I believe in a Holy Church
Hebrews 12:1-2, Ephesians 1:1-4
There is another word to look at as we think about the Church. The creed says, “I believe in One Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.” The word for our review is the word “Holy”.
The Un-holiness of the Church
Immediately I sense a problem. A friend says to me with considerable hostility, “Holy? You’ve got to be kidding.” I am told that it is one thing to believe in the necessity of the church, but a whole different thing to believe that the church is holy.
My friend seems to have a point. The church sure does not seem to be holy. Is he right? My answer is “No! For in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, the church is holy.”
Now the word “holy” has picked up all sorts of baggage on its journey through the centuries. It has picked up the idea of “sinlessness”. So if a thing or person is holy it means that they do not sin any more. But when we look at any church we realize quickly that if this is the definition, then we are all in trouble. The Christian church is far from being sinless.
Let me move behind the current understanding of the word “holy” to provide us with its more Biblical meaning.
1. To Be Different
One of the ancient meanings of the word HOLY is “to be different” or to be set apart from other things. The word “sanctify” is another English translation of the very same word. So the temple was holy because it is different than any other building. The Bible is the Holy Bible for it is different from other books. God is holy because He is different than all other persons. And the church is different from all other institutions in society. In this sense then the church is holy.
2. Separated unto God.
A second meaning of the word holy is “To be separate from other uses, and dedicated to God’s use.” A thing is holy because it now belongs to God. It is not holy because it is separated from the world, from evil activities; it is holy because it is separated unto God
Let me share an insight into this from the Hebrew language. The name for a prostitute is “Qadeshah” – a holy woman. The name for a male prostitutes (translated Sodomite in the KJV) is “Qadesh” – a holy man. The reason they are holy is that in the Ancient Near East female prostitutes and male prostitutes were dedicated to the gods of Canaanite religion. The Canaanite gods were fertility gods. They were supposed to provide fertility in crops, cattle and wives. The male and female prostitutes were “devoted” to their function in helping the fertility gods. They were hardly ethically holy! But nonetheless they are called “holy ones” because they belong to their god. (see Gen 38:15ff, Deut 23:17, Hosea 4:14 for prostitute, and Deut 23:17, I Kings 14:24, 15:12, 22:46, II Kings 23:7 for male prostitute.)
And so in the scriptures, one day in seven is holy because it is given over for God’s greater purposes, one tenth of our income is holy because it is dedicated to God’s purposes, and the Church is holy because it is that part of society that is dedicated to the purposes of God. The church is separated to God alone, and owes allegiance to no other, whether that be the state, culture, or any other human agency. The Church exists for the use of God. It is therefore holy!
3. All Christians are holy
But there is a third meaning to being holy. All Christians are holy. That is one of the most used synonyms for a Christian. The name is usually translated “saint” or a “sanctified one” or a “holy one”. So Paul begins his letters as follows: “To the saints in Ephesus…” “To all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi…”
Now if I were to ask you to raise your hand if you were a Christian, most of us would raise our hands. But, if I were to ask you to raise your hand if you were holy, none of us would feel very comfortable with that. If I asked all the saints present to please stand up, again there would be little action.
Yet, whenever any person becomes a Christian, the Bible says that they are already “saints”, holy ones, no matter how immature. For in the moment of conversion a person becomes God’s, not the devil’s, and certainly not their own. Listen to Paul as he speaks to the Corinthians, “You are not your own, you were bought with a price.” I Cor. 6:19. Even the members of the congregation in Corinth, fractured by dissension and immorality and heresy are called saints.
Every Christian and the Christian Church then are holy already. All Christians are sanctified.
The Goal of the church.
The word “Holy”, however, picked up another characteristic in the Hebrew mind. God’s character was described as holy. That meant that to be holy, a person would be good, true, faithful, having integrity, being just, having compassion, in fact being just like God. To be Holy was to be Godly. Holiness became synonymous with godliness or goodness. This change took place because it was seen that the essential difference between God and man was not in a difference of authority or power or grandeur, but a difference in character.
Which brings us back to the definition of holy as meaning “sinless”. The church is not holy in this sense, and never has been. But when we say, “I believe in One Holy Catholic Church”, we are agreeing that holiness of life is the goal towards which she is to move. It is the destination towards which she travels. It may not be true of her behaviour at this present moment, but it is the standard by which she measures herself. And when she fails to be the church she was intended to be, she prays prayers of penitence and asks for forgiveness, and asks for the grace of God to help her be better at being like her Saviour.
For the Church is to act, just like the God who has called her does. The church is to be holy, since God is Holy, and we are to become like him.
Thanks be to God, the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Holiness, is in her midst to move her towards being holy in all matters of her life. She is already holy by her calling, and she goes on to perfect holiness in the fear of God. Already she is holy, but not yet, not entirely. She is holy in name, but she moves on with God to being holy in all her attitudes and actions.
Holy already, but not yet. Strange words. But important. If we are Christians, we are already holy. But not entirely. But a good work has begun. A real change has already taken place. But continued change is critical and crucial as we move from grace to grace. We grow in grace as well as knowledge. We add to our faith, virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, kindness and love.
The church in its wiser and healthier moments knows that the goal of the church is to be entirely sanctified, and every one of its members to be entirely devoted to the will of God.
There are some churches that belong to a part of Christendom called “The Holiness Movement.” Those churches take this concern with utmost seriousness for several reasons:
1. The moral carelessness of the church is a great grief to God. It is frequently noted that the moral values and behaviour of those within the church is no different than that of those outside the church. There are times when God has raised up some churches to speak to the church about the call to be holy, and to remind us of the provisions that God offers to us to make this possible.
But such persons and churches need to be wary of self-righteousness and “holier than thou” attitudes that infer “I thank you that I am not like that publican”. Being a Christian Pharisee is no improvement on the Pharisaism of Jesus’ day. It is by far better to say “God be merciful to me the sinner” and mean it.
2. The moral tone of Western culture is a deep embarrassment to us all. If ever the message of a holy life were needed it is today. But if we are to be salt and light to our culture, it will not because we wag our disapproving finger and preach at the world about its moral sickness. The church needs to be holy in all of its activities and its words before the world can believe in the transforming power of God over all addictions and excesses.
3. Since the church is both as association of individuals and an institution, we need to be holy in our private lives and in our corporate lives. But let us remind ourselves that holiness is Christ-likeness and Godliness. The world will take seriously the message of redemption only if they see the church doing the work of God among those who are the victims of the world’s evils.
That means working with the poor, the homeless, the addicted, the imprisoned, the moral outcasts, the pornographers, and the child abusers, as well as with those who have been abused. Holiness is best illustrated by those who help the helpless, who assist those who are handicapped in mind, body, emotion, or who provide care to their caregivers. When we look like we are “Mother Theresa” we will also have countless opportunities to be speak about the moral crimes of our culture.