Idolized Identity

Idolized Identity

What do the following have in common? Backsliders that won’t wear short sleeves, the idea that Holiness Christians are the “best people in the world,” an “us” vs. “them” mentality, hostile comments on Berean Holiness posts, a rewriting of Holiness history, and a girl who lost her sense of worth and value… They all point to one thing: a Holiness identity that has been idolized above identity in Christ.

This is a sensitive subject, so before I begin, let me briefly address two common critiques: “I’m Holiness and I have never experienced this,” and, “This happens in more denominations than just Holiness.” To the first criticism, I don’t invest hundreds of hours writing about unhealthy tendencies because I like problems. I do it because I want to see problems go away; I want to see churches and Christians thrive. So if you or your church don’t struggle with what I’m about to write about, that’s good news. To the second criticism, I completely agree—this problem exists in more places than just Holiness circles. Unfortunately, I’m very limited in how I can help in those circles (not enough experience in them, access to them, etc.). Thankfully, I can help Christians in Holiness churches, so until God opens more doors I will do my best to be faithful in the opportunity I have.

Now without further ado…

 

Who Am I?

I was alone that day. I packed box after box and rushed them out to my car. I was in a rush, because I not only needed to pack up my home, I also needed to clean it and still make it to my job on time. I loved my job at the bookstore. I loved explaining the differences in Bible translations, giving my opinion on the best Christian music, and selling everything from The Screwtape Letters to Reasonable Faith. But now that it was clear I could no longer attend, live, and serve at a Holiness church, I had to leave. My self-worth suffered as I grappled with the fact that I was no longer a “Holiness girl.” With nowhere to go, I put in my two week notice and crossed my fingers that I could find safe places to sleep until my last day on the schedule. (Thank God for hospitable strangers.)

When my last day at work finally came, I was relieved to get on the road. I drove and drove, still trying to process what had just happened. I had no home to go to, so I chose a state where not a single soul knew my name—Colorado. I’d never been there before. Once again, God provided strangers to host me until I found a place to rent and a church ministry where I could work. With over a thousand miles between me and nearly everyone and everything I knew and loved, I finally had space to think.

What would cause a girl to pack up everything she owned and move a thousand miles away? At the time I didn’t know, I was in a daze—I hardly knew who I was—but in hindsight, I see that that’s precisely why I left. It was because I didn’t know who I was. I had lost my identity, because my identity had been placed in my “holiness” instead of in Christ.

 

Did Everyone Else Compromise?

When I attended Holiness churches, it wasn’t just a church membership. It was more like becoming a spiritual VIP. Again and again we described ourselves as, “The best people in the world.” Even when I was included as one of those “world’s best people,” this perspective of ourselves made me uncomfortable. After all, the gospel teaches that we’re nothing apart from Christ. The more I read biographies of missionaries, martyrs, and persecuted Christians, the more troubled I became at how we looked down at all other branches of Christianity—not to mention the unsaved.

I remember confiding in one Holiness lady (not from my church) that I was planning to attend a non-Holiness church after I moved Out West; she was immediately concerned. She told me that the rest of Christianity used to believe in Holiness standards too, but they had all walked away from them. Holiness people were some of the only Christians who hadn’t “given up biblical holiness.” The message was clear; no matter what church I chose, if it wasn’t a Holiness church with Holiness standards, then it was a backslidden and compromised church. I had a hard time seeing her perspective, so I began to dig deeper into the roots of the Holiness Movement, dress standards in particular.

The deeper I looked into Church history, the more apparent it became that, no, Christianity has never been united on a dress-code. There were a few Christians in history that held views similar to Holiness standards. For example, in the 200s AD, Tertullian chided the women who wore makeup and jewelry, but in the same writings he also condemned colored clothing and hairstyles. Furthermore, Tertullian degraded women as  “the devil’s gateway” and said they ought to walk about “mourning and repentant” since it is the woman’s fault that Christ died. [1] Ironically, Tertullian was criticizing Christian women who were clearly not being taught these things by their church elders. So just a few generations after Christ, the Church was not united on outward appearance. (See: “The Holiness Standard in Church History.”) Tertullian’s rigid views only represented a minority, and he unfortunately went on to become involved in a heretical group. [2]

