Monday, May 07, 2007

Worldly Christians

Spend much time in the Church, and sooner or later, you're bound to hear certain phrases which amount to Christian jargon.

For example, consider the phrase "worldly Christians". What does it mean, exactly? Well, to most people who use the phrase, it refers to professing Christians who do not live in a manner which is consistent with their faith. To be worldly, in other words, is to compromise one's convictions in order to fit in with the crowd.

There are indeed people who fit that description. But deciding who ought to be described as a "worldly Christian" gets a little bit tricky when it involves standards of behavior which are alleged to be derived from the Bible but which, in fact, are matters of subjective personal opinion.

I once heard a pastor say that going to the movies was sinful. Why? Well, he explained that going to the movies was "what worldly people do".

The trouble with that "explanation" was that it was a shining example of circular logic. According to him, going to movies was sinful because it was what worldly people did, and those people were worldly, in turn, because they went to the movies!

If asked to cite a particular scripture which proved that going to the movies was sinful, I doubt seriously that the aforementioned pastor could have done so. It would be rather surprising if such a scripture existed, given the fact that movies were not even invented until the early 20th century. But even if he were to base his argument on the assumption that scriptures pertaining to theatrical presentations also pertained to film and video, I can't think of any scriptures which would support the idea that dramatic presentations are inherently sinful .

When that pastor said that going to movies was sinful because worldly people went to movies, I remember thinking that worldly people had also been known to do the following things from time to time:

  • Eat
  • Sleep
  • Work at jobs
  • Wear clothes
  • Read books
  • Play games
  • Drive cars
  • Talk with one another
  • ...and so forth.
So does that mean that all of the above activities are sinful? One would conclude that such was the case if one took that pastor's "argument" to its rational conclusion.

God does indeed demand that we Christians exhibit a higher standard of behavior than the standard which is typically exhibited by those who have not submitted to God's will. But we don't need to engage in endless speculation in order to ascertain what types of behavior are acceptable and what types of behavior are forbidden. There's a simple standard: If it's clearly forbidden in the Bible, within the context of the New Covenant, then it's sinful. If no scripture forbids the activity in question, then there is no clearcut reason to regard that activity as sin.

(I say "within the context of the New Covenant", because it's clear from scriptures that even though God is the same yesterday, today and forever, God has allowed Christians to do certain things --- such as eating non-kosher foods --- which were impermissible under the Old Covenant.)

It's mystifying to me as to why some Christians seem to feel the need to expand on the Bible's clearcut prohibitions. Have they achieved such mastery of the clearly stated Biblical rules that they feel a need to make up new rules as they go along? That seems unlikely. Yet, some Christians insist that it's sinful to dance or to listen to rock music or to do any number of other innocuous things which aren't mentioned at all in the scriptures or which (as in the case of dancing) are mentioned in ways which actually portray those activities in a positive light!

Even with regard to the rules which are explicitly stated in scriptures, it should be clear from the example of Christ that it is possible to be so legalistic when interpreting those rules that one misses the heart of the gospel. Time and time again, Jesus was criticized by the Jewish leaders of the day for allegedly lacking sufficient respect for the Sabbath. But he responded by saying that man was not made for the Sabbath. The Sabbath was made for man. In other words, God was not so inflexible that God was unwilling to consider the circumstances when determining whether or not a person had sufficiently honored the Sabbath. When laws pertaining to the Sabbath were taken to mean that a man who needed healing would be forced to wait an extra day for that healing, then things were clearly in need of correction and divine perspective.

Of course, the flip side of legalism is moral relativism. People are often prone to rationalization when it comes to doing things they really want to do. In its own way, moral relativism is just as dangerous as legalism. The trick, therefore, is to balance a healthy respect for God's laws with an understanding of the fact that God's laws are not given to us in order to put us into bondage. Rather, they are given to us in order to help us and to help others.

If you as a Christian feel personally that God has told you not to go to movies or wear store bought clothes or do any of a number of other things which are not specifically addressed in the Bible, then by all means, follow your own conscience. If you regard it as sin and you do it anyway, then it is sin, even if it is not necessarily sin for other Christians. But understand that there is a distinct difference between things one ought not to do because such things violate one's own conscience and things one ought not to do because such things are universally prohibited by God's word! Elevating your own personal perceptions to the level of God's word in effect diminishes your respect for God's word, by treating your opinions and God's laws as if they are one and the same.

If you intensely believe that you are right about a particular subject, there's no reason you shouldn't try to persuade others of the legitimacy of your point of view, provided that you are not obnoxious about it, and provided that you are humble enough to consider the possibility that you might be the one who is wrong!

Also, keep in mind that even if you are right and the other person is wrong, it doesn't necessarily follow that the other person is bound for hell. Not one of us is saved by works. Salvation comes only through God's mercy and grace. I'm thankful that I don't have to worry that being unintentionally wrong about something might deprive me of my divine inheritance. I do the best I can to keep God's laws as I understand them, but ultimately, my salvation will not be based on my performance, but on the fact that I have accepted Christ's act of atonement in my life.

Understanding that simple basic principal would go a long way in terms of resolving many of the conflicts which have erected barriers between different Christians and different Christian groups in the past.

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