Before I was baptized into the Zion Conservative Mennonite Church in Benton, Ohio at the age of 16, my parents took me to the J. C. Penney store to purchase a new suit for my baptism day. After finding a navy blue suit that fit me well, we took the suit home and my Mom called up the seamstress who would convert the suit coat into what we called a straight cut or plain coat. I still remember the day we went to the seamstress appointment just a block from my house, where I put on the worldly coat for the last time, while Mrs. Weaver took her scissors and snipped away around my collar. When we returned a week later, my worldly lapel collar coat had been transformed into a plain coat—or, as people in my church sometimes jokingly remarked, a circumcised coat. A few weeks later, the waters of baptism poured down over my head and the plain collar of my new suit, as I renounced Satan and the world and all works of darkness, promising to submit to Christ and his Word and to support the church and its teachings. And then I was offered the right hand of fellowship, raised like Jesus Christ to newness of life, pronounced a brother in the church, and given the kiss of peace.
This baptismal memory serves as the touchstone for the central claim about nonconformity that I wish to make in this essay. In the beauty of holiness, Jesus Christ liberates us from the bondage of this world by making us members of the household of God. In Jesus Christ, our bodies are washed in baptism, raised to life and kissed with peace. In Jesus Christ, we are given the hand of fellowship and made members of Christ’s body. Thus, what our Anabaptist and holiness traditions have called biblical nonconformity is a gift of baptism and belonging, more than a code of purity.
Those of us who claim the heritage of Anabaptist holiness have not always grasped the great gospel gift that we have received in the teachings of our faith traditions about nonconformity. This is because we have sometimes mistakenly understood these practices to be demands of the law rather than habits of freedom. Practices like dressing plain or avoiding worldly amusements were often presented as rules to follow that prove we are holy people. And we grew tired of the graceless fights in our churches over the details of this nonconformity, whether we were debating women’s veilings or arguing about how to love our enemies. It is right to reject this legalistic approach to Christianity. 
And so, we must be clear that any effort to reclaim holiness and nonconformity should begin with the basic evangelical premise that salvation is a gift of God’s grace through Jesus Christ, not of our works, lest anyone should boast. While we were still God’s enemies, he reconciled us to himself by the death of his Son and, even more surely, saved us by his Son’s life (Romans 5:10). This is good news that we can share with our neighbors and offer in the church’s mission to the world. This good news does not require the sectarian protection of carefully patrolled boundary lines between church and world. 
And yet, surely, the witness of the Word of God is that this good news includes the liberation of our bodies from the enslavements of sin and the bondage of empire. If we confess our sins, he is not only faithful and just to forgive us our sins but also to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (I John 1:9). As both Anabaptist and holiness traditions have affirmed, through the work of Jesus Christ, we are justified and sanctified—made whole and restored to full humanity, no longer defined by the sin that tempts and corrupts us—whether that sin be the addictions of consumer culture or the hatreds of political partisanship.
The remainder of this essay explores how we might recover the beauty of holiness that our Anabaptist and holiness faith heritage stresses, without being wounded by the legalism of boundary maintenance that all too often accompanies the enthusiasm for holiness. The exploration begins with a critical clue to what we are missing in our Western and North American reason-based understanding of the Christian life. This clue is found in the lengthy Psalm 119, which expresses delight in and desire for the commandments of God with aphoristic poetry like this: your decrees are my delight; I shall walk at liberty, for I have sought your precepts; I find my delight in your commandments, because I love them; your statutes have been my songs wherever I make my home; oh, how I love your law, I incline my heart to perform your statutes; my soul is consumed with longing for your ordinances at all times.
These poetic statements express a biblical knowledge that may seem strange to us when we attend to what they are saying. This is because the verses in Psalm 119 bring together two dimensions of human experience that we tend to regard as opposed to one another: obeying rules and expressing desire. We think of rules as existing to restrain our desire. We assume the law rightly forces us to act in ways we’d rather not.
But this opposition between commandment and desire is missing in Psalm 119. Each of the 176 verses in this Psalm echoes the basic purpose of the law as described again and again in the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy: to remember the Lord our God who brought us out of Egypt from slavery. This law is for liberty. Somehow, in the Hebrew Bible, we can want rules; we can desire commandments; we can be liberated from slavery by a law.
Moreover, because it provides for us the desires of our heart, this biblical law is not imposed on us; it is offered as a gift of the covenant God makes with God’s people. We do not have to follow this law. It is given to us, through Jesus Christ, as it was given to Moses on Sinai, as a practice of deliverance. Jesus confirms this biblical vision of the law as friend when he is accused of doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath: “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).
