Wednesday, October 21, 2009
The church is not Outback Steakhouse
I have been wondering about the topics I tend to blog on. I often focus on behavioral issues, Christian life issues like homeschooling or headcovering. I have noticed that there seems to be a backlash against this of sorts and it is not without cause. There are way too many people who are nitpicky, whether it is over issues like the King James translation of the Bible as the only acceptable translations or who is able to label themselves “Reformed” or any of a myriad of extra-Biblical traditions that have taken on the gravity of binding commandments. Give this reality, perhaps we should just focus on the Gospel proclamation and not worry about the ancillary issues. Rules divide so let’s stay clear of them.
Again, I understand the motivation for this attitude and have no small amount of sympathy for it. It is something of a badge of honor and piety to claim that you are focused only on the Gospel and not bogged down in minutiae. On the other hand, an awful lot of the pages of the New Testament are taken up with the issue of how we are to live as Christians, as individuals, families, the gathering of the church and with unbelievers around us. Much of the Old Testament revolves around the character of God and that doesn’t change nor can we as believers live as if it has. I worry when people dismiss clear Scriptural teaching, whether under the auspices of not being “legalistic” or in a pseudo-pious, “I focus on nothing but the Gospel” attitude. All of those pages of instruction in the Bible are not merely filler around John 3:16 but serve a vital purpose in guiding Christians in their life after being born again, navigating the tricky waters of living as Christians in a lost and fallen world, and living as redeemed sinners in community with other redeemed sinners.
The problem stems from being unable (or unwilling) to differentiate between commands and rules we find in the Bible. They are treated as one category and are treated as if they were identical. In a snap shot, I find the following categories in Scripture: Old Covenant commandments (like temple sacrifice, purity laws, tithing); Biblical revelations regarding the nature of God that are obviously unchanging (the Ten Commandments); New Covenant commandments (proclaim the Gospel, gather together, love one another); descriptions of events that are not prescriptive in nature. As an example, the New Covenant Christian has no need to sacrifice in the temple. A New Covenant Christian is obliged to have no other gods before the one, true God. We are to gather together as a non-negotiable command, to love one another and our neighbor, to preach the Gospel, to care for the poor and a myriad of other commandments by which we demonstrate our love for Christ (If you love Me, keep My commandments). The view that once you become a Christian, you don’t have any rules is great for Outback Steakhouse (No rules, just right) but it is eminently unbiblical. We are under grace, not the Law but the truly redeemed believer doesn’t live as if there is no Law.
I also don’t buy into the “if you are convicted” argument. We cannot look at commandments and pick and choose the ones we wish to follow based on our own personal convictions. “Well, I know the Bible says stealing is wrong but I am not convicted about it”. That is clearly silly but it is the basic argument I hear all the time. If the Bible gives us a clear command or principle, I don’t see not “being convicted” about it as an excuse we can find anywhere in the Bible. “I know the Bible says we are to love our neighbors, but I am just not convicted about this issue”. Really? Not being convicted is code for “I recognize what the Bible says but for whatever reason I don’t want to obey”. If I claim, as I do, that the Bible specifically says that a woman should cover her head when praying I am either right or wrong on that issue. Either I am interpreting 1 Corinthians 11: 2-15 correctly or I am not. Your personal conviction or mine is irrelevant here. Where I fail to love my brother as I should, and I do fail here, I recognize my failure and repent of it; I don’t hide behind a lack of conviction to excuse it. Commands in the Bible deserve our attention and consideration.
Conversely, there are many Christians who have the opposite problem. They don’t find enough rules in the New Testament to satisfy them so they start making up rules (KJV Onlyism, no card playing) or misapplying Old Testament rules by ignoring context and applying them to the church. Or in some cases, they think that applying moralistic rules to people will somehow sanctify an unbeliever or make a non-Christian at least act superficially like a Christian (the “make America a Christian nation again” crowd). This tends to appears in the fringe fundamentalist camp like the nutcase burning Rick Warren books and non-KJV Bible in North Carolina to make a point. If the point he is trying to make is “I am a loon”, then mission accomplished. There are two problems with this camp. The first is that they are making rules and yoking believers with those rules that are inapplicable or entirely absent from the Bible. The second is that they often are misapplying or flat out ignoring the rules that do appear in the Scriptures. Until we can get ourselves straightened out on the clear teachings of the New Testament within the Body of Christ, we should avoid trying to “Christianize” America.
What we are left with is an either-or dichotomy where you either keep every rule you can find in the Bible without a shred of context and perhaps even making up some up or you chuck the whole thing and base your actions on your own conscience and convictions.
There are some general things we should remember when it comes to rules and commandments.
Read the Bible at all times and in all places in light of the cross.
It is true in many cases that Old Testament laws don’t apply to Christians because those laws find their fulfillment in the cross, in the person and work of Jesus Christ. I find laws like Sabbath observation, tithing, etc. to be abrogated under the New Covenant. But there are also important principles that I think still apply to believers because they are reflective of the nature of God and His Word. Even if we are not called to a specific, 1/10th tithe that does not mean that we are freed from giving joyfully and sacrificially to those in need and to support the Gospel proclamation. We are not bound by Sabbath laws and rules about purification but that doesn’t mean we are freed from sanctified lives or from the need and command to gather together as the people of God. In many cases, the standard for the Christian under the New Covenant is higher than for those under the Old. For the truly regenerate, these rules and laws and commandments are not a heavy burden, they are a delight.
Don’t yoke believers under burdensome laws where Scripture is silent but also do not be silent where Scripture speaks.
Where the Bible speaks, let it speak. Don’t argue with it, don’t try to explain it away. The New Testament has a lot to say about how we are to live, worship, behave in these days after the cross. We should diligently seek to hear what Christ has to say in His Word, not striving to find a work around to avoid obedience. Trying to muzzle the Bible is neither pious nor proper. But where the Bible is silent, don’t feel obliged or justified in filling in the blanks.
Sanctification is our goal, not moralism.
Sanctification cannot be mandated or legislated. Sure you can make people adhere to laws to promote moralism without changing the heart. That however is not the goal of the church. A truly sanctified individual will exhibit high moral character without coercion. External piety is actually pretty easy for humans to exhibit, heart change comes only through the working of the Spirit and we cannot dictate to Him where and how He operates.
Don’t let the motivation or behavior of some dissuade you from following God’s Word.
I try to be aware of this in my own life as I have the tendency to see certain behaviors as dividers. Homeschooling our kids or my wife covering her head should be done to honor God and bring glory to His name, not to exalt ourselves over others. I stray over that line frequently but my failings are not God’s failings, and the behavior of some does not negate the commandments of God. Me being rude or someone else being judgmental about an issue is not a license to ignore what Scripture says.
In the life of the Christian, our regeneration / conversion is not the end of the story. It is in many ways the beginning. A thirty year old who comes to a saving faith in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit and the preaching of the Gospel has perhaps six decades of life ahead of them. How a redeemed sinner is to live in relationship to the world around him and among God’s people is not some ancillary topic and it is something where confusion and misinformation abound. We should carefully and prayerfully search the Word to see what it has to say about our lives.
We shouldn’t expect pagans to act like Christians, we should expect them to act like pagans. As intramural questions among Christians though, we can and should spend time asking how we should now live as the Body of Christ in a way that is faithful, sanctifying and glorifying to Christ. We are given rules and commandments not as a burden but as a blessing.