The Church of the Nazarene came into existence for theological reasons, and these reasons chiefly rest on the intent of the founders to establish a denomination in the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition. While early Nazarenes diverged on certain particulars, unity resulted from a shared commitment to holiness, which held the key to “Christianizing” Christianity. Their brand of holiness was more than a grand doctrinal formulation: it was a living, breathing, embodied reality, able to heal and reconcile regional divides, and bring together the unlikely post-Civil War merger of three holiness bodies from the West, East, and South into one denominational family.
Denominational archivist Stan Ingersol explains, “When holiness moves beyond words and is put into action, new social realities are created,” which have the power to “restructure relationships and attitudes.” The denomination’s founding in 1908 at Pilot Point, Texas, gave rise to such a reality, while many denominational families still labored over post-war disunity. Nazarene imaginations refused to think small, and large things resulted!
Yet, like any doctrine, holiness must be reconsidered, restated, and effectively passed on to each new generation if its creative and life-changing power is to continue among God’s people. Even the Bible uses different words and concepts to convey the meaning of holiness. C. Jeanne Orjala Serräo, professor of Biblical Literature at Mt. Vernon Nazarene University, says that the apostle Paul writes differently about holiness, depending on the context or his audience, whether Jew, Gentile, or mixed. As we’ve attempted to pass holiness onto succeeding generations, we’ve sometimes struggled to find words and concepts adequate to communicate in various cultures, languages, and contexts. This inability has sometimes stifled our imaginations and rendered holiness more an obstacle than a hope.
In two surveys sponsored by Grace and Peace Magazine, one major and one minor, holiness ranked first as a topic of interest. Yet, survey responses varied, sometimes sharply, in how Nazarene clergy understand and express holiness. Some emphasize holiness as purity, and focus on its inward dimensions (such as Bible reading, prayer, and worship attendance), while others look at holiness as love, and focus on its outward dimensions (such as advocacy for the poor, the social outcast, and the disadvantaged). Both expressions are necessary, and each is biblically correct.
Ron Benefiel, who serves as dean of the School of Theology and Christian Ministry at Pt. Loma Nazarene University, says that holiness has different “languages” and each is influenced by the culture, context, customs, and practice of the holiness community to which it belongs. Benefiel uses words like purity, power, character, love to describe these languages. He explains that these various “holiness sub-narratives” can help us better understand and appreciate the story of God and what it means to be holiness people. Of course, what authenticates any group that aspires to holiness is an ability to express love and reconciliation with God and with each other. Our diversity can be an opportunity to spread God’s love and grace into all sectors and situations.
As we look to the future, are we offering a brand of holiness large enough to capture a new generation? As we look at the challenges of our own day, where can holiness create new social realities that bring hope, healing, and reconciliation? If we want young people to believe in and practice holiness, we must demonstrate how holiness brings unity within our fellowship and extends love and reconciliation outside our fellowship. Let’s enlarge our imaginations with the confidence that holiness can bring a life-giving word, not only to our personal reclamation, but to social challenges like poverty, racism, immigration, urbanization, and internationalization.