If you’re like most, you’re a Christian because you have some level of respect for Jesus. OK, nothing wrong with that at all. But people being people, they often lose sight of the principles behind the things they respect—behind the labels they put upon themselves. In American politics, for example, most of us laud our history, our spirit of independence, and our overall form of government, but strangely, we don’t study our history, get involved in our government, or even read our own Constitution!
See what I mean?
So what if a boatload of Christians had got themselves in a position where they had lost sight of one of the most fundamental paradigms of Jesus’ teachings? Could such a thing happen? I certainly think it could—and I think it has.
The particular paradigm I’m talking about is the paradigm of truth and honesty. I will spare the reader a Bible study on the topic as anyone who has ever given it any serious consideration will realize that there’s likely a lesson on the topic to be found on nearly every page in the Bible. Indeed, as if we needed any more evidence of the importance of truth, Jesus used that word to label his own person when he said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” (John 14:6) Now, I don’t presume to understand everything he had in mind when he uttered those words, but suffice it to say that the truth must be pretty important to Jesus. Is it, therefore, important to us? And if so, just how important is it?
I’ve made a list of things to ponder below—behaviors and issues I’ve noticed along the years as I’ve watched Christians. Many of these observations are about behaviors from which I discovered a need to reform myself. Do you see anything here that deserves some attention in your own life?
- Failing to Investigate Doctrinal Inconsistencies. Here are a few brief examples of how we sometimes unearth inconsistencies in our doctrinal beliefs, but do nothing about it:
- You’re telling a friend about Sister Betty Lou’s funeral and how relieved you are that her suffering is now over and that she’s “gone to be with Jesus” in Heaven. But just last week, you had mentioned to your friend something about how Christians go to the good section of Hades when they die, where they are “asleep” until the Resurrection. So your friend asks you how Sister Betty Lou could be both asleep in Hades and awake in Heaven at the same time. Do you admit that it’s a compelling question, and then go home and study until you reach a sound conclusion? Or do you continue living with the inconsistency indefinitely?
- Perhaps you believe, as do millions of Christians, that man has no free will and that he cannot help but to sin, but one day you get to thinking about it and notice that you choose which socks to wear, which food to eat, and even whether to watch the movie you know you shouldn’t watch, or another that’s appropriately wholesome. So on the one hand, you think you’re exercising your free will, and on the other hand, you think you don’t have a free will to exercise! Indeed, you even counsel your children regularly that they should “make good choices”! Or perhaps you believe that, now that you are a Christian with the indwelling Holy Spirit and a sanctification by God, you now have supernatural help to exercise a will you were powerless to exercise before. But now with this spiritual help, how is it that you ever sin at all? Why would God not help you to avoid all sin, all the time? Surely, you don’t blame it on God, but on yourself, which is logically problematic if you still believe that God has rescued you from your sinful self via his powerful Spirit. You can witness that you do indeed have a powerful enough free will to sin against the indwelling Holy Spirit, but you still hold to the idea that man doesn’t have a free will to choose right over wrong in any situation. These two ideas won’t work together, but when in your ponderings your stumble across this realization, do you “stop the presses” and wrestle with the scriptures in search of an honest and reasonable answer, or do you just continue on as if you had never realized a problem?
- Like millions of other Christians, you believe that “we are….Christ’s ambassadors, as if God were making his appeal through us.” (2 Corinthians 5:20). But someone points out that there is a very distinct and easy-to-trace pattern of we/you language in Paul’s letter to the Corinthian Christians, and that Paul was talking in this verse about himself and his apostolic team, and not the Corinthians. Do you go look for yourself to see whether this is really true? And do you stop referring to yourself and other Christians as “Christ’s ambassadors”? Or do you let it slide because you’d rather not deal with it?
- You’ve always heard that 1 Corinthians 16:1-4 is the passage that teaches a weekly contribution into the treasury of the local church, but you’re reading the passage one day and start investigating different translations and even the original Greek. In the course of your study, you discover that this collection was to support Christians suffering from a famine in Jerusalem, and that it was not for the local church. Further, you see that each person was to save up his own money until Paul would come to collect it, and not to put it into a common treasury. So what do you do the next time you hear this passage used as a prescription for the weekly “tithe”? Do you speak up, or do you just ignore what you have learned?
- Your church traditionally teaches something that you have since learned to be false. You have brought up the issue several times and have found, to your chagrin, that the leadership refuses to correct itself on the doctrine in question. So do you leave in search of a church that insists on the truth in all matters? Or do you decide that other matters (such as “membership”) are more important than truth?
