Practical Divinity: Is it holiness or discipleship? What’s at stake?

By Andrew C. Thompson
Special Contributor

We live in an interesting time for the Wesleyan tradition. There have been long periods in the history of Methodism when Methodists weren’t particularly interested in the distinctives of Wesleyan spirituality, or in aligning themselves with the practices of the early Methodist revival. Today is not one of those times.

In fact, the number of conversations I have with pastors and laity about how to rediscover and reclaim the rich heritage of the Wesleyan tradition is simply remarkable. It happens every week. And the desire on the church’s part to get in touch with the living tradition out of which it springs has shaped my own understanding of my calling in a profound way.

The work of bringing forward the resources of Wesleyan theology for the use of the church today is not without its hazards, though. Some parts of our tradition are better off left in the past, while others require significant translation to be usable in the present.

Sometimes we make claims about things we think are Wesleyan when they really aren’t (what a friend of mine calls “Wesleyish”). Other times, there are concepts or practices with a great deal of potential that just have a hard time gaining traction in the current life of the United Methodist Church.

Different understandings

Let me offer an example of what I’m talking about. It has to do with the term “holiness.”

We don’t use the language of holiness much in the church today. In fact, in our culture the word itself is often associated with negative stereotypes: the “holy roller” who is too in-your-face with his religion, or the holier-than-thou person who looks down her nose at everyone else.

We’re much more comfortable with the language of “discipleship.” The mission statement of the United Methodist Church is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” Speaking in terms of becoming a disciple is something we can understand. A disciple is a role we are called to fill. It’s like the job description of someone who is living a faithful life. The word “disciple” is a concrete noun. Easy to understand.

Holiness isn’t quite like that. It’s an abstract noun. It signifies a particular kind of quality or character in a person. Holiness (in the biblical sense) isn’t a job we are supposed to take on so much as it is the disposition of someone whose life is being transformed by grace. Even so, we don’t use it very much. It just seems somehow foreign to our ears, or even old-fashioned.

Now here’s what’s interesting to me: Holiness was a word that early Methodists used all the time. John Wesley had a term—”holiness of heart and life”—that became one of his favored phrases to explain what he meant by someone who was experiencing ongoing sanctification by grace.

When Wesley wrote an essay to explain Methodism to the world, he felt the need to state why a typical Methodist cared so much about pursuing salvation openly and unapologetically. To clarify what he was talking about, Wesley added, “By salvation he means holiness of heart and life.” In other words, for Wesley it is a concept that is central to everything that Christians should care about. The language of holiness saturates Wesley’s writing.

On the other hand, the language of discipleship is almost entirely absent from early Methodism. That includes Wesley. You’ll occasionally see some form of the word being employed, but it isn’t common. It just wasn’t a term that Wesley and the early Methodists felt the need to use very much.

Today we tend to substitute discipleship terms where the early Methodists used holiness terms. So instead of talking about embracing holiness, we talk about authentic discipleship. The early Methodists said they wanted to spread scriptural holiness across the land, whereas we talk about wanting to make disciples of Jesus Christ.

The easy attitude to this shift would be to say, “Big deal. We just use a different word for the same concept.”

Well, maybe so and maybe not. Is it the same concept?

Related, not identical

Let me say plainly that I think both terms are crucial. We need the concrete noun and the abstract noun. We need to talk about what a disciple looks like, and we need to talk about the characteristics of holiness. Both terms are drawn from the New Testament. And both are central to what it means to live faithfully.

With that aside, I’ll add that I do not think discipleship and holiness are interchangeable. With the way we use the language of discipleship, we are typically talking about what a person does. The faithful disciple is someone who sets the right priorities, commits his life to ministry, witnesses to the world through his actions, and loves God and his neighbor.

If we were to use the language of holiness, on the other hand, we’d speak more about who a person is. For Wesley, holiness is about the fruits of the spirit coming to mark a person’s inner character—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness and the rest. He attached the phrase “heart and life” to holiness because he believed that a person who had been transformed inwardly would bear out that new spirit in everything she thought, said or did. The heart always precedes the life, but the life will definitely be changed if the transformation of the heart is authentic.

My worry at times is that we want to think of discipleship the way we think of baking a cake. Put all the ingredients together in the right order and voila! there’s your product. But that only works if one of the ingredients is an encounter with the living God—something that doesn’t come from us and that we don’t control.

We have to be transformed inwardly for any outward change to really take hold. And that means we have to become holy, a process that Wesley equated with being filled by the love of God so that love itself becomes the defining mark of one’s character.

So is it discipleship or holiness? Well, it’s both. And if the second of those terms sounds stranger to our ears, that’s all the more reason to reclaim it for the people called Methodists today.

The Rev. Dr. Thompson, Wesley scholar for the Arkansas Conference, teaches at Memphis Theological Seminary and serves as associate pastor of Marion UMC. He may be reached at athompson@arumc.org.