For four years I was an Assemblies of God minister AND a monk with the Brothers and Sisters of Charity in Eureka Springs, AR. This is an excerpt from my book about that experience called “Taking Off My Comfortable Clothes: Removing Religion to Find Relationship.”
I was in Bible College when I first heard the saying, “I’m a Christian and I don’t drink, smoke, or chew, or hang around with those who do.” We often repeated this little ditty tongue-in-cheek, but there was an element of truth to it, also. Although we knew abstinence from those things didn’t make us holy, we also had to sign a form that said we would not partake in those vices while we were students at the college. I suppose they were fine rules as rules go, but like any law, they only dealt with the outward appearance of holiness, and did nothing to address the matters of the heart.
At the core of that saying is the idea that we can obtain instant holiness if we will simply avoid certain habits. Furthermore, it was expected we would not have friends who engaged in such questionable practices. Somehow, we’ve equated the God-ordained gift of instant salvation through faith in the work of Christ with holiness on demand—my church demands certain practices (and abstinences) and I am holy if I follow those rules. My church says don’t _______ (fill in the blank), so I don’t _______ (fill in the blank) and I feel justified. Or, the church says don’t go there, sinners are there and they will ruin your walk with Christ, so we avoid going to certain places.
That last one has always confused me. If the sinners are not coming to church, I always felt we should go to where the sinners are. After I left the Little Portion, I stayed in Berryville and continued going the Assemblies of God church. Needing a place to live, I put in an application for an apartment and used my pastor as a reference. The owner of the apartment called my pastor and asked him about my character, wondering if it was me he saw coming out of a party in town. My pastor assured the man I wouldn’t have been at such a gathering.
I took that as a compliment. Sort of. Why wouldn’t I go to such a party? Isn’t that where the sinners are? Didn’t Jesus hang around with sinners and party with Matthew’s friends (Matt. 9:10)? “Perhaps Jesus did,” I’ve often heard the argument go, “but you’re not Jesus. You could be influenced to sin by those people.” Really? Greater is He who is in me than He who is in the world, so I figure they should be afraid of being influenced by He who is in me.
Holiness, a sacred separation and dedication of our whole beings to God, is a life-long pursuit and does not arrive overnight. Too many Christians run from one conference to another and one church service to the next, seeking that final experience that will make them be the Christian that everyone will admire; give them the courage to take a stand for the faith; help them overcome that last plaguing habit. Eugene Peterson writes, “There is a great market for religious experience in our world; there is little enthusiasm for the patient acquisition of virtue, little inclination to sign up for a long apprenticeship in what earlier generations of Christians called holiness.” (A Long Obedience, pg. 16).
Holy living is a “long apprenticeship” and you cannot obtain it through abstinence, styles of dress, baptismal formulas, frequent church attendance, or emulating anyone other than Jesus.