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Holiness? Really?

‘Tuesdays at the Table’ is a series of discussions hosted by the Connectional Table that will help us better understand our faith, our church, ourselves. Learn more

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Can anyone really be holy? In our United Methodist tradition, we understand that God continues to work in the hearts and lives of Christians after the moment of salvation. We call this God's sanctifying grace. It can sound pretty ominous to think that God is perfecting us, making us holy.

We're asking Dr. David N. Field what all of this means for us as individuals and as part of a local church.

Discussion Guide

Guest: Dr. David N. Field

Dr. David N. Field serves as the Ecumenical Staff Officer for Faith & Order and Theological Dialogue for the Council of Bishops. Photo courtesy David Field.

I was born and grew up in Cape Town, South Africa. While I did not grow up in a Methodist church, I can trace Methodist ancestors to the 1820’s. Methodism is in my genes.

Growing up in Apartheid South Africa, I was a beneficiary of racist exploitation. My teenage years were influenced by the interacting of deepening faith and a growing awareness of the injustice experienced by my fellow South Africans. After completing high school, I studied theology. Of prime importance for me was the discovery of the centrality of justice in the biblical traditions and the challenge of how to incorporate this into my faith, life, and theology in the context of the intensifying political conflict in South Africa.

In 1988, I joined the staff of Student YMCA at the University of Cape Town. The focus of my work here was on evangelism, discipleship, and pastoral care. I completed an MA and Ph.D. in Religious Studies at the University of Cape Town. In 1996, I took up a post as lecturer in the department of Religious Studies at the University of Transkei and in 2000, I moved to Africa University as Senior lecturer in Systematic Theology and Ethics. This move coincided with my marriage.

My wife was teaching in the faculty of Theology at the University of Bonn in Germany. After we married, I moved to Germany where I took responsibility for our family and household enabling my wife to work fulltime as a pastor. In 2005, we moved to Winterthur, Switzerland when my wife became the pastor of the UMC congregation there.

In 2006, I was approached by Bishop Patrick Streiff to lead the project planning for the development of an online program in Methodist Studies for prospective pastors in the UMC across Europe. This developed into the Methodist e-Academy. Since then, have led the work of the e-Academy as part time Academic coordinator. The Methodist e-Academy is a theological education project for Methodist Churches in Europe (primarily but not exclusively United Methodists) providing online supplementary education in Methodist Studies for ordination candidates and further education courses for pastors and lay leaders. I also taught courses in the Methodist Studies Program. The focus of the Methodist Studies Program is the development of Methodist identities and mission in contexts in which Methodists are (often small) minority churches.

I am a layperson and a member of the Kleinbasel congregation of the United Methodist Church. I am active at various levels of the denomination. I serve on the annual conference’s Church and Society committee and have represented the Central Conference of Central and Southern Europe at various forums. I was a member of the Commission on a Way Forward. Since August 2021, I am the Ecumenical Staff Officer for Faith & Order and Theological Dialogue for the Council of Bishops.

Host: Dr. Ashley Boggan Dreff

Dr. Ashley Boggan Dreff is the General Secretary of the General Commission on Archives and History of The United Methodist Church. Photo courtesy Ashley Boggan Dreff.Dr. Ashley Boggan Dreff is the General Secretary of the General Commission on Archives and History. Dreff earned her PhD from Drew Theological School’s Graduate Division of Religion, specializing in both Methodist/Wesleyan Studies and Women’s/Gender Studies. Dreff is a lay member of the Arkansas Annual Conference and the daughter of two ordained United Methodist ministers. She is the author of Nevertheless: American Methodists and Women's Rights (2020) and Entangled: A History of American Methodism, Politics, and Sexuality (2018).


