Posts Tagged ‘ theology ’

the real lessons from the 2012 election

Al Mohler, whom I greatly respect, posted some lessons from the 2012 election that he learned. His basic conclusion is that America is becoming more liberal, less moral, and more anti-Christian, and that the Republican Party and Christians need to consider a way to “winsomely convince Americans to share our moral convictions.”


I understand that during elections we can sometimes see trends and patterns that aren’t as objectively visible during non-election season, but this election told me very little about non-Christian America. I already knew the unbelieving world was morally bankrupt, anti-Christian, hostile to the gospel, against traditional marriage, consumed with self-interest, etc. Read Paul’s Spirit-inspired description of the non-believing world back in his day: “People will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power” (2 Tim 3:2-5).

Paul wrote those words 2,000 years ago. America didn’t become like this suddenly the past 4 years. This is the way unbelievers have been for millennia. Maybe the religious heritage of our nation prevented these sins from being especially visible, but that doesn’t mean that they weren’t there, hidden beneath the surface of religious or social pretense.

Are we worse off spiritually as a nation now than we were 15 or 20 years ago? Perhaps, but that’s not because unbelieving society is becoming more liberal or morally bankrupt. It’s because Christians haven’t spread the gospel or showed the love of Christ to unbelievers, and now we find ourselves as a shrinking minority. Or to say it another way, there are less Christians in America than there used to be and so America is literally becoming un-Christian. What do you think happens when the salt of the earth loses its flavor or the light of the world is put under a basket? We’re seeing it before our very eyes.

The only way for Christians to “winsomely convince Americans to share our moral convictions” is by helping said Americans to see their need for Christ and come to Him for salvation. Then the Holy Spirit will do the work of showing them where their moral convictions need to be. We can’t make America Christian from the outside in. The Spirit’s work of sanctification (i.e., “setting apart”) can only be done from the inside out. We must start with the hearts of individual people in order to reach the moral backbone of our nation. But we already knew all that, right?

That’s why I said that this election told me very little about non-Christian America. It did, however, tell me a great deal about Christians and the American Church. Let’s look at some of the lessons I learned about Christianity from this election.

I learned that Christians associate their missional identity far too closely with their political one. For the Christian, there is only one agenda on this earth – to glorify God by helping people (including ourselves) become disciples of Christ. That’s it. Our agenda isn’t to moralize society. It’s not to make America conservative. It’s not even to attack sinful patterns that we see in society. Discipleship is first, last, and only on the list of things Christians should be accomplishing.

Now here’s the irony of what we’re seeing the Church today – the emphasis on social politics as a (or the)  mission of the Church has actually done the exact opposite of our true mission. The “Moral Majority” mindset hasn’t led our nation to desire to follow Christ – it’s turned people away from Christ! And even if we were successful at making our nation more moral, that still hasn’t made them more Christian. God isn’t glorified by a bunch of sinners who try not to sin. He’s glorified by sinners who recognize their sinfulness and turn to Him for rescue from it. There is very little that we can do to distract from that more than focusing our efforts on social issues in our society.

But there is another issue here – that Christians are measuring their success by what happens at the polls. The mood yesterday among many Christians was one of doom and gloom. We failed. The total secularization of America is coming. Christians are about to be eradicated. The end is near.

God doesn’t measure our success by whomever is elected into our government. If so, then Jesus’ whole concept of  “the Church” has been an utter failure. When has there ever been a time that the Church has found a way to bring perfect people into the leadership of a country? And while we’re at it, when in the OT theocracy did God ever set up a perfect person to lead Israel? Or how about the Israelite Monarchy? I’m pretty sure that King Saul for most of his reign was a more godless man than Barack Obama has ever been. Do you know who “elected” him? Yahweh.

God is doing something much bigger here that cannot be measured by how godly or godless our government officials are. His assessment is based on His people’s heart and, in particular, on whether or not they love Him with everything they are and whether or not they love their neighbors as themselves. And sometimes believers do love as God desires them to and strive for discipleship, and yet their efforts have no discernible effect on their surroundings (See: Jeremiah, Book of). That doesn’t mean that they have failed in their mission. It just means that God has chosen to bless them in a way that remains to be seen.

I learned that Christians identify too closely with the Republican Party. I already knew this to be the case, but boy do I know it now. Christians were willing to compromise a tremendous amount of their faith in order to try to get Mitt Romney into office.

