have i left fundamentalism?

I no longer am a part of a church body that considers itself “fundamentalist.” That’s not to say that I (or by extension, my church) do not believe in essential Christian doctrine (i.e., orthodoxy), but there has grown to be a difference between churches that are “fundamentalist” and those that simply believe in a set of fundamental doctrine.

I feel that this distinction is important enough to warrant its own post explaining where I stand. My goal isn’t to attack any specific individuals or institutions but to point out what I’ve seen broadly within fundamentalism that doesn’t adhere to sound doctrine – the things that have caused me to seek new direction in recent years in my church associations. Ultimately, I hope by doing this, it will help my fundamentalist friends and family to better understand what God has been teaching me and to reevaluate some of the issues we differ on.

Before I get into the core part of this post, let me be clear on a few things. First, I am not leaving fundamentalism. It’s impossible to leave a movement that you never joined, and fundamentalism is one such movement that you can’t actually join or leave (unless of course, you become part of an organization like the Fundamentalist Baptist Fellowship). For me to say that I am leaving fundamentalism would be like saying that I’m leaving McDonalds – I can choose to not eat at any McDonalds restaurants, but I can’t actually leave the McDonalds franchise.

It may seem like I’m splitting hairs, but this semantic distinction is important. The reason is that if I vow to never eat at McDonalds again, I can assure you that I would violate that vow the moment I ended up in a place hungry and with no better restaurant to eat at than McDonalds. The same is true for fundamentalism. If I ever find myself in a place where the best church is a FC (fundamentalist church), will I avoid it just out of some misplaced sense of anti-fundamentalist principle? No, that’s not the goal here. The goal is simply to align myself with a group of believers that, despite their imperfections, will best help me glorify God and enjoy Him forever.

I also don’t want to sound ungrateful for my fundamentalist upbringing. John Piper once blogged on 20 things that he admires about about fundamentalists. He hit the nail on the head. There are a lot of things about FCs that I am thankful for. But that doesn’t mean that we should ignore or fail to address the shortcomings that we have witnessed within them. Too many people have done that out of fear of being shunned by the fundamentalist community and the result (in my opinion) has been a host of unchecked error within FCs.

So with that background, here in no particular order are the core differences that I have with fundamentalism. Please note that I am not assuming that any FC struggles with all of them, nor am I assuming that every FC struggles with any of them. But in general, these issues seem to be prominent in FCs, particularly in those that align themselves with a larger fundamentalist institution/organization (such as a college/seminary).

1. Unbiblical focus on subjective doctrine

The Bible has a host of “principles,” which can be defined as truth that has numerous applications. For instance, “Love your neighbor as yourself” is a principle that has thousands of applications.

The problem with biblical principles is that someone with an agenda can distort them to mean what he wants, oftentimes in convincing fashion. Going back to the example above, a person may claim that loving your neighbor means that you should be accepting of (i.e., not confront) someone who is living in a sin, such as unbiblical sexual activity.

The way to combat this problem is to approach the entire counsel of God’s Word with an open mind. There are many verses in Scripture that discuss God’s view of sexual activity and many that deal with the believer’s responsibility to confront sin in another believer’s life. The key is to not read more into Scripture (or less) than what the text allows when applying a principle dealing with sex or confrontation.

Many of the key fundamentalist leaders struggle with this, and that struggle appears to have had a trickle down effect into many of the FCs. The danger is when someone tries to come up with every possible application of a principle, apart from God’s Word. For instance, I read one well-known fundamentalist leader say that hitting the snooze button on your alarm clock was giving into the flesh. In other words, the snooze button is really a sin button. Now whereas it’s a good thing to try to apply Scripture in a way that is relevant to our every day lives, to call hitting the snooze button a sin is far too subjective an application to mandate to another person. Scripture has many other clear ways of applying the die-to-your-flesh principle, and those should be our primary focus.

Unfortunately, I have seen over and over again in FCs that the clear applications are ignored in favor of subjective ones. A classic example is musical styles. Most fundamentalists are adamant on which musical styles are right and which ones are wrong, even though Scripture never gives anything close to a clear instructive on this subject. I say, sadly, that in my years in FCs, I never heard a single message discussing what the Bible clearly teaches on music – only dozens of messages pushing forward a subjective application of various principles that the preacher believed had a bearing on the topic of musical styles. (See the “unbiblical worship section of this post for more on this subject.)

2. Exaltation of the doctrine of man over the commands of God

This is very similar to the problem above. In essence, because fundamentalists are so committed to applying God’s Word, they assume that their applications actually have the same force and authority as God’s Word. It’s an easy trap to fall into, and I touched on it briefly in another post.

I’ve heard FCs teach that it’s a sin for women to wear pants, for men to have a certain length for their hair, for people to go to movies, for mixed groups to swim in the same pool at the same time, for Christians to have tattoos, for certain shoes to be worn at church, for certain instruments to be played during worship, for certain non-sinful activities to be performed on Sunday, for certain versions of the Bible to be used, and the list goes on and on (and on and on and on).

So what is happening with each of the above examples? For every one of them, a biblical principle is being applied in a certain way that Scripture does not explicitly endorse. This in itself is not a problem because we have to do this all time (after all, Scripture is not exhaustive in its application of principles, as we saw above). The problem lies when we tell another person that if they violate our subjective application of God’s Word, they are sinning. That mentality is the heart of pharisaism – considering your application a commandment that is on par with God’s Word (cf. Matt 15:1ff).

This is exactly why many people have identified fundamentalists as modern-day Pharisees. Unfortunately, my experience has been that most FCs are more zealous in refuting the accusation that they are pharisaical than they are of purging pharisaism from their numbers.

3. Unbiblical interpretation of “the world”

Most of the 171 times that “world” appears in the NT (ESV) it simply refers to the earth and what it contains (e.g., Luke 9:25) or to the people who live in the world (e.g., John 3:16). However, there are a handful of instances in which Scripture refers to the world as something very negative and sinful that the Christian must avoid at all costs. The textbook example of this is Romans 12:2, the interpretation of which is arguably what most clearly distinguishes FCs from other Christians churches/sects.

In short, every fundamentalist lecture, sermon, writing, etc. that I’ve ever been exposed to either teaches or simply assumes that the “world” of Romans 12:2 is our culture. (Some would even say our sub-culture.) So to rephrase Paul, “Do not be conformed to the culture that you live in.”

Hopefully you’re saying to yourself, “Here we go again. Another very broad principle that can be applied in thousands of subjective ways.” Yes, and that is the exact problem here because there is no Scriptural precedence for separating from one’s culture. (Fundamentalists might point to parts of the Mosaic Law as precedence for this application, but those examples are unclear at best, not to mention that there are some serious theological problems with comparing the Christian life to theocratic Israel.) So without any clear biblical examples, the fundamentalist must come up on his own with the ways that he believes a Christian should avoid conformity to his culture. This is often the starting point from which various forms of dress, entertainment, recreation, etc. are attacked as sinful. The concept is simple – if our culture endorses it, then it’s wrong because our culture is inherently sinful.