Dr. Dreff: Hello everybody. I'm Dr. Ashley Boggan Dreff, the General Secretary of the General Commission on Archives and History. And I'll be your host for this episode of Tuesdays at the Table. Our question today is holiness, really? And our guest is Dr. David Field. Originally from South Africa, David Field now lives in Basel, Switzerland. He has a Ph.D. in religious studies from the University of Cape Town with a dissertation on eco-theology. He only became a United Methodist when he was in his forties. For the past 15 years, he developed and led an online supplementary theological education project for Methodist pastors in Europe. He's recently appointed as the ecumenical staff officer for Faith and Order and Theological Dialogue for The United Methodist Council of Bishops. Welcome, David, and thank you for joining us.

Dr. Field: Thank you, Ashley. It's good to be here.

Dr. Dreff: So let's just get to know each other a little bit. Tell us a little bit about your background and interests as a theologian.

Dr. Field: Well, I suppose, tell a little bit of my story. So originally, from South Africa, I grew up in the city of Cape Town. Perhaps important events in my life, as a teenager in the 1970s, those who know a little bit of South African history will know that the date 1976 is a particularly important date. The date of the Soweto uprising and the beginning really of the last phase of the struggle against apartheid, although that was to last a number of years. And so, my teenage years were very much shaped by those experiences, a white person growing up in an apartheid society.

And in that time, getting to know folk who were the victims of apartheid, who were oppressed and discovering what oppression was about, what it meant to be oppressed, what it meant to resist oppression, what it meant then to be, in fact, detained, beaten up, tortured by the police. And that was a very formative part of my own experience. And I encountered that largely through Christian youth work, Christian youth movements. Also, my teenage years were a time of deepening faith, developing a fascination with the Bible. I became a Bible quiz champion. Could quote all sorts of verses, which I've now forgotten, but you could jump me on any question on the Bible, and I could find an answer to it. I suppose, also just in terms of our topic, it was a time when I became fascinated with the concept of holiness, which I think, strange as a teenager.

I sometimes think that was my way of rebelling against the society in which I lived was becoming fascinated with holiness. But unfortunately not a very healthy form of holiness and understanding, which was very pietistic, very individualistic, unrelated to the society's struggles and kind of led one to regular scraping of the soul to deliver, to find out the worst possible or not the worst, least possible sin one had committed in order to get rid of it, and hoping for some sort of spiritual breakthrough, which never really happened. So that, I think, led me to an aversion for the topic of holiness. I wasn't really interested in it. I completed high school and started studying theology at a small Bible college in Cape Town. Very Calvinistic in orientation, where perhaps in this interesting point where Wesley was regarded as, not quite as a heretic, but pretty close to it. The great hero of the revivals was Whitfield.

But for me, the struggle was not so much around that. Although, I regarded myself as a pretty much unconvertible Calvinist. That how does my faith relate to the struggle for justice? If we could talk about holiness, how does holiness relate to justice? I then went on and did graduate studies at the University of Cape Town. I was also involved with the student ministry and more engaged in political activities. So that was kind of, again, faith, struggle, to justice. And then finish off with a Ph.D., focus on eco-theology, which is another kind of ??? and how does our faith relate to issues of eco-justice? So that starts my life.

And I've also been interested in different figures in theology, particularly Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German resistance theologian, various theologians of liberation. And towards the end, I'd say in my forties, my wife happened to be taken a position in The United Methodist Church. So I decided I better immerse myself a little bit in Wesley. And there, that's ended up and was asked at that stage by Bishop Patrick Streiff to lead this new online education project.

Dr. Dreff: Wow. That's quite the story. So we are here to talk about how United Methodists understand holiness. So what do we mean when we talk about holiness?

Dr. Field: That's a good question. I said when I encountered Wesley, I didn't like holiness, I had this kind of background, and I like Prevenient grace. I liked his emphasis on the poor, serving the poor, the struggle for justice and the thoughts upon slavery and the unity of Christian, Christian unity, the importance of communion. And these are things I really thought. And then you heard this stuff about holiness, like, "Wow. That's not really my stuff." In fact, I did a presentation for some visiting students who came from the US to Europe. And I what waxed eloquently about how wonderful Wesley was except for holiness.

