Yesterday I tweeted something that got a surprising amount of traction. Ever since, my brain has continued to chew on it, and I wanted to follow up with some additional thoughts. This was the tweet:
Paul didn’t spend much time criticizing the surrounding culture, but Christians who conformed to it, and that distinction is important.
— Sharon Hodde Miller (@SHoddeMiller) January 4, 2017
This thought occurred to me yesterday morning as I unloaded the dishwasher. My brain flitted from thought to thought–as it does during mindless tasks–and it lighted upon a sermon I once heard. You’ve probably heard one like it, whose general message is something like “how bad the world has gotten out there.” The preacher picks on some grievous societal trend, and cites it as evidence of the world’s worsening. Various church members then respond with a stricken sort of Amen.
To be clear, I know a lot of pastors who don’t preach this way, but yesterday morning in my kitchen, I recalled the ones who did. And I wondered, “Is this biblical?” Did Jesus or Paul spend much time criticizing the surrounding culture?
The answer is, not really. That’s not to say they ignored the culture, but they weren’t preoccupied with it. Jesus concerned himself more with corrupt religious leaders, while Paul focused on Christians who conformed to the world.
To me, this raises two really important points. The first is one I already raised in my tweet: we need to spend less time rebuking the culture, and more time urging Christians not to conform to it.
But there’s a second point I think we often miss. Throughout the gospels, Jesus chastised the religious leaders, a message I hear again and again from Christians. And it’s true. That’s what he did. That’s why we have to guard against legalistic works-righteousness in ourselves.
However, in the remainder of the New Testament, Paul spends considerably less time on this topic. Although he does have some searing words for religious Jews, he also spends a good bit of time challenging Christians to distinguish themselves from the culture. This slight shift–between Jesus’ emphasis and Paul’s–begs a question in my mind:
After receiving Jesus’ warnings against religious legalism, did early Christians swing too far in the other direction? Were they too reckless with their freedom? Is that why Paul’s warnings differ slightly from Jesus’?
I think it’s certainly possible, mostly because I see it happening now, and human beings don’t change that much. In the church today, Christians tend to measure themselves against two primary standards:
- Those who distance themselves from the world.
- Those who distance themselves from religion.
These are two of the most popular measuring sticks by which Christians draw spiritual confidence. They can also fuel a good deal of self-righteousness, becoming the ammunition we use to judge one another.
The trouble is, neither one of these is a sufficient vision of the Christian life. You’re not “safe” just because you’re not like the Pharisees. You’re not “good” just because you’re separate from the world. Instead, these two mindsets represent the two posts of a “narrow gate.” As Jesus put it in Matthew 7:13-14:
“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”
If your confidence is “I am not a Pharisee,” then that is not The Way. All you’re doing is attaching yourself to one of the gate posts. And if your confidence is “I am not like the world,” then that is not The Way. You, too, are running into a post, instead of walking past it.
I think it’s easy to forget that we are a people who define ourselves fundamentally WITH someone, not against. We are to be like Christ–THE way (John 14:6)–who was wholly unlike the religious leaders AND the world, and whose holiness exposes any supposed righteousness we claim for ourselves.
That’s why I will keep on saying it till the day I die–Christians, we need each other. As the diverse Body of Christ, we expose each other’s blind spots, and that’s a function we must not underestimate. Whenever we think we’ve got this Christian thing licked, our vast community of brothers and sisters helps us identify new areas to grow. Even the ones we disagree with.
Just imagine, if we crawled down off our respective posts, and reached for each other across the way. Perhaps, we would find the fullness of Jesus, right there in the middle. And perhaps, we could walk the narrow way together. I would really like to see more of that.
Walking with you,