The Church: Respectable or Holy?

Briar Whitehead

Have we in the Church become more concerned with the way we appear to each other, and to the community in general, than we have with being truly holy? Do we hide the truth about ourselves in order to appear as we think we ought, rather than as we really are?

Once upon a time, on my bookshelf I used to have a book called How To Be A Christian Without Being Religious. I remember very little about the book now, but the title is one I have never forgotten - probably because the idea it expresses is profoundly true. Christians - if they are not careful - can start being religious without even realising it.

I remember once hurling an Order of Service at a minister in the middle of his sermon because it seemed to me he was being 'religious' rather than 'Christian'. While the life of a woman two or three rows in front of me was visibly disintegrating by the minute, his sermon and the rest of the service wandered irrelevantly on. No-one moved from her seat to comfort the woman until I did - and I was a relative foreigner in this small congregation.

I still regret that I missed him by feet rather than inches, for when I tackled him later he told me that human need should not distract us from the worship of God.

Respectable or Holy?

We know we have stepped over the line between 'Christian' and 'religious' when we have started to become respectable rather than holy. What do I mean by 'holy'?

Respectability and holiness are poles apart. Holiness is not about presenting the right behaviours in the right places. That's respectability. Respectability is about being presentable, reputable and well-behaved. Respectability can be moral on the outside and rotten on the inside.

Holiness isn't even about trying to be good. We can't. From God's perspective, as he looks lovingly upon even the most respectable of us, we are so far from being acceptable that we may as well not try. No matter how much we clean our shoes and wipe our noses it won't take us a millimetre nearer acceptability. That's why God sent Jesus.

What is Holiness?

Being holy is all about being thoroughly acquainted with our capacity for evil and having no illusions whatsoever about the depths to which we could go if left to ourselves. Holiness is about being blown away by God's astounding offer of forgiveness and reconciliation in Jesus Christ, hysterically grateful that it doesn't depend on us, and absolutely and desperately dependent on it for the rest of our days.

Holiness is all about the total honesty with which we face ourselves in the light of God's accepting love and say, "Without you I have absolutely nothing to commend me." It's all about lack of sham, about owning up to who I really am on the inside and not being alarmed at the idea that others should know me as I really am. It's about being committed to - and being conformed to - the image of Christ, by his grace.

Holy people know that respectable people don't have it over unrespectable people. They know no-one is any better or worse than anyone else. Holy people do not look at others and think themselves holier.

Holiness is about being part of a community of people who deeply understand each other's disreputable depths, because they have encountered the disreputable depths in themselves. Holiness is about being a healing community of redeemed disreputables - struggling, holy people who love the Light. The Church should be such a community.

Church is a place where the worst sinners in the world are meant to feel at home, provided they now love the Light. It's the place where no sinner views any other sinner condescendingly, but where all sinners help each other do the hard work involved in becoming conformed to the image of Christ. At least, that's the ideal. But it's not the rule.

Hierarchical Sins

Sometimes people struggling with all sorts of unhealthy behaviours that have their roots in emotional deprivation and a complex of wrong decisions and self-gratifying habits come to the respectable church looking for help, identification and empathy. They seldom find it.

Instead they might find two things. They might find people who tend to classify sins in a sort of hierarchy, in which people like the seeker are near the top and the sins of the respectable don't feature. Or they might find people with respectable exteriors who are unable to own up to secret, thoroughly unrespectable behaviours, or at least have not found ways to root them out.

Either way, they will often find a group of people who do not know themselves, and therefore do not know how to identify with them or help them. The strugglers may stay and become like those around them, cultivating the respectable exterior while the inside remains unrespectable, or they may crave reality so much that they leave and seek healing elsewhere - healing that will not really be healing if Christ is not at the heart of it.

The Respectable Person's Hierarchy

For some reason, somewhere at the top of this hierarchy tend to be the sexual sins: things like child sexual abuse and child pornography, bigamy, bestiality, prostitution, trans-sexualism, transvestism, homosexuality - though the last appears to be undergoing a change of status. Following it are behaviours like alcoholism, drug-taking, domestic violence. Somewhere near the bottom of the hierarchy, in a category almost winked at, are things like workaholism, over-eating, co-dependency.