There’s a slight problem here, however. Everything we do is in some way a byproduct of our culture (or subculture, if you will). If culture is the problem, then we must renounce everything, from our language to food preferences to our hair styles. Now some fundamentalists would say, “That’s exactly what we’re doing – we’re separating ourselves from our culture’s dress, entertainment, hair styles, etc.” But this perspective fails to take into account that even the most conservative of hair, clothing, and entertainment styles are still a part of our culture. They may not be mainstream, but they are not truly counter-cultural.

There is, however, a greater problem with defining the “world” as culture – namely, that is not how God defines it. What does God say that the world is? The key passage is 1 John 2:15-17, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.”

There it is. That’s what God means when he says, “Do not be conformed to this world.” He means (rough paraphrase), “Do not be consumed with lust, pride, and temporal things like the unsaved around you.” Funny thing is that when you insert this understanding of “world” into Romans 12:2 it actually makes sense in the broader context of the book, whereas “culture” does not fit well at all with the previous 11 chapters of Romans. And really, when you think about it, lust, pride, and temporal things are the essence of the unregenerate life. It’s no wonder that the Holy Spirit chose these things to summarize what the anti-Christian”world” consists of.

God never commands a jihad against culture. On the flipside, He puts us in the culture that He chooses in order for us to show that, although we look like, dress like, and sound like everyone else around us, inwardly we are drastically different. We don’t go after every desire of our flesh; we pursue God as our heart’s desire. We aren’t consumed with every temporal thing that our eyes look on; we are storing up invisible, eternal treasures in heaven, and that is where our gaze is cast. We don’t take pride in the things we have; we humbly recognize that God has given us everything, but most importantly, He has given us salvation, and we earned none of it.

Ironically enough, when Christians display those characteristics, they are, in a sense, living counter-culturally. More importantly, however, they are living the transformed life that God requires in Romans 12.

4. Unbiblical stance on “separation”

“Separation” is one of the most common words that you will hear in a FC. In fact, if the fundamentalist interpretation of Romans 12:2 is the verse that most distinguishes them from other churches, then “separation” is the most distinguishing doctrine . The word is used in a variety of ways and in reference to a variety of things, but in this case, I am honing in on one specific use of the term – separation from disobedient brothers. (I would like to say at this point that “separation” is not a biblical term. The only passage that arguably uses it in the way fundamentalists do is 2 Corinthians 6:17, but this usage is highly questionable. I would prefer to use a different term, but “separation” is the one most commonly used in FCs; so I will stick with it for the purposes of this discussion.)

There are two main passages that speak of “separation”: 1 Corinthians 5:11 and 2 Thessalonians 3:6, 14-15.

1 Cor 5:11 “But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one.”

2 Thess 3:6, 14-15 “Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us…. If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.”

Here is the way I heard separation explained in one of the hallmark fundamentalist churches in Greenville, SC: 2 Thessalonians 3 was dealing with Christians who were being lazy and not working. Paul told the Corinthians to separate from them in order to help them to see their sin, with the end goal that they would resume work and not just be idle all day. Therefore, the fundamentalist logic concludes, if Paul commanded separation from disobedient Christians over such a small thing as not working, then we are expected to separate from disobedient Christians over any sin that we perceive our brother is engaging in unrepentantly. First Corinthians 5 lists some of these out for us so that we can see some practical sin issues we should separate over.

This logic sounds enticing, even compelling, until you begin to see how it is applied. You listen to the kind of music that I feel is sinful? Separation. You watch the kind of shows that I think are sinful? Separation. You are involved in a group that I believe is sinful? Separation.

Notice the pattern: 1) I interpret a certain action as sin, 2) I discover that you perform that action, 3) therefore I must separate from you. The reason why this happens is because the above verses are interpreted far too broadly. The whole point of what Paul is saying in 2 Thessalonians 3 is not, “You need to separate from your brother over every sin issue, even the smallest one, such as not working (or listening to rock music or going to the movies or reading the NIV).”

His point in both the Corinthians passage and the Thessalonians passage is that there were Christians in open defiance to Scriptural and apostolic authority (cf., 2 Thess 3:14: If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter). They were living lives that said to everyone around them, “We don’t care what God commands through His Word or through His apostles. We’d rather enjoy life our own way.” That was a big problem, and it threatened to crush the backbone of the Early Church. So Paul called for drastic measures. Distance yourself. Stay away. Show your disapproval. Don’t even eat with them. They need to know that this is urgently wrong. They need to realize that God is the authority and not them.

How would we apply this today? Only by separating from Christians that are in open, unrepentant defiance of God’s Word. This isn’t about music or dress styles, interpretive issues over which there are scores of documented disagreements among Christians. This is about the clear, obvious sin problems that even an unsaved person would look at and say, “Wow, that guy isn’t living like a Christian.” Really, the list in 1 Corinthians 5 paints a clear picture of what kinds of issues these are – sins such as immorality, idolatry, and drunkenness. On the other hand, the 2 Thessalonians passage shouldn’t be taken as normative for us today since it involves a specific, time-sensitive problem within the Thessalonian church that Paul had to address using his apostolic authority.

5. Unbiblical view of holiness/sanctification

There is no denying that holiness is an incredibly important concept in Scripture. As a believer grows in Christ, the end goal is holiness. That is what God desires for His people. In fact, the term “saint” could be translated literally as “holy one.”

We first need to define “holiness,” but since this would take some time, let me just focus on one aspect of holiness: ethical/moral purity. God is totally pure and free from sin, and the Bible (particularly the OT) labels this quality of His as “holiness.” As such, when Christians grow in Christ, one way they demonstrate God’s holiness by putting sin to death in their lives. There is a very clear moral/ethical connection to holiness.

So what do fundamentalists believe about holiness? They believe that it is achieved not merely through the putting off of sin but by the putting on of a conservative lifestyle. Since, they say, being holy means being radically removed from sin, we must live as conservatively as possible, since this is the only way to ensure that we do not fall into sin. This is why fundamentalists can be so easily portrayed as a man with a combover hair style wearing a suit and tie and a woman with her hair up wearing a dress – those hair and dress styles are conservative and as far from potentially sinful styles as possible. In other words, they are traditional and safe. We’re not going to wear jeans to church. Maybe that would be ok, but I would rather just play it safe and wear my suit and tie. I don’t want to risk sinning (i.e., being unholy).

There’s only one problem with this application of the principle of holiness – Scripture never endorses a conservative lifestyle. On the flipside, Christ frequently attacked the Pharisees for living a life of conservatism that was divorced from a heart of love for God. It’s not that conservatism is inherently wrong or sinful, but when you get caught up in living conservatively as part of your pursuit of holiness, you run the risk of getting caught up in externalism. After all, most (if not all) of the things that differentiate a conservative from a non-conservative are externals, but holiness isn’t about externals. It’s supposed to be about the heart. It’s about God working in His saints from the inside out. In fact, at the heart of it, being holy isn’t even about a Christian becoming something that he is not (which is an easy fallacy to believe); it’s about a Christian becoming what God has already made him. This is how God can call believers “holy ones,” because they are already holy from the standpoint of His finished work, even if they are not entirely holy from the standpoint of their moral purity.

