The Holiness Movement: Are They God’s Special People?

The Holiness Movement: Are They God's Special People?

Chic-fil-a sauce, Wendy’s sauce, McDonald’s special Big Mac sauce. Each of them claims to be completely original. Unique. One of a kind. I like all these sauces and my wife hates all of them. The reason that our preferences are so neatly divided is that these allegedly “original” sauces are all more similar than they are different. They have common ingredients like vinegar, garlic powder, ketchup and paprika. If you only ever ate at McDonalds, you could be forgiven for thinking that their special sauce was completely different from anything else out there. Unfortunately, if you eat at a few other restaurants, you’ll find that it isn’t.

This is my experience in the Pentecostal Holiness movement. I grew up thinking we were completely different from every other church movement – in doctrine, in style, in manifestations of divine power. We were God’s special people, the last Christians remaining in the most perfected version of God’s true Church. After traveling the world, and visiting dozens of other churches from other movements, I learned I was wrong on all counts. Our special sauce turned out to be a very normal mix of some very common beliefs and practices, blended in only slightly different proportions from anyone else’s.

This idea that the Holiness Movement is special, or significantly more mature than other groups of Christianity, is at the root of the exclusivity and isolation that pervades the Holiness movements (yes, there are several Holiness movements). That exclusivity drives unwillingness to work with or learn from other churches, which results in Holiness churches having very little influence on the region they live in. This raises the question, “Is the Pentecostal Holiness Movement so unique in comparison to the rest of Christianity that it merits isolation—even at the cost of less impact for Christ?” What would cause some Holiness Christians to view themselves as particularly special? While I cannot go into detail on all of the reasons here, I’ll list a few highlights from my upbringing from two categories – doctrine and power.

 

Doctrine

The focus on external, universally determined rules of dress and entertainment.

“Holiness Standards,” the rules which define the limits of conduct for Holiness people, played a key role in how we separated ourselves from other Christians. The interesting thing about these rules is that the vast majority apply to what you wear and what you do for entertainment. They also only pertain to older issues; they rarely apply to new inventions like the internet or cosmetic dentistry. This is because the vast majority of these rules were codified in the 19th century (along with many other rules that have since been abandoned – see the article, Which Old-Time Holiness Should We Go Back To?) These rules all have followers outside of the Pentecostal Holiness Movement. The most significant group that follows them today is the Conservative Holiness Movement. They trace their lineage directly back to John Wesley (and then make the 1,700-year skip back to the book of Acts that church movements are so fond of making). They are, as far as I can tell, several times larger than the Holiness movement I grew up in and would dismiss our Pentecostal Holiness movement as an offshoot of theirs. It is fascinating to explore the website holinessmovement.org and learn about a movement nearly identical to the one I grew up in that denies our existence as we do theirs. There are also many movements and individual churches that keep the Holiness/plain dress standards which the Pentecostal Holiness movement has dropped. For example: head veils, hair worn up, no hairstyles, no open-toed shoes, no high-heels, no bright colors, and no patterns. Interestingly enough, I never saw these other groups revered as more special or more mature than us, but rather dismissed as “over the top.”

The belief in the baptism of the Holy Ghost as a separate event from salvation.

When Holiness Christians try to defend their standards as essential doctrines, they often run into difficulty. One common way out is, “I know these standards are required because I’ve seen them work. I’ve seen the people who keep them be baptized in the Holy Ghost.” Thus, the Pentecostal doctrine becomes the way to justify the Holiness doctrine. There’s one problem. Holiness Christians aren’t the only Christians claiming to receive the Spirit, with the evidence of tongues, post-salvation. I have written a separate piece addressing how this view underrates the role of the Spirit in the life of the believer, but right now all I want to point out is that it is not unique to Holiness. First, I have heard several Christians express the idea of the “filling” of the Spirit as a separate event, even though the indwelling occurs at salvation. This view is only semantically different than the way that many Holiness people hold the belief (where some Spirit power is given at Salvation, and more is given later). Furthermore, there are certainly other churches that hold to the belief in the exact same way as the churches I grew up in. A non-denominational church near me has this in their statement of faith. “The baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire is a gift from God as promised by the Lord Jesus Christ to all believers in this dispensation, and is received subsequent to the new birth. The baptism of Holy Spirit is accompanied with the speaking in other tongues as the Holy Spirit Himself gives utterance, as the initial physical sign and evidence.” The church that holds this belief is not at all Holiness, and would be dismissed out of hand because they don’t require the same dress standards.