So long as the respectable person knows he doesn't share the 'sins' at the top of the hierarchy he feels acceptable: more or less sinless. It's the person who turns up with a behaviour near the top of the hierarchy who is the 'sinner'. But the respectable person is labouring under a delusion.

It's true that God finds behaviours at the top of the hierarchy objectionable, but he also finds behaviours objectionable that don't even qualify for a place at the bottom of the hierarchy. Let's have a look at a few. Toebah is a Hebrew word used in the Old Testament to describe how God feels about behaviours that the respectable church would put near the top of its hierarchy of sins. The word is usually translated abhorrent, loathsome, disgusting, detestable. Among other things it applies to child sacrifice, bestiality and homosexual acts. (And all the respectable people said, Amen!)

But what many people don't realise is that it is also used for a lot of other things that respectable people are involved in from time to time, often without much thought. Here they are: pride and haughtiness, unjust gain, failure to honour agreements and keep promises, meaningless and hypocritical prayers, deceit and lying, creating discord and division, oppression of the poor and needy, thoughts of harm to another person, greed for gain and love of money, lending at excessive interest, superficial spiritual healing, partiality, taking sin lightly, letting the guilty go free and condemning the innocent, divination and adultery. God calls all these things toebah.

In God's book a respectable person who is acting haughtily, breaking promises, fantasising harm to someone else and in love with a fat bank balance is behaving in ways no less offensive than the person who is caught in deviant sexual behaviours. God doesn't want any of these behaviours in those who call themselves Christian. He wants us to do something about them.

Private Unrespectable Behaviours

There are also a surprising number of people in the respectable church who struggle privately with behaviours that are near the top of the hierarchy. Precisely because the church is respectable they will not own up to them publicly. In doing so they would risk ostracism. They will sometimes also be unable to own up to them privately.

Psychologists call that denial - a mechanism we employ to avoid facing up to something too difficult for us to handle. Denial often happens when our behaviours have their roots in our attempts to relieve considerable inner pain. We want to obliterate it; to comfort, or distract, or protect ourselves. We want to strike back, to find acceptance, value, love and significance.

To dismantle the behaviour is to face the original pain again without any armour plating. The behaviours may differ greatly, but the reasons we employ them often don't.

In one person unresolved emotional injury may emerge as homosexuality, in another as domestic violence, or workaholism, or anorexia nervosa, or a phobia or a neurosis. It may lead to manipulation, need-meeting behaviour, or possessiveness and jealousy in relationships. Whatever the reason we begin a habit, it can become addictive if it is used to relieve emotional pain.

"Sinful habits become compulsively attractive when the pleasure they give relieves deep disappointment in the soul better than anything else one can imagine,"1 says Dr Larry Crabb.

Fending off the Saviour

The church that pays homage to the hierarchy of sins, or masks a lot of unrespectable behaviours behind respectable exteriors, is a church which has ceased to be the Light of the World.

Christ is Truth and Light and the Balm of Gilead. When he comes to us he comes to tell us the truth about himself and ourselves. He wants to be our Saviour. He doesn't want us using defence mechanisms and harmful behaviours to protect ourselves. They become the false saviours that keep the real Saviour out.

He sent us the Comforter. He doesn't want us comforting ourselves with harmful comforts - like over-spending, or over-eating. He doesn't want us caught in behaviours that have become addictive because they are used to relieve emotional pain. He wants to heal the emotional pain.

The Respectable Church Isolates 'Sinners'

I believe most people in the respectable church would change if they only knew how. But they are caught. The respectable church is not a place in which people feel able to own up to unrespectable personal problems. If they do they may be isolated - by people who don't do those sort of things, or who can't bring themselves to own up to doing those sorts of things. Certainly no-one in those last two categories would be able to help them anyway.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Life Together makes an observation about isolation within a respectable community. "The more isolated a person is, the more destructive will be the power of sin over him, and the more deeply he becomes involved in it, the more disastrous is his isolation. Sin wants to remain unknown. It shuns the light. In the darkness of the unexpressed it poisons the whole being of a person. This can happen even in the midst of a pious community."2

The longer we remain in a state where our unhealthy behaviours are able to take deep root in the "darkness of the unexpressed", or go unchallenged and uncorrected, the more we lose the will and desire to change.

