Longing for the Divine

Holiness Came Before Liberal Theology

Do you want to know what it means to be holy as God is holy? Read Leviticus to understand. There are three places in this book where God tells His people to act holy. Notice the context of these passages.

1) Holiness in Diet: Leviticus 11:44

No, it’s not about eating our way to holiness or avoiding pork because pigs are sinful. Rather, it’s about what eating represents and what it did to Israel as a society. Holiness in diet isn’t merely about hygiene or living longer but about elevating our lives and distinguishing ourselves from the culture around us in a unique way. According to Leviticus scholar Jacob Milgrom, it’s about respecting life, shunning a culture of death, and limiting meat eating to a small number of species, so fewer animals end up on our tables (Leviticus 1–16, 1998, pp.718–736). It’s about treating animals well and choosing a culture that promotes life and compassion over death and cruelty. While health should not be overlooked, the stated purpose of the diet is not individual health but wholeness and integrity toward God’s creation. So, how am I to respond to the minister who decries my silent vegetarian witness from the pulpit?

The cruelties of modern-day meat producers, who slaughter countless animals as cheaply as possible to increase society’s meat consumption, is inconsistent with the call to holiness. As Walter J. Houston states, “Perhaps the most important moral lesson we need to learn is that to preserve the ‘integrity of creation’ we must discipline our appetites, place limits upon our desires, even more now that there appears to be no limit to our power to satisfy them” (Toward an Integrated Reading of the Dietary Laws of Leviticus, 2003, in R. Rendtorff & R. Kugler (Eds.) The Book of Leviticus, p. 161).

2) Respecting Elders and Keeping God’s Sabbaths: Leviticus 19:2 

Holiness calls us to revere our parents and other elder community members “as co-creators of life” (Jeffrey Feinberg, Walk Leviticus!, p. 124). Honoring and caring for fathers and mothers as they age are acts of holiness. I have a dear friend who is a holy example of revering her elderly parents. Loving God through respecting the elderly and emphasizing their care is an act of holiness. 

Keeping the weekly Sabbath holy benefits all—men and woman, children, servants, strangers within your gates, and even animals. The Sabbath is not just about resting or worshipping at church; it’s about pursuing holiness. At its core, the Sabbath is abolitionist and liberative. What about the other Sabbaths mentioned—the yearly Sabbaths, the Sabbatical Year, the Jubilee, and the Sabbath for the land, which grants mercy and compassion to the underprivileged? How about an ecological Sabbath and economic rest? To borrow Walter Brueggemann’s words, how can the Sabbath count as a form of resistance, a way of “saying no to the culture of now?” The Sabbath was designed to show us the alternative to an unrestful culture. “It is an occasion for reimagining all of social life away from coercion and competition to compassionate solidarity . . . Sabbath is not simply a pause that refreshes. It is the pause that transforms” (Brueggemann, Sabbath as Resistance, p. 45).

God wants us to resemble Him in our actions. To differ from and even resist the unrestful culture around us is to be holy. Holiness includes resting the land as well as promoting Sabbath equality before God for animals and foreigners. The Sabbaths play an important role in protecting the land and in seeking fairness in society. Respecting the downtrodden—society’s poor and vulnerable—is a principle that continues to be important in our world. Such holiness defines the Sabbath’s purpose in today’s restless world, as it counters selfish commercialism and calls us from political disagreements and worldly clamor to see one another as “Sabbath neighbors.”

3) Sexual Holiness: Leviticus 20:7

God’s definition of sexual purity commands us to consider proper boundaries and the sanctity of others above our own self-gratification. Instead of becoming pure to achieve holiness, we must choose to reject popular culture, which reduces men and women to objects of gratification. God cannot tolerate immorality, but this does not mean we must shun fallen or broken people. The command to act differently reflects a radical alternative to popular culture. Holiness commands us to avoid the dangerous paths that lead us to marred lives, fractured homes, ruined families, and destroyed marriages. Our lives and bodies should be empowered to look, act, and think like God by manifesting holiness through self-giving love.

Holiness Is a Social Behavior

Christianity teaches that we need not take the Sabbaths seriously or practice the dietary laws prescribed by God in Leviticus. Christians therefore have a hard time understanding these parts of Leviticus. Love, by contrast, is generally considered central. Loving others is a standard of holiness. Christians promote love for God and neighbor, and the same chapters of Leviticus that contain this command to love thy neighbor address the Sabbaths and dietary laws (Leviticus 19:9–18). 

Before terms such as social justice existed, God laid down the Sabbath texts that include green ecology laws as well as commands to care for the poor, not oppress the sojourner, and treat animals equally on the Sabbath. You don’t have to accept liberal theology to validate these ideas. God wants us to be known for our acts of kindness and healing, not our individual politics. God commands that holiness be the authentic social behavior of Christianity. Embracing equality for all under a loving God—not the equality of political liberalism—will make a difference. Religious-political approaches are often intolerant and exclusive, but holiness offers us a different approach.

Holiness is not about sinlessly adhering to a list of rules but about acting “other than.” It’s protesting against the sin that devalues God’s world and takes resources from the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized. The differences that God promotes speak to the culture in ways that will reform society for the better. Asking God to make me “holy as He is holy” will make me different from the culture around me in the way that God Himself has defined. If God is the most loving being in the universe, what does it mean to resemble Him?

Those who seek holiness work to love their neighbors as themselves and to make the world a better place. Holiness does not mean adjusting to a cruel and careless society but forming a holiness culture by loving our neighbors and caring for God’s creation. Holiness is about being distinct in our worship, diet, economics, and sexual practices—not being different merely by fighting social issues but being different in the ways God has defined by brining life, healing and hope into the world. Leviticus helps explain the differences we should embrace as we emulate God’s love and manifest a culture of holiness. We can address social ills by caring for others and living our convictions to reflect who God is. Holiness is not just an Old Testament ideal; it’s a New Testament ideal, for “as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, because it is written, ‘Be holy, for I am holy’” (1 Peter 1:15–16, NKJV).

Craig Ashton Jr.

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