And then I discovered when I was reading, working through these things, that actually what holds the whole thing together is his understanding of holiness. That God was a God of love, desires to transform us as individuals, as communities, as societies, that we might be permeated by love for God and for others. And particularly, he works this out in terms of talks about holiness of heart and holiness of life, or sometimes holiness of conversation, which seems a bit strange to us today, but that in 18th century made more about interaction with people and not just talking. Or having the mind of Christ and walking as Jesus did, which is another one of my favorite.

But one of the things he talks about when it comes to holiness of life is he often refers to justice, mercy, and truth. I like to perhaps modernize that talk about justice, compassion, integrity, and to add a fourth one, solidarity. And that to me is what holiness is about is living that kind of life. It affects all areas of our life, not just our personal life but our family life, our social life, the community, the church. Importantly for Wesley, the church must demonstrate God's love in its own lifestyle and then into society.

Wesley has a wonderful piece in his sermon on the use of money about how Christian business people should interact with their competitors, totally utopian, impractical, but how a Christian businessman should be as concerned about the welfare of his or her competitor as they are about their own welfare. So it's a very different kind of approach to when we think about business today. So to me, that's what holiness is about. It brings these things together. It also has a deep respect for other people in their difference. Wesley, on the unity of the church, is wonderful how he thinks about people in their difference and how he ought to love them in their difference.

I think also in perhaps, well, in line with what Wesley says in some areas and thoughts upon slavery, that holiness is also about resistance, resisting injustice. The baptismal covenant that we use in the UMC to resist evil, injustice, and oppression. That, to me, is also part of holiness. And so that's why I like holiness because it now it brings together to me all these important aspects into an integrated whole.

Dr. Dreff: So it sounds like holiness isn't just this individual thing, but it's also a social thing from what you're describing. Can you tell me what is the connection, or maybe the difference between personal holiness and social holiness?

Dr. Field: To me, I think that's important to see them together. Again, going back to Wesley, he talks about works of mercy, which concern for the poor, the needy, meeting the needs of others as a means of grace. In other words, as a means by which we are personally transformed. So we become personally holy as we engage in seeking to address the needs of others. And of course, we can only address the needs of others if we really are motivated by desire for their good, which is personal holiness.

Often, I think, importantly, holiness is not charity, where a person stands back and gives to those below them. That's why I think solidarity is important. It's coming alongside people, being in a relationship with them in order to help them. Obviously, that's not possible across the world internationally. But as we seek justice in society, across our globe, that's important that we see this as acts of solidarity and not those of us who have giving to those who don't. I think that also important this is what I've learned more recently is there's a reciprocal dimension. That as I seek to address the needs of others, so I gain from that personally. I grow. I develop. And I often think it's not me giving to others. It's often me receiving from others as I give to them.

Dr. Dreff: So the connection between the two is it's not necessarily doing, I think what I've heard it referred to as the “do-gooder mission” where you try to do good simply for the sake of making yourself feel better or trying to correct something. But you're actually walking alongside others and listening to them and seeing what are the true needs of a community. Is that what I'm hearing a little bit?

Dr. Field: I think, very important, yes, walking alongside, hearing, listening. I mean, I think just my own personal life, I've grown so much by being in relationship with people. People who are different from me, people who I thought, "I'm the one who comes to give to them and discovered actually I received far more from them." If I go back right to the beginning of my story, awakening to the realities of apartheid when one lived in an isolated white community and had no interaction with other people, I would never have discovered what the realities of suffering and justice and oppression were about, only as when I got to know people. And when this was no longer Charlie in the newspaper, who has been tortured, that's Charlie, my friend who's been arrested and tortured. That makes a difference when you think about what it means to love somebody and to pursue justice. It becomes a much more personal thing.

Dr. Dreff: Very much so. So what is the connection then between holiness and sanctifying grace?

Dr. Field: Important. Grace? How do I define grace? For me, grace is God's presence, active presence amongst us and within us. And it is only through God's grace, through God's presence and activity, that we can become holy. As I said, I had this experience as a teenager. We would regularly scrape one soul to find the least last little bit of sin to confess and deal with. And it was all my personal effort and activity. And that is disastrous because you just, you can't do it. And so, for me, grace is learning to depend upon God, who gives strength to do difficult and strange things.

