When I was a boy, I was in awe of the really great preachers who came to our church, or populated the tent revivals of summer. Growing up “Bapti-costal,” those services and sermons by talented preachers meant paying attention for three of four hours at a time. Keeping the attention of an eight year old for hours on end is no mean feat! There were the personal testimony sermons, revelatory sermons where some long-hidden secret or doctrine was revealed, apocalyptic sermons, and, of course, the railing sermons.
Railing sermons, or sermons where the preacher railed against the evils of either the world or another Christian faction, were quite interesting. Being part of an up and coming minority, as the Pentecostals were at the time, meant having to defend yourself at all points against others who were critical of the movement. Yes, “they” complained about speaking in tongues because they were mainline “legalists,” like mainline Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, et al., or worse: Papists. We had freedom, we were told: freedom to shout, dance, jump up and down, take great joy in the presence of the Spirit, and most importantly, freedom from the decrepit doctrines of men that bound the Spirit with cold chains of sterility and boredom.
We loved 2 Corinthians 3 on this point, especially verses 6 and 17. We were “…ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. 17 …Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” We were free to do as we pleased, interpret as we pleased, worship as we please because at the heart of our experience was the conviction that “true” Christians, singularly focused on the presence of the Holy Spirit, could be defined by nothing short of freedom.
I don’t wish to be overly critical of those lessons of my youth. I learned much that has continued to prove useful to me as I have grown in Christ, and as I have worked out my call to ministry. That said, there is a danger present in this kind of thinking. The danger, I think, is that as with anything, too much of something can ruin you. Too much chocolate, and you become morbidly obese. Too much freedom, and you eventually reject all rules, precepts and wisdom. This phenomenon is sometimes referred to as “antinomianism”, or being against the Law.
In the case of the Pentecostal and Baptist churches of my youth, this antinomianism lead to a great deal of destruction within the community. If you are utterly free on all matters of interpretation and practice, trust me when I tell you that it doesn’t take long until you are awash in layer upon layer of competing interpretation. One minister armed with personal revelation about this topic or another inevitably came into conflict with another camp who held a different opinion. Both used Scripture, so the question eventually came down to who was more charismatic and persuasive.
Under the power of this persuasive preacher or another, it wasn’t long until new lists of prohibitions were rolled out as various litmus tests and badges of identity to ensure loyalty to particular parties. There was the “Holiness” camp who had rule upon rule regarding women’s modesty, for example. Before you knew it, all that freedom once espoused as they highest good was rolled back for the sake of being a peculiar, separated society of believers.
As a result, churches split like rocks under great heat. Personal relationships would be torn apart, and in the worst cases, the character of those with competing theological vision would come under attack. I have witnessed a great deal of unnecessary pain inflicted upon brothers and sisters in Christ in the name of freedom. I say that this pain was unnecessary because while there is freedom in Christ, the clear witness of Scripture is that we are supposed to subordinate our freedom for the sake of serving and loving one another. For all their wrangling over matters ranging from the length of women’s skirts to who is supposed to interpret when tongues are spoken, the purveyors of this charismatic chaos evidently overlooked the simple truths contained in passages like Ephesians 4:1-6:
I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3 making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.
Beyond the issue of disunity and inflicting unnecessary pain, I also came to realize that this singular focus on freedom became an excuse to divorce ourselves from history. What I mean by this is that if only we had this new found freedom in the Spirit, in contrast with the “dead” churches of the mainline, our revelations were all that mattered. We didn’t need the wisdom and insight of the larger church because they didn’t believe in a “larger” church beyond the confines of their system. Who needs doctrine when you have direct access to the Spirit?
Underneath all of this, I think, was a contempt for the great learning of the historic church and its traditions. It sort of makes sense that this was the case in that our ministry was done primarily amongst society’s poor. Unlike the mainline and their ministers who went to “cemeteries” (their pun for seminaries), we were alive, God spoke to us here and now, and we had no need of the opinions of Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin or Wesley. While I do understand the contempt they held for the learning of the church (I say I understand because I think we in the mainline have NOT wrestled enough with the ways in which we use our knowledge, status, and wealth to puff up rather than to build up in love; 1 Corinthians 8:1), the unfortunate consequence of this reasoning served to veil ever-increasing forms of ignorance.
You can see this when it comes to matters of core doctrines of the church like the Trinity. In the case of some Pentecostals (as in the case of the church I spent six or seven years of my early life), they rejected the doctrine of the Trinity for what is called the “Jesus name”, or the “Oneness” movement. For “Oneness” Pentecostals, the Trinity was a made up doctrine inspired so as to deprive the church of continued miracles in the power of the Spirit because it took the focus off the divinity of Jesus. Jesus was God, they would say, and because He was God, he gave us the power of His Spirit to act in mighty ways in His name. If we believed hard enough, we could be just like him, even to the point of raising people from the dead. (John 11:38-44)
It was as if they had never heard of the Nicene Creed, or more importantly, the Council of Chalcedon that clearly states that Jesus was both fully God and fully man. The union of the man Jesus with the second person of the Trinity means that Jesus was God, without confusion of the properties between God and humanity while also being in perfect unity with the Godhead. If this definition is confusing to you, that is okay because the church has always acknowledged a divine mystery beyond simple comprehension at the center of the two natures of Christ. As such, our words and thinking only serve to point in the direction of God’s truth as revealed in Scripture.