Respectability and Isolation Beget Evil

At this point psychiatrist Scott Peck has some challenging things to say about us. He suggests we are evil.

"Evil human beings," he says, "are those who refuse to change, who see no reason to change . . . (We are) led to believe that real evil does not have anything to do with the mother of three next door, or the deacon in the church down the street, but my own experience is that evil human beings are quite common and usually appear quite ordinary to the superficial observer."3

Martin Buber goes further in his book Good and Evil. "One of the places evil people are most likely to be found is within the church . . . . I do not mean to imply that the religious motives of most people are in any way spurious . . . only that evil people tend to gravitate towards piety for the disguise and concealment it can offer them."4

Respectability, or any mechanism that is used as a shield to deflect any attempts to reach the realities of an inner life in pain, is a recipe for evil. It has a way of becoming a hardened sheath around the heart that keeps the Saviour out, as Jesus said in an amazing statement about the people around him: "For this people's heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with the eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn to me and I would heal them."5

Growing into a Holy, Unrespectable Community

But God is loving. He will do everything he can to help us recognise the deep inner disorder that lies behind the most respectable of exteriors and begs for redemption.

One of the ways he tries to do this is to bring into our church circle those with less-than-respectable behaviours. People who have no illusions about their sinfulness and are in no danger of becoming respectable because they know from experience how low they can go are a tonic to have around, if they are now in earnest about changing.

It is these people with their refreshing honesty who can become our teachers. Their visible struggle can penetrate us as we observe their need for prayer, deliverance, intimacy, God's power and love and our help and empathy. Their honesty helps us to be honest about ourselves. They can make the church a safe place in which to own up to ourselves. These are the people who can teach us about holiness. They can be catalysts in our transformation from respectability to holiness.

All we find when we look inside ourselves (behind our respectability) is that we are very like each other. The inner drives behind our self-defensive pride, or our love of money, or our secret, obsessively angry thoughts towards someone else, have their roots in feelings of insecurity, fear, inadequacy, lack of trust - exactly the same sort of things that lie behind many of the behaviours of the people at the top of the hierarchy.

The more holy the church becomes (that is the more we understand that no matter how respectable we appear, we are all infinitely disreputable without divine love and redemption) the safer the church will become for those who feel their secret sins are quite beyond the pale. We will begin to see that the heart of the matter is not how respectable our behaviours are, but that we share an inner drive to meet our needs our own way.

An End to Euphemisms

As we begin to become holy we will find that we stop applying euphemisms to what is really unhealthy or injurious behaviour - injurious to ourselves or others. We start applying euphemisms to things when we no longer know how to heal them; like homosexuality.

The debate about the ordination of practising homosexuals is really about whether the church believes in Christ the Redeemer any more or not. Those who have studied homosexuality in depth know that homosexuality is not a larger-than-life problem requiring new and different answers. It needs only what all of us need whose behaviours are symptomatic of unresolved pain, wrong decisions and ingrained habits: love, forgiveness and correction.

Those churches which make it known that sin takes a thousand different shapes and that no-one's sin is any worse than anyone else's are the churches which are growing today. They know that most people get into the unhappy situations they do because they are hurting and make wrong decisions. They believe that Christ can reach into anyone's history with a love that heals, forgives and corrects. They become healing communities of those who know themselves, and can therefore know and heal others. Hurting people today will only find answers in a community of definitely unrespectable holy people.



1 Laurence J Crabb: Inside Out NavPress, Colorado Springs, c1988.

2 Detreich Bonhoeffer: Life Together, Harper, New York, 1954.

3 M. Scott Peck: People of the Lie, p47, Century Hutchinson, London, 1983.

4 Martin Buber: Good and Evil Part Two, p111, Scribner, New York, 1953.

5 Matthew 13: 15


Briar Whitehead is a former journalist and New Zealand Parliamentary Press Gallery correspondent. She is now a freelance writer and author of several books.


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