Church Life, Outreach, Missions
Radical Biblical Christianity
by Ed Vasicek
It amazes me when people who should know better say dumb things. Of course, sometimes I am amazed at myself! Without quoting anyone in particular, let me summarize numerous quotations I have heard. They basically say that the early church had it together and that today's church falls far from the mark.
I agree on one point: today's church falls far from the mark. But the early church did not have it together. In Acts 6:1-7 the widows complained so vehemently about how they were being treated that the Apostles had to appoint deacons. In one church a church member was having an incestuous relationship with his stepmother (1 Corinthians 5:1-2) and false teachings abounded. Indeed, most of the epistles were written to combat) false teachings. Christ was ready to remove most of the candlesticks from the seven churches of Revelation.
The Middle Ages saw a continuing departure from Scripture. The Bible was used but not studied, not carefully interpreted, not debated. Historically, Christendom persecuted Jews and competing forms of Christianity especially branches of evangelicalism akin to our belief system (Anabaptists, Waldensians, and Hugenots).
The Reformation meant a return to the Scripture. The Bible was no longer a book best left in the hands of clerics but was God's revelation for every man. But the Reformers, though greatly improving theology and ethics, were still into the "force-my-religion-upon-you" mode. As time went on, many Protestant churches lost their spiritual life, and love for the Word of God burned low.
Later, revivals in England and the U.S. infused spiritual life into the congregations. Biblical fluency was common place among the Puritans (in the Congregational, Presbyterian/Reformed, and Episcopal churches), Baptists, and Methodists. America was born and nurtured in a climate of Biblical literacy. Although America has been the world's leading evangelical stronghold, American Christianity has been far from ideal. We tolerated the genocide of the Indians and, in many cases, supported the enslavement of those with skin darker than ours. The ideal Christian era has never been, despite eras of zeal and devotion. What we can say is that some eras were better in some ways than others.
Unfortunately, today's evangelical Christians, having a heritage of Biblical fluency, are no longer into the Book. Music and warm sentimentalism have replaced the Psalm 1 sort of Christianity espoused by our forefathers. On the other hand, we no longer intentionally discriminate against the races, and we are beginning to enjoy the arts.
Where am I headed with all this? I passionately want our church to continue striving to be biblical, constantly re-evaluating, and constantly studying the Word. This is different than striving to be conservative. Don't get me wrong, many of our beliefs will continue to be labeled "conservative," but we value them not because they are conservative but because they are biblical. To be conservative means to keep everything the same, to hold the line. It means to keep both the baby and the bath water. To be biblical means to constantly re-align with the Scriptures. It is a job that is never done. Using the illustrations above, we should throw out the racism (bath water) but retain the biblical literacy (the baby).
As someone whose responsibilities require a lot of reading, I have noticed three trends in the evangelical world, three approaches toward giving churches direction. Most books advocate some version of option 1 or 2.
1. The Compromise Truth Approach
It is never stated so bluntly, but that is what it boils down to. This approach masquerades as "Approaching Ministry in the Post-Modern World." It encourages churches to go with the flow, to stop talking doctrine, to be concerned only about doctrines like the Trinity, and, though not stating it in so many words, is accepting of biblical illiteracy. Mother Theresa is the patron saint of this version of Christianity. It ignores the issues over which the Reformers risked life and limb. What matters is a feeling of "worship," a term described subjectively and which ranges anywhere on the spectrum between a formal liturgy to emotional ecstasy. Many seeker-sensitive churches take this approach in varying degrees (though the mega-church movement is thought to have crested). This is what I label "High-tech Medievalism" and has become the major form of Christianity in the United States.
2. The Preservative Approach
This approach seeks to keep things as they always have been, and is what some people mean when they talk of being "conservative." This approach may include the use of the King James Version, a dress code, and encourages Christians to be disengaged from the culture. "Old-fashioned" is a compliment in these circles. People in these churches are often somewhat biblically literate but are not encouraged to think.
3. The Biblically Dynamic Approach
This approach emphasizes that we are to obey God and that God is infallibly revealed only in the Scriptures. Carefully interpreting and applying the Scripture is synonymous with obeying God. In this approach, the Bible truly becomes the canon (or measuring stick) of truth. Believers learn to think. Issues and doctrines are examined with an open mind and an open Bible. We do not assume what we have inherited is to be accepted but neither is it to be automatically rejected. All is to be evaluated in light of the Word of God. Methods are fluid as long as they do not contradict the Word, but it is more important to submit to Scripture than it is to achieve what some might call success. This church is not against numerical growth at all but is not willing to sell its soul to achieve it.
This Biblically Dynamic approach is not perfect. For one thing, our ability to interpret and apply Scripture is imperfect. For another, we can be blind to truth and not even realize it. Additionally, as our society moves further and further away from Judeo-Christian values, biblically dynamic Christians look more and more extreme. Like believers in the first century, we have to be willing to stand alone, if need be.
American Christianity has been so wed to our culture that we are not used to doing this; it won't be easy. But what is great about being biblically submissive is that there is an element of newness in this approach. Our churches have never fully conformed to Scripture, so we have a message of change and challenge for all. Unlike the conservative/preservative approach, which says, "the way things used to be is the standard," we say, "the way things used to be was never good enough." We can not settle down as though we have arrived because we haven't. The challenge is ever fresh, ever contemporary.
To the world, we will look conservative. But as lost people get to know us, they need to see our stakes are not in preserving the past, but obeying Jesus Christ, submitting our opinion to his, letting him set the agenda as he speaks through his Word.
Reprinted from the July 2001 Body Builder, a publication of Highland Park Church.
Highland Park Church