As I continued to read original documents from the Early Church, it became clear that Early Christians didn’t believe their separation from the world came from outward appearance. Consider this quote from The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus, written in the 200s:

For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity… But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life… They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured, and yet in their very dishonour are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honour; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred. [3]

It’s true that there were a few, small sects scattered through Church history which abstained from jewelry and/or makeup. However, this was often due to taking an oath of poverty or to better share the gospel in the slums, not because they thought it was morally wrong. Take the Waldensians for instance. [4]

So where does the idea come from that Holiness people are some of the few, uncompromised Christians left? In summary, the forerunner ideology of Holiness standards was “plain dress,” which became popular around the time of the reformation. Plain dress was extremely minimalistic. It was a healthy rebellion against the inordinate and lavish extravagance of the Catholic Church. It spread through many branches of the Anabaptists, including the Amish, Quakers, Mennonites, and the Brethren, as well as the Mormons, Adventists, and Moravians. John Wesley was influenced by these Christians and encouraged their plainness for Methodists. [5] The Holiness Movement arose out of Methodism around the 1840s, and was largely composed of leaders who had backgrounds in plain-dressing churches, thus plain-dressing tended to be practiced among them.

Interestingly enough, “holiness” to the early Holiness Movement was not referring to their dress. “Holiness” referred to their key, defining belief, the belief in the “blessing of holiness” or as we might call it today, instantaneous sanctification. The Holiness Movement, which had been interdenominational, began breaking into their own independent churches and groups beginning in the 1880s. These branches further divided and formed after the Azusa Street revival. By the early 1900s, a myriad of groups had branched off from Holiness roots, including: Pilgrim Holiness, Free Holiness, Congregational Holiness, The Church of God, the Assemblies of God, the Nazarene, Free Methodists, Evangelical Methodists, Independent Methodists, the Salvation Army, Church of Christ Holiness, and many, many more. As these foundling denominations formed, they were faced with the question, “Should we pass on our remnants of plain dress traditions, and if so, how?” During the Holiness revivals in the 1800s, plain dress had primarily been a matter of personal choice, but as Holiness denominations in the 1900s found out, it’s not a choice every Christian makes. Some churches attempted to create uniformity by turning plain dress into a set of rules and enforcing them. Any Christian who wouldn’t abide by the traditions would have their membership revoked and their salvation called into question. This caused such confusion and harm that, one by one, most rule-making churches prayerfully reconsidered what they had done, and removed their restrictions. Independent Holiness Pentecostal churches are among the minority which have not yet re-thought their earlier decision. In summary, no, Christianity didn’t backslide and leave Holiness churches as the only ones who wouldn’t compromise. Rather, a very small subset of Christianity started imposing a dress code 100 years ago that most of them came to regret and revoke.

As I continued to research, I was amazed to find out that Holiness churches have actually “let down the standard” themselves. The original plain dress standard was far more strict. It included a head veil for women, neutral colors only (often only dark colors), no patterns, no designs, no lace, no ruffles, and occasionally it even required stockings and forebode buttons and collars (more about this in, “Which Old-Time Holiness Should We Go Back To?“). This raises the question, “If it’s wrong to deviate from clothing-tradition now, why wasn’t it wrong for the Holiness Movement to deviate from the original plain dress tradition?”

 

“Us” Vs. “Them”

Sadly, most Holiness Christians do not know their own history. The idea still persists that Holiness Christians are, and I quote, “the best God’s got going,” the only ones who refuse to compromise, the only ones with holiness “without which no man shall see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14). All too often, “holiness” is perceived and preached as rules regarding dress and entertainment (entertainment restrictions are also a trickle-down from Puritan, Pietist, and Anabaptist influences—except those groups even forbade picnics and plays). Rules vary from area to area, but they tend to stay along the following lines: no pants on women, no cutting women’s hair, no jewelry, no makeup, no sports, no movies, no facial hair, and a very strict sense of modesty (long sleeves, etc.). Many Christian sects follow these rules, including subsets of Baptists, old order Mennonites, certain Wesleyans, old school Church of God, and other Holiness movements, but the movement I grew up in rarely recognized these Christians. For whatever reason, we saw them as compromisers as well. They certainly weren’t part of “us.”