- Singing Songs That Are Not True. Many church songs say things that are not true, or that are not true of all those who are expected to sing them. Here are some examples:
- “I’ve got peace like a river in my soul.” If you do not have “peace like a river”, do you sing this anyway?
- “Lord, I’m a hard fightin’ soldier on the battlefield.” If you are not being a “hard fightin’ soldier”, do you sing this song anyway as if it were true of you?
- “Every day with Jesus is sweeter than the day before.” If your own relationship with Jesus is not one in which every day is better than the last, do you sing this song anyway?
- “I’d like to stay here longer than man’s allotted days, and watch the fleeting changes of life’s uneven ways.” Do you really want to do this? If not, do you sing along anyway?
- “Hark, the herald angels sing, ‘Glory to the newborn King; Peace on earth, and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled!” Does it matter to you that we are told in no place that the angels “sang” any message at Jesus’ birth? And does it matter that their message was not the one in the song? Indeed, it was: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” (Luke 2:14)
- Sentimental Lies. Many people fudge on the truth when sentiment is in play. Consider these examples:
- Do you speak better of Brother Bobby at his funeral than you spoke of him before he got sick? Or when you hear others do this, do you confront them on it?
- Sister Lulu is caught in a bald-faced lie, but even though it is obvious to everyone that she’s lying, someone steps in to insist that she is merely “mistaken”, and that she did not do anything wrong. What do you do?
- Brother Larry sings an absolutely horrible solo, but you congratulate him afterward on doing a “great job”, as if he needs the “encouragement” more than he needs the truth.
- Teaching Things You Haven’t Studied Yourself. This example may be a little less obvious than the previous ones, but it’s awfully important. Hearsay doctrine does a great deal of violence to the actual facts of the Bible, and many find themselves teaching from hearsay and tradition, but doing so as if it were from the Bible itself. Let’s look at some instances of this bad habit:
- “We know that Jesus was born on December 25th.” No, we don’t. Even those who attempt to “prove” this somehow are grasping at straws to support this very popular idea.
- “Well, I’ve always heard that the demons that were possessing people were Satan and his evil angels.” Ah, but can you cite even a single verse of scripture that says so? Have you even looked? There is no such passage, so how can we be certain that this is true?
- “As Christians, we are all commanded to share our faith.” OK, can you cite even a single place in the Bible where Jesus or his apostles ever said or wrote any such thing? Sure, the apostles were commanded to preach, as were the evangelists. But where is anyone else ever commanded to do this?
- “The denominations are the different parts of the body, spoken of in 1 Corinthians 12.” Are you aware that there were no denominations in view at the time that Paul wrote this passage? How could the passage be about denominations, then?
- Sacrificing Truth for the Sake of “Unity”.
- You think that having a church Halloween party is an insult to God, as Halloween has always existed as a glorification of evil, and as God has nothing to do with evil. Your friends at church, however, urge you to come to the party anyway because it will be good for the “unity” of the church. Do you ignore the truth about Halloween and go anyway?
- Pastor Ralph says in his sermon that in order to practice the “Biblical principle of accountability”, the leadership will now be assigning “accountability partners” to every member so that they can keep track of each other’s behavior. You study the scriptures and find no such practice, so you object to the teaching, but you are told that you need to go along with it for the sake of “unity” in the church. What do you do in this situation? Do you insist that Pastor Ralph stick to the scriptures, or do you let him experiment with new things while pretending that his inventions are justified by “Biblical principle”?
- You learn that the church has paid off $3,000 of credit card debt for the new administrator they just hired, but you are told not to share that information with anyone else because it might “make them struggle”. You see that it is an unfair practice, as the church doesn’t pay anyone else’s credit card debt, yet you are asked to keep quiet so that nobody “rocks the boat”, which, you are told, will certainly cause disunity. So what do you do?
These examples constitute a fairly representative sampling of what goes on in Christianity today. Perhaps you have noticed that I didn’t include anything about the stereotypical examples of dishonesty, such as defrauding one another or lying to conceal a crime. No, these problems don’t plague the churches nearly as much as do the ones mentioned in this article. It’s the everyday dishonesty that so terribly undermines what is supposed by many to be a righteous culture and a bright spot in our society.
So what is your paradigm about truth and honesty? Is truth mandatory for you? Or is it merely a “target of opportunity”—that is, something that’s nice to have when it’s convenient, but that is not crucial?