How do I know this to be the case? Because the vast majority of Al Mohler’s article could have been written by an unsaved Republican politician, and it wouldn’t have seriously altered its message. Because Billy Graham met with Mitt Romney before the election and immediately took his website’s statement against Mormonism off of the internet so that it wouldn’t hinder the Republican cause. Because Christians are willing to rally against liberals to “support life”, but then in the same breath support the ruthless and unconstitutional killing of leaders, civilizations, and fellow Christians abroad. Why? Because that’s what Republicans do, and Christians are Republicans; so it’s what we do too.

Listen, when the world associates Christians with the Republican Party, it’s not a good thing. It’s not a good thing to be associated with any party, because they all have major flaws that dishonor God. Christ wasn’t a Republican, and if a Christian has good reasons to be a Democrat, Libertarian, Green Party member, or what have you, they are free to, but they should all hold their political party loosely, so as to not bring their party’s baggage onto the name of Christ.

I learned that Christians looked to the Republican candidate as a sort of savior of our nation who, after losing the election, also lost our nation along with him. There was literal weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth that I saw and heard from the evangelical community. Why? I’m not even sure that those who were so upset knew. I know that some were concerned about Obama’s economic and foreign policies, but I think the majority are scared to death about what his social policy could entail the next 4 years.

Four more years of a liberal President!? The world may end during that time! At least 2 more liberal Supreme Court Justices! Permanent abortion! Gay marriage federally legalized! Contraceptives required to be funded by churches! The 10 Commandments kicked out of schools! Christian liberties abolished!

Let’s be honest with ourselves here – Obama probably will not be able to do everything evangelicals fear he will (even if he wants to). But even if he does, we can be certain that Romney would not have been able to undo it all. How would he undo the laws on abortion? It’s not as simple as just appointing a couple of conservative justices and having them overturn Roe v Wade. Not to mention, Romney flip-flopped on the issue of abortion anyway, and we don’t even know what he truly believes on it. What about Obamacare (which is the cause of the contraceptives dispute that the Catholic Church has with the government)? Romney already said he liked parts of Obamacare and that he wouldn’t get rid of them. But the parts he wanted to keep would have not have been possible without keeping the most controversial parts of the bill. Plus Romney passed Romneycare in Massachusetts, which is basically Obamacare on the state level.

But the bigger picture here is that Christians have only one Savior – Jesus. What if our country becomes totalitarian and starts persecuting Christians? For us, nothing significant has changed. Our hope lies in Jesus, both for our spiritual needs and for our physical ones. We should still vote and be passionate about improving our country, but if “our guy” doesn’t get elected we have to shrug our shoulders and move on. Our citizenship is in heaven, and ultimately our Supreme King determines who rules us during our time on earth.

I learned that Christians did not focus on God the way they should have leading up to the elections. Social media among Christians exploded yesterday with a host of theological cliches aimed at making them feel better about their defeat – “God is still in control,” “This world is not my home,” “God’s wrath is coming on this country,” etc. Now I’m aware that some people posted these things to console others about the election outcome, but a great deal of what I saw was Christians clearly consoling themselves.

Before I go any further, I need to clarify that if we console ourselves or others when discouraged, it should be in truth about God, specifically the truth of the gospel. But something about what I kept seeing after this election made it feel disingenuous. Specifically, I noticed a lot of people who acted like they could care less about God’s sovereignty leading up to the election, who suddenly became bold preachers of God’s sovereignty after Obama won. Were they directing their thoughts that way prior to the election? And if so, why did they only start talking about it after the election was lost?

My hunch, and I admit that this is a guess on my part, is that many Christians were not thinking much about God in the days leading up to the election. Their thoughts going into the election wasn’t, “This world isn’t my eternal dwelling place. Ultimately, these elections will have no bearing on my soul. But God is in control, and even if I don’t like who our president is, God will sustain and protect me in the way He sees fit.”

The great chagrin that Christians demonstrated once Obama was reelected suggests to me that their pre-election thought process went more like this: “If we can just get Romney into the White House, he’ll be able to turn around this mess that Obama got us into.” Once Obama was reelected and hope of that turn-around was out of the question, suddenly God enters the picture. So they console themselves with thoughts that “God is in control,” which is really just a way of saying, “I have no clue what God is doing right now, but I sure hope He does.”

