America is blessed with a lot of churches. Some sit astride prominent street corners proudly displaying their architectural glory while others are tucked away indiscreetly between a used shoe store and a day old bakery in a weary strip mall on the tired side of town. Some have one word names like “Grace.” Others have names so long that you can’t say the full name without stopping to breathe. Most have the stereotypical church look, while others resemble something between a cinema and a warehouse. It is not, however, the architect they display, the appellation they wear, or the affiliations they boast that makes them a church.
The New Testament doesn’t provide a simple concise definition of the Church other than what is found in the meaning of the Greek word for Church (ekklesia) which is “the called out ones.” What it does provide is long narratives portraying the Church in action, colorful word pictures of what the church is like, specific duties that the Church should fulfill, doctrinal standards that the Church should teach and prophetic insights of how the Church can stray from the path and lose its way.
History has taught us that the Church needs periods of reformation and times of revival to keep it doctrinally sound, morally pure and faithful to its calling. At other times, the Church needs change that is less radical and might be described as a course correction. These internal corrections need to be made because the Church has a hard time keeping its balance. Certain imbalances can be attributed to the peculiarities of leadership. Others are derived from simply over-emphasizing one truth to the neglect of other balancing truths. The worse imbalances, however, grow out of the fertile soil of fear. When the church and its leaders do what they do or fail to do what they should do out of fear, the church will inevitably suffer from some imbalance.
The Call to the Conservative Holiness Movement, by its very nature, is a challenge to the CHM to address particular areas of weakness or failure. The call is not designed to enumerate all the good things that could be said about the CHM. Article III of the call speaks to the CHM’s community of faith and addresses some of the imbalances in the way the CHM views its own community of faith and the community of faith at large. I think it is important to note that even though these imbalances are real and need addressed, the average conservative holiness church is a wonderful place to worship. In my opinion, they still offer one of the best environments available to raise a family; hear the Word of God fearlessly proclaimed; feel conviction for sin while at the same time find the power of grace; hear fervent praying; sense the moving of God’s Spirit; worship with people who are serious about everyday holiness; and find an environment that truly helps one to keep his feet on the narrow path that leads to life eternal!
Nevertheless, the CHM does have a significant imbalance in the way it views its own differing communities of faith as well as how it views the larger community of faith. The Movement at large and the various denominations within suffer from a culture of suspicion toward those who do not share their particularities. They also suffer from a certain insularity that robs them of the insight, wisdom and balance that could be derived from the larger Christian community. This condition varies in degree from denomination to denomination and from church to church, but it is present and needs to be honestly confronted and openly addressed.
A Culture of Suspicion
The CHM highly values the Biblical call to separation from the world. As appropriate and good as this may be, inherent in any serious commitment to “Biblical separation” is the temptation to be suspicious of others who may have a lesser degree or even a greater degree of separation that we do. Just as the call to holy living can veer off the path into perfectionism, the call to separation from the world can veer off the path into isolationism – an isolation that breeds a carnal suspicion of anyone and everyone that doesn’t see it like I do or share my particular version of how the faithful ought to manifest their faith. This has been a perennial bane for the CHM. Rev. Tom Reed says this kind of suspicion has caused us to “play God – determining who is or is not a Christian based on the way we see things.” Clearly if this suspicion is left unchecked, it will lead to a spirit of judging and condemnation of the larger community of faith as well as to divisions within our own CHM family. Even now many groups within the CHM will not use a speaker from another group within the CHM because of suspicion and fear. Conservative leaders could use their influence and voice to help remedy this disease with a cure that doesn’t require anyone to compromise their corporate values or personal convictions. It only requires a renewed understanding and commitment to the teachings of I Cor. 8-10 and Rom. 14. Add to that a fresh supply of the “love of God poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit” and we can be well on our way to removing the ethos of suspicion and division among us.
