Holiness in the Church

A teaching paper by our CBE in Manchester

Editors note - I (Alex Jacob) have changed some of the sentence structures and re-ordered parts of the text of the paper in order to try and help the reader understand the meaning and the flow of the teaching- this is necessary as our CBE is not writing in his first language and at times the intended meaning within the original paper is lost or is confusing. I hope this is helpful and appropriate. 

The wider context of holiness in the Church is of great importance – especially as the Church seeks to be a good and faithful witness to the transforming and saving power of the Gospel in today’s diverse and challenging cultures. It is also worth noting while reading this paper that  our CBE is writing out of the experience of learning from and sharing with many Hassidic Jews for whom issues around ‘holiness’ and ‘community formation and loyalty’ are key identity markers. In this context our CBE today is following pioneering CMJ teachers and evangelists of past generations such as Paul Levertoff and Jacob Jocz. 


I believe it seems we often use the word ‘holy’ or ‘holiness’ and its other derived synonyms in a way which is different from its derivational root.

We often use the word ‘Holy’ to refer to a very appropriate event, which is seen as an absolute moral adjective, or as the most cherished ethical act. As Emanuel Kant describes a will resembling the motive of duty as a ‘Holy Will’, since God’s will have necessarily always be a virtue, and Kant gives to this a special name. (1) But the usage of this word as a moral virtue, which is also very common, is very imprecise (2) This is true, that from one angle the word ‘holiness’ refers to moral entity, and from this angle of view it includes moral values, yet this word has a very original meaning. Although the moral meaning still exists in its meaning and in its main usage in a way, but it is necessary to keep its original meaning as the key criteria, and while contemplating its original meaning, let us move toward its moral meaning.

It is true to say that ‘holiness’ have been used for different meanings which often refer to its moral aspects. Though, the meanings of moral purity and morality are relevant and useful.

Yet, it seems that the main aspect, which is hidden in this word’s entity, has not been revealed. To the extent that Rudolf Otto, in his book ‘The idea of the Holy’ has challenged this superficial meaning, and in his great book, he has explored that aspect of holiness which is related to its innate meaning. He has gone to the extent that to refer to the innate meaning of holiness he has searched for a Latin word, and for this aspect of meaning, he selected the word ‘Numinous’ (3).

Considering all has been said so far, we can see the importance of the innate meaning of this word to define the usage of the word ‘holiness’.
‘Holiness’, as most people define, is purity in action, or is the thing that is named as reverence. For instance, when we name someone as ‘enshrined’ or ‘holy’, the first thing that comes to the mind is that this person does not lie, does not asperse others, and does not commit adultery, etc. 

Regarding this superficial meaning of ‘holiness’, I intend to ask a question, and we will ponder over its final answer, at the end of this teaching paper.

And now my question: 

Speaking of “holiness” in the church maybe is seen as in conflict with our experience, as people who may come and go to the church are often polluted with lies, aspersing others, or even may be polluted with adultery! From this angle of view, do we not have to strive for a church in which such impurities are removed? If not how are we able to make any meaningful connections between holiness and the church? Does this not also require us to stop the entrance of such sinful people to the church, so that we can work towards holiness in the church?
If however, saying that the church is “holy” has been rendered in a way that liars and slanderers are not permitted to enter the church, then how does this match up with the way that Jesus Christ engaged with and dealt with sinners, furthermore, his disciples were not righteous and cleansed of sins!  Relying on this meaning that Jesus Christ had dealt with impure people and sinners, you can hypothetically say that it is not true to say that the existence of such impure and problematic people in the church, damages the church’s “holiness”. Of course, your hypothesis is respectable, but in respond to such a hypothesis we can say that, in case that your excuse is right, then how can we truly define the subject of this paper? 

It seems that we face a contradiction here. Which means that, from one hand, relying on the apparent and obvious meaning of “holiness” we can prevent the entrance of the sinful people to the church, and from the other hand, relying on the atoning action of the Messiah, who is the friend of sinners, we can let sinful people enter the church, and encourage them to come to church.
To clarify the challenges we face ahead, my suggestion and method is that we investigate the   meaning of “holiness” from the Old Testament and present it in the following seven stages. 