Sadly, I’ve heard countless fundamentalist messages that focus on what we need to do to be holy instead of focusing on what God has already accomplished for us in the gospel. It’s a process engineered by man that starts on the outside and is somehow supposed to work itself back towards the inside, making the person less sinful by making him more conservative. It is a backwards model of the Christian life that falls into the trap of works sanctification that Paul addressed in Galatians 3, ultimately failing to apply the gospel correctly to the Christian life, which leads into the next point.

6. Lack of understanding of the gospel

I’ve tried to explain to many fundamentalists in recent years the importance of the gospel to the Christian, and each time they’ve looked at me like I’m crazy. The gospel? What do you mean it’s important to the Christian? Are you saying we are supposed to witness more? The very presence of these questions demonstrates the need in this area.

Fundamentalists tend to form a hard break between salvation and sanctification. The gospel (and faith in it) is what we need for salvation, and faith plus works is what we need for sanctification. But there’s a problem – Scripture teaches that the gospel is essential for the Christian after he is saved. If you look closely (or even not so closely) at the key NT passages on sanctification, they always start with the gospel. There is an undeniable pattern.

Take the book of Romans, for instance. The first 11 chapters: gospel. The next 5 chapters: here is what to do based on what we’ve learned from the gospel (i.e., sanctification). If you look at Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, etc. you will find a similar pattern. The beginning point is always the gospel. Christ died for our sins. God saved us. We are redeemed. Ok, now let’s discuss how to respond to this truth.

As mentioned above, non-gospel based sanctification is what Paul was so upset about in His book to the Galatians. In fact, he referred to this teaching of works based sanctification as a “different gospel.” What? You believe that you were saved by faith but now you have to live the Christian life by your own works? Who preached a different gospel to you? 

The gospel is very simple: I am a sinful rebel deserving of the ultimate punishment, but God in His great mercy sent His Son to live the perfect life that I could never achieve, experience the punishment that I could never bear, and rise again to conquer the death that I could never overcome. As a result of Christ’s finished work, I am at peace with God, capable of unhindered fellowship with Him, and given the promise of eternal life to dwell with Him forever.

Sit on that truth. Rest in the gospel. Revel in your redemption. For sanctification results, not as we do more good things but as we realize we can do nothing apart from our great Savior who loves us in spite of the immensity of our sin. Ultimately, every command in Scripture comes down to one word: love. And love comes from understanding one truth: the gospel. That in a nutshell is the Christian life.

The trap that many FCs have fallen into is that they try to make the Christian life complicated and rules-based, but that is not love. Love means that I can cast aside all the complicated labyrinth of rules that I’ve tried to come up with and can live freely for Christ. Not that I define how I love Christ – the seeming “rules” in Scripture are Christ’s way of helping me to understand what love for Him should look like. So really, they aren’t rules after all. It’s more like a woman who tells her husband that she prefers Italian food to Chinese. It’s not so that her husband can compile a rule book that he must constantly strive to obey. It’s that she recognizes that since he loves her, he will want to do for her what she most desires. So rather than making him figure it out the hard way, she tells him upfront to help him.

That’s what God does. He knows what the natural response is to the gospel: love. But because He is God and we are human, the love that we think is appropriate may not be what He truly desires. Too often we are the husband ordering Chinese take out for the wife who prefers lasagna. So God helps us respond to the gospel correctly by giving us guidelines that will ultimately allow us to love Him appropriately.

This is what we mean when we talk about the importance of the gospel for believers. It’s not just an evangelistic tool, as FCs tend to restrict it to. It should be the impetus for everything that we do as a Christian.

7. Unbiblical worship

“Biblical worship” is one of the most commonly used catch phrases within fundamentalism. To most FCs, modern worship has strayed too far from its traditional roots. FCs seek to restore it back to its traditional (i.e., conservative) state so that their worship most glorifies God. This is done by focusing worship on older hymns or songs that mimic the older hymns in musical style. Generally praise and worship and contemporary Christian are avoided at all costs.

The irony is that despite all of the effort made to ensure that worship is biblical, much of the thinking behind this worship is not biblical at all. Rather, it is based on the opinions of the worshiper as to which musical style is appropriate and which is not. Many fundamentalists in the past have attempted to come up with an objective way of identifying inappropriate music (most notably the effort to identify the so-called “2-4 beat” as sinful), but these efforts have been almost entirely rejected in large part due to their unscholarly nature. The end result is that the effort to identify right or wrong musical styles within FCs has become strictly subjective.

The reason why it is so difficult to determine which musical styles are right or wrong is because Scripture never discusses it or even suggests that there may be right or wrong styles. So the difficulty the fundamentalist finds is that, although he believes that there are musical styles that are inherently sinful, he has no clear biblical data to guide him. Thus he must call upon various biblical principles that he believes have the most bearing on worship, which oftentimes comes back to the Romans 12 command to not be conformed to the world. As mentioned earlier, “world” is then defined by the fundamentalist as “culture,” resulting in the conclusion that any musical styles that are popular within our culture are wrong. Some may nuance their argument further by saying that only music that has a negative/sinful association (which is determined subjectively) within our culture is inappropriate. In my experience, those who hold to the “sinful association” view, generally rule out all musical styles except classical and some easy listening.

I am not going to readdress the misinterpretation of “world,” but I would like to address the “association” principle. This principle comes primarily from 1 Cor 8-11, in which Paul seeks to answer this question: although there is clearly nothing sinful about eating meat, what about meat that has been used in the temple worship of an idol? Does the sinful association with the idol make it wrong to eat the meat?

Paul’s conclusion is that it’s not inherently sinful to eat the meat, but there is one circumstance in which it is sinful – if by eating meat you cause your brother to stumble (KJV: to offend). I added the KJV translation for a reason, namely that FCs tend to use this word in their interpretation of the passage in the place of the more accurate “stumble.” In other words, if you do something that offends another Christian because he associates your action with something sinful, you are sinning and must stop performing that action forever since it’s offensive. But that is not what Paul means when he speaks of “stumbling.” In context, a Christian that “stumbles” is one that essentially loses his faith. In the strict context, it would be a Christian that came out of idol worship, saw Christians eating meat offered to an idol, thought in his conscience that it was wrong but went along with it, and eventually had his faith “destroyed” (1 Cor 8:11).

So, with that in mind, does the association principle apply to music/worship? The answer is that it would apply only if a Christian could destroy another Christian’s faith as a direct result of listening to (or singing/playing) a certain musical style. I’m not going to say that this is impossible, but I do feel that, if this kind of thing is possible, the instances of it are few and far in between. I personally have never heard of a person’s faith being destroyed as a direct result of seeing Christians interact with a certain musical style.