However, this exposition misses the point. They didn’t want to explore the mystery because, in my opinion, their theology was a badge of identity used to distinguish themselves as “truly” Christian as opposed to those they felt were enslaved by human doctrine. Freedom was the name of the game; freedom from all rules, all structure, and ultimately, from all imposed limits. This form of freedom was, in essence, freedom to NOT be like the tax-collector. (Luke 18:11)
This, of course, would drive folks like me away from the church in due season. At the age of 15, I rejected the faith I had received because it was clear that I couldn’t ask the hard questions about what I was being taught lest I risk public humiliation, or worst of all, the moniker of apostate. Strangely, all that freedom they espoused contained limits of its own, and woe to the one who pushed the envelope.
The lesson here, I think, is that the trope of Law v. Gospel, Rules v. Freedom, Letter v. Spirit can become a deadly spiritual tool in the wrong hands. The truth is that any idea in our hands, given that we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23), inevitably results in the abuse of our freedom. Especially in regards to our thinking about the Law, rules and systems, we run the risk of falling into an antinomianism that eventually leads to a spiritual desert fit only for “heroic” figures divorced from community. When the only point that matters is to be free, we are left desolate for freedom divorced from community means nothing.
We need rules, we need the Law, in some sense, if we are to live together in community. We need the Law, not as a taskmaster, but as a guide that allows us a mutual submission through Christ’s love (in technical parlance, the “third use” of the law where the law guides us in righteousness and builds us up in sanctification). In short, the love of God informs our approach to all questions of rules, systems and laws because love fulfills the law. (Romans 13:10)
Law v. Gospel. Rules v. Freedom. Letter v. Spirit. These are useful distinctions only in the sense that they point us towards the fulfillment of the Law through our love for one another and for God. If law seems to impede our ability to love God with all that we are, and to love our neighbor as ourselves (Mark 12:30-31), then we are supposed to think again about how we understand the law, or how we apply it. The point isn’t that we chuck the law out the window for the sake of being free.
Interestingly, this understanding has always operated in the background of Israel’s understanding of the Mosaic Law. Unlike popular caricatures that would have us see our Jewish brothers and sisters as beholden to the “dead letter” of the Law, the Law was always a living, breathing covenant with which the community was in constant conversation. The presence of the prophetic books of Hebrew Scripture themselves are testimony to this.
When Amos writes that God hates Israel’s religious observances appointed by the Law (Amos 5:21), it is not because God has suddenly changed God’s mind about the Sabbath, Passover, Booths or the like. No! The point here is that observing the Law apart from considerations of love and justice transform the Law into empty observance divorced from the righteousness necessary to serve as the foundation of the people’s covenant relationship with God and with one another.
The Law has always, and at all points, been about healing, restoration, mercy and love. Those called to observe the covenant commands are given those commands so that they might be healed and restored so as to become living witnesses to the sovereign love and care of the Lord God alone who, in turn, empowers them through the Law to bind up the wounds of their neighbors.
Before their encounter at Sinai, the recently delivered Israel comes to the bitter waters of Marah, and they begin to complain against the Lord who had brought them to that place. (Exodus 15:22-25) In short, they begin to doubt that following God and listening to God’s voice will do them any good. God delivers them once again, providing them clean water to drink. Exodus then details that this encounter was given to them as a test, and begins to hint at the covenant to come. (15:25)
Here, the purpose of the coming covenant, the Law, is given: “If you will listen carefully to the voice of the LORD your God, and do what is right in his sight, and give heed to his commandments and keep all his statutes, I will not bring upon you any of the diseases that I brought upon the Egyptians; for I am the LORD who heals you.” (15:26) Listening to God and heeding God’s commands are expressly for the purpose of healing, restoration, mercy and life.
Time and again, this pattern is established in regarding the Law given in the covenant relationship between Israel and God. Proverbs 3:8 tells us that heeding the voice of the Lord and following God’s wisdom contained in the Law is healing for our flesh and refreshment of our bodies. Proverbs 4:22 says the same. Isaiah 58 makes it clear that the ordinances of God, when pursued with love, mercy and justice in mind, will eventually bring about Israel’s restoration wherein their “light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly.” (Isaiah 58:8)
For ancient Israel, the Law was life because the Law was the living, breathing word of God upon which they patterned all their relationships. The question was never, ever about its dead letter. Accordingly, they argued about the Law’s meaning, with layer upon layer interpretation handed down over the generations so that they could operate faithfully under its guidance. As Deuteronomy 5:29 puts it, to follow, to argue about, and to seek faithful adherence to God’s ordinances and statutes is a matter of life and death so that “it might go well with them and with their children forever!”
In my next post, I will pick up on this theme, show where adherence can go awry, and why Jesus’ words and his presence provides the proper corrective.