Fellow Methodist pastor Evan Rohrs-Dodge wrote a very legitimate post recently pointing out the distinction between what John Wesley called “social holiness” and what people today call “social justice.” The two are often conflated in liberal Methodist circles. While social justice has to do with standing up for the marginalized, social holiness refers to developing an accountable community of people who are trying to actively help each other become more like Jesus. You cannot accomplish social justice without social holiness. I’ve tried it. It doesn’t work. Communities without any concern for holiness quickly degenerate into hot messy dramas, no matter how idealistic their goals for society are. At the same time, it’s very important to name an elephant in the room. When I look through the writings of John Wesley about his small group movement, I don’t see him encouraging his Methodists to gather weekly to hold ideological debates about other peoples’ sexuality. Because social holiness is about way more than sex. The reason that “holiness” today has turned into a code word for holding certain opinions about other peoples’ sexuality is because of agendas that have little to do with pursuing the heart of Christ that is the true standard of holiness.
One of my favorite things about Victorian British novelist Charles Dickens is how poignantly he portrays insufferably self-righteous people. And he gives them such perfect names. Josiah Bounderby is a beautiful example in Dickens’ novel Hard Times. Bounderby is a filthy rich mill owner who tells everyone who will listen about his rise from humble beginnings to his present wealth (which turns out to be a lie). Throughout the novel, Bounderby weighs forth piously against the immorality of his severely underpaid workers, especially when they try to form a union. Bounderby himself is so prude that he won’t even consummate his own marriage bed, which ends up causing his frightened young wife to run back to her father and annul the marriage. In just about every other Dickens novel I’ve read, there’s always a spoiled rich character like Bounderby who justifies his or her decadent privilege by berating the (often sexual) immorality of the poor masses. It may be fiction, but Dickens had his finger on a real social phenomenon that’s just as present in our neo-Victorian gilded age as it was in his Victorian time.
One of the realities we need to acknowledge in the middle-upper-class church is that sexuality has been used for centuries as a means of demonizing the poor and rationalizing their poverty. I really suspect that’s how it’s acquired an oversized emphasis in middle-class morality to the point that morality and sexual purity are synonymous for many people. It’s true that poor people, for a combination of reasons after the transition from agrarian serfdom to industrialism, have historically not tended to have the same stable sexual boundaries and family structures as middle-class people. They have always had more extramarital sex than middle-class people, but that reality doesn’t explain, justify, or dismiss the injustice of their circumstances as much as many middle-class people would like. Since the modern middle-class came into existence in the 17th century, it has defined itself against the poor and the aristocracy alike on the basis of its moral temperance with regard to sexuality, alcohol, gambling, financial expenditures, and other things. While the aristocracy may have been pure in terms of its royal bloodlines, the middle-class has always wanted to see itself as pure in terms of its morality.
In America, segregationist society took things a step further. If you read any literature from the segregationists explaining the rationale behind segregation, you will quickly find that the races had to be separated because otherwise white women would be raped in the streets by black men who had no control over their sexual urges. It doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch to hypothesize that the sexual purity culture of the post-segregationist “family values” movement of the 80’s and 90’s is a racially masked descendent of the segregationist zeal to protect white female chastity. Similarly, the “white flight” phenomenon of the 60’s and 70’s that was the original catalyst of modern suburbia had as a central ethos the paranoid need to protect white girls from black bogeyman. That’s the visceral image that defines an “unsafe neighborhood.” The swarthy dark villain who sneaks out of a dimly lit alley to grab the frail lily-white damsel in distress. In more discrete times, the sex was understated, but that’s been the central plot motif of so many action movies, it’s ridiculous. Finally, the unstated stereotype of black sexual promiscuity continues to this day to haunt every conversation about Uncle Sam being the sugardaddy of welfare mamas who keep on having babies out of wedlock.
One of the questions Evan posed in his post is whether our “conversation” in United Methodism would change if it were shaped by social holiness instead of social justice (one could also ask whether our “conversation” would change if it were shaped by social holiness instead of middle-class self-justification through sexual purity). If we were guided by true social holiness, any public social media “conversation” would first of all become a whole lot less relevant, because true social holiness happens in covenanted communities among people who know each other intimately and aren’t trying to platform-build at each others’ expense. Secondly, there would hopefully be a lot less public ideological grandstanding about sex. Posturing about sex in the abstract, especially other peoples’ sexuality, is a cheap form of “holiness” by which many Christians sidestep the challenge of their own personal discipleship. Ideology is such an attractive substitute for discipleship in our era when being a Christian is about which causes we Facebook-like and how passionately we stand up for “holiness” on each other’s Facebook walls.
True social holiness certainly includes sex, but it’s about a whole lot more than sex. It happens when a group of people want to have the heart of Jesus, and they seek to encourage each other in the spiritual practices that will help them to flee sin and gain perfect love of God and neighbor. Our hearts can be corrupted by many idols that have nothing to do with sex. In Paul’s list of works of the flesh in Galatians 5:19-21, only two have to do with sexuality: “fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.” Most of the items on this list (like enmities, strife, jealously, quarrels, dissensions, factions, and envy) are things that sexually prudish church-folk get tangled up in all the time (often in direct proportion to the zeal with which they talk about other peoples’ sexuality, which tends to be their tactic for covering up the plank in their own eye).
So by all means, let’s hope that social holiness guides our in-real-life conversations with people we see enough to love personally and even our fake virtual “conversations” with mostly anonymous online frenemies. If this ever actually happened, we would probably stop being concerned with trying to “win” our sexuality debates once and for all, but instead would focus on learning the heart of Jesus by listening very carefully, especially to people whom we define as being on “the other side,” because our amen choruses and echo chambers are the most toxic and self-defeating forums possible in which to cultivate our own personal holiness. It might just be that people who see things the most differently than us have the most to offer in helping us declutter our hearts from the idols we have the most trouble noticing.
Sure, sex can and should be part of any conversation about holiness. Even though being sexually chaste doesn’t guarantee that we will be “clothe[d]… with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (Colossians 3:12) or filled with “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23), sexual impurity will ravage the clothing of Christ to pieces just like any other idol. So if Jesus has conquered your sexual demons, praise God for helping you with one aspect of your journey to holiness. And praise God that you don’t have to spend the rest of your life talking about it. Because there’s so much else for you to work on!