The first stage:

The meaning of the word enshrinement, holy, and the concept of the Holy:

 The Hebrew word  “קָדוֹשׁ” or as it being said in the Talmud ‘kadosha’ has been derived from the root which means “cutting and separating” or “the thing that has been separated”. 
This word has also been used to refer to God. Sometimes the bible calls the Lord as “Holy” which denotes that though God is present and current in His creation, but at the same time, He is separate from His own creation. “Kadosh” in its second meaning also means separation from unchasten acts.  (4)
The New Testament uses the Greek word “ἅγιος” as equivalent of the Hebrew word which almost means the same (5), and in Latin the word “Sanctus” has been used, which means a holy thing. (6)

In the Holy Bible “holiness” has different meanings and refers to different things.
- Sometimes it refers to God and His name, e.g. when we address God as “Holy” (Psalms 71:22 or Isaiah 5:24)
- Sometimes it has been used as His innate attribute, for example when we know God as “Holy” (see Joshua 11:9)
- Sometimes it refers to time, as when a particular time has been considered “holy” (see Exodus 20:8)
- Sometimes it refers to men (see Leviticus 21:6)
- Or even Sometimes it refers to the places (see Exodus 3:5) 
- Sometimes it refers to the objects (see Leviticus 16:4)

In fact, whatever has been related to a real heavenly thing or in to the Supreme Being, or has been the focus of devotion is viewed within the range of being sacrosanct. In other words, what makes something holy is God’s attention and interest in that thing or person. 

The second stage:

The first usage of the word “Holy” in the Old Testament

 The first time that we face the word “holy” in Bible, is the third verse in the second chapter of Genesis, when God names the seventh day as “holy”. Here we face a question, namely what is different between this day and other days?
For example, when the seventh day was considered as holy, was a change made in terms of its nature and essence? If that is the case, what kind of change has taken place? 

We should pay attention to this point when thinking that taking the Shabbat as holy in a way that implies a celestial change has necessarily happened in that day. This is a view that may mislead us, as we will not have a reason or explanation for such celestial changes. Therefore, what is the right understanding?

It seems  the right view is to lift our focused attention from occurrence of a change in the Shabbat’s nature, and move this attention towards the change in the type of our impression of that day.

“Shabbat” is holy since God has made it holy with His words, He has had a particular view on that, and has separated that day from the other days, God is holy and whatever enters this enshrined limit is holy, as God says, “Shabbat of the LORD” (Exodus 20:10). This does not mean that when God named the seventh day as “holy” a new change happens in the nature of that day; it simply means that God has given particular attention to the day. (7) But this understanding of holiness as it is within the range of God’s eternal power is a meta-human matter, and from this point of view, even if there was no human being living on the earth, Shabbat would still be holy.

From this angle, we can say, when something is holy for people, in fact our impression and the nature of our attention gets changed, and not that the subject of such holiness experiences any innate change.

It is beneficial to mention an example here to clarify the matter more: imagine that two pieces of stones are put in front of us, and we are told that one of them is holy and one is not, what happens in this case is that our impression of considering that stone as holy, is based upon the attention and belief of the listeners and followers. That is to say, when we witness others honouring and cherishing the stone we realize that the stone is a holy thing.

The third stage:
The meaning of holiness as a relationship or encounter as in Jacob’s dream:

Lord! where shall I find You? Your
place is lofty and secret. And where
shall I not find You? The whole earth is
full of Your glory! 
…I have sought to come near You, I have
called to You with all my heart; and
when I went out towards You, I found
You coming towards me. I look upon
Your wondrous power and awe. Who
can say that he has not seen You? (8)
(Jehovah Helvi 12thcentuary)

Now, from the same point of view that says the type of impression and the nature of attention brings the holiness upon something, I intend to explore Genesis 28 where Jacob dreams of a ladder which is facing toward the heaven and divine angels were descending and ascending that ladder. Here, Jacob enters the territory of holiness by the ladder, a ladder which was facing from the earth to the sky. The angelic movements were not only in one direction from the earth to the heaven, but the angels were ascending and descending the ladder. In one impression it is rendered that they descended part of the ladder to meet men, and men ascended part of the ladder to meet with them. (9) As Jehovah Helvi poetically describes; “when I went out towards You, I found you coming towards me.”

