Until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. (Ephesians 4:13)
One of the principles of all true education is that it must teach learners how to think, and not to merely mindlessly parrot orthodoxy. This is an axiom especially in Western education thought, and since Western thought dominates the levels of higher education worldwide, this idea is a worldwide value.
This simple educational principle is seen by some – not by all – as a challenge to Christian discipleship. If by discipleship we mean to instruct Christians in the catechisms only, teaching them to parrot information rather than to digest it and wrestle with it and contribute to it, then we will find ourselves in conflict with the spirit of the age. There is nothing new in that, or wrong in that, for the Christian faith stands against world system (Eph. 2:1-3). But a line needs to be drawn between what is of eternal and unchanging value and what is adaptable for every age.
The Problem of Orthodoxy
Where must we stand in solidarity with the faith of the ages and where must we be flexible for our generation? This educational principle stated above, about teaching people to think, causes a problem with any closed system of thought, for each generation wishes to add to the discussion of ideas and concepts. And, not just generations, but any individual who has any meaningful ambition aspires to make some meaningful contribution to his field and his community. We, however, tend to want to teach people to think like us, rather than to think period, and therein lies the challenge.
Orthodoxy itself is by definition a closed system. Eric Hoffer, in his work, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, observed that “The conservatism of a religion – its orthodoxy – is the inert coagulum of a once highly reactive sap.” Hoffer observed that all mass movements have similarities, regardless of their philosophy. For example, he observed that successful mass movements must not believe in a god, but they must believe in a devil, and the ideal “devil” is a foreign interloper, or the ultimate insider who has turned traitor against the cause.
So, in the typical scenario, the extreme right vilifies the Hispanic immigrant who has come to steal his land, that is until the threat of Islamic terrorism rises then he vilifies the middle-easterner. And the Hispanic immigrant vilifies the White anglo who has already stolen his land in his mind. And the left-leaning movements vilify the Christian who, he claims, is stuck in his fears and prejudices. And the list goes on endlessly with all sides accusing one another, while supporting the accusations and stereotypes of the other sides by their hatred. One thing is sure, that gun sales will continue to rise since we all have so many enemies around us.
The need, of course, is to calmly sit down and reason through these matters, expecting some disagreements, or to disagree agreeably. But everywhere the “demon of compromise” is feared, and any openness to a demon is viewed as being traitorous to the entire community, resulting in the accusation from those who were formerly friends, “So, you’re one of those!”
It is often misunderstood why the church has declined in the West in recent decades. Godless evolution is often blamed for the problem, as are also other ideas, such as humanistic teachings, monolithic liberalism, the industrial revolution, etc. — just about any movement that seems out of agreement with Christian orthodoxy. The orthodox misreads the situation, thinking that it was the neglect of orthodoxy itself that led to the rejection of Christian faith. He then becomes more orthodox in his speech, hoping that by increasing the volume and emotional angst of his presentation, adding ridicule to those who think “outside the biblical box,” setting up and tearing down a few straw men, he will turn the tide.
What the rigid orthodox fails to grasp is that all of the positions mentioned above — evolution, humanism, liberalism, etc. — were new and creative ways of looking at situations. They were adaptive mentalities that faced and overcame the standard orthodoxy in their respective fields. And what is attractive to every generation of mankind since 1750 (at least) is a new idea. Closed systems of thought, in whatever field they exist, are already wrong in the mind of modern humanity because they are closed. When presenting the gospel of Jesus Christ in an entirely closed system of thought and presentation, he has already alienated his audience. The gospel is not always rejected on religious grounds alone, but prejudicially on the grounds that it is merely one part of other archaic and closed ways of thinking.
In fact, in areas around the world where Christianity is growing the fastest, the Christian faith is viewed as a new idea, a creative and inventive way of thinking, that is set against the rigid orthodoxy of their culture. Or there is an aspect of the faith that is a neglected part of the orthodox faith, for whatever reason that was ignored for too long, that when emphasized afresh speaks in a new way to men’s souls and their circumstance.
Is New Testament Teaching a Closed System?
So, this is the key question we should ask ourselves today: Is New Testament Doctrine a closed system, or have we merely made it so? This is important for two primary reasons, and many other lesser reasons as well. First, if we have made it a closed system, then we have broken our own faith’s commandment: “Do not go beyond what is written” (1 Cor. 4:6). Second, if so, then we have made a great tactical error, a truly foolish decision, to abandon what common sense shouts at us to do, merely because we cannot put aside our emotional attachment to some things. This is equivalent to simply going back to one’s stateroom on the Titanic, rather than donning a life jacket and boarding a lifeboat merely because we’ve never done so before.
There are certainly some “closed truths” in Christianity, some elements of unbending orthodoxy, some proclamations made in the Bible that we cannot cast aside and still call ourselves Christians: “That Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3-4). We are commanded to “hold firmly to the word” that the apostles preached, so that we will not “have believed in vain” (1 Cor. 15:2). The Biblical gospel is the gospel which saves, and there is none other that saves than it. We would argue, of course, that it is not the gospel that saves, but that God saves, and that it is merely through the gospel that we are able to exercise faith in Christ – repenting of sin and trusting in Him. But we are merely splitting hairs here, for the Bible clearly states: “Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17).
This is an ancient issue, and not one that has only risen in the last few decades. Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD), who is the Western church’s most influential theologian, after the Apostle Paul, established the position, “Believe so that you may understand.” And this was echoed by Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1099 AD), “I do not seek to understand in order that I may believe, but rather, I believe in order that I may understand.” Though the Christian faith is not unreasonable or illogical, it requires faith that goes beyond reason and logic, and this faith becomes a new starting point for the believer. And without faith in the gospel as a starting point, we really have very little else to say to the world.
