Secularizing Faith, Or Sanctifying Life Experiences?


Ventura Beach (via Rachel Marks)A popular pastoral position among evangelicals today seems to be to teach that there should be no dividing line between the secular and the sacred. The idea is that God is not merely God on Sunday and in churches.

He is, in fact, God of all our moments and in all places. We should, then, stop thinking of church as special or different. It is a place where we gather, but God is with us in the car wash or the grocery store or at the beach or in the theater.

All this makes sense to me. In fact, it’s consistent with what I learned as a teacher in a Christian school. The great emphasis in my school was integration: God’s word was to be an integral part of everything we taught—not an add-on class.

Here’s a pertinent paragraph from a paper on the philosophy of Christian education which speaks to this point:

Truth cannot be divided. “All truth is God’s truth” accurately delineates the nature of truth, whether in the spiritual or in the natural realm. Real teaching, then, is the process of making known God’s truth. Real knowledge, congruously, is seeing the world as God sees it. Then truth and knowledge, unified by God’s Word, mirror reality. Thus, God’s Word needs to be an integral part of the curriculum of every subject. Courses should not be taught with course material and the Bible. Rather course material must be studied in light of the Bible since God’s Word is the source of absolute truth.

And yet . . .

Scripture seems to teach a standard of holiness that makes a distinction between what is sacred and what is impious, or, to use Old Testament terminology, what is clean and what is unclean. In fact, one of the things God had the prophet Ezekiel proclaim to the exiles in Babylon was that the priests—along with the prophets, princes, and the people themselves—bore responsibility for the punishment God brought on His people. And this was what Ezekiel, on God’s behalf, called the priests out for:

Her priests have done violence to My law and have profaned My holy things; they have made no distinction between the holy and the profane, and they have not taught the difference between the unclean and the clean; and they hide their eyes from My sabbaths, and I am profaned among them (Ezekiel 22:26; emphasis mine)

In truth, the whole Levitic law was all about separation: God’s people separated from the godless nations; the priests separated from the people; the high priest separated from all other Levites and Israelites.

Primarily what was to separate the nation was their worship of God and their obedience to His laws. They were to be holy because God is holy.

And according to Peter, we Christians are also to be holy for the same reason (1 Peter 1:16).

But what precisely does it mean to be holy? Is this where we pull out a list of Thou Shalts and Thou Shalt Nots? Some Christians would have us think that’s the way to go while others want to throw off any semblance of following dictates handed down thousands of years ago.

In truth, Jesus showed us what following those dictates actually means: do not commit murder actually means, don’t hate someone else; do not commit adultery actually means, don’t look at another person with lust; love your enemies replaces love your neighbors and hate your enemies. He summed it all up by saying, “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48).

All right, Jesus, I’ll get right on that. I’m not meaning to be disrespectful, but really? We imperfect humans are supposed to be perfect like God who is without spot or blemish? Not possible.

Which was precisely Jesus’s point.

So we can throw away the lists, right?

We can throw them away so far as we look at those lists as a means to acceptance with God. This is the key difference that separates Christians from others who believe in a monotheistic religion. We recognize that we are incapable of the kind of perfection that marks God, the kind of perfection God demands.

The only one who measures up to God’s standard of holiness is Jesus. But when we confess our sins, when we believe Jesus sacrificed Himself to pay for our sins, we have a new birth. We become new creatures. Not perfect creatures, mind you. We don’t suddenly have a no-more-sin gene implanted in us.

Rather, we are saved by faith and we are saved for good works. Meaning that, because of our new standing with God, our hearts are changed. We don’t want to serve only ourselves. Instead, we want to serve God and the people He puts in our path—at least we know we should want to do that and most of the time we do want to do that.

But it’s a war. A spiritual war. One we’re equipped for. One we don’t fight alone. Nevertheless, we battle, not against flesh and blood, but against spiritual forces.

So what does this have to do with the divide between the secular and the sacred?

I think the divide is in our heart, not out there in the world. What we cling to as ours is profane. What we yield to God is sacred.

Jesus explained it this way when a Pharisee challenged His disciples with one of the Thou Shalts that they had ignored:

But the things that proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and those defile the man. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders. These are the things which defile the man; but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile the man.” (Matt 15:18-20)

In other words, if my heart is filled with evil thoughts and hatred and lust and lies and covetousness, it doesn’t really matter if I keep a list of all the right things to do and all the wrong things to avoid. I’m profane because my heart is filled with things that defile me.

In short, the pastors are right as far as they go, and Ezekiel is right (well, he was speaking what God told him to, so I guess that’s a no brainer). But the idea that all is sacred isn’t quite right—all is not sacred if our hearts are defiled.

And the last time I checked, that spiritual war I mentioned earlier is still going on.

Warning To The Church In Ephesus . . . Or In America?


An early Christian ichthys symbol carved into some marble in the ruins of Ephesus, Turkey.

An early Christian ichthys symbol carved into some marble in the ruins of Ephesus, Turkey.

A few years ago I wrote a post about the book of Revelation in which I drew this conclusion: “Revelation is a rich book because it shows us more about who God is than it does about what will happen someday.” I think that’s an accurate evaluation. A lot of the “someday” portion of Revelation is couched in picture language, and Biblical scholars don’t agree about their meaning.