The bottom line is that the effort to define “biblical worship” by FCs rests on subjectivity and poor biblical hermeneutics. But what is even more problematic is that there are many verses in Scripture that do clearly outline biblical worship that are seemingly ignored by FCs, presumably because they don’t deal with the subject of musical styles. Here is an example (not nearly exhaustive) of some of the principles of biblical worship outlined in Scripture that most FCs tend to ignore:

  • Worship is inherently emotional (throughout the Psalms, which describe a wide range of emotions from crying to shouting to laughing to anger to joy. Cf., 2 Sam 6:12-16)
  • All instruments are to be utilized in worship (Psa 150:3-5)
  • Dance is a form of worship (Psa 150:4)
  • Raising of hands is appropriate for worship (Psa 134:2; cf., 1 Tim 2:8)
  • The heart of worship is more important than the mode of worship (Psa 51:16-17; Hos 6:6)

Typically, fundamentalists go through great pains to argue that these principles are not applicable today because of cultural differences that we have with Israel. For instance, dancing is obviously different in 21st Century America than it was in OT Israel; therefore we shouldn’t dance in our worship. Please note two major problems with arguments like these:

  1. We really don’t know very much about what dance was like in the OT; so this assumption is built on a faulty premise.
  2. Even if 21st Century American dancing were drastically different than OT dancing styles, that doesn’t make it wrong. Obviously there are biblical principles that should inform liturgical dancing (modesty comes to mind), but those principles shouldn’t lead us to assume that dancing is always bad when the Bible tells us that there are instances in which it is good. We just need to do a little more work in figuring out how we can dance within our culture in a way that worships God.

Ultimately, what bothers me most about the worship taking place in many FCs is that it’s dry, unemotional, restrictive on instruments and musical styles, restrictive on movement for the worshiper, and emphasizing musical technique instead of the heart. There is a word that describes this kind of worship: unbiblical. It goes against everything God tried to teach us in the Psalms. It’s also hypocritical because instead of trying to find ways to obey what Scripture says clearly about worship, many FCs choose instead to focus on the subjective interpretations of passages that only indirectly address the subject of worship.

8. Culture of pride

I add this final section to this post with great caution because A) I fully recognize that everyone struggles with pride to a certain extent,  B) some of the most humble people I know are fundamentalists, and C) this is an issue of character/heart, not of doctrine, and ultimately only God knows the heart. That said, this is a major reason why I no longer attend a FC, and having gone to non-FCs, I realize how much more of an issue it is. So I feel as if this post would be incomplete if I neglected to include this section.

You may wonder what I mean by “culture of pride.” In essence, I am trying to say that FCs tend to incubate pride by consistently neglecting some major applications of humility. It’s not that FCs don’t teach that pride is wrong; it’s that when they attempt to practice humility, they frequently fail to see some of the major areas in which they are prideful. As a result of this consistent breakdown in application, the fundamentalist culture becomes inherently prideful.

Although this section is naturally subjective, in order to keep it as objective as possible, I’ve broken it down into areas in which I’ve consistently seen pride in FCs:

  1. Militaristic dogmatism (with regard to doctrine)
  2. Judgmentalism
  3. Inability to be confronted

Let’s start with dogmatism. FCs believe that they have the most correct doctrine of any Christian group, and I actually don’t have a major problem with that assumption. We all make our theological affiliations based on which groups, churches, institutions, etc. we deem have the most correct doctrine. In this area, fundamentalists are no different than the rest of us.

Where they are different, however, is how they treat those who differ with them on doctrine. They are very quick to attack or shun anyone who has the slightest disagreement with them. In other words, they are militaristic in their dogmatism. While attending a fundamentalist university/seminary for 4+ years, I was constantly reminded by my professors of the doctrinal shortcomings of the likes of John MacArthur, John Piper, CJ Mahaney, Mark Dever, and pretty much any other evangelical leader you can think of. They were rarely, if ever portrayed positively.

Why is this? Very simply because MacArthur, Piper, et al. have theological disagreements with fundamentalists. Or, to simplify it even more, it is because they aren’t fundamentalists (at least not in the way that fundamentalists define the word). In other words, it’s not because they teach things contrary to the gospel, but because they differ on fringe matters, such as music styles, religious affiliates, stance on Calvinism, Bible version preference, etc., which are not clear in Scripture, and these are the issues which bring about rebuke, separation, etc. from FCs.

And that is ultimately the crux of the issue. Fundamentalists are very quick to condemn those who disagree with them on issues that are matters of interpretation or subjective application – things that are not clear in Scripture. This militaristic dogmatism is prideful because it results from a fundamentalist’s failure to accept that he could be wrong. If he humbly recognized that his interpretation most likely is not right 100% of the time, then he would be far less likely to attack those who disagree with him on minor issues.

Hand-in-hand with dogmatism is the issue of judgementalism. Quite frankly, it’s hard not to judge others when you dogmatically believe that you are always right. But there’s a deeper issue here – the overemphasis on externals/conservatism logically leads to judgmentalism. For instance, what would be the first thought to go through a fundamentalist’s mind if they saw a man drive up to their church with an Obama bumper sticker, long hair, and listening to Christian rock? I’m not going to answer that question, but I will say that, because he doesn’t fit the regular conservative mold, it would be hard for them not to think something like, “Wow. What’s he doing here?” or “He needs some serious help.” You see what has happened? Without any knowledge of a person’s relationship with God, judgements have been made about what kind of a Christian he is.

There is a fundamentalist preacher that I know who recently told me that this form of judgmentalism is “discernment.” From what I gathered, he feels like it is a Christian’s responsibility to “discern” a person’s inward character based on their externals. He was wrong. Making moral judgments about a person based on insufficient external data is sin, not discernment.

Let me elaborate on this. When someone does something that we think is wrong, they may not actually be sinning. The only way we can be certain they are sinning is if the Bible says clearly that they are. So a person who is living in adultery is sinning (since that is a clear sin), whereas a person who votes for Obama, has long hair, or listens to Christian rock may or may not be sinning. The Bible has principles but no clear teaching on those issues. In other words, the spiritual data on the person that does those things is insufficient for me to make an assumption about his standing before God. If I choose to make an assumption anyway, I’ve sinned and been judgmental in my heart.

So what about someone that we see clearly sinning? Here is the difficulty: all of us sin. If we judged a person every time he sinned, we would constantly be judging each other. The only way that I can conclude that someone is lacking spiritually is if that person clearly sins and is unrepentant. That is the only barometric test that God has given us – unrepentant rebellion against His Word. Even then, if there is someone in unrepentant sin, it’s not even right to have the thought, “He’s really sinful.” Read Ephesians 2:11-12 to see how sinful God thought that you were before salvation. We are all “really sinful.” To come up with categories like these in our heads is prideful – it doesn’t glorify God at all. And unfortunately, FCs struggle to teach their model of conservative sanctification while simultaneously avoiding judgmentalism.

Lastly, there is the issue of the inability to be confronted. This one is more personal than the others, because over the years, I have personally had to confront various Christians (some fundamentalists and some not) over their sin. What I’ve seen is that there is a consistent pattern that fundamentalists, of all the Christians I’ve dealt with, tend to be the least repentant and the most argumentative when confronted. They don’t want to admit their sin or even to reevaluate whether there may be sin in their lives that they don’t see. I’m not sure if it’s because they genuinely believe that they haven’t sinned or because they are afraid that by admitting their sin they will be judged by others, but either way, they do not take well to confrontation because of pride.

This pride issue has become even more apparent to me now that I am in a non-FC, where confrontation is common and Christians are expected to respond humbly to correction, which at the very least means that they will take the confrontation to heart, even if they have disagreements. That has not been my experience in FCs, and I’ve heard others who unfortunately feel the same way.

