Freed to live through the death of another.

Category: Fundamentalism

From Legalism to Licentiousness (and back again…?)

Over the last few Sunday evenings at Grace Fellowship Church, my friend Paul McDonald has been opening up Galatians 5.13 for us. The verse reads like this:

For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. 

Over the flow of the book of Galatians, the apostle has been arguing that we are now free from bondage to the law and from all forms of legalism. This is fantastic news! For Christians of my generation, I often think that we take our Christian liberty for granted. We haven’t had to fight the battles for allowing women to wear pants, or for instruments other than piano / organ; we haven’t had to deal with the real rabid KJV-only types or the ‘don’t drink, don’t play cards, don’t watch movies’ mentality of the previous generation.

We have our freedom. We enjoy our freedom. But I often think we take it for granted.

The trouble is that when we take our freedom for granted, it’s only a very small step from freedom to licentiousness. Having moved on from legalism, much of our church culture now seems to glory in the fact that there is ‘no law over us,’ so we can do as we wish.

In Galatians 5.13, Paul seems to be saying, ‘Don’t give up your freedom (since that’s why you were set free), but don’t glory in your freedom at the expense of your brothers and sisters.’ Just like everywhere else in the NT, the old, written code is replaced by the law of love.

No one in the early church understood and lived this balance better than the apostle Paul. As he would argue in his epistles to the Corinthians, he had every freedom and every right to take a wife, to eat what he wanted, drink what he wanted, accept payment from them for his ministry, etc. He had those freedoms! But, because he knew that he could better serve his brothers and sisters in love if he denied himself those freedoms, he didn’t take them.

One really practical area where this works itself out in church life (as Paul McDonald taught), is modesty in women’s dress. Just like the apostle Paul, women could rightly declare that they have freedom from outside rules in terms of what they wear. There are no NT regulations on skirt length, sleeve length, how far a blouse should be unbuttoned, etc. But the NT rule that does exist is love and service. Just like the apostle, women who love and seek to serve their brothers (and sisters) in humility, will limit their freedom for the sake of love and wear what is helpful in order to serve.

Of course, once this is understood, this gives opportunity for legalism again, because our flesh hears ‘Serve by dressing modestly’ and applies that to our hearts as ‘Since I (or my wife) dress(es) modestly, we should judge those who don’t.’ We then create a new set of standards to determine what is ‘modest’ and what is not, and measure other people against that criteria. And the circle is then completed: we’ve moved from legalism, to licentiousness, back to legalism again.

So what do we do? Well, first we must work on the log in our own eye. Examining our hearts must take first priority. Do I really believe in Christian freedom? Do I impose standards on people that the Bible doesn’t? Am I looking to things like dress to help ensure that I am justified?

Second, we should seek to apply the love of love. Am I grasping and clinging to my freedom at the expense of hurting brothers and sisters? Is my love of my freedom to dress and act how I wanted prohibiting me from serving? Is giving others occasion for sin (Lk 17.1-2)?

Third, we must remain humble and charitable. Just because the Lord is working on my heart and convicting me of sin in a particular area doesn’t mean that he has to work on other people in the same way at the same time. We need to remember that we didn’t use to know what we’re now convinced of, and apart from a work of grace we never would have known it. We must not use our convictions as a throne from which we can cast judgement on other believers.

Fourth, pray for grace to find the balance. I pray that God would give me grace in every area (not just dress) to find the balance between glorying in my freedom and giving up my freedoms for the sake of my church family. I pray that I would never return either to legalism or licentiousness–but that when I do, that God would forgive me again, just like he always has before.

What’s Important to Canadians?

A recent Angus Reid study has revealed some interesting (even if not surprising) things about what Canadians value. Here are a few highlights.

96 per cent of respondents say having enough free time to do what they want is very important or moderately important to them. Achieving career success (89%), volunteering (74%) and having children (72%) are also high on the scale of accomplishments. 

Following their religious beliefs (46%), being wealthy (53%) and tying the knot (55%) are not valued as highly by Canadians across the nation.

More men (58%) than women (53%) view marriage as an important part of life.

