I have listened to the followers of a lot of -isms and -ics in my 35 years as a follower of Jesus. CharismatIC, WesleyanISM, CalvinISM, CatholicISM, EvangelicalISM, House-churchianity, and so on. I would like to share something that I have observed, and I share it in hope to encourage someone, somewhere to focus in on the simpler, more faithful life of following Christ, living under the kingship of the Lord Jesus.
These -ics and -isms have one thing in common: they develop a system of thought that elevates consistency with itself above conformity to Christ’s commands, and reads Scripture in light of its system. Conservative or liberal doesn’t make a difference. In each case, the focus is on understanding God (at its best), or feeling no cognitive tension (understandable human drive), or intellectual pride in one’s superior system (at its most tribal worst).
So what’s wrong with seeking to understand God, that is, pursue a systematic theology? At least two things: (1) On the surface, it is hubris expressing itself. Really? Understand God? The pot comprehending the Potter? The finite grasping the infinite? We do not really “see as through a glass darkly” because of our broken minds and world? (2) More crippling for us as Christians is this: in my observation, those who primarily focus on understanding God and on developing a consistent, cognitive system about God do not realize how that actually works against standing-under the direction of the Lord, submitting and following regardless of ability to conceptualize or rationalize the thing He commands to be done. The focus on understanding means that, across the board, there is a point where the system is held above the Lord.
An example. If your ic or ism teaches you that grace is unconditional (sounds right, doesn’t it?), that means that being forgiven by God has no conditions at all. Freely given, freely received. Now, there is a true aspect of that (that is, grace is always a gift and never earned), but I have heard unconditionalists (made up word) reject the clear teaching of Jesus because of their system. If I say to them, even though it is a gift, forgiveness IS conditional, according to Jesus. I have had them say “nuh uh.” So then I just read to them what Jesus said. At the end of the Lord’s teaching on how to pray in Matthew 6 (the Lord’s Prayer, as it is called) Jesus takes pains to explain only this part of the prayer: “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14-15). Pretty clear. And, to underline its importance, it is the punch line of his extended teaching on forgiveness in Matthew 18: “And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart” (Matthew 18:34-35).
Ah, you say, well that is just because they don’t understand/articulate clearly. If they had MY -ism, they wouldn’t be so -ic-ky. (Couldn’t resist the pun, sorry). This is the steam for so much denominationalsm and the reason for existence for so many Christian colleges, seminaries and Bible schools. “If you can teach ‘em right, they’ll be right and prevail over wrong.” These institutions have trained us to believe we need educated leaders to be healthy. That tree has not borne fruit in keeping with the kingdom. The Bible teaches us to follow leaders who are faithful, that is, those who consistently obey Jesus over a long time. It says nothing about needing a college education. Jesus commanded us to “teach them to obey all that I have commanded.” Nowhere does He say, “Teach them to understand everything in the Bible, or about God.”
We are in the wilderness, Oh church. We don’t need any more educated fools. We need wise followers who know the path by heart and by practice.
Paul put it this way: Knowledge makes arrogant; love edifies. The pursuit of knowledge and understanding actually results in holding your head above the commands, and the result is pride and not Christlikeness. Instead, we must begin with the basic commitment: if your ideas don’t fit with Scripture, too bad for your ideas.
That is the consistent speck I have observed in others’ eyes, peering past the log in my own eye. But as a “we,” as the church of Jesus, we sadly present to the world a strangely consistent phenomenon with our bumper stickers, politics and priorities: we have elevated something above following His every command and hanging on His every word, and we have pushed out love as the greatest thing. At our best, we have been educated out of our obedience. At our worst, we appear to be controlled by the “flesh,” the self-will, through our self-deceived intellectual hubris. The world sees the log we display, and so yawns when we say what we see.
A hopeful alternative. This, too, I have observed: those who focus on standing-under the Lordship of Jesus by doing and teaching to do all He commands end up understanding way more about the Bible than those whose mantra is a paralytic-analytic of “if and only if and when I understand, will I radically follow and fanatically obey my Lord.”