“Us” was a very important word. There was “us” and there was “them.” “Them” was everyone who wasn’t us. And, if you listened to some sermons, you’d think “they” were out to get “us.” That’s why we had to avoid “them.” There were Christian ministers we weren’t allowed to listen to, Christian books we were told not to read, Christian Bible Studies we weren’t supposed to go to, Christian churches we were warned against fellowshipping, and Christian friends we weren’t allowed to have. And I don’t mean that we were warned against a few fringe groups, I mean we were warned against mainline Christianity. Speaking for myself, I have been told before not to listen to any contemporary or modern Christian music, only Southern Gospel and hymns. I have also heard authorities say to never use a Bible study written by a woman who wears pants and to never read a book about Christianity written by a man who doesn’t speak in tongues (unless the book pre-dates the 1900s, for some reason those were fine).

Most impactful on me personally was how I was frowned upon for doing outreach and charity work with brothers and sisters who were not part of the “us” group. Were they hurting me spiritually? Far from it. In America, we studied apologetics together on Wednesdays, had girl’s Bible study on Sundays, and walked through the mall and city streets on Fridays sharing the gospel one-on-one. In Albania, we cared for young girls who were rescued from human trafficking, we fed and loved on the street kids who had no one else, we visited the elderly and the mentally sick, we reached out to teenagers through English classes, and we planted churches where the gospel hadn’t been for dozens, if not hundreds, of years. I was so excited for what God was doing in my life and through His people around the world, but every time I befriended non-Holiness Christians, I felt shame and suspicion from my own denominational subset—the “us” group. Shame because I was associating with “them.”

The pressure not to affiliate with other Christians put me in a quandary. I knew my non-Holiness friends were blood-bought, born-again, genuine believers. I knew they were pushing me towards Christ. I knew unity among believers was Christ’s desire and prayer. I was (and still am) passionate about ending human trafficking, abolishing abortion, reaching local communities, defending freedom of religion, and sharing Christ through apologetics. With all due respect, Holiness churches tend to work as Lone Rangers, and because of that they just aren’t making any significant headway in these areas; these causes demand that Christians work together. If I could’ve had it my way, I would’ve attended Holiness churches for who knows how long while continuing to work hand in hand with my brothers and sisters on the frontlines. However, I didn’t feel like I was being given that option. The message was, “Them or us. Choose.” So I chose, and naturally, I had to go with the Christians who were doing the heavy lifting in impacting our nation for Christ (besides, they weren’t the ones creating the dichotomy).

 

The Puzzle of Holiness Standards

When I initially set out for Colorado, I didn’t know who I was and I didn’t know who I would become. I felt at a loss. My self-esteem was suffering. My value felt like it was tanking. I had always identified and respected myself because I was a “Holiness girl.” Sure, I hadn’t believed Holiness rules were biblically required, but I followed them all my life because that’s who I was. I was “Holiness,” and Holiness people identify themselves by following the Holiness traditions. But now that was all behind me, a thousand miles away. So who was I now?

I took many long hikes and walks; I needed to think and pray and ponder. How should I live? How should I dress? The first pair of pants I wore got a full modesty check. I turned full-circle as two other Christian girls inspected my appropriateness and granted their approval. For just a few dollars, I bought a cross necklace and some basic, Walmart makeup. I watched a real Disney movie, Christopher Robin—the first movie I’d ever watched by myself. My stricter friends warned over and over that I was headed out down a slippery slope, sure to end up off the deep end at any moment. The ironic thing is, when it comes to outward appearance, I’m actually more conservative now than I was when I stopped attending Holiness churches. That first pair of pants I wore? I never wore them again; I came to prefer a loose-cut jean or flowy capris. I still wear skirts on a regular basis, I currently don’t have a daily makeup routine, I rarely wear jewelry besides my wedding ring. I’ve never worn a low-cut shirt, never cut my hair, never got a piercing, never got a tattoo, and my entertainment/movie criteria has remained abnormally strict. I say this for one reason, that I have nothing against the Holiness standards in and of themselves. I place great value on modesty, discretion, femininity, conservatism, and purity. There are many restraints I have on myself that aren’t biblically required, they just happen to be where I personally draw my lines. Besides this, I have continually stressed that if someone feels convicted to live more strictly than myself, then they definitely should! There’s nothing wrong with skirts, long hair, no makeup, no jewelry, no movies, or anything else the Holiness standards entail.