So, the disciplines of nonconformity are intrinsic to the good news of the gospel, not just rules to follow if we want to be especially good Christians. God’s salvation both redeems us and regenerates us. And yet, we will consistently fail to receive biblical nonconformity as gospel unless we challenge our dualistic habits of thinking that divide mind and body and therefore oppose flesh to spirit. In what follows, I advocate three mutually supporting routes to a biblical practice of nonconformity that is desirable rather than demanding—a beautiful discipline—the discipline of holiness.
Circumcising our hearts
The first path to a loving law involves what John Wesley called in one of his famous sermons “the circumcision of the heart.” In this sermon, Wesley describes the circumcision of the heart as a “habitual disposition of the soul…which is termed holiness.” 6 This disposition involves both a humble recognition of our human limits and a hopeful reception of God’s help through the Spirit. Wesley says that when “deep humility” is joined to “lively hope” our hearts can be cleansed from unrighteousness. But humility and hope are not enough: “If thou wilt be perfect, add to all these, charity; add love, and thou hast the circumcision of the heart.”
Wesley gets biblical holiness exactly right here because he connects the habits of humility and hope with the affection or love that can animate these habits. This is the formula for biblical holiness: humility and hope infused with love. Humility makes space for God to work; hope anticipates what God will do; love is the passion that drives our humility and hope. Wesley makes it clear that this love that drives holiness is the love of God: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength.”
But for Wesley this love of God is not posed against human desire or the pleasure of affection. Loving God “does not forbid us (as some have strangely imagined) to take pleasure in anything but God.” Following Augustine, Wesley insists that loving God is the one perfect good that does not exclude loving God’s creatures: “Desire other things, so far as they tend to this. Love the creature, as it leads to the Creator.”
Christian philosopher James K.A. Smith develops this Wesleyan point eloquently in a recent book entitled You Are What You Love. In this book he critiques what he calls an intellectualist model of Christian faith that imagines the Christian disciple primarily as a “learner who is acquiring more information about God through the scriptures.” While learning about God and the way of Jesus Christ is one dimension of discipleship, this knowledge does not automatically translate into the godly actions of a holy life. We are capable of listening to a powerful sermon in church or a convincing presentation at a study conference, deciding that we want to act differently, but then forgetting all about it before the day is over. According to Smith, this is evidence that we cannot “think our way to holiness.” 
Smith urges us to abandon the premise that we human beings are primarily thinkers and to accept instead the realization that humans are first of all lovers. We are defined less by what we know and more by what we love. The transformation of our lives takes place through the transformation of our affections, of our imaginations, of our longings.
In making this point, Smith rejects the distinction Christians often make between agape and eros. Our love for God as expressed in our human affections is not opposed to eros; rather agape love should be regarded as “rightly ordered eros”—the bending or training of our human desires toward the love of God. Such an ordering of our desires around the love of God is the way we acquire good moral habits or virtues, like humility and generosity and kindness.
Smith draws on Aristotle and Augustine to explain how this training of our desires takes place. First, we can follow or imitate another person who displays the virtuous bending of desire—saints, heroes, and other teachers who show us how to follow Jesus Christ in our expression of love and desire. Second, we learn by practice, just like an athlete or a musician who hones a skill by performing it again and again until achieving excellence. Smith sees Christian worship as an example of such practice that reshapes our desires toward the love of God and the way of Jesus Christ. He writes that worship is therefore the “heart of discipleship.” This is because “learning to love (God) takes practice.”
I can illustrate how this process of bending desire toward the love of God works by drawing on a personal experience. I’m quite in love with my wife Carrie, with whom I share a covenant relationship that orders our human desires for intimacy through a commitment to fidelity. Partly because of this covenant relationship by which my desire for Carrie is bent toward the love of God, I have become involved, primarily because of her influence, with a community farm in which I have learned through practice to love the work of organic gardening. This is a huge deal because the only thing about gardening that I naturally enjoy is eating the food that we harvest. I don’t naturally care to be involved in plowing or planting or cultivating or weeding or mulching or naturally fertilizing—otherwise known as manure spreading. I don’t really care for harvesting unless it involves crops like tomatoes or corn that are at an arm’s length so I don’t need kneel or stoop or squat. Frankly, I’m also not that excited about preparing food or cleaning up after meals.