Both of those, difficult things because often things are not easy, and stepping out in faith, trusting that God will enable and empower you. And sometimes it means doing strange and different things. Now, as I said, my society when I grew up in due to, for me as a white person to engage and have friends who were Black was just unthought of in certainly amongst my school friends. I heard later that I was regarded as a strange liberal person because I did the strange thing of having friends who weren't white. And in that society, it was strange. It was different. And in our own society, obviously, there are many different ways where you have the courage to step out, to be different.

Dr. Dreff: God does work in strange ways. That's a wonderful play on the typical God works in mysterious ways, but I like the strange component of it because God does work in our lives, particularly through sanctifying grace in those weird moments. Those moments where none of us can explain, and it often pushes us outside of social norms. And that's the moments where you really do encounter God. So how much of this action is God's? And how much is our choice and our action?

Dr. Field: That's a difficult question to answer. I think that they're always interacting with each other. I mean, from a Wesleyan perspective, we emphasize the priority of God's grace. That God initiated, it's not our work. The verse from the New Testament where God is a work in us so that we can perform good works. And those two things are important. God is at work in us so that we can perform good works. And so, I think it's always dynamic. It's always interactive. Responding to God's initiative. And God's initiative comes not just through kind of spiritual flashes of moments of experience. But often, it might be through reading scripture. It might be through hearing the gospel preached, but it might be through another person who challenges us, who forces us to do things in new ways. And as we respond to that or recognize God at work in the moment, so I believe God also then comes and encourages and strengthens and enables us to go further.

So there's always an interactive dynamic element. I mean, I've been in situations where I thought, "I can't carry on. There's just no way... God, you put me in an impossible situation. I can't carry on." And it, sometimes it's in those moments that one experiences the substance of God, or maybe it's only looking back that one experiences, "Oh, God was at work in these situations." So it's always interactive, always dynamic. I think it's important not to depend upon ourselves, on the one hand. And on the other hand, not to say, "Well, God will do it all, and I can sit back, and God will change the world. Let's leave it at that."

Another theologian, not a Wesleyan at all, Karl Barth, who associated with the city of Basel, where I live, in his discussion on prayer. Talks about prayer. Once we pray, prayer is not just the action of saying the words, but it's then chasing after the fulfillment of those words. And that's what I like. We pray for something. And then we chase after it with all our strength to find the answer to it.

Dr. Dreff: And that is a great visual. And it's one that I think does kind of balance and provide that connection between God's actions and ours. So how might we see holiness and sanctifying grace transforming the global church? How do we see God at work in the global church?

Dr. Field: I think there are a number of different areas. I think diversity and difference of the global church is important to me. As I grew up in South Africa, which is a multicultural environment, I've perceived all my life in context of multicultural situations. I work here now in Europe for the past 15 years with people from across Europe. When coming to Europe, I thought, "Oh, Europe's all the same. It's all the same culture." And discovered vastly different cultural context, situations, economic situations, and discovered varieties of people.

In our daily living, my wife is German, and I'm South African, although we're both Swiss now. But you constantly live in intercultural change and interaction. And what I've learned from that is diversity and interaction with people who are different is widely important. That's a way of growing in grace. And it's important that we have different opinions of each other and different opinions on issues. I mean, I think one of the interesting things is to recognize that holiness takes different forms in different cultural and social contexts.

What is appropriate in one context might not be appropriate in another. And I think back again, perhaps just reflecting on my own background. In the '70s, in South Africa, resistance to apartheid was an expression of holiness. Resistance to the government. Living now in Switzerland, in a democracy, that notion of resistance seems to me to be reached far away from what it would mean to be holy, that be disruptive and unproductive, so different situations.

And also, we view issues differently. I mean, obviously, in the UMC, we've had this whole long 20-year or more debate around sexuality and the inclusion of folk from the LGBTQ+ community. And we have different minds on that. And how do we deal with that? I have friends and people who have very different opinions on that. And yet, when I look at their lives and their ministries in many ways, they embody God's love in different contexts.

