OK. So, most people who know me know that I really dig small groups. For about 15 years or so, I’ve been part of small groups ministries of some kind, in some way. I’ve done a lot of reading and studying about small groups. So, as a small groups guy, and as someone whose theological tradition is influenced strongly by John Wesley, naturally, I would be familiar by Wesley’s classes and bands. I also happen to be quite a fan of Wesley. One of Wesley’s idioms, of which I have been quite fond, is being used a lot lately. But, it has been hijaked!
The phrase is: “The Gospel of Christ knows of no religion, but social; no holiness, but social holiness”. Unfortunately, not only is the phrase being hijaked but also mangled to the most common form: “there is no holiness without social holiness”.
I think many college students would be surprised that Wesley’s oft quoted phrase has nothing at all to do with “social justice”. In fact, I can think of at least two main-stream bloggers’ posts where Wesley’s “social holiness” was assumed synonymous to “social justice” (not linked to avoid embarrassing those well-intentioned bloggers). A “google” of the mangled form of the phrase will find its misapplication rampant. I have to admit, that in my own quest to find a more exact term that combines the notion of salvation’s grace and the resulting compulsion to help others experience that transformational grace (especially the disadvantaged of our society), I am tempted to join the throng in co-opting Wesley’s phrase for this purpose. It is so convenient.
The problem is that I know better. Contextually, Wesley absolutely did not mean “social justice” when he said that, “The Gospel of Christ knows of no religion, but social; no holiness, but social holiness”. What he was actually referring to was the “social holiness” experienced as people in small groups pursued a life of holiness, together, through the social interaction of discipleship (building up souls). He made this statement in a preface to a collection of hymns and poems by himself and his brother, Charles. The phrase comes as he is justifying the collection for use in worship and discipleship, in direct response to those people who think they can live faith without meeting with “the brethren” (“sisteren” too I am sure).
Sure, there is the universal appeal to “all” that he uses, but clearly as a persuasive device to combat the notion of a solitary religion, devoid of the blessed accountability of fellow sojourners. The context of the phrase is clearly about discipleship. Those who think otherwise, probably only skimmed the preface or never read it at all. This is not to say that being socially holy (in the misrepresented sense) is bad, it’s just not what Wesley meant when he said “social holiness”. Also, I am *not* saying that Wesley did not have a strong emphasis on meeting the physical and spiritual needs of the less fortunate of our society, it’s just not what he meant when he said “social holiness”.
So, no – the term “social holiness” will *not* do as a fitting replacement for the term “social justice”.
“Social justice” as an “idea” is awesome, but as a “term“, it really really sucks. The quest continues.