July 11, 2011

christian freedom

"Here in the West...we keep all the rules, even a few we made up." So goes Derek Webb's Rich Young Ruler song as it reviews Western Christianity. Those "made up" rules of Christianity are something that I have been sifting through almost since I left Bible school at age eighteen and had to make decisions for myself about what I would and would not do. By "made up" rules, I mean those rules that dictate areas on which the Bible is fairly silent.

As I've gotten to know Christians of different backgrounds, persuasions and cultures, I have seen a wide range of rules and practices. My question is always this one: what does Scripture really teach, and what is culture, legalism or caution? I want to be clear in my thinking as to what is non-negotiable (taught clearly in Scripture) and what may be cultural or personal (ie: an additional guideline that I have for myself or my family that may keep us from sin).

If you've been in conservative Christian circles for any amount of time, you could probably name some rules quite readily. They deal with our personal practice or sometimes church practice as well. Some Christians dance but don't drink. Others drink, but don't dance. Some do both. Some do neither. Most are sure they're right! The list goes on and on.

I recognize that a lot of "made up" rules have come about for good reasons. Frederick Wood says in a booklet called Questionable Amusements, "the marathon would not be run in an overcoat unless it happened to be an obstacle race." Many of the things that Christians have abstained from in generations past have been seen as hindrance to running the Christian race (Heb. 12:1). So, some of our rules protect us from sin and temptation, even if they draw the boundaries a bit tighter than the Word itself does. The problem comes when we insist that other believers must follow our personal practices in areas of freedom.

growthAs I've puzzled over this, I've asked questions: What is the real goal in discipleship? To train believers to understand and be obedient to Scripture. How do we get there? They must learn to study and understand the Word of God for themselves. What happens when they do study the Word? They may realize that some Christian rules or practices, though not harmful, are (gasp!) more cultural than Scriptural. But what was the real goal, again? To see them building lives based on God's Word—not based on Christian culture. (Or was it?)

Too often my concern in discipleship is to create a believer who thinks and lives like I do—even in the grey areas—rather than to build up a believer who can defend his choices with sola Scriptura. I sell the next generation of believers short when I want to offer them a well-packaged, cookie-cutter Christianity where everyone looks and acts the same as me. I want new believers to know the joy of being taught by the Spirit as they learn to interpret Scripture properly. I want them to know the wonder of grace, not the clanking chains of my legalism. I want them to be freed and constrained by the Spirit, not by Julie. (Or do I?)

When we equate our additional, extra-Scriptural rules for Christian living to what the Word of God has said, we are on dangerous ground. We are going beyond our bounds as teachers of God's Word. We're being Pharisees, wrapping the living, vibrant message of the gospel in stagnant rules and regulations. Yet in conservative Christian circles, this happens all the time.

A parent must tremble when the day comes for his son or daughter to leave home and start making all of his or her own decisions. But I've heard that for the Christian parent, prayers heighten when a child leaves the nest. There is a parallel as we build up baby believers, preparing them to "leave the nest" and go on to make new disciples. As we give them the tools to "leave home" by studying, interpreting and applying Scripture, we also give them the freedom to potentially live their lives somewhat differently than we would. Sometimes we tremble with fear, but we must let them go on. As we face this stage, we would better spend our time on our knees in prayer than engaging in heated arguments with newer believers about areas of freedom.

poppyThis is my vision for Western Christianity, not that we base our fellowship with others on "made up rules," but on adherence to what is clear in the Scriptures. There is so much that is clear and is being misunderstood that it is a wonder that we find so much time to emphasize the "freedom" areas. I have chosen to abstain from certain things that other Christians might consider quite alright, and the inverse is also true. I want to make my choices with a clear conscience before God and for the right reasons. I want to be firm and sure about what the Scipture mandates and what is just a "made up" rule. How we need a powerful, constant renewal from God's Word and Spirit to keep balanced, lest we miss "the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ." (2 Cor.11:3)

July 10, 2011

deep suffering, deeper joy

dark sky

In my city's downtown core there's a Brazilian couple living in a small apartment. They're like a lot of other newcomers to Canada in many ways: they don't own a car, they want to perfect their English, they're confused by some Canadian customs, and they miss their home country. Surely most newcomers face their share of hardships—just one winter in this city without your own vehicle might qualify as hardship—but not like Marcos and Janice.

If I were to explain to you their struggles, it would be convoluted or boring. (I've typed and retyped this, wondering how to be concise). Serious health problems afflict both of them, but especially Marcos, who lost vision in one eye last year due to a work accident. Because Marcos can no longer work, their financial situation is difficult, too.

OK, so I know two immigrants who have had a hard year. Why does this merit a blog post? Because Marcos and Janice show incredible joy in the face suffering. To visit with them is to come away encouraged and hopeful. Not because Marcos' vision has miraculously returned or because Workers Compensation Board recalled their decision to cut his insurance payments, but because they continually are reminding themselves and others of ultimate truth.

The true Christ-follower is ever learning to look at life through a Biblical lens. He doesn't live in an airy plane full of gumdrops and rainbows, where the struggles of life are played down or disregarded. No, he looks squarely at life as it really is for a fallen human. But when a Christian looks at reality, he doesn't bow down in the ditch and give up hope, either. He focuses his mind on the truth, revealed through God's Word, and finds the hope to live another day. He looks at life on earth through the lens of Heaven.

The prophet Jeremiah did this. He wrote, in Lamentations 3: "I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall. I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me." Jeremiah acknowledged the reality of his situation, and his hurt. "Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, 'The LORD is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.' Jeremiah filled his mind with truth, and spoke truth to himself, so that he would not wallow in despair.

Marcos and Janice embody true Christianity to me. They tell me stories of near-death incidents or financial trials. Surely these two have been through more serious health problems in one or two years than most people face in twenty or thirty. But their stories are always prefaced, interspersed and concluded with remembrances of the goodness of God. The way their tales flow so naturally from sharing their struggles to meditating on God's mercy shows that they are truly learning, like Jeremiah, to call truth to mind.

When Christians suffer in a godly way, it brings praise to God and deep joy (I Peter 1). Seeing this in action is truly remarkable. Yes, worthy of breaking the silence and composing another blog post.

hopefuly sky