What to make of this? There are lots of things that could be said, but I’ll leave it at this for now: There is a profound irony here.

The trendy emergent crowd says that evangelicals are out of touch, fighting yesterday’s battles about things like marriage, feminism, and other family issues. Yet, these seem to be the very areas where our culture needs to be challenged and corrected.

The ironic twist is completed when we notice that most of the excitement in the emerging crowd is directed to issues like social justice (with a high emphasis on volunteering), not being a religious zealot, and fighting against the drive to be rich. Yet, none of these seem to be out of line with what secular people in Canada already think.

While the conservative evangelicals are accused of being out of touch, the hip emerging crowd preaches what the culture wants to hear–and what they already believe. Why would we expect anything else?

I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfil your ministry. 

Is Evangelicalism Fundamentally Flawed?

* This is a repost from a while ago, at my old blog. It created good discussion then, so I’m wondering if it will again. I’m also wondering if anyone who participated in the conversation then has changed their opinions since then… to that end, I’ll also repost the original comments so we can see where we’ve all come since that time. *

The Enlightenment. Modernism. Deconstructionism. Postmodernism. Post-postmodernism. What does the Church believe? What are the essentials that do not change and what is culturally relevant?

While it may be an oversimplification, it seems that in a broad stroke, what separates “Evangelicalism” from “Fundamentalism” is how to handle the Enlightenment… and everything post-elightenment, really. Fundamentalism unrelentingly holds fast to the “fundamentals,” without any regard for what the modern sciences have to say about things. “Evangelicals,” on the other hand, are eager to interact with all that advanced human learning can teach us. Rather than writing off evolution by insisting that the Bible teaches a literal 6 day creation, Evangelicals are willing to roll with whatever it is in vogue for scientists. After all, why would we want to remain out of the loop? Does anyone have any respect for the Roman church’s response to poor old Galileo?

In contrast, Fundamentalists could care less what the rest of the world has to say, they insist that since the Bible teaches a literal 6 day creation, we have no need for further inquiry into the matter. Why, they bravely ask, does it even matter what a modern scientist might be able to find, when we have the Bible?

An Evangelical might quickly counter, “What are we afraid of?” All truth is God’s truth! If what we believe is truly true, then there is no truth that can disprove what we believe!

Call me a sceptic or whatever you want (okay, maybe not anything you want), but I see a problem here. I am not, strictly speaking, a Fundamentalist. I think it is a fundamentally wrong assumption for one to hold his beliefs with such little regard for what is demonstable truth. I would be an idiot to believe that pigs can fly when that is simply, patently (and demonstrably) untrue. If I believe something that has no grounding in reality, then it doesn’t matter how hard I believe, I’m still a fool for believing it.

So I can’t ignore what the sciences have to say…

But then why not be Evangelical (if my dichotomy may be allowed to stand for now)? Why not simply engage with all that the world can determine to be true? Without delving too deep into theories on the nature of truth, it must be acknowledged at least in some sense, that much of the “truth” we find empirically is fluid.

For example, not too long ago smoking was not the taboo it has become today. It wasn’t bad for your health, and was socially accepted. Now, however, we have determined that it is horrible for the human body and can cause any number of diseases. A few generations ago, the “truth” about smoking was different. It was knowledge based on a changing and evolving science.

Again, we could look at the different theories that have been held with regard to homosexuality or even alcoholism. What was once known by any number of societies to be “sin” (however that community defined it) has now in many circles become simply a genetic difference. Alcoholism is something that, regrettably, some people will have to deal with because of genes. Homosexuality is something to be celebrated as a normal part of a person’s genetic makeup.

So what do we do with knowledge gained through the sciences? Bill Webb argues that modern science can demonstrate that certain traits once thought to be tied to gender can now be shown to be more from genetic makeup than gender.

Many liberals within the Church of England argue that homo- sexuality is a part of genetic makeup, and can therefore not be wrong. The homosexuality Paul condemned was that of the pagan cultic worship rituals of his day. What Paul condemned was perversion, not personality. This is not to say that either Webb or the Anglicans are right or wrong, but rather to pose the question, what do we do with science?