Maybe I’m being a bit judgmental here, but how else can you describe the evangelical response to the election? If you were meditating on God’s sovereignty and on the eternal state prior to the elections, how could you possibly be outraged, depressed, or anxious following the election results? I could understand feeling a bit of frustration with the direction our country is heading in, but in general those emotional responses aren’t fruit of the Spirit, and they don’t come from God. Neither did the bulk of the response that came out of evangelicalism following the election.

I learned that Christians have a very elementary understanding of government and how it relates to their faith. This needs to be broken down into subpoints.

1. Confusion on how large the government should be

Liberal America wants the federal government to pass gay marriage. Conservative America wants the federal government to ban gay marriage. Liberal America wants the federal government to maintain abortion. Conservative America wants the federal government to ban abortion. Liberal America wants the federal government to put up a wall of separation between religion and state. Conservative America wants the federal government to allow a blending of religion and state (but only if that means the state doesn’t interfere with religion and that it only allows Christian things to be involved in the government, not other religious elements).

What’s the similarity between all of these illustrations of the stark difference between liberal and conservative politics? They all rely on the federal government to control social issues as they’d like. But there’s a problem here – America is a huge nation. We have literally hundreds of governments in states, counties, and cities that operate under our federal government. If the federal government messes up, we all suffer for it. And, guess what? The federal government messes up a lot.

The reason why Christians have lost the war over abortion is because the federal government got involved. Yet they want to use the federal government to outlaw abortion. How foolish is that? We’re going to give one government that wields its power over 300,000,000+ people the ability with one stroke of the pen to determine who lives and who doesn’t? And do you really want the federal government to determine who can get married and who can’t? Do you realize how great of a risk you’re taking giving that kind of power to our central government?

Christians will continue to lose political victories if they keep giving the federal government power over social issues. Why? Because all it takes is a handful of men in the federal government to change everything. The best answer is to limit federal power and give more authority to the states. Then Christians can have more influence in legislation that affects them and elect someone closer to their worldview. But even then, it will never be perfect. As I stated before, the ultimate solution to our country’s problems is the gospel, not the government.

2. Confusion on whether our government should be a theocracy or not

Most Christians would say they aren’t trying to make America into a theocracy. But practically speaking, this often doesn’t appear to be the case.

Let’s talk about gay marriage again. Why do Christians want to outlaw gay marriage? The quick answer is, “Because it’s a sin!” But if you actually read what the Bible says about marriage, you’ll find that it never addresses gay marriage at all. What it does address is homosexuality, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. Even if gay marriage were banned, homosexuality, which is the real sin issue, would still continue in America. So should Christians lobby for banning homosexuality? What about premarital sex? Divorce? Covetousness? Deceit?

Pretty soon you go down the slippery slope and find yourself creating a government based on the rules of the Bible. You might even call it a theocracy. But that’s a good thing, right?

Wrong. For starters, the Bible is not a government handbook. But more importantly, people should have the right to choose to sin or to turn away from their sin to Christ. God gave us free will for a reason, and it’s not the government’s job to decide our morality for us. The government’s primary responsibility is to protect and sustain its citizens. There are some sins that inhibit a person’s protection or sustenance and those should be outlawed, but it’s outside the bounds of a government’s responsibility to tell people that they can’t sin. That’s God’s job, not the government.

3. Confusion on what significance Christian symbols really have

Most Christians feel threatened by the government when it does things like outlawing the Ten Commandments from being in schools and courthouses, outlawing public prayer in government buildings, eliminating crosses from public parks, etc. Now I’m not saying that we shouldn’t try to fight for religious freedom, but our fight should be done properly and intelligently, not angrily and defensively. And our fight for freedom should come second to our expression of our freedom – namely our efforts to make people into disciples of Christ.

Furthermore, much of the fight over “freedom” is more of a fight over the symbols of Christianity than it is over real freedom. I could go on with this point, but it has already been articulated quite well.

I learned that Christians want religious entitlements. “Liberals” allegedly want social entitlements from the government; so Christians expect the government to provide what I’m going to call “religious entitlements,” and ultimately this is exactly what the Republican Party has promised to evangelicals in order to get their vote.