Sadly, this pride problem will likely cause many who read this post to dismiss it. It’s confrontational. It points out flaws and sins that aren’t fun to address. And it’s much easier to say, “That’s not true,” or “That doesn’t apply to me” than to reevaluate whether there are parts of your life (or church) that aren’t pleasing to God. I would urge you at the very least to halt your prideful inclinations and give a little bit of prayer and reevaluation to some of these issues. Even if you feel that you disagree on 100% of what I said, consider that no Christian was ever made less like Christ because he reevaluated and searched for sin in his life.

And if you are a fundamentalist brother or sister in Christ, please remember that I have not spent hours working on this post in order to ridicule you, but to help you to see some things that you may not have seen otherwise. I do not ask that you agree with everything I have said but that you keep an open mind and allow the Holy Spirit to work in areas that you may not have allowed Him to previously.

…when babies die…

It’s a question that comes up over and over again, a topic for theological debate that students have pondered over for years, a source of doubt in God for some, and a source of anger towards God for others. It’s a question that the Bible never asks, and, if there is a place in Scripture where God answers it, He only does so indirectly. It’s a question that many Christians (and non-Christians) find troubling because it strikes an emotional chord in such a way that very few other theological debates are capable of. It is a question that has afflicted many parents, grandparents, pastors, teachers, siblings, friends, spouses, old people, young people, and just about everyone else in between.

Where do babies go when they die?

Answering this question is extremely difficult because it strikes right at the heart of the paradox of God. God’s holiness means that all flesh is guilty before Him, but doesn’t His justice mean that He is totally fair? God will not accept those who do not trust in Christ for their salvation, but what about those who are incapable of accepting or rejecting Him? God predestines some to eternal life without there being any way for us to understand whom He chooses or why, but are there any groups of people that we can confidently say that He always chooses for eternal life, regardless of any other circumstances?

All of these questions are difficult and none is explicitly answered in Scripture. Yet, your position on the eternal destination of babies that die is in large part informed by which direction you lean with these paradoxes (and others).

So where do we begin when trying to answer this seemingly morbid question? To start, as a Christian, there must be three possible answers to where babies go when they die: heaven, hell, or nowhere. And before we go any deeper into this question, it is important to note that that last option – nowhere – has no scriptural support. Throughout Scripture the afterlife is viewed as a time of judgment resulting in eternal life for some and eternal damnation for others – there is no third option. There is no in-between state.

Now a person may argue that a baby’s soul, like his/her body, has not fully developed, resulting in there being no eternal state for them. But if we are going to look at this scripturally, then we must point out that there are several passages in Scripture that indicate that God views a baby (even an unborn one) as much more than just an undeveloped child. In fact, there are verses in both the OT and NT that go so far as to say that God calls unborn children to salvation and sanctification (Isa 49:1; Jer 1:5; Gal 1:15), and there is never any indication in Scripture that God views a baby any differently than He does an adult when it comes to process of salvation.

So here we are again – back at square one. When babies die, do they go to heaven or hell? It’s incredibly important at this point for me to once again reiterate that the Bible does not answer this question directly. However, there are theological conclusions that we can draw that can inform what we believe on this subject – conclusions that can be derived from biblical and systematic theology.

So what are some of these conclusions? (Note: I fully recognize that I am pulling these conclusions from my own, generally reformed theological frame of reference. Also note that this list is representative, not exhaustive.)

  1. Original sin – Adam, as the head of the human race, committed the one sin that renders man guilty of hell (Rom 5:12).
  2. God’s sovereignty over salvation – God is not passive in the salvation process. He is the one who draws people to Himself (Eph 1:3-10).
  3. Man’s free will in salvation – Although God is sovereign, man still bears the responsibility to accept or reject Christ (John 3:18).
  4. Faith in Christ – The only way to be saved from sin is through faith in Christ (Eph 2:8-9).
  5. Justification – Salvation isn’t just about cleansing from sin (although that is clearly part of it); it is also about completely obeying God’s Law. Even if a person were to never commit a sin, s/he would also have to fully obey God’s Law in order to be accepted in God’s presence for eternity. Sinlessness alone isn’t enough. Sinless righteousness is what is required, and this only comes through faith in Christ, who lived the sinless, righteous life on man’s behalf (Rom 10:1-17).
  6. Age of accountability – The way this doctrine is typically taught is more manmade than biblical. However, the Bible does indicate that there is an age at which a child has not yet learned how to choose between good and evil (Isa 7:16a).
  7. God’s mercy – God desires all to be saved. He is not happy about people going to hell (2 Pet 3:9b; 1 Tim 2:3-4).

You can see by this list that some theological presuppositions would seem to indicate that God would send all babies to heaven, and others seem to indicate that this is unlikely. There are many different angles to look at, and ultimately, none of them gives us a complete answer to the question of where deceased babies go. The Bible simply isn’t clear on this subject, and anyone who says that it is clear is either naive or willfully deceptive.

That said, there is one major part of this discussion that I have intentionally overlooked up to this point – the narrative in 2 Sam 12:15ff on the death of David’s son. This story has taken center stage in the discussion of babies’ deaths, with many using it to “prove” that babies must go to heaven. The logic behind this argument is as follows:

  1. David found comfort in his child’s death. This only makes sense if the child went to heaven.
  2. David says about the child, “I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.” This only makes sense if the child went to heaven, since David was clearly not planning to go to hell himself.
Now I admit that this argument appears reasonable on the outside, but when you dig a little bit deeper, you find that there are a great deal of logical flaws.
  1. We do not know the precise age of the child when he died. It is quite common in the OT narratives for many years to pass in between verses without any indication of the time lapse. So to assume that the child is a baby and not 6 or 7 years old is just that – an assumption that is unprovable scripturally.
  2. David’s concept of the afterlife would have been quite rudimentary, at best. His “Bible” would have been the Pentateuch, which hardly mentions the afterlife, and the precise doctrines of heaven and hell don’t appear in Scripture until Jesus’ teaching in the NT. It is very hard to know for sure what David thought would happen when he (or anyone else) died.
  3. The most common way of referring to the afterlife in the OT was the word sheol, which usually has the loose meaning of “the grave.” It may very well be that this is what David is thinking when he says, “I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.” In other words, “I cannot bring him back from the grave. I can only join him in the grave.”
  4. In connection to the previous point, a very similar verse is Genesis 37:35, where Jacob, mourning the alleged death of Joseph, says, “I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning.” I see two reasons why this cross-reference is important: a) because sheol has a very negative connotation here (which is inappropriate if Jacob were referring to heaven), and b) because Jacob is not comforted by the idea of being united with Joseph in sheol. Similarly, David’s statement of “I shall go to him, but he will not return to me” may not be so much a statement of comfort as it is one of resignation to the reality that sheol was now the only way for him to be united with his son.

As you can see, it is quite difficult to use the 2 Samuel 12 narrative to prove or disprove anything in this argument. God did not place that story in Scripture for the purpose of telling us what happens to a baby’s soul when s/he dies, and so it’s best that we not do this either.

So what now? How do we answer this question of what happens when babies die? Where do we turn for comfort in such a tragedy as a miscarriage or SID?

The answer is actually quite simple.

