Social Holiness and Social Justice

by Roger Walton

The tendency to equate social holiness with social justice is widespread.  Some people use the terms interchangeably, others as closely related concepts central to a Methodist understanding of church and mission.  Andrew Thompson has, however, challenged this sloppy and inaccurate Methodist vocabulary.[1]  According to Thompson the original context of John Wesley’s only use of the term ‘social holiness’ is not in any way connected with social justice.  Rather, appearing in the Preface to one of the Wesleys’ early hymnbooks, it refers to the environmental contexts ‘in which holiness of heart and life is manifest in the Christian life’, such as congregational hymn singing, and expresses Wesley’s dismissal of any notions of holiness as achieved by solitary activity such as retreating to the desert!

Social justice as a notion was developed by the 19th century Jesuit, Luigi Taparelli d’Azeglio, whose vision for European social life was ‘grounded in a model of the constitution of society as intended by God’ in which various communities – a complex web of smaller societies – interact freely enabled by the twin principles of subsidiarity and solidarity.  Social justice is achieved by this interaction held within and driven by a strong understanding of the common good.  Thompson suggests that later Wesleyan emphasis on social justice as expressing the ethical orientation of Methodism is, in fact, derived not from Wesley but (imperfectly) from Taparelli.

So one term referred to corporate contexts in which Christians find the means of grace; the other to a social and economic philosophy for a more just society.  What are we to make of this?  Should we keep these two notions distinct and discrete or, if they are to be related, how do we make the connection?

Thompson helps us understand the origins of these words, and this can enrich our thinking, but in effect he only demonstrates what we know to be true of everyday language, that origins are not the final word on meaning and use.  Language is a fluid, evolving and dynamic process, as is theology, and new connections are often as important as ancestry.

We need to ask why Methodists find the notion of social justice so attractive and apposite.  One reason is surely John Wesley’s practice of engagement with social justice issues in his own context.  Wesley went to preach in the open air to reach those outside the congregational gatherings of the church.  He visited prisoners condemned to death, he went out among and listened to the poor, he got involved in campaigns against the distillers (not primarily because they fermented alcohol but because they exploited the poor), he opposed slavery and set up work opportunities for those who would otherwise be destitute or in prostitution.  In all those places he (and others) encountered the grace of God.  In other words, his actions tell us that missional spaces and encounters are also environments in which holiness can grow.

Moreover, it is clear from the work of David Field[2] that Wesley considered the outward expression and the sure sign of holiness to be ‘justice, mercy and truth’ and that ‘works of mercy’ were a means of grace.  Summing up his careful analysis of Wesley’s writing on the relationship between justice and holiness, he states:

‘Works of mercy are a means through which God encounters and transforms people’s characters; they manifest a transformed character and through this manifestation they lead to further transformation. They are an expression of holiness and a means to become more holy.’[3]

In other words, participating in the missio dei, including the struggle for a just society, takes us to many and various sites of social holiness where grace is readily available.  It is in our participation, whether gathering for praise or campaigning against injustice, that we are formed by grace.

Social justice may thus be seen as belonging with social holiness in the theological register of Methodism.  Mission as a location and means of grace has a proper Wesleyan (as well as New Testament) pedigree.  For Methodists, and many others, the pursuit of holiness must not be separated from mission but found in and through it.  Social holiness and social justice are inextricably bound together.


[1] Thompson, A. C. (2011). “From Societies to Society: The Shift from Holiness to Justice in the Wesleyan Tradition.” Methodist Review 3: 141–172.

[2] Field, D. N. (2015). “Holiness, social justice and the mission of the Church: John Wesley’s inisghts in contemporary context.” Holiness 1(2): 177-198.

[3] Field p185