What do I mean by “religious entitlements?” I mean that we think that we shouldn’t have to make difficult decisions between obeying God and obeying the the government. We think that people should be forced to have the same worldview as us. We think that we should be able to be hateful toward those who disagree with us, without consequences. We think that we should be able to hold to our Christian beliefs while still pursuing the American Dream. We think that the government should give precedence to Christianity over other religions. We think that we have the right to be Christian and have it easy.

The majority of our brothers and sisters in Christ who live overseas would have no idea what we’re talking about. Nor would they desire to.

I’m not saying that religious freedom is bad. I’m just saying that we aren’t entitled to it and we shouldn’t tell the world that we are. That turns them off to Christ all the more, just like it turns us off when we see people mooching off the government for entitlements that we don’t think they deserve. We should be grateful when given religious freedoms, respectful when they’re taken away, and resolute when the absence of religious freedom forces us to practice civil disobedience.

Do you know what happened when the Christians of the Early Church had their “religious entitlements” taken away? They rejoiced. They didn’t cry about it. They didn’t talk about God bringing judgment on their country. They didn’t run away, scared. They thanked God for being able to share, in a small way, in the sufferings of Christ and of the believers who went before them.

The Republican Party appears, in a lot of ways, to be a dying breed. Either Christians can go down with the Republican ship, fighting for air after every wave of opposition comes crashing down, or they can cut the cord once and for all and be followers of Christ, as our true King commands them to us. Christians haven’t had any problem following God in a country full of religious liberties. The question is, whether that commitment to God will remain when the social conservatism that the Republican Party has kept alive ceases to exist.


2011 in review – 10 things i learned

No doubt this post is late. Most people wrote their “2011 review” columns in December. But I guess it just didn’t occur to me until recently that it would be beneficial to me (and maybe others) if I spelled out what a year’s worth of God pursuing me accomplished.

In 2011 I saw a seismic shift in my theological presuppositions. I was raised a fundamentalist, and I saw enough good in fundamentalism that I wanted to remain in those types of churches. That was until I realized that my disagreements with fundamentalism were not just minor ones (as I had always convinced myself) – they were major enough that they were keeping me from growing the way I should. So, for the first time in my life, 2011 saw me in a non-fundamentalist church, and there were many things that I found myself thinking and doing that I had never thought or done before because of my upbringing – and yet many of these things seemed so simple and obvious.

So I say this to warn you that some of what I “learned” will likely be radical to you if you fancy yourself a fundamentalist. For many others, these things will appear incredibly basic, even elementary. With that in mind, let’s begin.

1. Gospel-centeredness. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, one of the main things that drove me out of fundamentalist churches was their teaching of the gospel. To the majority of them, the gospel is something for the unbeliever, and growth through good works is for the believer. I had a significant problem with this works-based model of sanctification (Paul calls it “another gospel” in Galatians), and so I fled to the gospel and found that my growth in Christ is not based on something I must do, but what He has already done.

I had striven my whole life to put on the fruit of the Spirit in my own power – with zero success. I realized that the fruit of the Spirit is something that comes naturally when one looks to the Cross. We love because He first loved us. We have joy because Christ has secured our eternal home for us in heaven. We have peace because God’s wrath has been satisfied by Christ’s death. Think about what an insult it is to our Savior when we feel like we need to conjure up the fruit of the Spirit in our lives. Was His death not enough? Is the knowledge of Him and what He accomplished not sufficient for life and godliness? These truths gripped me more than ever this past year, and the result was dramatic.

2. Continuationist but not entirely “charismatic.” My church is continuationist is doctrine and it’s very refreshing to be around Spirit-led people who are pursuing the gifts of the Spirit. This is, in my experience, absent in most churches that teach cessationist pneumatology. As a result, I’ve found myself agreeing with the vast majority of continuationist doctrine.

However, I still don’t know what to think about speaking in tongues and healing. I definitely do not see anywhere in the Bible that clearly teaches that these have ceased, but on the other hand, I do not see them being performed in the same ways that they were in the Early Church. (When was the last time you saw someone healed of a sickness by going under the shadow of someone with the gift of healing?) So the jury is still out for me on how to view these “charismatic gifts.”