So how do we handle difference? I think it's a way of holiness. It's interesting Wesley in his, A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, spends a lot of time talking about how Christians have different opinions. And while it's normal for Christians to have different opinions and different opinions on theology, which lead to different opinions in practice. Of course, the tricky thing is how much difference do you allow? And where do you say, "This far and no further?" And that's not always easy to discern.

And Wesley says in his Catholic Spirit, he talks about invincible prejudice and how, because of who we are with our background, we have certain views, and extremely difficult to change those. And he asked, "Who can tell how much are we responsible for that? And how much we are not responsible?" And it's only God who knows.

But for me, it's important to have people who disagree with me. One of the things I like to do when I write something is send it to a few friends who I know will disagree with me because then they correct me, point out things I haven't seen, show me ideas. And I think that's just not in academic work, but that's also in personal life. It's important for people to say, "Hang on a minute, wait, think about this. How are you living?" So if it is invincible prejudice, I need a person from another cultural context, another social context to say, "Isn't that just your background talking? Are you like that because of who you are?" and I think we all need that.

It's easy to say, people who we disagree with need that, but we needed to see our blind spots. But so I think that's, for me, that's important to see for the global church. And to me, I know I've said this in other occasions. I've written about this, that this sense, diversity can be a means of grace in which we grow. I also think as I envisage the church into the future, what do I think about the United Methodist Church as an international church is a network of communities scattered throughout the world, each in their own way embodying God's love, God's love for the world.

And that's immensely transformative. When you think across the world, connected to each other. We have communities in Congo, in Angola, in different parts of the US, here in Europe. In very different situations, embodying God's love, demonstrating to the world, bearing witness to Christ through their lives and through their actions. That's interesting, Wesley, when he speaks about evangelism and sort of world Evangelism mission, he focuses on the conduct of Christians, not about going out and preaching the gospel. But isn't it? If Christians really lived as Christians, then people would want to know about the gospel. Then when you spoke about they will hear it.

But the problem is Christian's lifestyles, and the life of the church is so contrary to the ideals that the gospel proclaims, that people aren't interested. And I long to see the global churches and network of communities which so obviously demonstrates God's love. That people around say, "Wow, this is strange. It's odd, but it's something that's attractive. Something I want to be part of. Something that I feel is good and not just a strange oddness.” And sometimes, we, as Christians, we have a strange oddness that is perhaps repellent to people around.

So I think that's important for me. And then, not to say that we will have one model of holiness. As I said, it'll be diverse. It'll be different. Or someone's talked about a family resemblance to each other. If you bring a family together, not everybody looks alike, but you can see similar features across the family. Somebody has the same kind of, I don't know, shape of nose or the same shape of mouth or color of their eyes or mannerism. And you see, yes, they all belong together. They're all different, but they belong. And that's what I would like to see for our global church.

Dr. Dreff: And so, what happens, though, if we all have different understandings of holiness. And I can definitely see the benefit of that. But what happens if one understanding of holiness causes harm to another person's understanding of holiness?

Dr. Field: That's the crux. And I think that's the issue, which we will all struggle with, which I struggle with. And I think I'm not sure there's an easy answer to that because it's easy for me to see where somebody else's concept of holiness is causing hurt, but I need to see where mine is. What I've learned, I think, and this is finding a way to be able to communicate with each other in love and respect so that where people disagree with each other, that they can still value and be enriched by each other, even when there's difference.

So if we take the issues around LGBTQ inclusion, for example, I've learned a lot from people who hold what might be called a conservative view. I hate that term on this. Friends, pastors, particularly in Eastern Europe, who are doing amazing work amongst poor, marginalized communities in Eastern Europe. Who model self-sacrificial love for people, for example, amongst the Roma, one of the historically discriminated groups in Europe who, like Jews and gay men, were victims of the Holocaust and are still far more historic discriminated than the other two groups today. And yet, they've got conservative views on sexuality. And I struggle with that because, on the one hand, they model to me God's justice and God's compassion and then solidarity for the poor for one group, but not for another group. And I struggle with it. So I don't have an easy answer.

