Holiness: A Discourse
And that ye put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness. – Ephesians 4:24 (KJV)
For God hath not called us unto uncleanness, but unto holiness. – 1 Thessalonians 4:7
Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord – Hebrews 12:14
Many years ago I watched a program featuring Mike Aquilina, a once popular EWTN figure, and Dr. Scott Hahn, a prominent convert to the Catholic Church known for his extensive writings and modern apologetics for the Catholic belief system. The program was on Mary, mother of Jesus, and on a doctrine unique to Catholic teaching about her, known as “perpetual virginity.” This teaching purports that, as Mary was conceived without original sin (a Catholic doctrine known as the Immaculate Conception – unique only to Mary) and was preserved from committing any sin throughout her life, Mary was also a “perpetual virgin,” meaning that even though she and Joseph were married, the two of them never had a physical relationship in their marriage because such would have tainted her holiness and, thus, been sinful. We aren’t going to discuss the absurdity of the doctrine here, or examine why what they believe is not true. We already know that. What I remember most about the program is what has deeply disturbed me for a number of years, and that was their attitude about the discussion. The look on the faces of two men as they discussed the sexual state of this historical woman – they discussed her sex life openly in a television forum – deeply disturbed me. Thinking about it now even disturbs me, because the way they spoke of it, the thoughts and expressions therein clearly indicated they delighted in the conversation. They were enjoying it, it was doing something for them that wasn’t quite so honorable, nor respectful. It was, however, considered “acceptable” because they were talking about Mary – and thus, in Catholic understanding – she ceases to be a human being who was perhaps entitled to some privacy. Rather than being seen as a perverted, dirty conversation, it was seen as “holy” and “theological.”
Recent events involving a photograph of a famous Gospel singer – listening to people discuss how a dress “fit her body shape,” whether or not such a dress was “appropriate” for her “body type,” seeing people discuss her various body parts and how they fit into her dress – has all brought that same feeling I had when seeing the discussion on EWTN all those years ago. It sounds “theological” to everyone because people are throwing the word “holiness” in there. It seems “acceptable” because people keep bringing up the issue and morality and this and that – but to me, listening to women be catty and make nasty comments about another woman’s body and listening to men comment on women’s body parts – is just as disgusting a conversation as Scott Hahn and Mike Aquilina had on EWTN about Mary all those years ago. I think a lot of people involved in the debate rather enjoyed it; it was an outlet for people to look upon a woman in lust, in judgment, to be argumentative and nasty to other people; to be defensive; and to, overall, well…act really unholy in the defense of holiness.
I think I would have less of an opinion about the issue if it wasn’t something that seems to happen all the time, over and over, both in the church and out of it. The internet, magazines, television, and gossip rags all see fit to show pictures of celebrity or famous women and discuss their clothing, their body parts, and how things “shape” them. We have entire programs that judge people solely by their appearances. Female preachers such as Joyce Meyer and Paula White receive more commentary on their clothing, their hair, and their make-up than on their actual teaching. People even judge the First Lady of the United States and other female candidates for the presidential or political office by her clothing – her appearance – with nasty comments about what she should or should not wear. Critiquing someone’s clothing, so publically, with such discourse and elaboration, isn’t a defense of holiness – it’s worldliness, pure and simple.
How is it worldly? Nobody puts pictures up on Facebook of 50 Cent without his shirt on, exposing his boxers, and talks about it. Nobody puts up photographs of men in their suits that are too tight (because that is the style today – they are too tight in the nether regions, too tight in the chest, and too short in the sleeves) – and discusses how big a guy’s bulge looks. No, that is never done – but people feel it appropriate and, even spiritually acceptable – to discuss a woman’s hips, behind, breasts, and waistline – all in the guise of “holiness.”
Let me make myself perfectly clear: I believe that Christians are called to be holy. I also believe that holiness is tainted and misused to impose a double standard. As a result, we don’t understand what holiness is truly about. We think holiness is our own personal excuse to pat ourselves on the back because we follow a bunch of rules – and impose those rules upon everyone else. This thinking – and attitude – has its roots not in the Bible, but in more modern times when the world began to be divided more sharply by conservatism in religion and American-type values.