Despite this stance, the articles Nathan and I publish on Berean Holiness have received impressively angry and dramatic criticism, especially the ones that cross-examine the arguments for Holiness standards being biblical requirements. Are we trying to escape or disobey scripture? No. We want to know what scripture says, nothing less and nothing more. It is our love for the integrity of scripture which drives us to examine teachings in the light of the Word. This has been responded to by a backlash of people saying we “hate” and “attack” holiness standards. Take these quotes for example, “You seem to have an agenda to tear down our Holiness standards… I was devastated to read your posts… this is so dangerous, blood will be in someone’s hands in the end,” “Not only is [Berean Holiness] young people, but backslidden young people who are commenting and rebutting against Holiness, just to make themselves look better after backsliding and knowing they are wrong.” I find the highly emotional reactions to discussing the Holiness traditions very interesting. Interesting, because we can talk about charity work, apologetics, Church history, essential doctrines, or a plethora of other important topics with little to no engagement. But if we post something about Holiness dress-code? Social media explodes. It’s no coincidence that discussing the biblical basis of Holiness traditions causes more emotional reaction and backlash than any other topic we’ve touched.

 

Something’s Off

If the things the Holiness traditions say to do aren’t wrong, then why even talk about them? To put it in the words of one of our critics, “Why is your ministry focusing on the most trivial subjects?… Every soul that slips through your fingers their blood will be on your hands because you were so focused on traditions… you will stand in judgment because while both of you are focused on trivial things…” “Trivial” isn’t a bad label for things like pants and jewelry; whether we abstain from them or not, we should all recognize their insignificance. However, something that should be trivial, like whether or not a girl chooses to wear a purity ring, becomes very significant when it hinders and/or distracts from the gospel.

I’ve had a front row seat watching Holiness Christians for my entire life and, over the years, I’ve realized that rules against purity rings aren’t merely intended to keep congregants away from jewelry; something much bigger is afoot. After dozens of conversations, I’m convinced that I am not alone in my observations.

Have you ever paid much attention to those who grow up in strict churches and then leave and do poorly? If so, you’ll notice two camps in particular, among others, that are both sad and strange. One camp is the “deep end” group. One day they’re doing amazingly well, they’re preaching, singing, shouting, going to Bible School, and the next day, they’re committing blatantly immoral sins, living wild and loose, apathetic towards the existence of God. Another odd group who leaves strict churches are the people who completely leave Christianity—they don’t pray, read, go to church, or follow Christ’s basic commandments—but they still follow the Holiness standards they were taught. For example, they might sleep around, but they’re scared to cut their hair. They might never open their Bible, but they’d also never pierce their ears. One man I know of hadn’t attended any church in years, but he still hated wearing a uniform with short sleeves because it “wasn’t holiness.” This second category of backsliders is sometimes spoken highly of in the churches they left. I remember listening to an elderly lady testify about her daughter, “I just want to thank the Lord, my daughter is still lost, she needs to get back to God, but I am just so thankful He has kept her from putting on pants!” With all due respect, what good do Holiness traditions do us if we’re not even Christians?

It must be mentioned that some people continue to attend Holiness churches after they’ve left Christ. I’m saddened by the messages I get from Holiness young people telling me how their peers live in habitual immorality (lying, stealing, sexual sin, etc.) and yet still identify as “Holiness.” They are sometimes praised for how they got a conviction to, say, wear long sleeves, all the while still habitually sinning. This is in contradiction to what the Holiness movement teaches, but somehow these young adults are so confused that they are more concerned with following Holiness traditions than following the teachings of Christ. How could this happen?

These types of experiences have left me with so many questions. If people don’t care about serving God, why would they be afraid to break the dress-code they were raised with? On the other hand, how do you go from being a dedicated, strict-living Christian one day to living out an immoral, irresponsible lifestyle the next? As for my experiences with church-goers, where did the whole “them vs. us” mentality come from? What was stopping us from seeing other Christian denomination as our equals and working hand in hand with them to share Christ? Why did so many Holiness Christians respond to Berean Holiness with hostility? Why is questioning whether or not scripture teaches Holiness standards such an emotionally charged issue? Why did we reinterpret Holiness history so much, to make it all about standards when it wasn’t? And what about me? Why did attending church outside of the Holiness movement leave me so shaken that I wanted to run away to somewhere where not a soul knew me in order to recover?

