Whither Brethren in Christ Holiness Theology?

Last week, I gave a paper at the annual meeting of the Wesleyan Theological Society on the shifting role of holiness theology in the Brethren in Christ Church. The paper was generally well received. Several esteemed historians of the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition were in the audience and they asked good questions and prodded me to tighten up my argument in several key ways.

Once the semester ends and I finish my comprehensive exams, I’m planning to revise the conference paper into an article and submit it to the WTS journal, Wesleyan Theological Journal.

For now, here’s an excerpt from my paper:

In 1995, the Wesleyan Church leader Keith Drury published a scathing article in the Holiness Digest, the publication of the Christian Holiness Partnership. In this article, Dury flatly declared, “The holiness movement is dead.” He pointed to multiple reasons for this movement’s untimely demise: It had sacrificed prophetic witness for respectability. It had plunged itself into the evangelical mainstream. It had failed to convince a younger generation. It over-reacted against the abuses of the past. He did not deny the existence of holiness infrastructure: of churches, of institutions, of publications. Nor did he deny the presence of “many wonderful holiness people” within those institutions; he even wryly noted that “[some] people are still getting sanctified here and there.” Rather, he denied the ongoing vitality and evangelistic power of a singular holiness movement as well as the ongoing, consistent, and distinctive emphasis on holiness within church preaching or within members’ personal lives.

Less than a year after Drury’s jeremiad appeared in print, one small affiliate of that defunct holiness movement—the Brethren in Christ Church—convened a nation-wide study conference centered on exploring denomination identity. Scores of church leaders, pastors, scholars, and laypeople gathered together at Messiah College, the denomination’s liberal arts college in Pennsylvania, for the two-day event. The keynote speaker was Luke Keefer, Jr., a professor at Ashland Theological Seminary and a Brethren in Christ theologian and church historian. On its face, Keefer’s keynote address centered on objectively interpreting the “three theological streams” or traditions by which the Brethren in Christ had traditionally defined their religious heritage: Anabaptism, Pietism, and Wesleyanism. Yet like Drury, Keefer also took the opportunity to critique his tribe. The Brethren in Christ, he averred, have entered in the final decades of the twentieth century “with a badly eroded sense of identity.” As evidence, he pointed to the erosion of the church’s commitment to a Wesleyan theology of sanctification. He acknowledged the persistence of Wesleyan-holiness thought in denominational discourse: doctrinal statements continued to use the language of “full surrender,” “consecration,” and “the holy life,” and denominational statements continued to identify Wesleyanism as one of the theological traditions shaping the Brethren in Christ character. And yet, he observed, those who identify “with the Wesleyan . . . side of our heritage . . . are minority voices. . . . If our denomination were suddenly deprived of members above age sixty, there would scarcely be a Wesleyan note in our understanding of sanctification.” Keefer blamed this devolution on the church’s gradual acculturation into the dominant cultures of North American society, as well as its increasing investment in American evangelicalism. He claimed that “[m]any pastors in recent years would find the Evangelical stance [of progressive sanctification in this life, culminating in entire sanctification at glorification] more palatable than Wesley’s doctrine of entire sanctification.” These forces, he concluded, have “substantially blunted our Wesleyan voice.”

These two diatribes, each published or presented in the same twelve-month span, share many differences—but at least one similarity: They both stress the imperiled position of the doctrine of holiness within their respective contexts. At the same moment in which Drury found no heartbeat in the corpse of the holiness movement, Keefer could find only a thready pulse of holiness in his own denominational body.

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