But what has been helpful to me is to actually watch something that's been taking place in the British Methodist Church, who've also been wrestling with these issues. And I've good friends in the British Methodist Church. And it's been amazing to me to see people there with very different opinions, contradictory opinions, who have a deep love and respect for each other. I have friends who hold a conservative evangelical position and who respect and love folk who are gay and affirm them in their ministry and their life. Although they say, "For me personally, I think heterosexual marriage is the norm for sexuality. But I can't deny that you're gay. You're in a relationship, but you demonstrate so much of the love of Christ, and your ministry is so effective. I want to affirm it." And then it goes the other way around, too, the friend of mine, who's gay and pastors and said, "I've got friends who are conservative, who disagree with me, but I affirm their ministry and their person. And we can talk to each other with respect. We love each other, despite our difference.”

And that to me has been an example of that it is possible to do it. Perhaps that's at a personal level. The problem, of course, comes at a structural level where people are hurt by structures which oppress. And how can we create enough room for people to have diverse opinions without hurting others? And I think, that is really a challenge. I don't have an easy answer. And I think it is this thing, we, as Methodists, if we were remaining as one church, will continue to wrestle with into the future. If we can respect each other, if we can love each other, if we can love each other in a genuine way, which isn't saying, "I love you. I want to change you. But I love you and respect you who you are. I disagree with you. I think you're wrong. I think you're a problem. You are a problem. Perhaps your ideas are a problem, but let's work together and find a way forward together."

And it's not only on this issue. I've been recently grappling with issues around the whole COVID pandemic and responses to that. And I have a good friend, a pastor who raises all sorts of critical issues around vaccination and wearing masks and gives really very strong views about it. And it really makes me angry at some stage. I have very strong views that people ought to be vaccinated and ought to wear masks. And I want to really almost... And after he said, "No, I've got to calm down. I've got to respect you. I've got to see other areas. We are really value what you're doing, even though we disagree." And that's not always easy. And to express yourself clearly, but then to respect and say, "Yes, you hold a different view. I think you're wrong. And I would stick to argue to change, to persuade you rationally and in love, but I can still respect you as a person and find ways of working with you."

Dr. Dreff: So God's holiness in and through us is probably most strangely at work in trying to help us love each other, work together, despite all of our contextual differences, all of our historical differences, all of our contemporary differences. And that can be a beautiful and strange thing.

Dr. Field: That's a beautiful and strange thing and a difficult thing.

Dr. Dreff: Yes. Yes, very much.

Dr. Field: I think my favorite theologian, Deitrich Bonhoeffer, both speaks about loving community and loving the idea of community. And sometimes, we love this idea of community as a kind of ideal. This wonderful, everything's nice and comfortable, but that's not loving community. Loving community has been involved in the hurly-burly, the struggle, the tension, the working with different personalities, with different ideas and complexities, and finding a way forward it together. And that's a much more difficult task, but I think a much more rewarding task.

Dr. Dreff: Yeah. And I think you can see from reading Wesley's sermons and his journals just how much he struggled with holiness. For him, it was not an easy subject matter. He spent most of his life trying to figure out what he meant by it and how he understood it and how he embodied it and how others embodied it. So there's no easy answer to what it is, but it is so foundational, as you're saying to his entire way of belief and way of life.

Dr. Field: Yeah. It was his life struggle. It was his life's mission, but his life struggle. And he changes his mind. And he in pastoral context, as he reasoned, well, he had this idea, but it doesn't actually work, or personally, it didn't work for him. And so it's a struggle. So I think that it's always a life. We talk about, or Wesley's talked this about pursuing perfection. Of going after, and that's always a pursuit. It's always a goal, which we never achieve in one sense, but which should shape our lives.

Dr. Dreff: Wonderful. Well, David Field. Thank you so much for being with us and providing us with a better understanding of holiness through a Wesley perspective.

Dr. Field: Thank you, Ashley. It's been a pleasure.

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