Archive for December, 2010

The Kingdom You Wouldn’t Like

December 22, 2010

“All the same the New Testament, without going into details, gives us a pretty clear hint of what a fully Christian society would be like. Perhaps it gives us more that we can take. it tells us that there are to be no passengers or parasites: if man does not work, he ought not to eat. Everyone is to work with his own hands, and what is more, every one’s work is to produce something good: there will be no manufacture of silly luxuries and then of sillier advertisements to persuade us to buy them. And there is to be no “swank” or “side”, no putting on airs… On the other hand, it is always insisting on obedience-obedience (and outward marks of respect) from all of us to properly appointed magistrates, from children to parents, and (I am afraid this is going to be very unpopular) from wives to husbands. Thirdly, it is to be a cheerful society: full of singing and rejoicing, and regarding worry or anxiety as wrong. Courtesy is one of the Christian virtues; and the New Testament hates what it calls “busybodies.”

If there were such a society in existence and you or I visited it, I think we should come away with a curious impression. We should feel that its economic life was very socialistic and in that sense, “advanced,” but that its family life and its code of manners were rather old-fashioned-perhaps even ceremonious and aristocratic. Each of us would like some bits of it, but I am afraid very few of us would like the whole thing. That is just what you would expect if Christianity is the total plan for the human machine. We have all departed from that total plan in different ways, and each of us wants to make out that his own modification of the original plan is the plan itself. You will find this again and again about anything that is really Christian: Everyone is attracted by bits of it and wants to pick out those bits and leave the rest. That is why we do not get much further: and that is why people who are fighting for quite opposite things can say they are fighting for Christianity.”

C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

I remember reading these words as a young believer and being quite puzzled by them. How could we come into the Kingdom (to tweak Lewis’ words into a kind of premillennialism) and not thoroughly enjoy it all?

As I have grown and become responsible, to some degree, for the spiritual health of others, it has become a lot plainer to me. I have learned that loving what God loves does not come all at once at the moment of regeneration. I have learned that the process of sanctification is largely one of learning to unlove, or put off, what belongs to the old man, gain the mind of Christ (love what He loves in the degrees and ways He loves), and actively pursue what He loves.

I have also learned that even post-conversion, the things we need the most are often the things we like the least. That’s what the Bible means when it describes the human heart with adjectives like perverse, corrupt, and depraved. We naturally love what is poisonous and corrosive. We kick against what is healthy and life-giving. Our natures orient us towards evil and away from what is good.

Lewis is stating this fact: were a culture that perfectly reflects God’s loves to be imposed upon us today, there is much in us that would dislike it. That’s surprising to us, since we tend to think that we would love every part of God’s kingdom. No, that’s why unredeemed flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom. We must see Him as He is, be transformed to be like Him in every way, and then we will finally love what He loves without a trace of sin.

Lewis probably didn’t intend as much, but his words give a good deal of explanation for the worship wars. Here are “people who are fighting for quite opposite things [who] say they are fighting for Christianity”. And here are people eclectically choosing the music they like, and dismissing what they don’t like. Here are people who cannot imagine that Christian worship should ever feel foreign or slightly uncomfortable, while others admit that worshiping a God infinitely beyond our imaginations ought to include some measure of awkwardness.

In fact, it was this quote that vaguely nagged at the back of my mind for years, and partly pushed me towards conservatism. When I encountered music which I did not enjoy, but which had been treasured by better Christians than I, this quote nudged me. When I read of a discipline and a piety in past Christians that seemed repressive and grievous to me, this quote tapped me on the shoulder. When I found some of my own musical idols under fire, this quote seemed to be a Nathan the prophet. When sober worship seemed gloomy, and I longed again for levity, this quote seemed a thorn.

All the time it said to me, “Why would you think that what you like and don’t like should be the final bar of judgement for what to offer God? Should not the better things of Christianity be somewhat above your reach? If something doesn’t ‘fit’ with you, is it possible that it is you who needs to change?  Shouldn’t you try to understand something before you dismiss it, merely because it is unappealing to you? If you believe in spiritual growth, should you not expect to be dwarfed by the hymns, prayers, music and writings of your betters?

“Should you, a very rudimentary Christian, have perfect appreciation for what is true, lovely, noble, just, virtuous, and praiseworthy? Isn’t some confusion of face and bewilderment to be expected when a philistine is confronted with what is beautiful and noble? Are you not arrogant for making comfort, ease, familiarity and accessibility the pillars of your walk with God? Are you not idolatrous when you do so?”

And so I began of journey of learning to love what I ought to love.