In the spiritual development of the believer, or “progressive sanctification” as we commonly call it, Christ taught us the essential need of the word of God, as he prayed to the Father, “Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17). We need the unbending closed-ness of God’s truth in order to grow. Historically, whenever the church has drifted too far from the New Testament, it has gone into error — usually neglecting biblical teachings. The unadulterated Word of God speaks to us like nothing else can, and our faith in it and dependency on it safeguards us from venturing into error.
The Spiritual Freedom of the Believer
However, a central aspect of the New Testament faith is the freedom of the Christian, and some of the most fundamental biblical teaching open up the Christian experience for considerable subjective experiences. Take the Ephesians 4 passage above, for example. The phrases “the knowledge of the Son of God” and “the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13), speak of an open flow of experience and revelation to the believer. These phrases are open-ended in their fulfillment and application in each individual life, especially so, since they follow on so many similar things Paul had written in this epistle: Eph. 1:23 and 3:19-20. Here that is not a “box” for the Christian to be placed in and expected to do, say, and feel certain things based on a single iconoclastic pattern or example. Here is subjective knowledge that makes every Christian’s personal experience singular, unique, and dynamic.
We cannot forget what Paul wrote about the Spirit of God in the believer. Though in his first epistle to the Corinthians, he rebuked them for the divisions among them, and said, “I appeal to you, brothers … that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no division among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought” (1 Cor. 1:10). In that unity of mind and thought was the freedom they had in the Spirit:
Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. (2 Cor. 3:17-18)
We have numerous examples in scripture of very personal revelations coming from deep personal and subjective experiences, that establish the principle that the believer can expect God to speak to his heart in deeply personal ways.
- But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. (Luke 2:19)
- How precious to me are your thoughts, God! How vast is the sum of them! (Psalm 139:17)
- “Go!” said the Lord. “This man is My chosen instrument to carry My name before the Gentiles and their kings, and before the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for My name.” (Acts 9:15-16)
1 Corinthians 2: 10-13 especially addresses this issue of the Spirit of God speaking to our hearts as believers in Christ, saying “spiritual truths in spiritual words.”
The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. For who among men knows the thoughts of man except his own spirit within him? So too, no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. We have not received the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us. And this is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom, but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words (1 Cor. 2:10-13).
In morality and ethical behavior, the New Testament does not demand certain clothes to wear, or food to eat, or precise words to say for all Christians of all ages. The morality of the faith is taught in principles that require thought for application, and not only in direct commands. For example we read, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Eph. 4:29), but it does not say, “Say this and don’t say that,” in precise terms. What is “unwholesome talk” and what is “helpful for building others up”? Those details we must work out for ourselves in a Christian community, always aiming for the ideal.
This means that every generation has an obligation to obey the command to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you” (Phil. 2:12-13). While upholding the biblical principles, there are relative ways that these may be applied. The Bible does not say precisely how long a man’s hair should be, how short a woman’s dress may be, or whether blue jeans and sandals are proper wear for worship. Each generation and each Christian must decide such things for themselves, as they seek to follow and obey Christ.
There are many other scripture passages I could use to underscore this principle of the Lord speaking uniquely to each believer and each generation. But let me end this essay with merely a warning to people like me – non-Charismatic Bible-believing Evangelicals:
Do Not Be Afraid of God’s Spirit
I believe many of us have seen what we consider to be unbiblical excesses of Charismatics and responded incorrectly by fearing the Holy Spirit Himself. We have looked at someone dancing in the aisle as some great danger to the church, without realizing that the greater danger is always to quench the Spirit entirely (1 Thes. 5:19). As much as many of us would like it to be in the Bible, I cannot find a passage that warns us against over-enthusiasm in the Spirit of God, but I can find many that teach us to be open to His leadership and His work in us, and that command us to not try and shut Him down.
A university professor of mine, years and years ago, made a memorable point in class when he warned that, even if we could not find a way around it, we should be wary of any theological distinction that began by saying what it is not rather than what it is. I did that earlier when I called myself a “non-Charismatic,” describing what I am by describing what I am not. Such descriptions tend to put some limitations on what we do, rather than focusing our hearts on following Christ today. They set up a boundary-marked system of thought, rather than a center-marked system. Sometimes these are called “bounded-set” and “centered-set” thinking. The bounded-set Christian value draws a line and says, “Don’t venture across this!” The centered-set points to Christ and says, “Let’s draw near to Him!”
One of the reasons the Charismatic churches have grown so much these past decades is because of their message to the believer: “God gives gifts today and you can help shape our message today by sharing what the Spirit says to you!” Yes, there are inherent dangers there, but the healthy alternative is NOT to say that God does not speak to us and through us today. Dare we forget the command of Christ given seven-fold to the church, given to each of the seven churches of Asia? “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Rev. 2:7; 2:11; 2:17; 2:29; 3:6; 3:13; 3:22).
We are not today still writing the Bible. The Bible has been completed, but we are hearing new things from the Spirit constantly. A truly spiritual church and Christian can engage the world with this message: God speaks today. God moves today.
The motivation for the spread of the gospel should always be the love of God, and not fear or dread of mankind. Love that comes from God, that was demonstrated in Christ, compels us to love others, and not to fear them. There is a time and a place for police action against the violent, to protect the innocent, because we live in a fallen world. But more than meeting violence with violence, we should more often than not reach out in love to the fallen world.
Love looks like listening, helping, caring, sharing, comforting, and lifting up those hurt and discouraged. This is the true miracle of the Christian faith, that God in Christ forgives and rejuvenates the human spirit, giving hope and new life.