 

The Holiness Identity

As I pondered the above questions, I came to believe that they most likely all share the same answer. I just needed to put my finger on it. One thing was for sure, the Holiness rules about dress and entertainment were more than just doctrines to us. So what were they? As I thought, a song we adapted came to mind:

I choose to be a Christian, I choose to be like Him,
Nobody’s making me do it, this is how I want to live.
You decide for you; I’ll decide for me.
Holiness is what I want to be!

Now that I’ve come to know believers from other denominations, the idea of this song being sung, say, “I choose to be a Christian, I choose to be like Him… [insert denomination, e.g. Baptist] is what I want to be” is so odd to those groups that it’s humorous. But for us in the Holiness movement, our name in those lyrics made perfect sense. Holiness wasn’t just the type of church we attended, Holiness is what we wanted to be. We used the phrase, “I am Holiness,” quite a bit. Not just when someone asked us what denomination we were a part of, put in our preaching, in our singing, in our testimonies. I am Holiness, I am. “Holiness” was how we identified ourselves. It was who we were.

What were we referring to when we said, “holiness?” It didn’t mean we wanted to just attend a Holiness church. I know that because there were people who attended our churches for years who we said, “weren’t holiness.” We couldn’t have been referring to the classic or biblical definition of holiness either, because we weren’t claiming the perfection of all virtues. We also weren’t referring to “holiness” in our movement’s historic sense of the “Holiness blessing” aka instantaneous sanctification. When we sang, “Holiness is what I want to be,” we were referring to holiness in the sense of following holiness traditions, especially the dress code. Following Holiness rules gave us the right to identify as “Holiness.” We took pride in that identity. It came with a sense of moral superiority. After all, Holiness people were “the best God’s got going,” “the best people in the world.” If any person truly sought the Lord, God would lead them into Holiness—He’d lead them straight to us. We really believed that. We really said that. It made sense to us because, without “Holiness… no man shall see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14). And, yes, we quoted that to mean that no one could go to heaven without following our adapted traditions and, except in rare cases, going to our churches. The holiness standards combined with membership to a Holiness church is what we viewed as our “holiness,” and this holiness was perceived to make us holier than the rest of Christendom. We didn’t just have holiness, we were holiness. Holiness, church membership and adherence to traditions, became our very identity, who we were and how we saw ourselves. This holiness is what made us special, it’s what gave us value, purpose, and belonging.

Just like some New Testament Jews mistakenly saw circumcision and purity laws as the way to become part of God’s special, holy people, many Holiness people today see abstaining from women’s pants, makeup, jewelry, etc. as the way to become part of God’s special, holy people. Holiness traditions aren’t just doctrines, they are identity markers.

 

Putting the Pieces Together

How does grounding our identity in “holiness” answer the puzzling realities I mentioned earlier? First, if our identity is grounded in specific, nonessential doctrines, it finally makes sense why we can’t view other Christians as equals. Simply put, our identity in Christ does not supersede our denominational identity. Instead of the holiness of Christ bringing us together as one, our redefined version of Holiness (traditions and church membership) separates us into distinct, irreconcilable categories. When we find our identity in “holiness” rather than emphasizing the gospel, Christ, and core Christian doctrines, we lose our commonality with other Christ-followers. So, why would fellowshipping other Christians be seen as dangerous? Since other Christians don’t believe and stress our “holiness” teachings like we do, there’s a possibility that being around them might cause us to start thinking like them… we might stop prioritizing our traditions. To do so would be to lose who we are, to lose our special identity, and that’s risking too much. Staying away is a method of protecting the differences by which we define ourselves.

This explains the “us” vs. “them” mentality. Setting ourselves apart, not just from sin, but from the rest of the Body of Christ, drives home our belief that we are something special. We are holiness, they aren’t holiness. In order to keep us away from other Christians, it is preached and taught that non-holiness believers are determined to “steal our truth.” The only way to protect our beliefs is to avoid anyone who would question their biblical basis (in some circles, challenging questioners are compared to Satan in the Garden of Eden).

The Holiness identity also helps to explain the groups of backsliders I mentioned. The group that leaves Christianity but continues to keep Holiness standards values being Holiness more than being in Christ. For some reason, they’re not afraid to break clear, biblical commands, but if they broke a Holiness tradition then they wouldn’t be “Holiness” anymore. It’s as if they have more fear of not being “Holiness” than not being a Christian. This points to Holiness identity being prioritized over identity in Christ.