Do we base doctrine on it? So what if we compromise on the creation issue and argue rather for a “theistic evolution,” but then the evidence tips back the other way again? Do we then turn and argue for a 6 day creation like it was the year 1589 all over again?

What if we could demonstrably prove scientifically that men are actually more gullible than women? Would that mean that we should take 1 Timothy 2 mean that only women should be elders in our churches?

And what if it is in fact proven that homosexuality has nothing to do with genetics, but everything to do with how someone is raised and socialized? Will the Anglican church have an about-face?

Or are our methods of using the “impartial” sciences really quite partial after all? Why is it that CNN reports all the time of skulls being researched which are millions of years old, while at the same time millions of more copies of “A Case For Creation” are sold in Christian bookstores?

If Evangelicals intend to use the modern sciences to inform their interpretation of the Scriptures, ought they not to define better what role these sciences should play? And what do they do when the science “changes”? Does truth change?

If Fundamentalists intend to hold unswervingly the timeless truths of the Bible, how in the world will they gain credibility in a society that is swamped with “facts” that disprove the “fundamentals”?

Is Evangelicalism destined for a future of fluidity–always trying to balance acceptance in scholarly and popular circles with attempts to remain faithful in some sense to the biblical witness?

Is Fundamentalism destined for a demise into infamy as it distances itself from all things relevant with ever-increasing speed?

Is there a middle ground? Is that even what we need? Do we look for further defintion or faster departure from these classical categories of modern Christendom?

Fundamental Flaws and Empathy for Evangelicals

My former post seemed to get a bit of response. In it I posed several questions. Not the least of which was, “Is Evangelicalism, as a way of thinking, fundamentally flawed since it seeks to interact with a fluid concept of reality, through which it ultimately must determine truth and interpret Scripture?” But that was compared with Fundamentalism, and it was then asked, “Is Fundamentalism any better? Can one determine truth if he has not engaged all the facts available to him? Can one remain relevant to his culture, his world, his times, if he does not interact with all that those around him know as reality? Can he even know truth if he has not actively engaged falsity, in order to know it as such?”

The responses were variegated in topic and flavour, but seemed to revolve around two main thoughts. One of which was that all “isms” are man-made, and thus are inherently flawed. The second main thought in the responses was one wherein it was questioned whether the Bible should be used as a “science textbook” when that is clearly not what it was originally intended to be. Shouldn’t we be more concerned with the main points and practical results of what the Bible teaches, rather than getting all caught up in the relevance of details that weren’t supposed to be taken as we take them (ie. taking the details of creation in Gen. 1 as a description of the exact chronology of how things occurred, according to modern scientific method)?

The post itself was meant to be leading in its line of questions. Wherein lies truth? How can transient man ever come face to face with eternal reality?

When Augustine was young he developed a love for philosophy by reading Cicero’s “Hortensius.” By this point in his education, Augustine had fallen head over heals for great poetry and prose and fanciful arguments of men over what to believe and what to question… sounds like many of us. When he first came to question these things, he queried his friends, searched his own mind and soul, and finally saw fit to probe holy writ.

He records his experience:

So I made up my mind to examine the holy Scriptures and see what kind of books they were. I discovered something that was at once beyond the understanding of the proud and hidden from the eyes of children. Its gait was humble, but the heights it reached were sublime. It was enfolded in mysteries, and I was not the kind of man to enter into it or bow my head to follow where it led. But these were not the feelings I had when I first read the Scriptures. To me they seemed quite unworthy of comparison with the stately prose of Cicero, because I had too much conceit to accept their simplicity and not enough insight to penetrate their depths. It is surely true that as the child grows these books grow with him. But I was too proud to call myself a child. I was inflated with self-esteem, which made me think myself a great man.

Many a “great man” treats the Word of God in this manner. Evey man who treats God’s word in this manner must indeed be “great,” at least in his own mind–how else could humanity pass judgment on the divine?

I am certain of this, that “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” I think this holds true with regards to the work of his Holy Spirit. The Word of God is indeed living and active, and it will not return to him who sent it without accomplishing its intended purpose.

