Weekly Reflections: Theology of Holiness


“Be compassionate as your Father in heaven is compassionate” — Luke 6:36

Issue of Holiness

In my own personal visits to the churches, I was a little bit surprised to realize that among the issues raised by some sectors in the church concerning our Seminary was the claim that we are not teaching holiness.

Perhaps, in some sense, they are right for unlike other Bible schools and colleges, we really don’t have holiness as a course or subject in our Seminary. And I’m afraid that those who would come to study to be “holy”, so to speak, might be frustrated in the end.

I also realized that when some sectors in the church talk about “holiness”, they are simply referring to having no vices, like smoking and drinking. And sometimes, it does not even include other traditional vices, like gambling and womanizing, which are also equally damaging to Christian life. And not to mention drug addiction, which is now plaguing our present as well as future generations of young people.

Definitely, there are other things that destroy human life both physically and spiritually, far more serious than personal vices. But why in the world do people zero in on personal vices as if the making and unmaking of Christian life is dependent on them?

I tried to understand this particular issue by historically tracing it back to the introduction of Protestant Christianity in our country. When American Protestant missionaries arrived in our shores, the archipelago was already practically a Roman Catholic territory, except the Cordilleras and Muslim Mindanao, which were dominated by the primal and Islamic religions, respectively.

Hence, the American missionaries must have to find a compelling reason for the Roman Catholics to be converted to Protestantism. And so, the notion that Roman Catholics were not really “Christians,” and therefore they needed to be converted to Protestantism, came into the picture.

Of course, Bishop Charles Brent of the Episcopal Church did not agree with this notion. Thus, he and his group decided to concentrate their mission work in the hinterlands, which were not reached out by the Roman Catholic faith. That’s why most of the congregations of the Episcopal Church in the Philippines (ECP) today are situated in the hinterlands.

Moreover, the Protestant missionaries realized that there should be a way to differentiate Protestants from Roman Catholics. And so, they focused on personal vices, among other things, to make a difference between these two religious groups, for at least two reasons. Firstly, personal vices had become a serious social malady then (and even now); and secondly, these were also the same issues the American missionaries were facing in their own homeland.

And so, to be Protestant, therefore, was to be different from the Roman Catholics; and to be different from the Roman Catholics was to do away with personal vices, like smoking and drinking. This does not mean, however, that the Roman Catholics would tolerate personal vices. Surely, they would also prohibit personal vices among their members. But perhaps, the prohibition may not be as intense and purposive as the Protestants, since the Protestants would consider having no vices as a standard for Christian life.

Protestants, therefore, must exhibit high personal moral standards of Christian life. And to dramatize their conversion experiences, they would have to do away with all their vices. And consequently, holiness had been understood to mean having no personal vices, like smoking and drinking.

This concept of holiness had been further reinforced by the coming in later on of American missionaries who belonged to the strictly puritan evangelical tradition that had a negative attitude towards the world. Any development in the world had been regarded as “worldly” or evil.

And therefore, aside from having no vices, Christians, in order to be “true Christians”, they say, should not watch movies, should not sing love songs or popular and folk songs, should not read comics magazines, should not laugh too loud, should not dance, should not follow the latest fashion, like sporting short hair for women (long hair for men), wearing pants and mini-skirt for women, using cosmetics, wearing earrings, rings, and others. All these things had been regarded as “worldly” and therefore, evil. Christians should live a different kind of life by not following the “ways of the world”.

Of course, we are not condemning this understanding of holiness nor condoning personal vices. Far from it! By all means, we have to get rid of all personal vices that are inimical to our Christian life. But we have to accept that this notion of holiness is part of the historical developments of Christianity in our country and elsewhere. And we do respect and appreciate Christians who really exhibit such expression of Christian life. However, it becomes problematic and questionable when Christians with this notion of holiness would regard themselves better, or even more righteous, and look down on others who don’t think and behave the way they do.

Re-defining Holiness

And so, this would lead us to the question, what is holiness in the first place? Essentially, to be holy means to be different, to be set apart. For instance, Israel was a holy nation because the Israelites were set apart from other peoples in the world, with a noble purpose as mentioned by Apostle Peter in his first letter, “to proclaim the wonderful acts of God, who called you out of darkness into his own marvelous light” ( Ex. 19:6; I Peter 2:9-10).

Therefore, to be holy is to have a special relationship with the one who called us to be holy. This does not mean, however, that the unholy ones or those who are not set apart are evil, rather it simply means that they are not called or are not set apart or have no special relationship to God for a particular purpose.

By the way, it is not only people but also places, animals, and even time can be holy or set apart. For instance, the temple is holy or set apart for believers to use; the lamb is holy or set apart for sacrifices; the Sabbath is holy or set apart for people to have time to rest.