The belief that Salvation can be lost/rejected.

I was always told to look out for the Baptists as they would teach me I could live a loose life and go to heaven. Now that I have attended dozens of church services in various Baptists congregations, I know for a fact that this is not often the case. Typically, someone who rejects God completely is labeled as having never been saved. Is this a more accurate position? No, not necessarily. I won’t argue that it is, but as far as practical application, it doesn’t differ at all from the Holiness view. People are discouraged from abandoning God with the admonition that if they do, they won’t go to heaven. Furthermore, I’ve spoken to at least one thoughtful Baptist pastor who said that he felt the label “once saved, always saved” was a parody of his position, he also pointed out some difficult passages in Hebrews that he said caused him to believe that there were at least some situations when loss of Salvation was possible. A more toxic version of the Holiness belief was expressed to me by a man who had grown up in the Church of Christ. He described that he had grown up “once saved, never saved.” He lived in fear that one day he might live for God all his life, step out in front of a bus, say a bad word with his dying breath, and be consigned to hell for that error. The problem with this belief is that is it fundamentally assumes that our righteousness is the thing that qualifies us for heaven (as if Jesus wipes the slate clean once, but after that it’s on us to earn heaven). I have also heard this extreme position expressed in the Holiness church, but, thankfully, the extreme version is not the norm. I can’t address this belief in detail, but I will point out that it is unoriginal.

The belief that we can attain sinless perfection on earth.

This belief that sanctification is a destination at which certain people “have arrived” has always been a bit muddled. Very few “saved, sanctified, filled with the Holy Ghost” folks will claim that they have not sinned in the past year. Though they will say they are opposed to the view that says “you have to sin a little every day.” But, who holds that view? In over a decade of attending non-holiness churches, some 500+ services at 50+ churches, I have literally never heard anyone say that “you have to sin a little every day.” Even for most Holiness Christians, sinless perfection is at best a hypothetical state. No one will claim to have achieved it. Non-Holiness Christians simply don’t agree that it can be attained – but in my experience they also say we should continuously work to overcome sin and not use our liberty in Christ as license to sin. Consequently, this the argument over sanctification is purely hypothetical with zero practical implications. The Pentecostal and Conservative Holiness Movements aren’t special in its holding this belief, because this belief is not distinguishable in practice from those who deny it.

The belief that we were the only true church.

Unfortunately, the attitude of “we’re the last real Christians” is way too common in Christendom, including in the Pentecostal Holiness, Conservative Holiness, and Apostolic Church movements. I’ve seen it in the Christian Church, Orthodox Church, and the Bethel movement to a moderate degree, I’ve experienced it in the Local Church Movement, and I’ve seen echoes of the idea in many other congregations (Mennonite, some Church of Christ, etc.), though many churches also do a good job of explicitly rejecting it. To be fair, the Holiness movements hold this belief more fervently than any other church movements I have ever interacted with except for generally recognized unorthodox cults. One of the most reliable common denominators of cults is that they all think they are the only ones left of God’s true church, the stronger their conviction that they are the last ones left, the more cultish they are. I am not calling the Holiness Movements “cults,” but I am saying that one should be very cautious about adopting a telltale sign of a cult.

 

Power

I grew up learning that all churches outside of my own Holiness one were devoid of the power of God. How were we to grow in Christ if we didn’t have a preacher with the anointing and the Holy Ghost falling to answer prayers? In the first church I attended post-Holiness, a military interdenominational chapel, I did find some of what I had heard to be true. I did think their worship was not the liveliest and they never had an altar call. However, they had some significant offsetting benefits, like the fact that people loved each other, loved others, and in my sub-group at least, held each other accountable for spiritual growth and maturity. Since I’ve gotten out a bit more, I have learned that everything I have ever seen in a Holiness church is also somewhere else in the Body of Christ.