But there’s a short section at the beginning of John’s vision that was quite contemporary to him. In these chapters Jesus comes to John and tells him to write “the things which you have seen, and the things which are, and the things which will take place after these things.”

It is “the things which are” that I’m interested in because I wonder if they are not also the things which will take place.

Jesus delivered specific messages to angels apparently assigned to particular churches existent at the time of John’s writing: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea.

I find it curious that only these seven churches are addressed. What about the church in Corinth or the one in Antioch? Why these seven? Were they unique?

The symbol Jesus used for them was a golden lampstand. Was the idea that these were golden somehow significant. I don’t know that any Bible scholar can tell us. However, we do know from various places in Scripture that believers are to be light to the world. So the image of a lampstand for a church certainly seems fitting.

In addition, the particular messages which Jesus delivered to the various churches, while uniquely fitted to each unique body, seem universal in their application. What He said to one church would seem to apply to any church with similar qualities or circumstances or failings.

So when Jesus delivers a message to the angel of the church in Ephesus and tells John to write it down, He would seem to be delivering the same message down through the church age to any body of believers who share the matters he addressed.

His message to this first church contained six parts: an explication, a confrontation, an admonition, a warning, a commendation, and a promise.

First Jesus gave an analysis of the church. This is what was true about the believers in Ephesus: there were things they’d done, work they’d performed. They’d persevered, which implied things weren’t always easy.

They also didn’t tolerate evil men. Instead, they tested those who put themselves forth as teachers. They held fast, endured, and don’t grow weary because of one thing: the name of Christ Jesus.

That’s a pretty fair evaluation. I wonder how the Church in America would stack up in these areas. Do we have a record of things accomplished and work we’ve performed? I suspect so. Have we persevered when things weren’t always easy? That’s harder to say because the church in America has had very little adversity.

Do we tolerate evil men? Sadly, our record there is spotty at best. We have tolerated evil men—false teachers and cult leaders who often got their start within the church. Perhaps this toleration is because we haven’t tested those claiming a position of leadership as we should have. Ironic, since we have God’s written word. We aren’t forced to rely upon hearsay or occasional letters or itinerant preachers sent from the apostles. Instead, all we have to do is test what a teacher says by comparing it to the Bible.

Finally, do we hold to our faith without growing weary because of the name of Jesus Christ? Or do we become disappointed with God when things don’t go our way? Do we complain and grumble when God doesn’t seem to answer our prayers?

In an examination of our over all condition, I’m not sure the Church in America would stack up all that well against the church in Ephesus.

On the other hand, Jesus admonished the believers in Ephesus for something that may be all to similar to the condition of believers in America: “But I have this against you, that you have left your first love” (Rev. 2:4).

Loving God first would seem to be the point here. Loving Him so that nothing else came ahead of Him. This confrontation seems like another way of saying, you’ve allowed idols to steal away your affection. I can think of a few idols the American Church has bowed to—ease, traditions, our nation, our families, to name a few.

Jesus next gave the church in Ephesus an admonition: remember what you used to do, repent, and get back to doing what you had been doing.

The Church in America used to evangelize and share with their neighbors, feed the poor and take the lead in things like establishing universities and leading the fight against slavery. The Church in America read their Bibles and went to prayer meetings. God was important and obeying His word was important.

Do we need to repent and get back to doing what we did before?

View_from_odeonJesus next warned the Ephesian believers—if you don’t repent, Jesus would remove their lampstand, their witness, from that place. This, remember, was the church Paul wrote to about putting on the armor of God, repeatedly telling them to stand firm. And what’s the condition of the church in Ephesus today?

Then His praise: they hated deeds Jesus also hated. These deeds are those of the mysterious Nicolaitans. I’ve not heard a pastor yet who claims to know who these people were. Apparently there’s no record of them outside the Bible, and there’s no other explanation of them or their deeds. But there really doesn’t need to be. Whatever they did, it was something Jesus hated. Scripture gives us plenty of things that would fall into that category.

So the question: are we tepid about things God hates or are we white-hot angry about the things He hates. If we’re unsure what God hates, we can start with this list from Proverbs:

Pride and arrogance and the evil way
And the perverted mouth, I hate (8:13b).

Or how about this one:

Lying lips are an abomination to the LORD (12:22a)

I’m not so sure Jesus would commend the Church in America for hating deeds He hates.

Jesus ended His message with a promise:

He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will grant to eat of the tree of life which is in the Paradise of God.’ (Rev. 2:7)

“To him who overcomes” seems directed to individuals rather than to the Church collectively. The promise is familiar. Eating of the tree of life harkens back to the Garden where God walked and talked with the man and woman He had made and found to be very good. It evokes the image of the feast in the parable Jesus told. It alludes to eternal life, and this promise is certainly for any in the American Church who “overcome.”

There isn’t much of a context clue to explain what “overcomes” means, but there are clear passages that deal with God granting eternal life, the most well-known being John 3:16.

For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.

I surmise, then, that “overcoming” is tied with believing in Jesus. There are lots of “professing Christians” in America today who don’t believe in Jesus as the Bible reveals Him. But the true Church? Well, belief in Jesus is really the dividing point, isn’t it.

Published in: on July 28, 2014 at 6:29 pm  Comments Off on Warning To The Church In Ephesus . . . Or In America?  
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