3. Biblical fellowship. I never truly understood the importance of Christian fellowship until this year. In many churches I had been involved with, fellowship is having a pot luck meal with the rest of the church. The result was that spiritual growth was strictly a one-on-one thing. In other words, it’s between “you and God” and no one else should be involved with it. If that were the case, then why did Christ institute the Church? Why does the Bible command us to confess our faults to each other? Why does Paul tell us to encourage one other? How are we to bear each other’s burdens? These are things that cannot be accomplished merely in pot luck dinners and church visitation. These are things that should be done throughout the week – encouraging, warning, helping, loving. Spiritual growth does have a “one-on-one” element, but it also has an “us together” element. And I found this past year that I need the latter just as much as I need the former in order to grow.

4. Enjoyable (biblical) worship. Fundamentalism teaches that you should enjoy worship but not too much. You must develop a taste for classical music and 18-19th Century hymns, otherwise you won’t be able to worship properly. For much of my life, I attempted to do this, and I had some success with it. But it always felt shallow. It seemed strange that, even though Scripture never addresses the subject of specific musical styles, this was such an important aspect of worship. Why was it that the music that I was best able to express myself through was so sinful? Why was it that the worship that I most enjoyed allegedly resulted in me “walking in the flesh?”

In reality, I had tossed out that bad doctrine a few years ago, but it wasn’t until this past year that I actually began visiting churches that had a biblical view of worship. It was remarkable what a difference it made when I was able to enjoy worship for the first time. It was no longer just a part of the Sunday service but a crucial time of offering my praise back to God.

Now, worship is one of the highlights of my week. In fact, when my wife and I went on vacation last year, we actually went out of our way to find a good church to attend on the Sunday we were out, drove over an hour to visit it, and loved every moment of it. In past vacations, attending a church service would have been absurd. This time, it felt like our week would’ve been incomplete without worship.

5. Loving parenting. Being a parent is hard. Being a loving one is even harder. Many times this past year I found myself responding to my daughter in the flesh. It’s the easy thing to do. When something goes wrong, get angry, yell, and put the child in her place. But this model of parenting isn’t what we find in the gospel. God is our loving Father who graciously shows mercy and love to us in our rebellion. This is still something I have to constantly grow in, but what I learned in 2011 was an important first step.

6. Bible reading/study programs. There are many Bible reading programs out there, but all of them involve one thing – time. The Bible is no small piece of literature – a compilation of 66 books which each have their own unique message but which also depend on each other to comprise the larger message of the gospel.

This creates a challenge because each book contains so much depth that it is virtually impossible to understand one book without camping out in it and studying it for days, weeks, or even months. But at the same time, you cannot understand that book without understanding the other 65 books. So you must choose your poison – either study one book at length to the detriment of the others or read through all of them relatively quickly to both the advantage and detriment of each of them.

However, in 2011 I found what I believe to be the best possible compromise – a read-through-the-Bible-in-90-days plan that exposes a person to the entirety of Scripture but still leaves 9 months to study several books in depth. It’s certainly a challenge to stay on a plan like that, but it is much more beneficial than a “camp out on one book” plan that ignores the rest of Scripture or a “read the Bible in one year plan” which has just enough daily reading to make it difficult to study in depth but not enough to give you a big picture overview of the book.

Many people object that 90 days forces you to read through the Bible too quickly to digest what you’re reading. I 100% disagree. I feel like that is the perfect amount of time for catching on to some of the major themes and ideas that the authors were trying to communicate. Many, if not all the books of the Bible were written under the assumption that the audience would read through them quickly. As such, there are many things that you pick up on reading through a book in 1, 2, or 3 days that you would not pick up on in 10 days. If there is something you don’t understand that you would like to camp out on, you can make a note of it and come back to it after the 90 days is up. You still have 9 more months for in depth study!

7. Bible audio. One thing I did more of this past year than ever before was to listen to audio of the Bible. I always shied away from it because I liked to have the option of taking time to stop and think about a verse or passage that struck me, and I didn’t think listening to an audio recording would allow that.

However, what I learned from this experience is that much of the Bible makes for great listening. The majority of the Bible was written as a narrative/story and the authors probably intended that their stories would be read aloud. I found that there were many things that I never picked up on when reading a passage that I did pick up on when listening to it. There were several, “Ohhh, that’s why that happened!” moments that occurred as I listened to the books.

And really, the same thing is true of some of the “meatier,” deeper books – most notably, the epistles. Many, of them were written with the intention that they would be read allowed to a local church body. (If you look closely, you will see references to this throughout the Bible, such as in Revelation where John commends those who both “read aloud” and “hear” the book.) So while there is good reason to read and study a passage in depth, parsing each noun and conjugating each verb, many passages were ultimately written with a listener-audience in mind.

