Time For A Damascus Rd Experience: The Pharisees Have Taken Over The Church


On top of my current reading pile is “Learning From The Early Church About Mission in The City” by Morna Hooker and Frances Young. A few years ago Hooker, a notable NT expert and Young an eminent theologian formed a formidable scholarly tag team to teach a lecture series and this book stems from those presentations. Obviously as someone involved in church planting and mission the subject they deal with is one close to my heart and so I thought I would share my thoughts as I read through it.

CHAPTER ONE: ‘Be Holy As I Am Holy”

Have you ever noticed that there are certain words which never seem right together like, “Hibs and Scottish Cup Winners” or “James Petticrew and tuneful?” Morna Hooker in this opening chapter points out that in a similar way to most Christians “holiness” and “mission” seem unlike bedfellows as concepts. Holiness usually conjures up ideas of personal sanctity, requiring withdrawal from the world and mission is normally connected with very active evangelistic zeal and going into the world. Hooker starts to put a case together for us to see that this is false, and in fact damaging, dichotomy.

She gives a brief overview of the concept of holiness in the OT, that to be holy is to be in some sense separated from the world through being in a relationship with the living God. Israel was holy because through God’s grace she shared his “otherness” This holiness/separateness was expressed ceremonially, through the Levitical laws but also ethically through the call of the Prophets for the nation of Israel to live out the Law which embodied and expressed their God’s character. Her basic position is that “holiness means living according to the revealed character of God.” Israel was to be compassionate, caring of the stranger, protective of the weak, defender of those who suffered oppression because their God was compassionate, cared for strangers, protected the weak, and defended the oppressed.

Hooker goes on to point out there are basically two different ways to understand and respond to this calling to be holy. The first is to interpret it as a call to be “aloof,” to keep away from everything and everyone who is not in relationship with God, this of course leads to withdrawal from the world. Hooker perceptively remarks that such an understanding of holiness “… can lead to devotion and piety, it can also result in a community that turns in upon itself and excludes strangers. It takes the idea of separation so seriously that it cuts them off” p5 This was the concept of holiness that came to dominate Judaism by Jesus time. The Pharisees and Qumran Community which authored the Dead Sea Scrolls to a greater or lesser extent took holiness so seriously in this way they cut themselves off from anything that might contaminate them with “unholiness.” This of course is the epicentre of Jesus’ frequent bust ups with the Pharisees as he meets, eats with and befriends some decidedly “unholy” people.

Even just reading this small section has led me to presume where the argument in this book is heading. I know from personal experience of being brought up in Pentecostal Church and being a leader in the “holiness movement” that concept of holiness that was in operation was the very one that Jesus sought to subvert by his actions. Evangelical churches sadly, all too often are introverted communities, unwelcoming of the stranger. Never mind the lunatics taking over the asylum Hooker to me is showing that when it came to holiness, the Pharisees took over the Church from Jesus!

The alternative understanding of holiness was not to see it as an end in and of itself. Holiness was one side of the coin of Israel’s calling, the other being mission. Israel was called to be Holy so as to be involved in God’s mission to the world and was enabled to be involved in God’s mission to the world because it was called to be Holy. Although she hasn’t spelt it out yet it seems clear to me that Hookers position is that “there is no holiness without mission and no mission without holiness” In God’s calling to his people holiness and mission are in symbiotic relationship. This is nothing less than a call to be God’s representative on earth “God’s command to his people to “be holy as I am holy” is a command to be like God, to represent who and what he is to the world. He is a loving God. just and merciful, who brings salvation and healing and the nation’s (Israel) task is to be and do the same” p8 Mission means representing God, to represent God, God’s people must embody and express His character, therefore holiness leads to mission and in fact HOLINESS IS MISSION!

How was Israel to carry out this “holy mission” of representing God in the world? Jonah represents the “word & proclamation” dimension of that calling. Israel was to proclaim to the nations the truth of God so that the nations, like Nineveh, to Jonah’s dismay it has to be said, can repent and be saved. Other prophets especially Isaiah call on Israel to be a “light to the Gentiles” by its actions, by treating people as God would treat them, setting captives free, bringing healing to hurting, justice to the oppressed. Hooker goes on to point out that for us as Christians the question of what is the God like we are to represent is answered definitively and clearly in and through Jesus. In Jesus holiness and mission are seamlessly woven as is word and deed. Summing up this whole section about mission Hooker remarks “It is clear, then, that the Gospel is spread, not simply by words of mouth, but by actions” p15

Personally the most stimulating section of this chapter is Hookers thoughts on Paul’s Damascus road experience. She questions if we really should call it as a conversion because Paul is not “converted” to the worship of another God but to authentic worship of the God he has been “misrepresenting.” She seems to be suggesting that one of the things, if not the main thing, that happened to Paul on the Damascus Rd was that his understanding of holiness went through a paradigm change which made it missional. Its so thought provoking I’ll quote it in full

As a Jew, Paul had been a Pharisee, a term which means separated. Pharisees took the call to be holy seriously, and for Paul, holiness had meant personal piety: living strictly according to the Law, avoiding contamination, preserving an exclusive relationship with God. …. But with his call to take the Gospel to the Gentiles, this understanding of holiness had been destroyed. “Be Holy as I am Holy” now meant “be what I have revealed myself to be in the person of Jesus Christ, who loved you and gave himself for you.” Now Paul realized that God’s holy people were called, not to keep God for themselves, but to take him out into the world, to offer the Gospel to the nations, to share their knowledge of a loving and compassionate God …. From the history of both the nation, Israel and the indviidual, Paul we see that God’s call to belong to Him involves the call to mission. This kind of God cannot be kept to ourselves. Mission is not an optional extra, but is part of the Christians DNA. ….. Mission cannot be limited to the words of preachers or even personal testimony. The call from God is to be holy, and for Christians, that means having the mind of Christ and becoming like Him. It means embodying the Gospel … Mission is not a task assigned to a few chosen representatives, but a task for the whole church, since the church, as the Body of Christ represent to the world what Christ is. What kind of image of Christ are we? …. as a community — offering to those among whom we live and work” p17

Having read this chapter I can’t help but sadly conclude that many evangelical churches and ironically the “holiness movement” I am part of have got it wrong on holiness.

Firstly, we have operated with a Pharisaical model of holiness, of holiness being about personal piety and separation from contamination. We have largely forgotten we are called to holy not for our own benefit. The call to Holiness is not meant to cause us to become inwardly looking communities disconnected from the real world. Rather its a call to be to missional, different from the world in our values but connected to the world by those same values. Authentic holiness and effective mission are two sides of God’s calling to his people.

The other place where I think we have gone wrong is that in the evangelical tradition we have made mission predominately about proclamation and largely forgotten that words without deeds are not only empty, they are not God’s methodology of mission. By making mission largely about what is “preached by the preacher” we have in effect robbed the vast majority of God’s people of their missional calling, to be holy, to represent God by embodying and expressing his character in concrete ways in their families, workplaces, social contexts and neighbourhood. The main missional calling of God’s people is not to bring people to listen to the truth about God but to incarnate the truth about God to them in word and deed.

I think the Church needs a Damascus Road experience like Paul’s, a paradigm shifting experience that moves their understanding of holiness from being about personal holiness by separation from the world to “social” holiness missionally representing God’s character to the world.

So as Hooker asks, what sort of image of God are we representing to those around us

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