The “New” Holiness Movement

Derek Ouellette —  March 7, 2013

Christianity Today magazine had an interesting piece recently titled The New Radicals. In it Matthew Lee Anderson uses another phrase to characterize this movement: the new holiness. Since the holiness movement is in my backyard, I found the article relevant and difficult to put down.

The holiness movement has always been draw to legalism and judgementalism like a moth to the flame. In a desire to remain pure, set apart and holy, standards are erected that few can keep and everyone else is left feeling condemned. Things like

  • pray three hours in the morning
  • do devotions twice a day
  • never miss your Bible reading
  • don’t play cards in church (or rather, don’t play cards anywhere, ever)
  • don’t dance
  • don’t get a tattoo
  • don’t listen to secular music (or anything that could be mistaken for secular music, like Christian rock)
  • don’t go to the movies. Better yet, don’t watch non-Christian movies

These might sound like weird, unbiblical ideas and standards to many outside the holiness movement. But when I absorbed this culture in the 90’s I held to some of them myself. And make no mistake about it, where these ideas are held, biblical support is found in some fashion.

But it doesn’t stop with personal standards and personal piety. The conviction in holiness movements is not that I have set up a personal standard of holiness for myself. Rather the conviction is that the scriptures have set up these universal standards of holiness for all Christians. So soon “I will not get a tattoo” becomes “no self-professed Christian ought to get a tattoo.” It moves from personal piety and personal commitment to broad judgment and condemnation on Christians who don’t keep the same standards.

Today’s new radicals may have a different emphasis, but is the general approach any different? Or have the old standards simply been replaced with new ones. Things like

  • offset your carbon imprint
  • don’t drink from bottled water
  • shun wealth
  • move into poor communities
  • protest government

And just like how the old standards found biblical support in some fashion, so do the new ones.

These are the new radicals that the CT article talks about who feel the need to use adjectives in order to authenticate the faith. David Platt, Shane Claiborne, Francis Chan and others. Men who differ as radically in their theology as Wesley and Whitefield, yet who have the same goal and, by and large, similar methods of reaching those goals.

And like when one reads a book by, say Leonard Ravenhill, John Wesley, Michael Brown, so also today when one reads from the new radicals:

“It’s really hard to read these books, one after another, and confidently declare yourself a Christian at the end.”

You just never seem radical enough. Never holy enough. It’s never enough. If the presentation is ‘this is Jesus, now you must go live like that as we are’, then the proper response is, ‘well who then can be saved?’ Fortunately for the rest of us normal, none-radicals with day jobs and kids and household chores, Jesus answers, ‘what’s impossible with man is possible with God‘ (Mark 10:27). Suddenly it’s not about praying three hours in the morning, abstaining from secular music or offsetting our carbon imprint or moving into poor communities. It’s about a little thing called grace.

But the article goes on to ask the relevant question, are these radicals radical enough?

It points out, for example, that for all of their radical rhetoric and actions, some of them are still pastors of mega churches and they still use the very lucrative publishing industry to get their message out. Even though some of them donate their earnings from the sale of their books, they are still lining the pockets of somebody. Lots of somebodies. Let’s face it. The publishing industry is always driven by what sells, and today, radical sells.

If the new radicals were truly radical they would give up everything – even publishing, claims the article, and go off to do their work away from the public eye. And they wouldn’t be writing books or standing on stages. They wouldn’t have to because wherever they go we will find them. We are drawn to radicals.

Anderson writes,

“The movement is marked by the sincerity of young, energetic pastors and writers eager to make a difference for the poor. Yet the message constantly fights against the medium. It occurs in massive church buildings in middle-class surroundings, spoken to people who shop at the Gap, on platforms called stages rather than pulpits…”

Now I say all of that not to say there is anything particularly wrong with what the new radicals are doing any more than I believe there was anything wrong with what the old holiness guys where doing. After all, I am a Wesleyan! But my concern is that, as with the holiness movement, there is a real danger of legalism, judgmentalism and condemnation. Something the radicals – and us holiness folk – must constantly be on guard against. Striving to live like Jesus – and calling others to do likewise – may result in undoing a Jesus-like life if we let legalism slide in and expect others to live to standards we have set up for ourselves.

“The Good Samaritan wasn’t a good neighbor because he moved to a poor part of town or put a pile of trash in his living room. He came across the helpless victim ‘as he traveled.’ We begin to fulfill the command not when we do something radical, extreme, over the top, not when we’re really spiritual or really committed or really faithful, but when in the daily ebb and flow of life, in our corporate jobs, in our middle-class neighborhoods, on our trips to Yellowstone and Disney World – and yes, even short-term mission trips – we stop to help those whom we meet in everyday life, reaching out in quiet, practical, and loving ways.”

Isn’t that what Paul instructs of the Thessalonians in response to some radicals (4:11)? So let me ask you this: Is it “OK,” as Chaplain Mike says, “to just be a Christian”?

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
  • Rick Wadholm Jr

    What a terrific article Derek. It is “all the rage” and even while I resonate with being “radical” it can quickly just become “legalistic” and miss the very point of its claims…to be like Jesus, full of grace and truth.

    • Derek Ouellette

      Awesome comment Rick. Thanks!

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  • Craig L. Adams

    I think John Wesley stated it well when he spoke of the higher and lower paths. See:

    People can be invited into a higher path — and that’s a good thing. But, they shouldn’t be pushed or constrained into it. Nor: should they be shamed into it.

    But, there is more to it than that: we are not all called to the same paths either. Radical discipleship for me might not look the same as radical discipleship for you.

    And guilt must be removed from all this. Do I move into the poor neighborhood because I feel guilty, or because I have a plan for how this will do good for myself, my family and the community into which I’m moving. Guilt-and-shame motivated spirituality leads to shipwreck.

    As I’ve been blogging through Steele’s Answers by holiness preacher Daniel Steele, I have been reminded again and again how legalistic that movement really was in it’s heyday. One the entries that will be posted next week has to do with a Sunday school superintendent who needs to be removed from his position because he attends the opera and because he takes Sunday afternoon pleasure drives. Yikes!

    • Derek Ouellette

      Yikes indeed! There is always a more excellent way, even for those who think they’ve found it and who think they are already “up here”. There is always a higher ceiling.