We tend to look at a baby’s death as something different than an adult’s death, and in many ways it is different. In this discussion, the key difference is that a baby is incapable of making a conscious choice of faith in Jesus Christ; so it is hard for us to rationalize how God could punish such an “innocent” child.

But there is one important similarity between a baby’s death and an adult’s death. That similarity comes when the child or adult closes his eyes for the final time on earth and passes into eternity. Both must stand before God. Both must give an account. And both will receive their eternal judgment from God – He who is totally holy, just, loving, and merciful. He who punishes the guilty but rewards the righteous. He who does all things right and operates on a level of wisdom that none of us will ever be able to comprehend. Yes, the person who dies, be it an adult or child, must stand before his Creator, and then it is up to God to decide what to do.

Jesus, seemed to be recognizing this reality as He died on the cross and uttered these words of faith: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” God, here I come. My soul is Yours. I have no power over what is coming next, but into Your hands I commit it all, and I trust You to do what is best.

We often forget that we must do this every time a person dies. As Christians we tend to think that once a person gets saved it’s a “done deal.” Salvation is like a ticket to a baseball game – you either have it or you don’t, and if you do, you’ve got nothing to worry about because you’ll get in without any problem.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not suggesting that Christians should be concerned or scared about entering the afterlife. What I’m saying is that the faith that we have in Christ for salvation comes to a climax at death because of how unknown the afterlife is to us. None of us has seen God. None of us has experienced heaven or hell. None of us knows what happens on the other side. Eternity is entirely unknowable and uncontrollable to us.

This is why it takes so much faith to see a loved one leave earth. We have so many questions that are left unanswered. What are they doing right now? What do they look like? How do they feel? These are questions that we have no choice but to commit to God because, ultimately, we really don’t know what happens when a person passes into eternity. We are 100% reliant on God to fulfill the promises of His Word and to do it in a way that is loving and gracious to us and our loved ones. We, like Jesus on the cross, must commit their souls to God. He is the One to whom they are accountable. He is the One who knows everything that they did and did not do in their lives. He is the One who gave His Son to save them from sin and hell. And only He has the power to choose the final destiny of their soul.

So when a baby passes into eternity? Really, the end result is the same. God in His omniscience and wisdom must make a decision on what to do with his/her soul. Although He hasn’t chosen to tell us what that decision is, we know that it is totally just, loving, gracious, holy, wise, and right. How could it be otherwise – He is God! And because He is God, we can cry out, Father, into your hands I commit this child’s spirit. I trust in You to do what is right with his soul. You give and You take away according to Your great wisdom. Blessed be Your Name.

why watching basketball made me thankful of the cross

I love sports. I love basketball. I love watching the Los Angeles Lakers lose. And so, last night when they choked to the Dallas Mavericks to go down in the best of seven series 0-3, I was overjoyed. In fact, I was giddy. Very little in that moment could have made me happier than watching the Lakers team stomp off the court in disappointment.

But as I was getting ready to go to bed, I started thinking about my feelings of happiness. After all, all of our glorying is to be in the cross (Gal 6:14), right? What is happening when I glory in something other than the cross like a basketball game or my family or a good book or my job or a fun time with friends? Clearly it is not wrong to enjoy non-spiritual things in life – this defies both logic and the direct teaching of Scripture (Eccl. 5:18-20; 1 Tim. 6:17b). But what do these seemingly worldly pleasures have to do with the cross, from which all our glory is to come?

The answer, rooted in the gospel, is both simple and profound – without the cross, I can have no worldly pleasure. The cross, the gospel is what enables me to enjoy the world, for it satisfies and squelches those things in life that prevent true and lasting happiness and provides a joyful foundation upon which all other happiness can be built.

Of course, there is a very obvious objection here: non-Christians can enjoy things in life too, and if a non-Christian is able to experience happiness without the cross, doesn’t that mean that the cross really has nothing to do with it?  The short answer to that question is: yes, a non-Christian can experience happiness, but this happiness is only because God originally created the world as a good place for man to enjoy. As a result, there is some enjoyment to be had, regardless of whether or not you’re a Christian, that is a natural byproduct of living in the world God created.

To put it another way, the world isn’t a bad/miserable place to live in that somehow becomes a good/enjoyable place only for Christians. On the contrary, the world is a good place created by a good God, but when sin came, it corrupted the world so that was once totally good is now good* [with an asterisk]. Sin didn’t eradicate life completely, but it made life, which was intended to be eternal, something that is temporary. Sin didn’t destroy pleasure, but it instituted pain as the default human experience, making pleasure difficult to find and transient. Sin didn’t destroy relationships, but it fraught them with frustration, pain, and heartache. Yes, there is still good and happiness in this world that any man can experience regardless of whether or not he is a Christian, but that good is fleeting, incomplete, and difficult to find and keep. Only the cross can neutralize the effects of sin and restore man’s soul to give him lasting joy and happiness.

But again, we must bring this back down to reality, to the practical realm, otherwise it is nothing but idle philosophy. So consider: if a stranger put a gun to your head and sat you in front of your favorite TV show or movie, how much would you be able to enjoy the show? Or if you were given an exquisite meal at a five star restaurant but had heard that some of their food had recently been found to have E. coli,  how much would you enjoy the meal? Or if you were given a newly built beach house that was right in the path of a massive hurricane,  how much would you be able to enjoy your new property?

There are two possible responses to these questions. On the one hand you may say, “There is a significant element of risk to all of those scenarios, but I would be able to put it in the back of mind and enjoy what I was given without worrying about the possibility of pain, suffering, or death.” Or you may say, “I would not be able to enjoy any of those scenarios because I would not be able to get over the fact that I have something much more significant and dangerous hanging over my head, threatening to replace my pleasure with instant pain or death.” Very few honest people, if any, would be able to give the first response. The vast majority of us – probably all of us – would have to agree with the latter of the two.

Whereas these scenarios of trying to be happy while your life is at risk might seem ridiculous, in reality the non-Christian faces something very similar everyday. There is certain pleasure to be found in entertainment, in food, in relationships, etc., but the pleasure will be lost in a heartbeat if only the stock market crashes or he has a stroke during the basketball game or chokes on his food at the restaurant or his loved one is permanently disabled in a car accident. He must spend his life protecting his assets from disaster and his health from decline, for if he loses any of the things in his life (or life itself), then he has nothing. He has no control over any freak accident that could suddenly bring his kingdom crashing down on his head, and he can only do his best to preserve what he has, enjoy the fleeting moments of pleasure those things bring, and try to ignore the inevitable great loss that he will suffer when he loses it all at death (or some sooner event). Life is a merciless ticking time bomb set to explode at the most inopportune time with no bias for anyone based on their race, sex, education, or wealth.

However, in addition to the inevitability of losing everything, there is yet one more problem that prevents the non-Christian from finding complete, lasting happiness: the afterlife. The best case scenario for him is that he views the afterlife as a big unknown over which he has very little control and for which he will have very little preparation prior to getting there. Maybe his loved ones will be there; maybe they won’t. Maybe there will be pain; maybe there won’t. Maybe he’ll be able to come and go as he pleases; maybe he won’t. The sheer enormity of possibilities is both staggering and terrifying. It’s like running off a cliff with your eyes closed, not knowing if the drop on the other side is a few inches or half a mile, overrun by ravenous wolves or harmless sheep, made of jagged rocks or filled with water. From a non-Christian perspective, that is the best scenario for the afterlife, and it’s fearful.