When the Word of God meets a humble and contrite heart, who accepts it as truth truly sent by God, it has indeed found a home. The Spirit of God plants the seed of the word, waters and nourishes it. The grace of God is all the light and energy needed to bring forth a tree of good fruit.

As time goes by, I become more and more convinced that God honours faith and humility. If, in faith, I come as a human, bound in time and space, limited in knowledge and wisdom, to his Word which I regard as holy truth and wholly true, the revelation of the character and nature of the One Eternal Reality against which all else is measured, I will be blessed.

Too many times I have come to the Bible like Augustine, quoted above. I have thought of it and have been ashamed that the book to which I am supposed to cling is “not like Cicero.” It is, in places, not the most beautiful of language. At times it seems downright naive. It is almost always politically incorrect, and quite often it says things that are incredibly difficult to interpret aright.

It is much easier to come up with my own grand thoughts of what God must be like, or could be like, or the nature of reality itself than to read about them in a book multiple-millenia old. And it is old–it has all been heard before. What of new ideas, new thoughts, new perspectives? What about “always reforming” anyway? Shouldn’t that apply to at least our interpretations, if not doctrines of Scripture?

God has honoured and will continue to honour that faith which recognizes his Word as “God-breathed”–that is, from him and above reproach or rebuke, shame or scandal, culture or critique.

He does this in very practical ways. God honours faith by providing proof.

Remember in the Chronicles of Narnia when Lucy saw Aslan so plainly when others could not? Aslan demanded of her that she follow him regardless of what the others thought or did. The others thought she was nuts at best and a pain at worst. But as each one’s faith was added, they were provided with the grace to see that Aslan was there and had been leading them all along.

It is the same thing for the Christian as he reads his Bible. When I read it in faith, trusting that it is God’s truly inspired Word to me, his Spirit bears witness to my heart that what I read is truth. When I read with the faith of a child trusting his Father, he honours that faith and shows me the intangible internal consistency, undeniable connectivity of thought, and the subtle nuances that could be included only if one author had edited the whole.

So what? What does all this have to do with the conversation at hand? How does this relate to the Evangelical / Fundamentalist debate?

Simply this: The Bible is not a science textbook and Evangelicalism, like Fundamentalism and every other “ism” is indeed fundamentally flawed. Science cannot give us the answers we are looking for; it cannot interpret Scripture or give us absolute truth. Science, like the “isms” at hand, is never impartial, nor are our uses of it.

The only source of truth we have is the Word of God. And the Word of God is hard–hard to interpret, hard to understand, hard to apply. Who thought truth would be easy? The only answer we have is to simply choose to believe Scripture.

Ultimately, we must choose to either believe it or disbelieve it. It is a matter of faith. The more faith we place in it, the more we see that it is entirely trustworthy. The more we analyze, deconstruct, apply our criticisms, the more room for Satan to fill our minds with doubt. The Bible testifies to itself like Christ testified to himself, or like God testified to himself to OT Israel. Either believe or disbelief; take it or leave it.

To take the promises of God and wait to see if they hold true for others is to disbelieve. To take Christ and examine him sceptically as he is modelled by Christians is to disbelieve. To take the Word of God and determine whether or not to believe it based on how you see it interacting with culture or science is to disbelieve it.

What I am suggesting is not a return to Fundamentalism, where we do not interact with the culture or science of our day, but rather that we do so with a heart that has already determined that God’s Word is true in what it asserts regardless of what the rest of the world professes to believe. God’s Word is true regardless of any scientific “fact;” though we know that no fact could ever contradict truth. Thus, the fluidity of the reality of the world around us alternatively may testify for or against a truth claim of God’s Word.

Faith demands that I go into my interactions with culture or science with the understanding that what God (as Creator of all) proclaims to be good or bad, right or wrong, truth or fiction, is in fact exactly what he says it is. End of conversation. Regardless of what culture or science attempts to dictate or demand.

In humility we must come to the Word of God and believe it absolutely. To do anything less is to disbelieve completely. The inner testimony of the Holy Spirit to the absolute truth of God’s Word cannot be denied by any who have come in the humility our great God deserves.

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