As for the backsliders that seem to lose their moral compass after leaving Holiness, this might be because they didn’t have a solid relationship with Christ to begin with. They did Christian things (like praying or staying sexually pure) because it was the Holiness thing to do. Once they had some reason to leave their Holiness identity, Christianity didn’t matter. Christianity was merely a subset of their Holiness identity and not the other way around.

As for why many Berean Holiness posts and articles are responded to with hostility rather than civil discussion, this might be is that the Holiness identity is crucial to how they understand themselves. To even consider that their understanding of being “holiness” isn’t the biblical definition feels like a betrayal of the very things that set them apart and make them special. Holiness traditions aren’t just doctrines, they’re deeply personal identity markers. This makes them highly sensitive and difficult topics.

And why did we reinterpret Holiness history so much to make it all about standards when it isn’t? Because there’s pressure to create the idea that Holiness people are the last ones standing, the true church that stayed faithful when everyone else fell away. This is how many Holiness people see themselves; it’s part of the Holiness identity. Of course, the Holiness Movement was originally about entire sanctification (which is ironically a doctrine we moved away from), so they only way to see oneself as the “last one standing” is to conveniently rewrite history and pretend our dress-code/rules have never changed.

The above consequences point to the fact that some of us have allowed “Holiness” (as defined by traditions and church attendance) to define who we are, to give us our value, and to set us apart. We are finding our ultimate identity in a movement instead of in Christ. To be clear, while there’s nothing wrong with being a part of church group and willing to say so, the problem comes when the Holiness identity is prioritized so much that we don’t know who we would be without it, so much that we derive our value and self-worth from it. And if we go so far as to prioritize our Holiness identity over, or as equal to, our identity in Christ, we have crossed the line into a form of idolatry.

 

Finding Identity in Christ

Why did I follow Holiness standards for eight years after I realized they weren’t in Scripture? It was because I saw myself as Natalie Mayo, the Holiness girl. I was the girl who followed every standard to a T. I was the girl who never broke a rule, never touched makeup, never wore a piece of jewelry, never trimmed her hair, never put on a pair of pants, never watched a movie on a television. That’s who I was. That’s what I was known for, that’s what I was praised for, and (have come to find out) that’s what I was loved for.

When I first told a Church leader that, after studying for myself I didn’t believe all Holiness standards were biblical standards, the reply was, “Then you’re not really Holiness.” “Wait, what?” I thought, “I’m not Holiness? But, I was raised in Holiness churches, I graduated from a Holiness Bible School, my family is full of Holiness ministers, I’m as involved in Holiness missions and outreach as I know how to be, and just look at how Holiness I look… but I’m not Holiness? Then, what am I? Who am I?”

In that critical moment, I had to decide where I was going to place my loyalty. I could recant what I said and keep my Holiness identity; all I had to do was just ignore where I believed the Holiness movement misquoted scripture, lie about my beliefs if anyone asked me, and I could keep all my connections, ministry opportunities, dating opportunities, credentials, perfect track records, plethora of friendships, and all my hopes and dreams—all of which intersected with the Holiness movement. Or, I could place my loyalty with Christianity, refuse to stay silent about scriptures I believed were being twisted, and risk losing my whole life and future as I knew it. The hardest part of all was the simple fact I could no longer say, “I am Holiness.” From that point forward, I would only be a Christ-follower. Could I be content to find my identity in Christ alone?

It wasn’t easy, but after miles of pacing, deep thought, and heartfelt prayer, the desire to be Christian-first won out. I had to face the fact that I had idolized the status I found in being a “Holiness girl.” I loved the praise it brought. I loved the sense of belonging. I loved feeling special. But the more my Christian identity clashed with my Holiness identity, the more I was forced to realize that I had idolized my Holiness identity in an unholy way. I had let fear of losing Holiness compliments keep my mouth closed when Scripture was being twisted. I let fear of losing Holiness community keep me from being honest about my beliefs. I let pride be my motivation for keeping a perfect record in a set of rules I didn’t even believe in. It took a lot of humility to say, “I was wrong” and to admit my own stubbornness, but thank God I did. Day by day, I’m still learning what it means to be a Christian and prioritize Christ before anything else. It’s not easy, but I’m so grateful I at least know what to focus on and prioritize now; keeping Holiness status is no longer a distraction. For me personally, putting my identity in Christ first meant losing my Holiness identity. There was no way I could serve Christ to my fullest potential in Holiness churches; I knew I had to be free to speak about what Scripture does/does not say regarding Holiness traditions. I had to give up my idolized identity. After making that hard decision, I can no longer say, “I’m a Holiness girl,” but I can still say, “I’m His girl.” At last, that’s all that matters.

