Social holiness is about way more than sex

Social holiness is about way more than sex April 24, 2014

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.

All this is just to say that we should be very suspicious of any talk about “holiness” that is exclusively focused on sex, because there’s a whole lot of historical classist and racist baggage that most of us are blissfully unaware of which nonetheless seeps into our thinking when we reduce the goal of Christian living to keeping our sons and daughters out of each other’s pants until they’re married. There are many legitimate and critically important things to say about chaste sexuality as part of a much broader discourse of Christian holiness, but when holiness is reduced to sexual chastity, then Christian discipleship has been reduced to the middle-class patting themselves on the back for keeping their animal urges in check and safely behind their white picket fences unlike those steamy dark poor people in their chaotic concrete jungles.

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!

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  • David

    Beautiful. I love it.

  • Kevin Thomas


  • Luke Breuer

    This reminds me of Dorothy Sayers’ essay The Other Six Deadly Sins, in The Whimsical Christian:

    Thirdly, there are two main reasons for why people fall into the sin of luxuria. It may be through sheer exuberance of animal spirits, in which case a sharp application of the curb may be all that is needed to bring the body into subjection and remind it of its proper place in the scheme of man’s twofold nature. Or—and this commonly happens in periods of disillusionment like our own, when philosophies are bankrupt and life appears without hope—men and women may turn to lust in sheer boredom and discontent, trying to find in it some stimulus that is not provided by the drab discomfort of their mental and physical surroundings. When that is the case, stern rebukes and restrictions are worse than useless. It is as though one were to endeavor to cure anemia by bleeding; it only reduces further an already impoverished vitality. The mournful and medical aspect of twentieth-century pornography and promiscuity strongly suggests that we have reached one of these periods of spiritual depression where people go to bed because they have nothing better to do. In other words, the regrettable moral laxity of which respectable people complain may have its root cause not in luxuria at all, but in some other of the sins of society, and may automatically begin to cure itself when that root cause is removed. (158-9)

    • MorganGuyton

      That’s deep. I’ve been hearing a lot of good stuff about her lately.

      • Luke Breuer

        It makes sense: deprive the poor of an opportunity to thrive via accomplishment (e.g. getting an education and satisfying job), and they’ll choose the only way left: physical gratification. Next, demonize even this, and you basically tell the poor that they don’t deserve anything nice. My wife noticed a few months ago that the poor in San Francisco don’t even seem to deserve beauty. Nothing nice for the poor.