I go to an Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) in the Allentown area. I would say it is a small church but that would be redundant; all OPC churches are small, at least that I know of. Like all churches, it has its strengths and weaknesses. A couple of Sundays ago, we heard a sermon on Biblical rules for music. The foundation for the sermon Biblical rules for music came from Colossians 3:16 and utilizes a common hermeneutical principle of reducing what the Scriptures say about a subject to a single passage. For all of the rules on music that anyone could possibly ever wish for were stated in that one verse, according to the minister.
A few weeks before that, the minister preached a sermon on being both heavenly minded and earthly good based on the beginning of Colossians 3. And, again, the minister emphasized how what was stated in the beginning of Colossians 3 was the complete list of rules for all who wish to be earthly good to follow. And the rules listed in this passage had to do with personal righteousness. There were no social justice practices mentioned
There are a couple of problems with this approach to interpreting the Bible. First, there is an assumption made in both passages that Paul's intent was to say everything to everyone about these subjects in a few verses. Thus, what Paul said to the Colossians is what he would say to every Christian regardless of the context. We should note that in Revelation, John wrote 7 different letters to 7 different churches.
But the most troublesome problem with my minister's approach, and he is not alone amongst Fundamentalists, is the eagerness to find, and thus depend on, more principles, rules, and laws to live by. In New Testament Greek, the same word is used for principle, rule and law. Whereas those who believe in too few to no laws are called antinomial, we could just as easily say that those Christians who wish to find an absolute law in every scripture verse are hypernomial--they are overzealous to live by a law.
Being hypernomial does not recognize the complicated relationship that exists between the Christian and the keeping of the law. On one hand, Jesus says that not a jot or title of the law shall fade while there is this present earth. On the other hand we see that the law condemns us and makes us aware of our sin and need for God. And on a third hand, we see a reduction in the hold that the law has on the growing Christian. The reason for this last assertion is that the work of the Spirit in our lives takes the place of the written law (Jeremiah 31:31ff and I Timothy 1:9) and so to continue to rely on the law is to rely on the flesh rather than the Spirit (Paul's letter to the Galations).
But there is another problem with too much zeal for the law or zeal for too many laws; after a certain threshold is reached, dependence on the law turns us inward. And the more inward we become, the more vigilant we become about our inward spiritual state. The more vigilant we become about ourselves, the less love we have for our neighbor and thus the more we break the law that requires that we practice a self-forgetting love modeled by Christ. Frederick Dale Bruner makes a similar point about those in the Charismatic Movement who put conditions on receiving the Spirit in full in his book, A Theology Of The Holy Spirit (see page 239). In fact, the more vigilant we become about ourselves, the more prone we are to be agitated by the outside world and thus the more likely we are to ignore it so as not to miss an important detail brought to our attention by the multiplicity of laws we are trying to keep.
This relationship between law and being self and inward directed works well for the traditional relationship between the Church and those with power and wealth. For the Left has long noted that the Church is just one of many institutions of indoctrination for the maintenance of the status quo. And it seems that the Conservative Church is doing all it can to prove the Left right. Along with the Church's reluctance, especially the Conservative Church, to upset the status quo by preaching repentance to those with power and wealth, this unnecessary Old Testament way of multiplying laws makes paying attention to public sins that must be confronted an unnecessary luxury, if not impossible, for the conscientious Christian.
For a different reason, the individual Christian and those in leadership commit the "crime of silence", as would be described by the Russell Tribunals of the past and present. The silence is in the face of the gross public immorality practiced by those with power and wealth and by those with authority in either the private or public sectors. Here we are not talking about a Clinton type of immorality where we saw a public figure commit a private sin. Rather, we are talking about public sins such as waging immoral wars for profit and prestige. Whereas the Conservative Church seems to even delight in confronting sexual immorality, whether private or public, it flees from commenting on immoral wars, immoral and corrupt political and economic systems, and unjust laws that hurt the weak.
Of course, Conservative Church leaders who are reluctant to confront those with power and wealth about their public sins fall back on Biblical passages such as the 13th chapter of Romans which says that we should honor and obey all who are in authority to rationalize their silence. And yet, these same leaders, who were disturbed by Martin Luther King's use of civil disobedience for the sake of others are remarkably silent when it comes to condemning our nation's founding fathers who violently rebelled for selfish reasons. We could ask such Conservative Christian leaders if those Germans who resisted Hitler and his Nazi government on their own and without the help of a foreign government were violating what was commanded in Romans 13.
It is not that Conservative Christian leaders have no merit in confronting the personal sins of individuals. There is much heartbreak that follows many of the personal sins we take for granted. It is their reluctance to speak out publicly against the sins of those with power and wealth that is the issue here. If Bertrand Russell was correct in saying silence is a crime, then the Conservative Christian Church, because of its silence, should be on Interpol's 10 most wanted list. For whether it is the oppression and theft that is a natural part of today's Capitalism, the assumption to wage war and murder with impunity made by the West including Israel, or the destruction of the environment, the Conservative Christian Church has washed its hands of any responsibility to preach repentance to the perpetrators. And they often do this in the name of submission to authority or following "honorable" ideals such as patriotism.
We started with an example of how one conservative pastor, who definitely does not stand alone, who is piling law after law on people making it difficult for them to pay necessary attention to the outside world. Again, such pastors have significant truths to teach us. But they also have powerful lessons to learn as well. For we see in Isaiah chapters 58 and 59, that "lawful" worship is sometimes rejected by God especially when his people neglect those in need and allow justice to go by the wayside and truth to fall in the streets. Such negligence can never be redeemed by practicing "good form" in worship. For when this occurs, there is only one way to salvation, as Isaiah put it, or to know God, as Jeremiah put it in Jeremiah 22. That is, while believing in Christ for salvation, one must take up the cause of those who suffer from neglect and/or oppression.
Some might confuse what was just written as a gospel of works. That because we are saved by "faith alone," the above statements are not only wrong, they are dangerous. And yet, the same Christians who would make these criticisms would have no trouble telling young Christians that they must abandon serious personal sins such as sexual immorality to prove that their faith is real. Consider then what Jesus said in the parable of the sheep and goats (Matthew 25:31-46). Jesus invited those who selflessly helped those in need, those whom Jesus called the "least of these," into His heavenly dwelling while those who neglected those in need were rejected.
At this point we should also note what it means to help or even stand with the least of these. It certainly includes personal charity. But, as Martin Luther King pointed out, it also includes changing those systems that create the need in the first place. As Bonhoeffer lived and pointed out, there are at least three ways by which this can done. One can challenge the state regarding its policies. One can stand with those who are suffering. And one can "put a spoke in the wheel" of the system that so persecutes the vulnerable. It is time that the Conservative Christian Church carefully consider both the Biblical examples of and call to helping those who suffer from neglect and/or oppression as well as the examples and words of those from the Church. To live too focussed on oneself, as much as the Conservative Church encourages its members to do, is not only to miss the chance to relieve others of their suffering, it could endanger one's own future as well.
|This Month's Scripture Verse:|
But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God— having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people.
2 Timothy 3:1-5