“Holiness Codes” as we understand them today did not exist before the Methodist and Holiness movements of the 1700s and 1800s. Prior to this time in history, holiness was not the focus of the majority of denominations – doctrine was. Protestant movements were far more into trying to fit the Word into their doctrine than how to live one’s faith. Christians of old were just as superstitious, common, and integrated with modern society as non-believers were. The exception to this was Calvinism, which was known for its austere codes of conduct – but the reality of Calvinist descendants was that they behaved often quite common and quite raucous as others did, despite the so-called “conducts” of their system. The Pilgrims, for example, landed at Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts because they ran out of beer, as is documented on their landing site. With changing times came changing approaches to what was truly important in the life of a believer, and in how the life of a believer was defined. The codes we have come to associate with Holiness denominations – no smoking, no drinking, no dancing, no gambling, no hair-cutting for women, no long hair for men, long pants for men, no pants for women, no make-up, and many other beliefs, several of which people would write off as absurd today. Holiness codes were a response to changing times, changing fashions, changing attitudes – in short, they were a response to change. They were a bit more equal between the sexes than we proclaim today, but not much. For example: men were forbidden to wear any sort of jewelry, they had to wear long sleeves, and neck ties were considered “adornment.” There were those who believed it was impossible to even be saved if you lived in a city, believing the urban environment to be cause for sin and debauchery. Many also believed that “holiness” translated to segregation of blacks and whites, and considered such integration to be appalling, a disrespect to God and His “separation” of the races. Clearly, the translation of “holiness” for people in this time frame was a reaction to a changing culture, of which they disapproved. The first women’s liberation movement in American history was the Suffragist Movement, in full swing during this era; abolitionism and the push to end slavery was also causing a changing course of time, and an integration of former slaves into society; the invention of the bicycle caused fashion to change, especially for women; temperance (the movement to abolish alcohol) was prominent among Baptist and Methodist churches in the United States; as was a general health movement, pushing people to depart from cities, believing air and poor nutrition were to blame for a host of ailments, much of their theories based upon “junk science.”
Having said all of that, what we associate with “holiness” today comes from these associated movements, not from a true Biblical understanding of what it means to be holy. They are traditions, passed down for the past three hundred or so years – and sometimes, even less than that – about what is to define the “exterior” of a believer. We do not even uphold all of these codes today. Most people, thankfully, have abandoned the racism prevalent in the Holiness and Methodist Movements (although, unfortunately, it is not completely gone). No one would assume you can’t be saved if you live in a city, and men are not forced to wear long pants, long sleeves, and never wear a neck tie. We have not, however, abandoned the holiness codes for women. Women are still chastised for wearing cute shoes, a skirt that is above the ankles, cutting hair, wearing make-up, or wearing short sleeves, in many circles. And, as we can see from recent events – they are also still assessed by their clothing, by individual standards of the holiness code.
It’s the same lie we hear from time eternal – it’s the “woman’s fault.” The world – and now, the church as well – makes women responsible for the behaviors and actions of men. Women are not responsible for men who cannot control their lusts, their sex drives, it is not a woman’s fault if she is raped or she is sexually abused – it is the perpetrator’s fault. And it’s about time that the church step up and be accountable for the ways in which it is perpetuating double standards and not forcing individuals to be accountable for their behavior. For a church that screams about accountability, we certainly don’t enforce it when it comes to the matters of the sexes. And this, people, IS a sin. It is perpetrating the enmity that exists between men and women stemming back to the garden which Jesus overcame on the cross, and should be no more.
The word “holy” simply means “set apart for a purpose.” “Holiness,” therefore, refers to the state or condition of being set apart for a purpose. In other words: holiness is NOT a lifestyle, it is NOT a code, it is NOT a list of exterior rules – it is a condition, it is a state, it is a way of being. Holiness is something we become as Christ has transformed us, and it becomes something that we are. It is not something we can adopt by a long list of dos and don’ts created to counter-culture believers and avoid change. Nothing in the Bible prevents women – or men – from being fashionable. If anything, the Apostle Paul’s discourses in 1 Corinthians 11 about head coverings clarify that we are to dress with the culture of our times – as the head covering was a cultural issue, not a spiritual one. Our clothing should not be so ugly and so unfashionable that it distracts from our purposes in Christ. Yes, people are going to like or dislike what we wear. Some of us are more ample in certain areas than others – men and women alike – but the Bible does not tell us we have to put a sack over our head or wear clothing that distracts from our bodies. Attractiveness is not a sin, and if someone else can’t control their desires – that is not the fault of the object of said desires. We all know that 1 Peter 3 explains that beauty should not be just skin deep – it should be about developing qualities that truly make us beautiful – but there is nothing sinful, nor wrong – with practicing good hygiene, dressing well, and dressing in a way that accentuates our best features rather than looking haggard, tired, and trying to make ourselves perpetually ugly.
We need to stop perverting the Word and trying to make everything a rule to avoid the ways in which we are both encouraged and purposed to change with our age. We are still in this world, even if we are not of it. Fashions change, styles change, what is considered modest and immodest have also changed throughout history, a topic which I am not going to get into for the time being. The reality, however, that needs to remain is that we need to be holy no matter what we have on, how our hair looks, whether or not we are wearing make-up, because holiness should be who we are and should be something notable about ourselves. Holiness is a state of character, where our main priority and purpose in life reflects that we are seeking God in everything we do. When we come to understand this, we will excel at holiness – because holiness will reflect in our behavior. It’s the quality of God transforming us as we seek to serve Him – as He transforms us within, and it reflects without.
(c) 2013 Lee Ann B. Marino. All rights reserved.