In this meeting of the caller and the believer (10) the essence of holiness has revealed a meaning that is hidden in meeting the Holy God, in this meeting Jacob in under God’s specific attention and care, he has been separated from the rest, as Talmud describes this moment is a moment in which the earth and heaven embrace each other. According to Abraham Heschel, “searching for God is returning to God, it is a dialectic (investigation or engagement) between the earth and the heaven” (11). This appearance of holiness (or moral purity) starts to be revealed in humans and then this results in the second meanings of such  holiness as such holiness ‘leaks out’ to the outside world in the shape of acts of kindness, justice and mercy. In fact, from this incident on we realize that God is supposed to be with him (Genesis 28:15), in other words God will keep Jacob under a specific care and attention. Therefore, with God’s impression on him, our impression of him gets changed. Eventually, despite all his weaknesses and designing, we put his manner and acts under a magnifying glass and we follow him in the holy bible with a certain attention. Because, Jacob has entered the enshrinement circle and has God’s particular attention upon himself and this leads to faithful obedience.  

The fourth stage:

The meaning of holiness in relationship with the mystery of marriage

According to the Jewish tradition, in marriage promises a man says to the woman: “Behold, you are consecrated (holy) to me with this ring according to the laws of Moses and Israel.” (12) This speech which is being said at the same time of giving the wedding ring to the woman, means that the groom focusses all his attention on the bride, and from this angle of view, the bride becomes holy for her groom (that is to say she ‘belongs’ only to her groom). On the other hand, according to Jewish marriage tradition, the bride is not only by words, but also by all her heart is obliged to pay all her attention to her groom and know him blessed for her. This means that she must accept this mutual belonging with full and free acceptance. (13)  Therefore, we see, how man’s particular view and attention to his woman, and the woman’s particular view and attention to her man puts them both in the circle of viewing each other as holy.

The fifth stage:

The meaning of “holy” regarding the bonds between God and God’s chosen people

The same meaning of holiness in marriage, also strongly exists in the relationship of God and His chosen people. From this point of view, God names his people as holy, as a symbol of marriage, He wants this relationship  uniquely for Himself (14). He separates His people from the rest of the people and shows particular attention and care toward them. When the Israelites where led from Egypt, the land of sin and corruption, the Lord made a pledge (covenant) with His people, God wants the Israelites only and only for Himself, (15) so that He solely and only pays attention to the Israelites, and in return the Israelites must have the same commitment, and look fully to God and show the same loyalty and focussed attention for God. (16) In this mutual looking of God to the tribe and the Israelites to God, the deep meaning of God’s holiness and people’s holiness is made clear. The Israelites are holy, since they are under God’s specific attention, and on the other hand, the Israelites respects and pay particular attention to the truth of God’s holiness. 

The sixth stage:

The meaning of holiness regarding God’s ‘new chosen people’, “the church”

We should search for the reality of the church’s holiness in the Old Testament and specifically in the Exodus narrative. There we see that the Israelites who were imprisoned and enslaved in Egypt, were called by God to go to the desert to worship God, to describe the event the Hebrew word “qahal” “קָהָל” is used(17) which later on in the New Testament has been translated into “church(18).(19) The people are called to be holy according to an oath which was presumably a marriage oath of God to His chosen people; God separated this people for Himself, and made them holy.  In this it is God who meets His people in holiness, and the people are to be  God’s special and holy people, a people whose holiness does not reside in actions and deeds, but flows from a divine summons (election) from God. The Pentecost events (Acts 2) which according to church tradition is often seen as the inauguration of the church, reminds us of giving the law to the chosen people by Moses, it was apparently on that day that a new law in a new pledge was given to the Israel tribe. And God with His special look upon and attention, enters the ‘new Israel’ and are declared as holy by God. In such a meeting between  heaven and earth  God has firstly put His fire on a mountain, now He puts it in  the apostles, and apostles are being chosen, being separated and their journey in holiness starts, and this is in this journey in which holiness (or the moral purities)  of obedience is revealed.

The last stage:

In the prelude of this paper I had asked a question which we were supposed to ponder over it at the end. The question was: Speaking of “holiness” in the church, do you think it is in contrast with our attitude and longing for holiness, when   people who may come and go to the church are often polluted with lies, aspersing others, or even may be polluted with adultery! From this point of view, do we not have to remove these impurities from the church to be able to demonstrate that we have made a deep and meaningful relationship between holiness and the church? Also, do we not have to stop entrance of such sinful people to the church, so that we create (and protect) holiness in the church?
To try and answer these questions we have passed through six stages. Now, we are in the last stage: regarding what has been said about the holiness and the fact that meaning of holiness depends on  the caller’s point of view, and also the fact that the secondary meaning of holiness, namely the appearance of the moral values, depends fully upon the  first meaning (the call to covenantal relationship) we reach the point which says: enshrining the church does not mean preventing the entrance of patients or ill-minded people, as God has  a special attention upon the church, He has separated it from the rest, so that the church belongs to God exactly like a spouse, but this does not mean that the moral and ethical failures  of the church often  results in hiding from the world the true purposes of the church- namely to be a community  which reflects God’s specific look, attention and belonging. 
It is admirable when the moral and ethical values in the church turn out to be the natural result of the church’s loyalty toward God. From this point of view,  this endowment, loyalty and specialty is not an abstract process, but it is a process with objective outcomes which will eventually flourish in the leaders (and the people’s) devoutness.
In the process of revealing the true moral and ethical life of the Church, it is important that the church leaders and priests stand in the front line of flourishing such morality and ethics. It seems that only in that case we can hope that the church will fully love God, and faithfully shepherd His sheep. Just as our Lord asked Peter in John 21, to love Him and shepherd His sheep. Although the sheep are ill and disabled, but they hope in receiving the healing, remedy and restoration, by their connection with the church, which is special and loyal to God. And the Lord says: 
“If man divorces his wife, and she marries someone else, would he come back to her again? Will it not pollute the land? But Lord says: “you have committed adultery with many lovers, but return to me….” Jeremiah 3:1.

1-  A History of Philosophy: Fichte to Nietzsche: 7, by Frederick Charles Copleston, Paulist Press International, U.S. (1 Jan. 1958), page77.
The Idea of the Holy, by R. Otto (Author), John W. Harvey (Translator), OUP USA; 2 edition (1 Aug. 1968), page 5.
2- The Idea of the Holy, by R. Otto (Author), John W. Harvey (Translator), OUP USA; 2 edition (1 Aug. 1968), page 5.
3- ibid page 7.
4- The Dictionary of Classical Hebrew, Editor David J.A Clines  Volume VII, page 18
5- A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, revised and edited by Frederick William Danker based on Walter Bauer’s, page 10.
6- The Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms, Richard A. Muller, page 270.
7- New Interpreter’s Bible, Editor Leander E. Keck, Volume I, page 347
8- The Jewish Approach to God: A Brief Introduction for Christians, by Rabbi Neil Gillman, Jewish Lights (2004),page 40.
9- Ladder to The Heaven, Worship House in Jewish History & Philosophy, published by Vida publishers, Tehran, spring of 2000, Page, 18.
10- “The Systematic Theology” by Paul Tillich, Translated by Hassan Nouri, Hekmat publishers, Vol, 1, 2010,page: 19 (Persian version).
11- God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism, By Abraham Joshua Heschel, Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Reprint edition (1976), page 138.
12- Celebration and Renewal: Rites of Passage in Judaism, by Rela Mintz Geffen (Editor), Jewish Publication Society of America (1993), page 110.
13- Note, in Jewish tradition the  bride’s full and independent heartfelt content is the prerequisite of marriage, which means that in case of bride’s dissatisfaction the marriage is not accepted according to the law, to the extent that, if bride admits that she was dissatisfied at the time of saying the marriage oration, this nullifies the marriage by itself.
Judaism, Human Values, and the Jewish State, by Yeshayahu Leibowitz, Harvard University Press; New edition(1995), page 180, 181 
14- The Laws of God and The Laws of the State Vol. 2, by Lawrence L. Blankenship (Author), Universe (2013), page136.
15- The Father Who Redeems and the Son Who Obeys: Consideration of Paul's Teaching in Romans, by John Nolland (Foreword) and Svetlana Khobnya (Author), Pickwick Publications (2013), Page21.
16- Theological Commentary to the Midrash, Vol. 8, Jacob Neusner, Published by University Press of America(2001), Page 146.
17- Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, Vol. 12,  by G. Johannes Botterweck  (Editor),  Helmer Ringgren (Editor), Heinz-Josef Fabry(Editor), Douglas W. Stott (Translator), Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company(2003), Page 546.
18- “ἐκκλησία  , ekklésia” Church meaning congregation, meeting, gathering, assembly, agglomeration, community, domestic gathering for election, (R.K. Aristotle Politics 1258 a) all who believe in Christ are named by the words combination of ‘ek ἐκ’ meaning ‘from’. ‘Out of’, and ‘καλέω  kaleó’ called, invited. Equal to the Hebrew word of  ‘קָהָל ‘qahal.
19- Theology of the New Testament, by Udo Schnelle   (Translator),    M. Eugene Boring (Translator), Baker Academic, Division of Baker Publishing Group (2010), Page 328.


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