If you are struggling with the same question I was, my wholehearted advice is to take a step of faith and place your full identity in Christ alone. If you continue going to a Holiness church or following Holiness traditions, that’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with those things in and of themselves. The sin (and all its consequences) will come when we idolize our Holiness identity as equal to or above our identity in Christ. If you’re not sure where your identity lies, ask yourself, “How would I feel if a Holiness authority told me I’m not really Holiness?” “How would I respond if I found out a Holiness teaching was at odds with Scripture?” If it would cause panic, denial, loss of self worth, or make you to question who you are, then you have most likely prioritized your Holiness identity to an unhealthy degree. It’s time to take a step back, pursue Christ, and place your identity in Him alone. Being in Christ and a partaker of His holiness (Hebrews 12:10) is the ultimate goal; being “Holiness” via traditions and church membership is only good so long as it is a tool to reach that goal and not a replacement.

 

Conclusion

“I’m Holiness from the top of my head to the soles of my feet!” I heard this saying many times growing up. Did we mean we were perfectly sinless? Did we mean we were the embodiment of God’s chief attribute? No. It was used to say that we were completely sold out to the Holiness traditions; it was our proclamation that we would never touch a necklace or nail polish or anything else that would “defile” us. This saying was immediately quoted when I told a friend that there was a Holiness tradition I hadn’t kept. They let me know I was no longer the real deal. I had given up one of the identity markers, and as consequence I must relinquish my title of “Holiness,” along with all the status, belonging, and specialness it came with. It was such a blow at first, I could’ve cried. Looking back, I shake my head: what I see now is mind games.

It’s like two small children pretending to be royalty. One child says to the other, “You’re a queen! You can’t make mud pies no more.” The second child obliges at first, but after thinking about it decides queens can make her own decisions. She comes back later and blurts out to the first playmate, “I made a mud pie.” The first child gasps and says, “You’re not a queen no more! Now you’re a slave and you can’t play with me ’cause I’m still a queen.” The second child feels stripped of her royalty. She takes the rejection personally, and internalizes the ideas that she is no longer special or valuable. She begins to wail in sadness. As onlooking adults, we have to comfort the child and tell her that it was all imaginary. Mud pies don’t defile you. Someone else dubbing you “queen” doesn’t define your worth.

After rolling our eyes at the drama of children’s games, we fall into similar traps ourselves. We let people dub us as “Holiness.” We believe them when they tell us that’s what makes us special and valuable. We believe them when they say that a metal band on our finger or a brown paint on our eyelashes would defile us. When we let them know their rules of the game weren’t kept, we let them strip us of the titles they gave us and then we cry inside as they tell us they “can’t play with us no more.” We feel worthless and lost and confused. If only we knew it was all imaginary. If only we knew it was all in our heads!

When we find our identity, value, and worth in Christ alone, we will recognize other Christians as equals—brothers and sisters in Christ; we will be able to reach the lost and impact our communities with other church groups—without being scared that we’ll lose our distinctions; we will be able to discuss Scripture honestly without worrying someone will steal our truth; we will be strong enough in Christ to remain godly even if we lose our Holiness identity; and, if our Holiness identity and our identity in Christ ever clash, we will be able to choose the latter without hesitation and without suffering loss of self-worth. Before we are anything else, let us be Christians, let us be found in God, known by God, valued by God, and loved by God. May we see ourselves through His eyes. May the identity we hold near to our hearts be the identity our Creator designed us for, to be His.

—Natalie Edmonson

 

Sources:

  1. Tertullian, “On the Apparel of Women
  2. David F. Wright, “Why Were the Montanists Condemned?
  3. The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus,” Chapter 5.
  4. Catholic Encyclopedia, “Waldensians
  5. John Wesley, “On Dress

 

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