Will the Real Legalist Please Stand Up?- 5 Concluding Thoughts

December 7, 2010

Included in faulty ideas of what legalism is are the notions that it is interpreting Scripture literally, making applications for modern living, exhorting submission, and judging various cultural phenomena for their meaning.

Now it is obvious that legalism cannot be all of these things. In fact, when examined closely, legalism is not any of these things. For Christianity to be robust and relevant, it has no choice except to call the people of God to submit to Christ’s authority by interpreting His Word accurately and applying it to the times and culture that Christians currently live in.

If these things are not legalism, why are they so often called such? At least two reasons can be offered.

First, for some, legalism has come to mean a vague kind of protest for one’s own independence within the local church. It’s obvious to us that when we humans, with our deceitful hearts, want to get away from accountability and submission, we will not say as much. We will rather say that those we were under were authoritarian, abusive, controlling, unreasonable and narrow. If you can make the authority seem illegitimate, then it legitimises your actions. Your actions were not acts of rebellion; they were brave fights for Christian freedom. Legalism functions as a pretty handy word to get yourself out of a tight spot.

Second, the things necessary to a robust Christianity can be wrongly implemented or unwisely used, and thus justly earn the title of legalism. Unfortunately, this tends to tar the good as well, leading to a pendulum reaction in the other direction. By way of explanation, let us consider how the three areas examined previously in this series can be warped into a kind of legalism.

1) While legalism is not applying Scripture to contemporary life, it is possible to make applications that could be called legalistic. As we have considered, making an application with little warrant is the equivalent of asserting one’s own authority as the basis for obedience. If the warrant is tenuous, and yet a code of obedience is built up around such a tenuous warrant, it is hard not to see Christ’s injunctions against the Pharisees from Matthew 23:4 applying here. To add to the obligations of believers with little to no warrant from Scripture or truth from life certainly does not lighten their burdens. When a thoughtful, attentive and submissive believer cannot in good conscience see how a matter mandated from the pulpit is one of obedience to Christ, some kind of legalism is probably present.

2) While legalism is not requiring the submission of God’s people to Him, such submission can be taught or enforced in a legalistic way. Legalism is conveying a kind of leadership that is coercive and not persuasive, that manipulates and browbeats, that bullies and shames, so as to gain conformity of opinion and action. In such a situation, it is not uncommon to be taught that certain actions on your part will gain you merit and favour from God, for salvation or sanctification.

Strictly speaking, legalism is what Paul wrote against in his epistle to the Galatians. Legalism adds to the grace-alone gospel, and calls on man to perform certain works besides trusting in the completed work of Christ. While legalism is an attack on justification, it can also raise its head in the area of sanctification, since the two are so closely related. Sanctification is also by grace through faith, as the believer absorbs the mind of Christ, puts off the old and puts on the new, by the work of the Spirit. Here legalism dispenses with mention of the believer’s position in Christ, or the love of God as motivation, or the power of the Spirit. It suggests, by word or by deed, that certain works must be performed for the believer to remain in good standing with God.

Once again, Christ’s words in Matthew 23:13-15 seem to condemn such rapacious leadership, which uses God’s Word as a means to control and exploit. Matthew 23:23-28 speaks against gaining outward uniformity while ignoring inward devotion and piety. This would be warping biblical submission into a kind of legalism.

3) While legalism is not judging culture, it is possible to make judgements about cultural phenomena that promote or enhance legalism. Like unwarranted applications mentioned earlier, this would be making glib or uninformed judgements that ignore the opinions of tradition or authorities, and making such judgements binding on the consciences of other Christians. It would be inventing idiosyncratic responses to culture that serve more as a sign of loyalty to a group or leader than as a conscientious response to the meaning of things in the world. To invent judgements about culture for these purposes surely falls under the sweep of Christ’s indictment of the Pharisees inMatthew 23:16-22.

In summary, you are not legalistic for interpreting Scripture literally and making applications, but you can be. You are not legalistic for requiring submission to Christ and His authorities, but you can be. You are not legalistic for judging the meaning of culture and applying Scriptural principles, but you can be. It depends how these things are implemented and articulated.

One solution to this difficulty is to look for wisdom and maturity in those we appoint into positions of spiritual leadership. Spiritual, emotional and intellectual maturity are needed in those who teach and lead. The human heart is perverse enough without poor leadership adding fuel to the fire. Only when Christian leaders model Scriptural interpretation with integrity, leadership with winsomeness, and intellectual judgement with thoughtfulness will we navigate the narrow path between legalism and licentiousness.