Yet, after nearly eight years of gardening with my wife and our farming friends, I have found that my desire for food has expanded and deepened. By imitating my wife Carrie and by practicing the arts of gardening, I have come to enjoy growing and harvesting the food we eat, at least on good days. And I have begun to prefer eating food grown in our garden with my family around our dining room table to the shortcut pleasures of eating out. One of our family meal rituals after we thank God for the food is to name all of the parts of our meal that we grew on the farm. And we have so much food for which to be thankful; this garden produces more food than we are able to consume ourselves and so we are able to share our abundance with neighbors and friends. In this way, through the disciplines of gardening, I find my hunger for good food and my affection for my wife to be bending toward the love of God. Gardening contributes to the habitual disposition of my soul and to the circumcising of my heart.
Raising our bodies
A second path to loving law is to offer our bodies to be raised with Christ as living sacrifices, acceptable to God and therefore made holy for service. This path is closely tied to the first path since circumcising the heart affirms the power of love and desire, which arises from our experience as bodily creatures.
In baptism, our bodies are raised from under water to new life in Christ. Just as the earthly Christ was raised up to life, so our bodies are raised to walk in newness of life. This baptismal raising recalls not only the raising of Christ but also God’s raising of Adam from dirt formed into the image of God and breathed by God into a living body. Our human bodies are what Nancey Murphy calls spirited bodies or God breathed bodies, temples of the Holy Spirit.
We are invited by the Apostle Paul in the classic nonconformity text of Romans 12 to present our bodies as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God, which is our spiritual worship. We are called to not be conformed to the world but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds, so that we can prove what is good, acceptable, and perfect. This passage suggests that our bodily nonconformity is intrinsic to our inner renewal. Drew Hart paraphrases this passage in his new book, Trouble I’ve Seen, as follows: “Our bodies, and what we do with them, actually matter. We are not disembodied souls, and God cares about more than our spiritual lives. God says, put your body on the line!”
Hart goes on to invite us to reject with our bodies the rituals and liturgies of American civil religion and to place our bodies in confrontation with the established imperial powers, following the same path of nonviolent confrontation that Jesus took in the temple. Hart’s account of bodily protest against the social and political iniquities of our society does not simply explain bodily protest as strategic—as a way to change public policy or to get attention—but also as the disciplining of our thoughts and affections. Routinely resisting the imperial powers is a practice that brings about our conformity to Christ, rather than to the alignments of race, gender, and immigrant status by which these powers seek to define our bodies and to divide us from one another.
Early Anabaptist writer Pilgram Marpeck explains that our outer actions and inner spirits are witnesses together to the truth and holiness of God. He insists that inner witness is not more essential than the outer witness; that is, our outward actions are not merely visible signs of a more authentic inner truth—which is the way we are sometimes inclined to describe baptism or the Lord’s Supper. For Christianity, the invisible inner faith is not more real than the outer display of faith. Marpeck writes, for example, that “baptism is an externally offered and inwardly given truth” and that “inward and outward obedience flow together.”
Embracing the holiness of our bodies leads us to reject what J. Cameron Carter calls the Gnosticism of whiteness by which we seek to escape the color and flesh of our bodies by flight into the abstractions of reason. This point extends the argument that James Smith makes about holy change being rooted more in the shape of our desires than in the conviction of our ideas. Carter shows how the definition of whiteness as a kind of absence of color and flesh and history is rooted in the early Christian theological struggle about how to cope with Jesus’ Jewish body.
The Gnostics wanted to make Jesus into a disembodied beautiful idea—an abstraction safely located in the mind alone and available only to intellectuals. Orthodox Christian theology, as shaped by second century writers and teachers like Irenaeus, insisted that salvation comes through the body and blood of Jesus Christ, and thus that salvation is of the Jews. 19 In other words, our Christian experience of salvation connects the flesh of the historical Jesus Christ who was executed on a cross in first century Palestine, with the Hebrew struggle for liberation from Egypt and empire. Our worship of the God of Jesus Christ is a worship of the God of Abraham and Sarah, of Isaac and Jacob, and of Hannah and Esther.