8. More reformed. I’ve had a more reformed theology of salvation since high school, but only recently have I started questioning dispensational eschatology as well. Having always been taught dispensationalism, some of the nuances of reformed theology are a little foreign to me, but the more I learn it, the more I find myself embracing it. I do not currently consider myself amillennial, but maybe in the near future I will. There is still much studying that I must do on the subject before I fully come to my own conclusions.

9. Knowing less than before. In many ways I feel like I know less than I did last year. That’s not because I have forgotten a substantial amount during that time (although that may be true). It’s more of a mentality shift, and it’s built on the foundation that Christians (myself included) tend to be more dogmatic on many relatively inconsequential issues than Scripture is. The Bible says a lot, but it also doesn’t say a lot.

For instance, Genesis says that God created the world and poetically depicts Yahweh as speaking creation into existence in 6 days. Did Moses intend for his audience to interpret that literally or is there a more figurative significance? (Maybe the “speaking” the world into existence signifies the ease with which God created everything, or maybe the “6 days” was intended to be more of an allusion to the work week (and subsequent Sabbath Day of rest) than it was an actual time stamp on God’s creative labors.) I tend to learn towards the more literal understanding of Genesis 1-2, but the reality is that Moses explains the entire creation of the cosmos in 2 short chapters, and he clearly does not intend for his readers to analyze these chapters scientifically (yikes). Shouldn’t that lead us to be a little less dogmatic on how it all happened, considering that there are clearly an abundance of details left out from this creation narrative? The answer is: yes. And I don’t feel like that’s a heretical response, as long as you believe in the one part of the narrative that is clear – that God created the world on His own the way He wanted to. Ultimately, that’s what all the debate over Genesis 1-2 is about anyway.

So whereas in the past I would staunchly challenge those who disagreed with my interpretations of passages, such as Genesis 1-2, now I find myself becoming less certain that I am right and those who disagree with me are wrong. The reality is that no one is right 100% of the time – not even theologians. I think it’s better to recognize that up front instead of having to learn it the hard way.

10. Conservatism vs. Christ-likeness. Maybe the most drastic change in my thinking occurred when it finally sunk in that I could be extremely conservative and yet know nothing of Christ. The Pharisees were probably the most conservative people of their day, and yet their conservatism became sin because they elevated it above the clear teachings of Scripture.

As I began to meditate on this, it became clear that many times the most conservative choice is not the most biblical one. Was Christ conservative in the way He approached the Sabbath Day? Clearly not. Read the OT Sabbath laws and then read what Christ did on the Sabbath. Many of the things He did appear to be blatant violations of Scripture, but that was ok because He recognized the big picture and understood that slavishly conservative adherence to Sabbath law was not what God was looking for.

What is wrong in large doses might be right in smaller ones. What is wrong in some circumstances might be right in others. What is wrong to one person might be right to another one. Obedience to God isn’t a formula. You can’t just assume that it’s always best to be conservative, to play it safe. Christ didn’t play it safe. He didn’t just do the most conservative thing all the time. He did things that caused others to call him a drunkard, a glutton, a friend of prostitutes, and demon-possessed! And if Christ-likeness looks to some like gluttony, then I hope someday to be accused of being the most gluttonous person alive.

someone worth dying for?

Our society lives for positive messages. We love to hear that we’re held in high esteem, that things are looking up, that the economy is improving, that others love us, that God has a plan for us. These types of messages are in high demand – just turn on TV or the radio or swing by Barnes and Noble and look at some of the best-sellers out there. We want to hear people say things that make us feel good. That’s just a part of our nature.

Christian song-writers have picked up on this, and some of the top hits on Christian radio today are feel-good messages. This in itself is not a bad thing since Scripture is filled with many promises and encouraging passages that are intended to make God’s people feel good about their faith and their lives. But there is a danger here – the danger is when a feel-good message violates the message of the gospel.