The worst case scenario is that he recognizes and/or fears that there is a final judgment in the afterlife and that there is a good possibility he will face hell for eternity. It’s a dreaded reality that he’s continually forced to shove into the back of his mind, hoping that it’s not true, trying to convince himself that maybe all those religions and churches and preachers and apostles got it wrong.

And so, here’s his predicament: he tries to enjoy life and find happiness all the while recognizing that in a second it could all be taken away from him, and that, after it is taken from him, it will be replaced with something unknown and uncontrollable – possibly an eternity of separation from all things good in hell. It really isn’t much of a stretch to compare it to trying to have fun while a loaded gun is pointed at your head or while standing in the path of a killer hurricane. There may be moments of happiness but these moments are built on a foundation of gloom and fear of the uncontrollable future, for no matter how much happiness you heap up, you can die at any moment, and when you do, you will not be able to bring with you the things from this life into the next. Death and loss may come at any moment.

This is where the cross comes in. As a Christian, the gospel teaches me that this world is not a random assortment of events that could turn on me at any moment, but that God has orchestrated a story of redemption from the very beginning and that my life is just a very small piece of that much greater work of salvation that God accomplished on the cross. It teaches me that, even though difficult circumstances may arise and I may suffer great loss, nothing can ever separate me from the love of God.  It teaches me that because God has forgiven my sin and I’m not under wrath, I do not have to fear death or the coming judgment, for I will serve my Lord in heaven forever.

Yes, the cross working through the power of the gospel has liberated my soul to enjoy life, for I know that my future is in the hands of the loving God who sent His Son to save me! What then do I have to fear? Loss of possessions? No, because God is in control and has promised me a hundredfold in the next life. Death? No, because Christ has already conquered death and will raise my body from the grave to live eternally. The afterlife? No, because that simply means that I will be absent from this body of pain and present with my great Savior.

And so, as I watch a basketball game, eat good food, enjoy time with family, or do anything else that brings happiness, there is nothing to hold me back from enjoying those things supremely, because Christ on the cross has settled the score with heaven once and for all. My future, in Christ, is secure. I have no fear, no doubt, no dread in my mind, because to live is Christ and to die is gain. True and lasting love, joy, and peace is there for me to experience every day as I live knowing that Christ on the cross has saved my sinful soul eternally.

the danger of being a “conservative christian” (part 1)

A little while back, there was a newly planted church in my area that I was interested in learning more about, and as I was reading their Principles of Operation, one little sentence tacked on towards the end caught my attention. It read, “If we are to err (and we will at times), we would rather err on a conservative side.”

I found this to be immensely thought provoking, and an obvious question quickly came to my mind: when faced with an issue not directly addressed in Scripture, is it always best to choose the most conservative option? This is an immensely important question because the assumption in many evangelical churches is that the more conservative a person is, the better. In other words, a person cannot be a good Christian if he does not live a conservative lifestyle and adhere to conservative values. There can even be a tendency to look down on those that are less conservative, as if they are of questionable moral or spiritual character. After all, if being conservative is an essential element for being Christlike, then someone who is not conservative in some aspect of life must be living in sin or, even worse, may be unsaved.

The question, then, is what does it mean to be “conservative?” The standard broad (i.e., non-political) definition that I’ve found for conservatism is “the tendency to prefer an existing or traditional situation to change” (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/conservatism). I would add that conservatism tends to avoid anything risky that could compromise a safe situation. So my definition for conservatism is a hesitancy (or refusal) to embrace a new idea that involves risk and/or challenges the traditional way of thinking on an issue.

“Playing it safe.” “Being careful.” “Trying to avoid being like the world.” These are all statements that you commonly hear from Christians as an apologetic for their conservative approach to various issues in life. And there is some warrant to this mentality. After all, many things that are new are, in fact, unbiblical. There are new approaches to the gospel, new counseling techniques, new clothing styles, new philosophies, etc. that go against Scripture (or at least appear to) and should be handled with extreme caution. That is to say, there are unbiblical trends happening all around us that we should approach conservatively.

However, there is an all-important caveat that I have already alluded to – handling an issue conservatively is only noble when obedience to the Scripture is at stake. Remember what conservatism is – a skeptical approach to new things that appear risky and/or violate a traditional way of thinking. Given a general situation in which a Christians feels compelled to react conservatively, he must ask himself, “Is the tradition that I am seeking to uphold one founded on Scripture, or is it a belief from the past that is not clearly delineated in Scripture?”

There are four possible answers to this question: 1) this tradition is not found in Scripture, 2) this tradition is based on a Scriptural interpretation that I hold, but there are other reasonable interpretations that conflict with mine, 3) this tradition is based on an application that I hold of a Scriptural principle, but there are other reasonable applications that conflict with mine, 4) this tradition is Scriptural, and there are no other potentially reasonable disagreements.

Most Christians struggle with answers two and three, because they fail to see the break between Scripture and their interpretation or application of Scripture. In our thinking the interpretation that we hold or the application that we practice is, in fact, what Scripture teaches. It is not merely “our take” on Scripture; it is Scripture. But it is both prideful and naive to think that our interpretation or application of Scripture is always what God intended for us to infer from His Word.

To give an example, Scripture teaches that we should give God our best (or “first-fruits”) when worshiping Him. Christian A may draw from that the application that a believer must dress up for a church worship service, since that would be his best clothing. However, Christian B may believe that the principle only applies to his worship proper, such as serving in the church, singing during the song service, etc. and that the way a believer dresses was not intended to be a part of the application. Both of these individuals believe that their interpretation is Scriptural, to the point that if Christian A attends a church that is made up of people that think (and dress) like Christian B, he will feel very uncomfortable or even offended. It doesn’t matter that his application is at best implied and never explicitly commanded in Scripture. He naturally places his interpretation/application on the same plane as Scripture.

Now before I go any further, it is important to recognize that Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8-10 make it very clear that different believers will have differing opinions on Scriptural application, and these differing opinions are perfectly acceptable (so long as they are within Paul’s guidelines). So my point is not to denounce either Christian A or B for holding to their beliefs or even for feeling uncomfortable among those with differing interpretations. My point is simply that we need to recognize that once we formulate an interpretation or application of Scripture, it is very hard for us to accept that this interpretation could be wrong. If someone disagrees with us, it feels as if they are disagreeing with (or even disobeying) Scripture and this makes us feel extremely uncomfortable.

Only once we come to grips with the fact that our interpretation could be 100% wrong can we truly love our brother who interprets Scripture differently than us. Otherwise, if we fail to see that we could be wrong, we will naturally be reckless in following our application of Scripture (putting our brother’s faith at risk) or look down on those who don’t have the same interpretation as us (judging our brother), and either way we fail to walk in love.