Carter makes a complex and nuanced argument rooted in a careful reading of primary sources from the early church fathers through the development of modern Christian theology to show that this early church struggle with Gnosticism never entirely disappeared from the church. At the risk of oversimplifying his argument, we could put it this way: whenever Christian theologians and teachers and pastors speak about salvation and godliness primarily in terms of concepts and beliefs to grasp rather than as a life to live, they flirt with this Gnostic vision that evacuates the gospel of its color and body and history. To put it more positively, embracing the Jewishness of Jesus’ body is an important step toward accepting the particularities of our own bodies as being made holy by God. When we embrace Jesus’ Jewish body we discover the holiness of our own specific bodies, and we learn to speak, as Carter puts it, “with theological imagination from within the crises of life and death rather than in scholastic universes.” In other words, we speak and act as vulnerable human bodies who bear witness to God’s holiness, to God’s love and care for the whole creation, to God’s presence amidst bodies that suffer. Or put another way, if we want to be transformed by the renewing of our minds, we need to leave the comfort of the pastor’s study, as well as the professor’s office, to present our bodies in service: whether that means showing up at a Mennonite Disaster Service work site or at a Black Lives Matter protest, or at a children’s services agency where foster parents and adoptive parents are needed. It might also mean caring for the creation by weeding the garden rather than spraying chemicals on it or cleaning out the manure shed rather than using synthetic fertilizer.
Belonging to Christ
The third path to loving is our belonging to Jesus Christ. This relationship to Jesus is not primarily an abstraction, not an attachment to an imaginary friend or Savior, not simply a matter of belief. In baptism, we have been made members of Christ’s body. In Jesus Christ, as the writer to the Ephesians puts it in chapter two, “we who once had been far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” We who are Gentiles have been brought together with Jews because in Jesus’ flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility between us, creating one new humanity, and reconciling both groups to God in one body through the cross. As a result, we are no longer strangers and aliens but citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God (Ephesians 2:11-21).
This passage in Ephesians displays in such a focused way the social and communal holiness that appears throughout Paul’s writings. Our holiness and nonconformity is not primarily an individual matter, not a personal heroic display of Christian good works or avoidances of iniquity. In Jesus Christ we are being built together into a dwelling place for God. The very concrete good news here is that the holiness of our bodies is being displayed in us as members of the body who are being built together in Christ. Again, this is not an abstraction. It is what happens when we go to church and sing and worship and teach Sunday school and bring food to potlucks and give money and service to the ministries of the church,. And yes, we are being built together in Christ when we accept committee assignments. We are holy together.
But this communal holiness is not a project of withdrawal from the world for the sake of sectarian purity. The holiness of God’s people bears witness to the holiness of the creation that God is restoring.
One of the most profound statements about the church’s witness to the intrinsic holiness of the world is found in the writings of Menno Simons where he criticizes capital punishment. Here are Menno’s words.
It would hardly become a true Christian ruler to shed blood. For this reason. If the transgressor should truly repent before his God and be reborn of Him, he would then also be a chosen saint and child of God, a fellow partaker of grace, a spiritual member of the Lord’s body, sprinkled with his precious blood and anointed with his Holy Ghost, a living grain of the Bread of Christ and an heir to eternal life; and for such a one to be hanged on the gallows, put on the wheel, placed on the stake, or in any manner be hurt in body or goods by another Christian, who is of one heart, spirit, and soul with him, would look somewhat strange and unbecoming in the light of the compassionate, merciful, kind nature, disposition, spirit, and example of Christ, the meek Lamb—which example He has commanded all His chosen children to follow. 24
What is moving about this passage even more than the critique of capital punishment is Simons’ account of how belonging to the body of Christ enables us to regard all of our neighbors and even those we regard as enemies to be persons who God seeks to redeem, potentially chosen saints and children of God. We are invited therefore to see in everyone we meet the same potential that God sees to be made living grains of Christ and heirs to eternal life.
In other words, for Simons, loving our enemies rather than hurting or killing them is an act of evangelism. Or we can say it another way. The presence of God’s holy reconciling people in the world is like the highway of holiness described in Isaiah 35, which is for God’s people: the unclean shall not travel on it. But this highway of holiness reflects the holy renewal of the creation and the creatures that surround it. The wilderness and the dry land will be glad; like the crocus it will blossom abundantly. The eyes of the blind shall be opened and the ears of the deaf stopped. Waters shall break forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes (Isaiah 35).
Belonging to the body of Christ helps us to see the potential for holy belonging and renewal that exists all around us. And at the same time, we recognize that holiness of the church is not yet fully accomplished; the holiness of God’s people is also still a matter of potential, of future possibility, not just present fulfillment. Anabaptists have sometimes claimed the text from Ephesians 5:27 about the church being a bride of Christ without spot or wrinkle to be a description of the faithful church as it already exists. But this text claims instead that the church is being made holy by the service of Jesus Christ, being cleansed with the washing of water by the word, so as to present the church to himself in splendor, without a spot or a wrinkle. We as the bride of Christ are being prepared for a presentation to the bridegroom that will be made at the great marriage supper of the Lamb described in the book of Revelation. But that great marriage supper is yet to be, even though we are able to have great potlucks on earth.