The way I see it, there are three kinds of feel-good messages/songs. The first one operates on the assumption that I should feel good because I am good. It could be a song that simply praises a person (e.g., You Raise Me Up) or that encourages them that, even though they don’t feel good right at that moment, it ultimately doesn’t matter because they are good on the inside. The second type of feel-good message operates on the assumption that my life is about to get much better. For example, “You may be down and out now, but things will be getting better soon; so keep your head up!” The final feel-good message is the only one of the three centered on the gospel. This one operates on the assumption that I have nothing in myself, but in Christ I have everything. Whereas the first two focus on the presence of good apart from Christ, this final one emphasizes that the good in a person’s life comes only through Christ, and through this truth it drives home the message of encouragement.

Practically speaking there is a lot of overlap between the different feel-good messages, but it’s the perspective that ultimately determines whether the message is gospel-centered or not. For instance, you might say to a believer who was recently laid off, “Don’t worry. Things will get better. Just fight through the difficulty now, and eventually you’ll see the silver lining on the storm clouds.” Or you might say, “Don’t worry. God is in control, and He has promised that in His saving work all things happen in perfect harmony with His plan to make you more like Christ, even though you may not currently see how that is possible.”

Both of these messages of encouragement at their core are saying the same thing – don’t worry about what you’re going through now because, although you can’t see it, something good will come out of it later – but where they differ is in perspective. The first one is inherently man-centered because all of the focus is on the subject who is experiencing difficulty. The second one is inherently Christ-centered because all of the focus is on His work of salvation. The first one is grounded on an assumption that things will improve. The second one is grounded on the truth of the gospel. The first one fails to encourage because it brings about more questions than answers – What kind of better circumstances will I experience? When will it happen? How will I know when it comes?  The second one succeeds at encouraging because it challenges us to confront the questions we have with biblical doctrine – God’s sovereignty, His love for us, His plan for us in sanctification, His ultimate goal for us in glorification, etc.

Unfortunately, it’s very easy for us to blur the lines between gospel-centered and man-centered encouragement. A few months ago, I was listening to Christian radio and a new single by Mikeschair came on called Someone Worth Dying For. Here are the lyrics to the chorus of the song:

Am I more than flesh and bone?
Am I really something beautiful?
Yeah, I wanna believe, I wanna believe that
I’m not just some wandering soul
That you don’t see and you don’t know
Yeah I wanna believe, Jesus help me believe that I
Am someone worth dying for

The end of the song rounds out with repeating, “You’re someone worth dying for.”

Now, my goal is not to attack Mikeschair in this. I can’t be 100% sure what they were trying to communicate through this song. It is very possibly that, in an effort to make the lyrics fit a certain standard for rhyme or meter, the message they were trying to communicate was distorted.  But unfortunately, not knowing their motives, I can only look at it and tell you that to me it communicates something that is very anti-gospel. The entire message of Scripture is that humans are sinners, not worthy of heaven or God, but that Christ in his great mercy, while we were dead in our sins, came to earth and paid the penalty of our sins and made us righteous so that we could be fellowship with Him. So, to echo Mikeschair, yeah, I wanna believe that I’m someone worth dying for, but Scripture doesn’t allow me to do that. The encouragement of the gospel isn’t that I’m worthy for salvation but that Christ saved me despite my unworthiness.

The sad thing is that currently this song is #12 on the Christian music chart and has been on the chart now for 23 weeks. Is this the kind of message that Christians need to encourage themselves with? Am I supposed to console myself with feel-good words of my own worthiness before the cross of Christ?

Allow me to present an alternative. Tenth Avenue North came out with a song last year called You Are More that is very similar but seeks to encourage a Christian from a gospel perspective. Here is the chorus and bridge of the song:

You are more than the choices that you’ve made,
You are more than the sum of your past mistakes,
You are more than the problems you create,
You’ve been remade.

‘Cause this is not about what you’ve done,
But what’s been done for you.
This is not about where you’ve been,
But where your brokenness brings you to

This is not about what you feel,
But what He felt to forgive you,
And what He felt to make you loved.

What a refreshing change of perspective! It’s not about me but about Him. It reminds me of what John the Baptist said: “He must increase, but I must decrease.”

In order to encourage one another from the gospel we must do a lot of decreasing. We are nothing. God is everything. We are temporal. He is eternal. We are sinful. He is gracious. We deserve death. He gives us life. If every good thing we have comes from the Father through Christ, then how could we possibly be encouraged by lesser things? Ultimately, the only true encouragement that we can have is when we look to Christ. It’s not about us but about Him.

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.

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” ( 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.