I was raised in a very conservative Assemblies of God church in the little town of Comanche, Oklahoma. My father was a deacon in the church and we towed the line. Forget the nonsense we debate about today--forget drinking alcohol, getting tattoos and smoking cigars. My dad would not allow dice or cards of any kind in our house. If we played a game that required dice, my dad made a little spinner with numbers on it. We didn’t have a television until I was a teenager and my father still resisted that, but mother won that argument. We didn’t bowl; we didn’t do carnivals; we didn’t do dances; and, to this day I have never gone to a theater.
We cut our hair right and wore our clothes right. We were serious about serving God. We didn’t cuss. We didn’t even dare say by-words like “gosh” and “darn.” Once I said “Jiminy Cricket” and got in so much trouble for swearing. We couldn’t even put a penny in a gum ball machine to get a chew of gum; that was gambling to get a toy trinket out of the machine. We were holiness and we were in a holiness church.
We never missed a service in the church. We had two services in Sunday, Wednesday night and Friday night.This is hard to believe, but true. When we went out of town to visit relatives for the weekend maybe once or twice a year, my dad always found an Assemblies of God church to attend while we were away. Think that is hard to believe? Our old dog, Sport, followed us to church and lay under our car through the services. He was so accustomed to us going to church when we were away he would come to church on Sunday and lay in the spot where we were always parked. Our conservative credentials were not to be questioned.
But, something didn’t add up. Among the people who were most “holy” were some of the meanest people in the church. Our little “holiness” church voted out several pastors. Some were dismissed for the silliest of reasons. It was open season on preachers at the Assembly of God in Comanche. There seemed to be little concern for the disruption and pain this caused their families.
When I was a teenager, famed Assembly of God Evangelist C M Ward came to our area to lead a week-long Revivaltime revival. He had a verbal disagreement with a woman who tried to give a message in tongues during his altar call and things got ugly. The pastors in the section ended up cancelling the Revivaltime broadcast in our city. We had a meeting about the controversy after service one night. Our pastor did not defend Dr. Ward, but said the church should forgive him for what had happened and forget the incident. One of the strictest, most conservative men in the church blurted out, “I might forgive him, but I will never forget.” Holiness?
I remember at one business meeting a vocal tussle broke out between factions in the church. One really spiritual sister started marching around the church chanting in her most spiritual intonation, “Thus sayeth the Lord, this is not right.” What a spectacle! Was this holiness?
None of this made sense to me. How could one be so patently hateful and claim to be so holy?
Then I started traveling and visiting other areas of the country. At an Assemblies of God church in Lynn, Massachusetts, we stayed with a host family. They were a rather affluent family, the husband was an executive with a growing tech firm. These people definitely were not holiness, at least not the way I had been taught to define it. The ladies in the family actually wore pants, not to mention make-up. They had televisions in their home and didn’t seem even slightly concerned with the externals that I had been taught were the marks of holy living.
Yet, and this is a big “yet,” they loved Jesus with all their hearts. It was obvious, they had a testimony. Their lives had been spiraling out of control and the Lord appeared to the lady of the house in a light on her patio. It was a Damascus Road experience. She was wonderfully and gloriously saved. She was so saved her husband tried to have her committed. Once she put a pile of money on the kitchen table and set in on fire to show him that money was no longer important to her.
Wise? Probably not.
Sincere? No doubt about that.
Eventually, her changed life convicted her husband and the whole family eventually came to Christ.
This family was radically in love with Jesus. They prayed, they prophesied and they praised exuberantly. When we left their home, they loaded us down with gifts. I will never forget their joy, their love or their generosity. But, they were not “holy,” at least not “Comanche Assembly of God holy.”
That was a great lesson for me. I think I could say it changed me. I continued to live a conservative lifestyle, but I realized that that in and of itself has little to do with holiness. Holiness is in the heart. Mean people are not holy people. It doesn’t matter if their sleeves are right or if their hair is right, their heart is not holy. Trouble makers are not holy. Gossips and slanderers are not holy. Pastor slayers are not holy. People who do not demonstrate the love, mercy and grace of God through their lives are not holy people, no matter how often they try to tell you that they are and you are not.
I am so glad that early in ministry l learned that true holiness is in the heart. I have no issue with those who want to be conservative in their lifestyle. Most Pentecostals today are not conservative enough. But if you are meaner than a junk yard dog, you will never make me believe you are “holy,” no matter how long your wife’s hair and skirt may be. God used a loving family in Massachusetts to demonstrate real holiness to me a long time I ago and the lesson was so profound I will never forget it.
If you struggle with the real meaning of holiness, I pray God will send such a family to you.