Holiness & Social Justice

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

James 1:27

Throughout church history there have been different streams that have all made up the river that is orthodox Christian faith. Richard Foster, in his book Streams of Living Water, names six main streams of the Christian tradition:

  1. The Contemplative Tradition: The Prayer-filled Life
  2. The Holiness Tradition: The Virtuous Life
  3. The Charismatic Tradition: The Spirit-Empowered Life
  4. The Social Justice Tradition: The Compassionate Life
  5. The Evangelical Tradition: The Word-Centered Life
  6. The Incarnational Tradition: The Sacramental Life

As denominations in the Church formed, they usually formed around one or two of these streams. We have also seen different streams wake up to the reality of the other streams and begin to try to rediscover them within their own context. Yet, there also seem to be streams that have a difficult time existing together in the same person or the same denomination.

Two streams that have often had difficulty existing together are the Holiness and Social Justice traditions. The Holiness tradition is interested in a life of purity and a life of obediently resisting temptation. God is holy, and we are to imitate Him. It is a tradition that focuses on decontaminating the life of the Christian from the sinful muck of the world.

Yet, the Social Justice tradition wants to jump straight into the muck of the world as a way of trying to bring hope and life to it. This tradition isn’t as concerned with personal sin as it is with corporate and social sin–systems of evil and injustice.

Where both of these traditions agree is that there is a line to be drawn between good and evil, they just draw them in different places. The Social Justice tradition draws the line between good and evil “out there” in the systems and structures of society. The Holiness tradition, however, draws the line between good and evil “in here,” right down the middle of our own hearts.

The Social Justice tradition says, “We are the problem,” and if it’s not healthy can end up saying, “They are the problem.” The Holiness tradition says, “I am the problem,” and if it’s not healthy can end up saying, “You are the problem.”

Yet, this passage in James 1 doesn’t let us divide these traditions. This passage demands that we hold them together in tension. We must look after orphans and widows, the forgotten and marginalized (Social Justice tradition), and we must also keep ourselves from being polluted by the world (Holiness tradition).

Jesus was a beautiful example of all six traditions flowing together. Jesus touching a person with leprosy is a good metaphor for the Holiness and Social Justice traditions flowing together. Typically this action should have made Jesus unclean, but instead we see Jesus’s own “cleanness” end up “contaminating” the leprosy and healing it. Rather than the illness making Him sick, His divine health made the sick person well.

When Jesus came down from the mountainside, large crowds followed him. A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.”

Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” Immediately he was cleansed of his leprosy.

Matthew 8:1-3

This is what we are called to do ourselves. We are called to enter the messy muck of the world and yet not become “unclean.” The apostle Paul gives good instruction about this very thing to the Galatians:

Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted. 

Galatians 6:1

We are to reach out to those being trafficked and prostituted without falling into the sins of lust, manipulation, or paternalism. We are to reach out to the material poor without adopting a poverty mindset, a savior complex, or falling into the kind of materialism that only addresses the physical needs. We are to reach out to LGBTQ community with love and compassion without affirming same-sex romantic relationships. We are to seek and pray for physical healing for those who are facing physical illness and disorders of the body without sending the message that they are somehow “less than” because of the condition that they face.

These are the many tensions we face as we try to hold the Holiness and Social Justice traditions (as well as the Evangelical and Charismatic traditions) in tension together. It would certainly be easier to just pick one stream and try to do that one while ignoring the others. But scripture, and this passage in James in particular, doesn’t give us that option. Jesus embodied all the streams and so must we.

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