There is, however, a secondary importance to recognizing the distinction between Scripture and our interpretation of it: it should cause us to be skeptical of our interpretation. In other words, once we accept that there are other possible legitimate interpretations to Scripture that conflict with ours, we should be mindful to evaluate the other interpretations (and to reevaluate ours) to make sure that what we believe is truly Scriptural. If a Christian is not reevaluating his faith and seeking to live biblically, then he is seeking to live the Christian life comfortably and without any real challenges, as opposed to living it in a way that most glorifies God. Reevaluating your faith is hard, and having to admit that you were wrong is humiliating. But the process of evaluation and refinement of one’s Scriptural interpretations is essential to the Christian who seeks to grow.

And this where we come face-to-face with the danger of being a “conservative Christian.” Remember we said above that the conservative Christian must ask, “Is the tradition that I am seeking to uphold one founded on Scripture, or is it a belief from the past that is not clearly delineated in Scripture?” This question is not an easy one to answer, because we must wade through the mire of our personal opinions to extract what is truly Scripture from what is merely what we believe Scripture says. If we are able to do that, then we will find that our faith much more closely rests on the Word of God instead of man’s (our) opinion. Yes, the answer to the question is extremely tedious but extremely rewarding, for it brings us closer to the heart of God and demonstrates to him that our faith is full of sincere obedience.

Choosing to err on the side of being “too conservative” is not a biblical strategy, primarily because it is not always the biblical choice in a situation (which we will consider in Part 2), but also because that mentality seeks to simplify the Christian life in a way that God never meant for it to be simplified. He wants the Christian life to be challenging and thought-provoking. He didn’t give us a 500,000 page book detailing for us what to do in every situation. That strategy would never touch our hearts, for we could mindlessly memorize and obey the commands without ever thinking about what we were doing or why. But it is our heart that God wants, not mindless obedience, and He accomplishes this by commanding us to love God and our neighbor as ourselves, all the while expecting us to scour through the numerous narratives, letters, songs, prophecies, etc. of Scripture to determine exactly how that love plays itself out.

Consider this on a human level. If an intern is approached by his boss to start a new project and the boss shows him multiple examples of past projects that he liked or disliked, there are two different ways that the intern can respond. He can either simplify things for himself by trying to precisely copy the projects from the past that his boss liked without putting much thought into improving them (“This may not be the best way to do this, but I don’t want to risk trying something new that he may not approve of.”) or he can seek to improve on the past projects, all the while digging deeply into those examples in an effort to determine exactly what it was that his boss liked or didn’t like (“I’ve isolated the key similarities between the projects that he liked and those that he disliked. Now I can work on building one from scratch that works the absolute best for this company.”). Is it plausible that either mentality could get the job done in a way pleasing to the boss? Of course it is, but only the second of the two mindsets demonstrated the spirit of earnest obedience that seeks to perform the task as best as possible, and that mentality is most likely the one that will yield the best result, despite clearly being the riskier of the two.

Similarly, when God gives us a command, we then must do our diligence in determining how to obey the command. Like the interns in the example above, we have to look at the numerous other commands, examples, etc. that God has given us, and then determine where we “draw the line” in our application of the command. The foolish decision is to draw the line as close as possible to violating the command, so that you are practically sinning even though you are not technically crossing the line. The conservative decision is the draw the line as far away as possible, ensuring that you never have to risk even coming near the line, let alone crossing it. The biblical decision is to evaluate each situation individually, drawing the line in a different spot each time (sometimes near, sometimes far) according as it appears that God would have you to.

Let’s look at one last illustration. Scripture commands women not to wear clothing that appears masculine. Let’s assume that a Christian (Bob) concludes from this that women should not wear pants. After all, that was the traditional standard from years gone by – men worked in the field and wore pants, while women stayed at home and wore dresses – and it’s a tradition that continues in various forms today. So, he reasons, it’s best to just play it safe because the trend for women to wear pants may violate the principle of gender appropriateness, even though Scripture gives very few guidelines as to the application of this principle.

Now let’s say that Bob gets married and has a family, and he and his wife decide that she and all the female children should avoid wearing pants or shorts, since this may violate Scripture. They aren’t fanatical about it; it’s just their way of making sure they safely honor the Scriptural principle of gender appropriateness, and they make sure not to judge others who hold to a different standard.

However, they find it very hard to fit into their society. The girls are looked down on in school because they seem averse to modern (yet modest) styles, and Bob and his wife find that those outside of their conservative circle tend to avoid them, some of them specifically mentioning the dress issue as one of the main reasons for their avoidance. The few unsaved friends that they have rarely listen to them share the gospel, and this becomes a source of frustration for them.

One day, while Bob is speaking to an unsaved coworker, he mentions candidly how frustrating it is to have so few that are willing to listen to his faith. He is confused because he knows he is commanded to be separate from “the world,” but at the same time he is called to reach the world with the gospel. At this point Bob’s coworker interrupts him.

“Bob, people respect you because you are a man of principle. They see that you and your wife hold to some standards that appear unusual to the rest of us, but they also see that you do this because you feel like you are obeying your God this way.

“Non-Christians are able to understand when you try obey God and not sin, but where we get confused and turned off is when you go so far out of your way to avoid things that don’t appear to be wrong. Let’s take the issue of clothing, for instance. The first thing that we see when we run into your family is that the females always wear dresses and stay clear of the more modern styles. We can understand and respect the principle of modesty that your Bible speaks of, but when Christians start applying that in other ways and start teaching their families that modesty means avoiding cultural trends and styles, it becomes very confusing and unattractive to us. What other hidden things within our culture does God expect us to avoid? It feels pretty impossible to be able to serve a God who not only commands you not to sin but who also places you within a culture and then demands that you avoid living in a culturally acceptable manner.”

Although Bob doesn’t necessarily agree with what his coworker has told him, he certainly has a dilemma. He has to obey God’s command for gender appropriateness, but God doesn’t give him very many guidelines for it. If he makes a conservative decision, then he will continue to do the “safe” thing which is to do what he knows was fine in the past and will continue to be fine in the present. However, this option causes an unnecessary stumblingblock to the gospel for some people that Bob comes in contact with.

On the other hand, he could accept that there are some modern styles that are both modest and gender appropriate for women and allow the women in his family to wear some of these clothes, provided they followed some clear Scriptural guidelines. That way, his family is obeying Scripture and bringing honor to God by eliminating the unnecessary hindrances to the gospel.

I believe that either decision would obey God. They both follow the commands for women to wear modest, gender- appropriate clothing. The issue here is not obedience. The issue is that one decision honors God more fully than the other because it not only avoids sin, but it does it in a way that also glorifies God among the unsaved.

There is no doubt that erring on the side of being too conservative eliminates risk and simplifies things for a Christian. You don’t have to worry about whether or not an action is sinful, because you are always going to draw the line as far away from sin as possible and resist any new ideas encouraging you to do otherwise. But in simplifying the Christian life, you risk not availing yourself of something new that God may place in your life in order to help you glorify Him and further His kingdom more fully.

Ultimately, the spirit of obedience that most pleases God is not the one that simplifies the Christian life by responding conservatively to every situation. It is the one that evaluates all the factors – avoidance of sin, glory to God, edification of other believers, openness for the gospel, etc. – and determines which choice will ultimately bring Christ the most honor.