I observe that what we called “power” is really two things with a fine line between them. The first is Pentecostal stylistic details and the second is clearly biblical signs and wonders. Let’s address these common manifestations of power and I’ll show how I learned they are not unique to Holiness… at all.

Holiness has anointed preachers.

It’s not entirely clear what this means as it isn’t a common biblical term in the context of preaching – it’s an Old Testament allusion to the God-ordained role of a priest or king. The general idea that Holiness people have in mind is that their preachers get special messages from the Lord and special power to present those messages. How can we tell which preachers have this? Some seem to determine anointing based on increased volume and passion, but I submit this is a poor judge of this trait. Apostolic preachers have the exact same style of the pre-microphone era revivalist. They are loud and many rhythmically punctuate their impassioned appeals with guttural “ahs” and “amens?” Yet, we dismissed them based on their non-trinitarian doctrine, despite this completely identical style of preaching. Clearly, style alone is not sufficient to determine “anointing.”

What about that phenomenon when the preacher “must” be preaching to you or is especially convicting? This also is not unique to Holiness churches. I have sat through many non-Holiness sermons in which I found the message particularly relevant to my own life, sometimes to the point of being uncanny. I have heard non-Holiness preachers say things to the effect of “I’m not sure why I’m adding this, but I feel like it’s for someone here.” Some of them even use phrases that I thought were trademarked to the Pentecostal Holiness movement, such as “I’m just going to follow the leading of the Spirit today if that’s alright.” As far as conviction goes, I am typically more convicted by messages that plunge deep into the Scripture than messages which proclaim “new revelation” from God or twist an Old Testament narrative into a spiritual analogy. Personally, my spiritual maturity has objectively improved since I left the Holiness church, because in many places, I have found more convicting preaching, not less. What about that saving conviction that causes sinners to walk down the isle? Look around your local Holiness church. With all due respect, is it filled with new converts? Many churches I attended would wait years for one person to be saved. I have seen many more conversions in non-holiness churches, so it stands to reason that conviction is still happening there.

In short, Holiness preaching is neither unique in style nor effect. It doesn’t offer more conviction, more truth, or more conversions than the rest of Christian preaching. Does this mean it’s all bad? No, of course not. However, the preaching inside the Holiness Movement is certainly not all better either.

Vibrant and emotive worship.

A few weeks ago, I had reason to attend a testimony service which was led by a man from a Pentecostal church. I was immediately transported back to my upbringing. We sang old-time Pentecostal choruses between testimonies and people were admonished to testify with the same phrases and verses I was used to. You wouldn’t have noticed anything out of place if it had occurred in a Holiness church. Except for the fact that the man leading it not only didn’t believe in any of the Holiness dress standards, but he had most likely never even heard of them. His Pentecostal church had grown out of some of the same roots as the Holiness movement and shared much in common culture, but all this “old-time power” was somehow functioning independent of the Holiness doctrine.

As far as contrasting styles of worship in the mainstream evangelical church, there is always room to critique the attitudes or messages of any modern songs and singers. However, I have found many churches that do an excellent job in this department and I have certainly found as much emotive connection to God in non-Holiness churches as in them.

Fervent and effective prayer.

Natalie has had multiple Holiness Christians tell her that they know non-Holiness churches are compromised because they “took the altar out.” First off, prayer altars are not in the New Testament. We don’t see a single church set up by an apostle that had one. They’re a modern, man-made tradition. The Old Testament altar was always a place of physical sacrifice. That doesn’t make prayer altars bad, but prayer is the thing that is biblical, not any particular mode or context of prayer. Prayer services, prayer chains, prayer altars, or prayer phone apps are all just different tools to fulfill our mandate to pray.