There are clear demarcation lines between what is holy and unholy. And these demarcation lines are governed by a system of purity laws, as stipulated in the Book of Leviticus, the so-called Book of Holiness, especially Leviticus 17-26.

Leviticus 19:2 says, “Be holy, because I, the LORD your God, am holy”. This shows that the holiness of Israel as a people comes from God. The Israelites are not holy in themselves; they are holy only in so far as God make them holy or set them apart. The emphasis is not on how human beings approach God through sacrifices and other rituals and ceremonies; rather the emphasis is on how God approaches human beings and make them holy.

In other words, to be holy is to obey God’s laws. Leviticus 20:8 says, “Obey my laws, because I am the LORD and I make you holy.” Now, the essence of the laws of holiness is found in Leviticus 19:18, which says “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” Therefore, to be holy as God is holy is to love our neighbors, and to love our neighbors is to do justice and show them honesty and compassion (cf. Lev. 25).

And so, all the outward rituals and ceremonies, and food laws or prohibitions of eating and drinking have to be understood in this light. For the Israelites, the system of purity laws is important because it provides them identity and orientation. It also strengthens and protects their identity against the dominant culture of the various empires that subjugated them.

Jesus’ Criticism of Holiness and the Purity System

Now, holiness and the whole purity system become problematic when these are misunderstood and misused. Religious leaders could easily misuse the purity laws to strengthen their power by deciding or influencing who or what is holy and unholy, pure and impure, clean and unclean, healthy and sick. They could claim the power to decide as to who is “in” or who is “out”.

Although the purity system was widely accepted among the Israelites, the prophetic movement, however, had a different emphasis. Instead of the purity system, the prophets emphasized the Exodus tradition. And so, Prophet Amos, for instance, criticized the purity system and said that it becomes meaningful only if “justice flow like a stream, and righteousness like a river that never goes dry” (Cf. Amos 5:21-24).

The Jesus’ movement stood up with the prophetic tradition. Hence, instead of proclaiming holiness, Jesus Christ our Lord rather proclaimed wholeness, as concretely shown in his table fellowship with sinners and prostitutes and the healings of the unclean.

Holiness divides people, but wholeness unites people. And so, instead of saying, “Be holy as your Father in heaven is holy”, Jesus Christ our Lord rather said, “Be compassionate as your Father in heaven is compassionate”(Lk.6:36). For Jesus the essence of holiness is compassion, justice, and honesty, which he regarded as the weightier aspects of the Law (cf. Mt. 23:23). Without justice, honesty, and compassion, all our observance of holiness and purity laws would redound into empty rituals and ceremonies devoid of meaning and significance. To be holy, therefore, is to be just, honest, and compassionate.

Hence, I said in my sharing with people in the churches that our Seminary emphasizes the training of our students not to be “holy” as popularly understood, not to be trained like the Scribes and Pharisees, but to be compassionate, to be just and honest to people, like Jesus Christ our Lord. For this is what our Lord Jesus Christ did in his time; he taught his disciples and the people following him to be “compassionate as (the) Father in heaven is compassionate” (Lk.6:36). This is the reason why Christ our Lord criticized the Scribes and the Pharisees for emphasizing holiness or the purity laws, and forget the weightier aspects of the law, which is honesty, justice, and mercy or compassion (cf. Mt. 23:23).

Using the prophecies of Isaiah, Jesus also criticized the Scribes and Pharisees for teaching human rules as though they are laws of God, and for putting aside God’s commands and obeying human teachings (Cf. Mk. 7:6-8). Apparently, for Jesus the purity laws of holiness imposed by the Scribes and the Pharisees were not necessarily the laws of God.

For instance, Jesus even criticized the food laws. He said, “There is nothing that goes into you from the outside which can make you ritually unclean. Rather, it is what comes out of you that make you unclean…For from the inside, from your heart, come the evil ideas which lead you to do immoral things, to rob, kill, commit adultery, be greedy, and do all sorts of evil things; deceit, indecency, jealousy, slander, pride, and folly – all these evil things come from inside you and make you unclean”(Mk.7:14-23).

Oftentimes, people today who claim to be “holy” or even striving to be “holy” tend to be self-righteous and judgmental of other people. They tend to be unforgiving, closed-minded, and quite difficult to listen and to understand. This is the same kind of attitude we find among the Scribes and the Pharisees during Jesus’ time. They accused Jesus for being “unholy”, because he associated himself with the so-called sinners and outcasts of society (cf. Mt. 9:10-13). But Jesus Christ our Lord, though he may be accused of being “unholy” and breaker of purity laws, was full of compassion and forgiveness, especially for the poor, the sinners, and outcasts of society.

And so, the call of the hour is for us to shun away from the holiness of the Scribes and Pharisees and to heed Christ’s injunction saying to us, “Be compassionate as your Father in heaven is compassionate” (Luke 6:36). # nordis.net


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