Paul T. Sloan: How the Church Becomes a Community of Holiness

“It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you,” says Paul to the young church in Corinth. “And you are proud! Shouldn’t you rather have gone into mourning … ? Your boasting is not good,” he continues. “Don’t you know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough? Get rid of the old yeast, so that you may be a new unleavened batch—as you really are. … ‘Expel the wicked person from among you.’”

One thing consistently strikes me whenever I read this passage from 1 Corinthians 5: While Paul is certainly concerned for the unrepentant man, he seems equally concerned for the sanctity of the community. “Don’t you know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough?” he asks. The basis for Paul’s concern seems to be his understanding that God dwells not simply in the redeemed individual but among the whole community. “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst?” he asks (1 Cor. 3:16).

Throughout his letters, Paul teaches that the church currently enjoys the presence of the Spirit of God in anticipation of the day when God will flood the whole earth with his glory. Similarly, John’s closing vision in Revelation makes plain the hope of a renewed heaven and earth in which “God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.” (Rev. 21:3). Consequently, these passages should remind us that holiness—the quality that makes creatures capable of inhabiting the same space as their Creator—is not just an individual concern but is also a corporate affair.

Certainly, individual sanctification matters greatly, but it gains its significance within the broader biblical vision of the Triune God making his dwelling among his rescued people. In other words, holiness should be a characteristic of the community, and an individual grows in his or her personal holiness by submitting to God’s Spirit who sanctifies the whole.

In this time between the times, recalling the biblical vision of the whole community as the restored, sanctified dwelling place of God will greatly empower our Spirit-led efforts toward communal and personal holiness, equip our churches to respond rightly to communal and individual shortcomings, and serve God’s mission in the world by reminding us that the corporate church should shine like lights in a watching world full of alternative portraits of what it means to be human (Phil. 2:15).

The Numinous Presence

God’s Spirit among us is the basis for the apostles’ exhortations to holiness: “Be holy because I am holy.” (Lev. 11:44–45, 19:2, 20:7; 1 Pet. 1:16) The often-unstated premise in this well-known refrain is “Because the Lord your God walks in the midst of your camp.” (Deut. 23:14, ESV). God’s presence is likened to a “consuming fire” (Heb. 12:29; Lev. 9:24), but here an interesting phenomenon occurs. Though his presence is like fire—a terrible good—we are not thereby warned to avoid him, as one would toddlers near an open flame. Rather, we are required to become pure steel rather than dry wood, capable of enduring the intense heat. Like the Pevensie children upon learning that Aslan is not a tame lion, our right response is not to run in the other direction but to approach him with awe. In other words, we are to be holy as he is holy.

Thus, the fact of God’s spiritual presence among us now, and the promise of his unveiled presence in the future, is what grounds New Testament exhortations to both individual and communal holiness. But it’s important to remember that holiness isn’t just a lack of impurity any more than fire is a lack of darkness. To be sure, holiness entails the avoidance of impurity, but it is more aptly described by its positive characteristics, by the fruit the Spirit bears: love, joy, peace, and the rest. While we easily comprehend exhortations to personal holiness, communal holiness can be an odd concept given the Western penchant for individualizing sanctification. So what would it look like for a whole community to be characterized by holiness?

The early church provides numerous examples. One such is the distinctive practice of adopting orphans. Ancient societies widely practiced “infant exposure,” the abandonment of unwanted children to the fate of death or slavery. Not only did Christians condemn the practice (see Epistle of Barnabas 19:5, 20:2; Epistle to Diognetus5:6), but they were even known to rescue exposed infants and raise them as their own (see Augustine, Epistle to Boniface §6). Thus, in a culture that valued or defined a person by virtue of their perceived benefit to society, Christians exhibited their communal holiness by disregarding such cultural norms and consequently caring for unwanted children as a community at great cost to themselves.

Similarly, in imitation of Jesus’ vision that God’s dwelling place is a place of transformation for the sick and needy (inferred from Matt. 21:14) my church in Houston, Seven Mile Road, raised and dedicated over $60,000 to Houston’s Child Protective Services and the church’s own Adoption and Foster Care Fund, financially aiding folks in our community who foster and adopt. Time with these children and their caretakers continually awakens our church to the reality of Houston’s need, and as a result, numerous couples within the church have become foster parents and adopted children into their care. Thus the Spirit that indwells us as God’s people led the church to pursue love and goodness toward those around us, in and out of the household of faith (Gal. 6:10), such that in a city with staggering need, Seven Mile Road is known for its service to the least of these.

To be sure, at an observable level, holy endeavors like the ones described above are often initiated and completed by individuals. But it’s important to remember the basis for such individual acts. Members of the community are able to act accordingly not because of their personal holiness but because they belong to the sanctified body, whose head is Christ (Col. 1:18; 1 Cor. 12).

Even the term member implies a proper functioning only by virtue of one’s belonging to the whole. Members act rightly as “hands” and “feet” precisely because they belong to the holy “body.” Personal holiness, therefore, is a consequence, not a component, of communal holiness. Thus individuals pursue and express their sanctification only by submitting to the Spirit that already sanctifies the corporate church.

In the two examples above, from the early church and Seven Mile Road, members of the church were empowered and encouraged toward radical acts of love and faithfulness because their churches, as corporate bodies, committed to embodying the love of Christ in their communities.

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Source: Christianity Today