I do think that Holiness churches are above average in the promotion of prayer. However, I don’t believe that I ever spent any time studying prayer in a Holiness church. The model of everyone praying out loud at once tends to lead to a lot of thoughtless repetition in many cases. I have spent much more time outside of the Holiness movement approaching prayer more deliberately – studying what the Bible says about how to do it and seeing that modeled in the thoughtful prayers of others. I have also participated I in a 24-hour prayer chains for a man undergoing a surgery with a 10% chance of not leaving him paralyzed (he recovered). I’ve also participated in many non-holiness prayer meetings. Prayer has not been abandoned by the wider Christian church.

Divine impressions, dreams, and revelations.

Holiness Christians often claim to have special words from God on many issues; perhaps they do, it’s not for me to say. Many people justify the dress standards based on special messages from God. “I looked up to heaven and I saw my wedding ring between me and God, so I took it off.” Imagine my surprise to learn that this sort of thing is just as common outside of Holiness. My favorite was when I heard from an ex-Holiness person that his wife was impressed by God that she would have to wear pants, because skirts had become the thing in which she was trusting for her salvation. I was also encouraged by a story I heard about a Christian radio host who felt impressed to play the same (contemporary) song three times in a row on the air – this led to a businessman quitting his job and going into the ministry.

While I am by no means a cessationist, I do find that people throw around messages from God far to freely for my taste. In any event, depending on the theological persuasion of the recipient, I have noticed no reduction in the number of people who deliver a message, thought, impression, message in tongues with interpretation, or dream which they believe to have been of divine origin. This is quite common in certain circles of non-Holiness people. Of course, you can dismiss it all as “not really from God.” And they can dismiss yours with the same statement. But you can’t claim uniqueness in this aspect.

Miracles.

There are a wide variety of miracles that were claimed in my Holiness upbringing. I can’t say that I saw much, but there were occasional references to divine healing or the casting out of a demon. Of course, no matter where you are, not every alleged miracle and manifestation is legitimate – as even the Bible makes clear when it instructs us to test prophesies and spirits, not just believe them. However, I have interacted with just as many miracles outside of Holiness as in. I heard from a youth group who went to a nursing home and prayed for a wheelchair bound man to stand up and walk – he did. Working as a missionary in Haiti, some of the Haitian pastors dealt with (and occasionally exorcised) people who they told me were demon possessed on a monthly basis at least. And of course, there are myriad stories of cancer going into remission or disappearing and the like.

Conclusion

I spent many years thinking that Holiness had a corner on some very distinct doctrines and manifestations of divine power. As it turns out, I have yet to find a single belief or practice of the Pentecostal Holiness church that I haven’t seen somewhere else. Perhaps that myth was sustained because we didn’t fellowship with any other churches and never asked anyone else what they believed. We just sat in Sunday school and told each other what other people believed. We even told each other that you “cannot” visit another church or denomination, not even for one service, because “it’s not worth risking your soul over” (someone actually said this).

When you look into modern church history, you find that Pentecostal Holiness is a splinter group of a split (Holiness Movement) of a split (Methodism) of a split (Anglicanism) of a sub group (Catholicism) of the original church. Once you start to learn about all our denominational cousins, our house blend of the special doctrinal sauce starts to make more sense – it turns out that we’re not unique after all.

But there is some good news. I have spent a fair amount of time in my life examining the teachings of other non-Christian religions and worldviews – I have read the Koran, the Book of Mormon, and the writings of atheists. Their beliefs are substantively different from Christian teachings and far inferior in both logical consistency and practical application. The teachings of Christ stand apart in a landscape of competing worldviews like a mountain among anthills. Only one religion can be true when claims are contradictory, and we have good reason to believe that Christianity is that truth. This makes Christianity special, and, according to its teachings, all of us who believe in Christ for salvation become part of God’s special people.

We do well to claim our identity with Christ – to hold “Christian” as our highest title rather than fixating on the superiority of our tribe. In some ways, Holiness was an early practitioner of modern identity politics – which teaches that your beliefs should be completely defined by your racial group, gender, or class. Our Pentecostal Holiness identity was totally defined by our sub-group, with no room for individual thought, action, or conscience.

There is a cure. We should focus on what we have in common as Christians, instead of just what separates us. Perhaps some humility and some “commonality training” would do us all good.

– Nathan Mayo

 

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