A Detachment from the Larger Christian Community
In I Cor. 12 Paul reminds us that the Church is a body made up of many different members; each contributing something that the other members cannot give. This has an application to both the local body and to the larger body of Christ. It seems to me that God has given the various traditions of the Christian Church particular insights into truth and practice that He has not given in the same degree to all. He must expect us to learn from one another. I have learned much about prayer by reading from both Catholic and Evangelical writers. I have been immeasurably enriched by the writings and teachings of evangelicals like C. S. Lewis, Dallas Willard, Richard Foster, Ravi Zacharias and Chuck Colson. The expository preaching and teaching of men like John MacArthur, David Jeremiah and Howard Hendricks have added great value to the life of the whole Church and challenged others to take the Scriptures more seriously. The work of William Booth, Mother Teresa and Erlo Stegen have challenged me to the core of my spiritual being to be mindful of the downtrodden and disenfranchised among us. Where would America’s families be today without the ministry of James Dobson? Personally, no one has challenged me more in the area of spiritual intimacy and holiness than Dennis Kinlaw and John Oswalt.
It must be noted that not a single name mentioned above identifies with the CHM. Yet each one of them has spoken powerfully into my life and the lives of many conservative holiness people. In preparation for writing this article I spoke with the Rev. Tom Reed, who is an elder statesman within the CHM. He shared with me a list of men outside our tradition who have been used of God to advance his own spiritual life. He mentioned: H.A. Ironsides (a former pastor of Moody church), A.W. Tozer (he visited his church often on Sunday evenings), Paul Rees, Vance Havner, S. M. Lockridge and Howard Hendricks. He added this insightful comment, “these were not holiness men but they were holy men and I refuse to write them off just because they see some things differently than me”.
The CHM has tended to isolate themselves from these “outside” voices. They fear that they might be a corruptive or a persuasive influence, or even worse, that if we allow anyone to minister to us that does not fully share all our values we have somehow compromised and demeaned those values. Some of this kind of thinking grows out of simple fear. In other cases I think it is because we have failed to distinguish between a Romans 14 category issue (opinions, preferences, interpretations, etc…) and a Galatians 1 category issue (false doctrine or heresy) and have treated all outside voices as if they were in the Galatians 1 category. Mature leaders should be more discerning than this. I know many laymen who already exercise this kind of discernment by means of radio, books, CD’s and DVD’s that they buy and listen to.
Let me clear, I am not advocating an open door policy on “outside voices”. I am certainly not encouraging local churches to open up their pulpits to men and women from other traditions. What I am suggesting is that in our large conventions, conferences and forums we need to occasionally hear what our brothers and sisters outside the CHM have to say to us. God is working powerfully in His world through many of these choice servants. There are many outside our little circle who are far outstripping us in their passion for the lost, their zeal for the disenfranchised, their insight into scripture and their love for holiness. To hear what they are doing, to be challenged by their successes and to learn from their insight will not and does not diminish my love for my Zion nor make me want to jettison my spiritual tradition and values! It simply makes me a better servant of the Lord!
We Have Something to Offer the Church
The sword of isolation cuts two ways. We are cut off from what the larger Christian community can give us and the larger Christian community is cut off from what we can bring to it. The CHM is the beneficiary of hundreds of years of rich holiness heritage. We have grown up embracing and experiencing truths that some in the body of Christ will never know or experience. We have some preachers who are as capable and anointed as any out there anywhere. Our emphasis on personal transformation, purity of heart, perfect love, real character development, growth in grace and freedom from the power of sin are emphasis that are needed by the larger body of Christ! Surely what God has freely bestowed on us we ought to freely share with others!
My plea is not for some silly, stupid ecumenicalism! It is a simple plea for us to both reap and share the bounty of spiritual riches that are ours in Christ and found within the various members of His Body – including our own. The late H. E. Schmul, one of the greatest conservative holiness statesmen I ever knew, use to lead us in singing, “I don’t care what church you belong to, Just as long as for Calvary you stand. Just as long as your heart beats with my heart, You’re my brother, so give me your hand”. Somebody strike the tune and let’s sing it again!