For some, truth is a scary thing—not so much in principle, but because of where it might lead. For example, what if I looked into the truth of my church’s finances and discovered that it was regularly committing fraud? Then I might have to leave. And what if I’ve been there for 30 years already? Leaving might tend to invalidate three decades of my life. Or what if I should look more closely into my beliefs about salvation and discovered that something in my beliefs is wrong? Or what if I looked—really looked—into Jesus’ teachings in Matthew 24, where he said that all his predictions would come true in that very same generation to which he was speaking? That might overturn a lot of my beliefs about a coming judgment and resurrection—or maybe even about the Bible itself.
Indeed, many are afraid to question, thinking that it is somehow an unrighteous act. But it is very difficult to learn anything without questioning, and it is practically impossible to overturn an errant belief or understanding without questioning a matter. Some years ago, Kay and I left an unhealthy church shortly before someone rocked the boat and started a mass exodus. We watched as a great many who left scurried off to “find another church”, but we took a different path; we decided to stay home and study the Bible for ourselves before rushing off to find yet someone to do it for us. We wanted to know things like “what should Christians be doing?” and “who is responsible for the church institution?”. We wanted to know why it seems that practically every church bemoans the sad state of its own members, and why we knew of none that seems to enjoy the successes its members naturally come to expect for it simply from reading the exploits of the congregations in the Bible.
In time, we adopted this paradigm: The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, wherever it may lead. Even though it was a little scary, we even questioned some fundamental things like the divinity of Jesus, the existence of God, and the inspiration and rightful contents of the Bible. We found that very few others were willing to “go there”; some were scared and others already had their minds made up. But we managed to find enough books and websites here and there to be able to benefit from some of the study others had done and we added to that hundreds and hundreds of hours of our own study.
While we came out still believing in God, Jesus, and the Bible, this process of wholesale examination ended up overturning a great number of our previous beliefs. It was a difficult process, more at first than it would be in the long run. Once we got over some of the initial shock at realizing some of our fundamental errors in belief, we eventually realized that we had set for ourselves a new way of life. Consequently, we came to see a greater extent of dishonesty in our former habits than ever before. (Hence, the examples above.) We’re so attuned to it now that we can quickly determine what it’s time to go put on the rubber boots in a conversation about religion (let the reader understand!), for this kind of dishonesty is rampant amongst Christians, yet hardly anyone seems to notice—or to be concerned about it much, anyway.
I recently wrote an article about how people love the labels with which they define themselves, and it has since become increasingly obvious to me that a great many people are far more concerned with wearing a label that they like (such as “Christian”), than with actually mastering the subject matter of that label as a way of life. Given this nasty habit, it’s no wonder that so many are adamant about being “Christians”, and yet not adamant at all about some Christian fundamentals, such as truth, righteousness, wisdom, or kindness. This, I believe, is how it’s so easy for churches to get off track. After all, they’re quite busy, and they can easily get distracted by the “we” and “us” of church business, forgetting about the principles that are supposed to be foundational to their micro-cultures.
Indeed, once you build that church building, it becomes a new order of business to pay for it. And once you settle on what number of pews to buy, it becomes quite a natural endeavor to keep them filled with people. Similarly, once you establish the weekly fellowship group or Sunday School class, it becomes quite the drive to keep it going….whether you have compelling material for next week’s meeting or not! Before you know it, you may develop a mentality that says “the show must go on”—one in which the schedule and the program and the finances rule the day, rather than the fundamental principles you (hopefully) had in mind when you formed the congregation.
So what if the meeting starts a few minutes late because the preacher and the elders were conscientioiusly settling a serious dispute among themselves? Or do what if we don’t get to finish the 13-week study series in 13 weeks because the discussion on the topic from Week 6 got very lively and spilled over into the next three weeks? So what if we do away with years of church tradition and stop having that Halloween party because it offends the consciences of several of the members?
This “the show must go on” paradigm tends to kill these types of conscientious behavior, and the people suffer. They become less authentic than they could be…and hopefully, less authentic than they have dreamed of being. And certainly, they become less like the labels they wear.
What good is “unity” if it is not built on the truth? If we have to sacrifice this fundamental of Christian ethics for it, what does such “unity” benefit us? Do we really fancy ourselves as a merry band of unified liars and neglecters of the truth?
And what good is the “encouragement” that comes from people holding back on the truth of a matter? And are we really doing ourselves any favors when we keep speaking and singing of things that are not as if our mere words or wishes could make them be as they should be? And what’s the point of honoring tradition when it’s just flat out wrong?
These are the thoughts we have developed—particularly over this last decade or so. I hope you will spend some time pondering them—as well as the peace and the freedom that come with them. In a religion that is based upon paradigms and philosophies that are so radically different from those that rule the world about us, it ought to give us pause when we lose our grasp on those fundamentals.
But beware, for if you walk down this road, it’s very likely to take you someplace new!