoral teachers and alarming heresies that endangered the faith of believers.
Although I & II Timothy, Titus as well as II & III John are written to individuals, the emphasis is on some aspect of congregational leadership and life.
In the book of Revelation, Jesus called 5 of the 7 churches to repentance? Read chapter 3:19-22