So, as Bonhoeffer puts it so well in his book Life Together, the community of Christ does not exist as a human achievement but as a holy gift of God. It is not an ideal but a divine reality. We are bound together by faith, not experience. Our unity is in Christ, not in the agreements we negotiate with one another. Bonhoeffer describes how some Christian communities disintegrate because they arise from what he calls a “wish-dream” of what the church should be like. This wish dream is perhaps like the intellectualist model of Christian faith that James Smith challenges or the disembodied Gnostic theology that J. Cameron Carter critiques. Bonhoeffer writes: “By sheer grace, God will not permit us to live, even for a brief period in a dream world.” And: “Only that fellowship that faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God’s sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is given to it.”
For Bonhoeffer, the great gift of church conflicts and disappointments is that they challenge us to let go of our ideal vision of the church. And we must let go of these contrived pictures of ideal holiness in order to be reconciled to our brothers and sisters in both body and spirit; to belong to Christ in real time and space. The ideal of Christian community can otherwise do great harm to the reality of Christian community according to Bonhoeffer: “He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.”
In other words, the path to holiness boils down to this: join the church because it fails, because it is disappointing, because it will destroy our ideals. It is by joining our lives in worship and committee work with other members of Christ’s body—other real historical people with bodies and desires and struggles—that God is crafting us into a new and holy humanity clothed in the garments of Jesus Christ. In yielding our vulnerable bodies to Christ’s broken body, we are able to receive the holiness of our lives, conformed to Jesus Christ, as a gift of baptism and belonging. We are able by the grace of God to long for God’s commandments and to be bent body and soul toward the extravagant and holy love of God that makes all things and all bodies holy.
 The classic 20th century Mennonite work on nonconformity is by J. C. Wenger, Separation Unto God (Scottdale, Pa.: Mennonite Publishing House, 1951). Wenger incorporates numerous ideas from the holiness tradition, especially highlighting the writings of John Wesley. This book continues to be reprinted by conservative Mennonites.
 For a critique of nonconformity as a doctrine that is primarily negative and legalistic, see Paul Mininger, “The Limitations of Nonconformity” Proceedings of the Fourth Mennonite World Conference (Akron, Pa.: Mennonite Central Committee, 1950), 55-62.
 I have elaborated on how to offer a nonconformist ethic of peace in an evangelical way in Gerald J. Mast, “True Evangelical Faith and the Gospel of Peace,” The Mennonite, October 2011, 16-19.
 For a discussion of sin in Anabaptist theology, see Gerald J. Mast, “Sin and Failure in Anabaptist Theology,” in J. Denny Weaver, editor, John Howard Yoder: Radical Theologian. (Eugene, Ore.: Cascade Books, 2014), 351-55.
 Walter Brueggemann writes that in Psalm 119, “The Torah is no burden but a mode of joyous existence.” See Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1984), 40.
 John Wesley, Sermons on Several Occasions. (London: Epworth Press, 1944), 153.
 Ibid., 156.
 Ibid., 157
 James K.A. Smith, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit. (Grand Rapids, MI.: Brazos Press, 2016), 4.
 Ibid., 5.
 Ibid., 10.
 Ibid, 25.
 Nancey Murphy, Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies? (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), ix.
 Drew G. I. Hart, Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism. (Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press, 2016), 139.
 Walter Klaassen, Werner Packull, and John Rempel, trans., Later Writings by Pilgram Marpeck and his Circle. (Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press, 1999), 79-81.
 J. Cameron Carter, Race: A Theological Account. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 22.
 Ibid., 311.
 Ibid., 377.
 N.T. Wright, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 168-69.
 Gerald J. Mast, Go to Church, Change the World: Christian Community as Calling (Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press, 2011), 99-100.
J.C. Wenger, editor, and Leonard Verduin, translator, The Complete Writings of Menno Simons (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1956), 920-21.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together. (New York, NY: Harper and Row, 1954), 27.
 Gerald J. Mast, “Go to Church Because it Fails: Why Church Conflict Can Be a
Source of Renewal and Hope.” The Mennonite, April 2016, 12-15.
Author: Gerald J. Mast
Gerald J. Mast is professor of communication at Bluffton University, Bluffton, Ohio, and is the author of numerous books including Go to Church, Change the World: Christian Community as Calling. He is also the series editor for Studies in Anabaptist and Mennonite History.