I once asked a colleague how we know someone is a sinner. He tapped his bible and said, “It’s all right here”.
Had I asked about holiness the bible would have been tapped again because we are tempted to believe that scripture is as clear as our theology and interpretation. We like the idea that scripture is simply a case of “God said it so I believe it”.
If someone raises the issue of holiness they are usually talking about sex and you may have to reference a statement like this from the group Fulcrum. For some reason, sexual behaviour has become a measure or benchmark of how we treat the authority of scripture for a wide range of topics. Thus statements are prone to declare:
2a. The authority of the Church to decide its own actions is limited by the word of God in Holy Scripture.
2b. The Church is not free to use certain parts of the Bible, such as the commandment to love our neighbours, as a justification for setting aside teaching contained in other parts of the Bible, such as the rejection of same-sex sexual activity.
2c. The Church therefore does not have the authority to introduce any form of marriage that differs from the form of marriage authorised and commended in Holy Scripture or to commend sexual behaviour forbidden by Holy Scripture.
The authors present vague phrases like “have the authority” and the “word of God in scripture” as if they have universal and unambiguous meanings. They suggest scripture always has the power to compel us like a fireman telling you to leave the burning building: you can ignore it, but you will die.
Scripture does have authority but you have to sift through it to find what are cornerstones and what are descriptions of experience. Christian history is littered with the setting aside some scripture as authoritative. Titus 1:12 tells me that “Cretans are liars, evil brutes and lazy gluttons”. Is that how I am to treat people from Crete? Paul says this because he wants to win an argument: “If you don’t like my spiritual argument about false teachers, at least reject them because they are Cretans.” Yes, he was human too.
In a similar way we blithely use “traditional marriage” as if scripture has only one model presented over the millennia. To believe that requires us to ignore the scriptural license for polygamy, men sleeping with their wives’ servants to ensure an heir, commands for rapists to marry their victims, provision for concubines and sex with the slaves of wives. What you won’t find is any clear scripture that rescinds them.
The “god said it so I believe it” theology makes demands of the “word of God” that it is unwilling to make itself.
3b. “Because marriage is instituted by God, neither the Church nor the state is authorised to re-define it.”
Solomon, David and Jacob all had marriages that included more than one partner. They were bigamists with the apparent approval of God. But both the British Government and the Church of England would not marry them in that state. Scripture, the church and the state have constantly been redefining marriage and relationships on the basis of what is and is not acceptable now. Marriage is indeed instituted by God but he has been very imprecise about what he meant by it.
When you sift you’ll find that sex is not the sole benchmark for holiness. Sabbath and Jubilee are predominant themes throughout scripture because they promote inclusive community and economic justice (upon which community depends). God offered Jubilee and Sabbath as the foundation of Israel’s community economics in settling Canaan. Failure to keep Jubilee (and the Sabbath too) lay at the heart of Israel’s exile and troubles and I would argue they lie at the heart of ours too.
Scripture repeatedly points out that those who chase after wealth and obey its demands are lost, foolish idolaters. Yet when do we chastise those in our congregations who serve the dominating systems of wealth, money lending and greed? When have we refused communion or ordination to the city trader who works 70 hour weeks because they don’t obey the commandment about sabbath? When have we taught that busy sabbathless lives and rejections of the Jubilee are sins to be repented of?
It has taken me most of my adult life to realise that the struggle for holiness is the struggle with our idols whether they are based on our desires, our activities or how we shape the world. What is unholy is what takes the place of God in my life. And that is very easy to see.
When love is replaced with lust, when communal prosperity is replaced with individual greed, when forgiveness is replaced with vengeance, when relationships are based on control and profit then I know that I am not holy. That includes commercial behaviour, sexual behaviour, how I raise my kids and the thoughts I think while I sit in traffic.
Jesus summed up the law in a single phrase: love God and neighbour with my whole being. If I fail at one, I fail at the other. That is the statement that matters. That is that statement that tells me what is important to God and how I must live. On this, scripture is clear.