“Holier than thou” is a disparaging phrase often aimed at Christians. Countless times it has been used against us by people who perceive we think we are so much better than them. A former student once told me it was directed at him by a roommate because he read the Bible. Another common use of it on campus is toward students who choose not to party. In essence, it means one thinks he or she is morally superior over another. Thus, the connotation is that we Christians, or at least many of us, think we are better than everyone else because of our faith.
As a result, holy is essentially defined as better. Priests or pastors are viewed as holier because they are better than the rest of us. The whole concept of sainthood follows the same logic. Mother Teresa was granted sainthood by the Catholic Church because she was so much better than the rest of us. Saints are perceived so holy that Catholics often pray to them.
Yet, this is not the true meaning of holy as it applies to humans. Simply, it means to be different. Underlying this meaning is the idea of being set apart. To be holy doesn’t mean just to be different. All of us are unique and different in our own ways. No, to be holy is to be set apart by God to live for him. To be holy is not to be morally superior because, as Romans 3:23 confirms, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” To be holy is to humbly live life differently than those who have no relationship with the Lord. Just as the people of Israel were to reflect their relationship with God by following the Law in view of the pagan nations surrounding them, so, too, are followers of Jesus to live differently than those who have no such relationship.
William Barclay, the famous Scottish scholar and author of the Daily Bible Study series, has a great practical understanding of this, and though he wrote it more than 60 years ago, it still resonates today:
“It must always be remembered that this difference on which Christ insists is not one which takes a man out of the world; it makes him different within the world. It should be possible to identify the Christian in the school, the shop, the factory, the office, the hospital ward, everywhere. And the difference is that the Christian behaves not as any human laws compel him to do but as the law of Christ compels him to do. A Christian teacher is out to satisfy the regulations not of an education authority or a headmaster but of Christ; and that will almost certainly mean a very different attitude to the pupils under his charge. A Christian workman is out to satisfy the regulations not of a Trades Union but of Jesus Christ; and that will certainly make him a very different kind of workman, which may well end in him being so different that he is expelled from his union. A Christian doctor will never regard a sick person as a case, but always as a person. A Christian employer will be concerned with far more than the payment of minimum wages or the creation of minimum working conditions. It is the simple fact of the matter that if enough Christians became hagios (holy), different, they would revolutionize society.”
This is how the believers of the 1st Century understood being holy, and why so many others were drawn to their communities. However, Barclay argues, and I agree, that,
“. . .the tendency in the modern Church has been to play down the difference between the Church and the world. We have, in effect, often said to people: ‘So long as you live a decent, respectable life, it is quite all right to become a Church member and to call yourself a Christian. You don’t need to be so very different from other people.’ In fact a Christian should be identifiable in the world.”
The modern church has increasingly embraced the idea and strategy for outreach that the church needs to be more like the world to attract the world. And, indeed, it has been successful. Whereas decades ago there were only a handful of churches over 1000 members, now there are hundreds. Yet, the spiritual transformation of our culture is not reflected in the increased popularity of churches. In fact, now attendance is on the decline as younger people look for authenticity as opposed to “cool” and “slick.”
The yearning is for deep relationships, deep connections, and for true love. That can only be fulfilled when we stop trying to be like the world to show we Christians are not all that different, and start being like Christ where everyone will know we are different. This should be reflected in how we treat our neighbors, friends and family, how we carry out our job responsibilities and treat those with whom we work or who have authority over us, how we spend our time and money, and, yes, how we communicate via social media. As Paul writes, “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Colossians 3:17)
Many will find that offensive. They will view us as holier than thou. But some will find it refreshingly different. It will draw them in because they have been looking for something other than what the world typically has to offer. This is what happened to me as a freshman in college. I saw a love among Christians that I had never witnessed before though I had grown up going to church. That difference, that holiness, made me want to follow Jesus. They weren’t perfect, far from it, but they were different and that made a life-changing impression upon me.
We are all sinners, but those of us who follow Jesus have been called to be different. And those differences don’t reflect our moral or spiritual superiority; they reflect our true worship of the One who is most holy.
© Jim Musser 2020 All Scripture references are from the English Standard Version.