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Friday, July 15, 2011

Assumptions and Absolutes

NOTE: This is Part 2 of a two week series. If you haven't read Part 1, Our Message - Not Like the Others, you can do so by clicking here.
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Last week, the key point made was that though our message, the Gospel, is wholly unlike any other message on the face of the earth, the forms and practices of our western church system can often have more in common with the "other messages" than with the unique and radical message that we hold so dear.

In this post we’re going to develop that point a step further by taking a closer look at how the traditions and deeply rooted assumptions of the messenger have the potential to hinder the message we hold so dear.

The target audience of this two week series is not so much those who don’t care about the Gospel, but those who, in fact, care deeply. Furthermore, this is not primarily written for those who don’t view the Scriptures as their authority, but rather for those who do.

With that said, I think it's safe to say that all of us who view the authority of Scripture as the supreme authority believe that its teachings must take precedence over all else.

Whether it’s church history, family upbringing or culture, the teaching of a particular denomination, theological system, or Christian organization, we all believe that the teaching of Scripture must, on each and every occasion, take precedence.

That’s not to say, of course, that these other things have no value.

In and of itself, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with living according to western church tradition, a particular denominational system, or even our own personal preferences. Many great men and women of God have gone before us and we have much to gain from their teaching and experiences.

There’s also nothing necessarily wrong with preferring one particular approach over another. That’s what culture is. By and large we live the way we do because we prefer it over any other approach to life. Life is most comfortable to us when approached in a manner that we've become accustomed to. It’s part of our “first birth,” and there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that.

The problem lies in the elevation of our "preferred approach" to a level that is equal or superior to the Scriptures. As Mark 7 warns:
When the Scriptures are inadvertently placed in an equal or subordinate role to a prevailing mindset, culture, or system we have a major problem indeed. I say "inadvertently" because, after all, no one would purposely set out to undermine the Scriptures unless they themselves were an enemy of the cross.

The question that we’re compelled to ask, then, is: Does the warning in Mark 7 only apply to enemies of the cross? Can tradition, even good tradition, nullify the word of God?

Could this warning be applied just as well to our western church system - our forms, practices, denominations, organizations, theological systems, and, most importantly, the deeply rooted assumptions undergirding the prevailing mindset?

Assuming that Jesus is not just speaking in superlative language, how seriously should we take this passage?

Let me emphasize that the question here is not whether the above have value, they most certainly do have value, the question is whether it’s possible for these "good things" to nullify the word of God!

If the answer to that question is a firm and absolute no - that there's absolutely no way that it's even remotely possible for these things to nullify the word of God - then there’s no point in reading on and I'm sorry for wasting your time.

If, on the other hand, the answer to that question is yes - that it may indeed be possible for even these “good things” to nullify the word of God - then it begs the question, how? In what way?

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from 20 years of living and ministering in the "rocky soil" of Japan, it’s that all of us operate from a set of deeply rooted assumptions when it comes to life and ministry.

Some of our deeply rooted assumptions are good and necessary; others are, well, let’s just say, in need of reexamination.

The good and necessary, of course, would include things like our core doctrine - the person and work of Christ, salvation by grace through faith alone, the authority of Scripture, etc. Since these are non-negotiable absolutes from Scripture, there’s no reason to reexamine them.

The historical and foundational tenets of our faith are simply not open for debate. The same applies to sin and morality. It doesn’t matter whether we’re in Jerusalem or the ends of the earth, murder is still murder, adultery is still adultery, and sin is still sin.

However, it’s another matter entirely when dealing with deeply rooted assumptions that have been birthed by our western church tradition.

These tend to be harder to pin down because what one person regards as a non-essential tradition is often viewed by another person as a non-negotiable absolute. Paul calls these “disputable matters,” but too often we regard them as core doctrine.

When a disputable matter is elevated to the status of non-negotiable absolute, I would submit to you that it is precisely at this point that we run the risk of subordinating the Word of God to the tradition of men.

Our intentions might be good, and our resolve to live with the Scriptures as our supreme authority might be sincere and unwavering, but we cannot so easily escape the influence of our deeply rooted assumptions.

Though we may not be keenly aware of it, or willing to admit it, every one of us approaches the Scriptures with a particular mindset that is heavily influenced by religious & professional training, denominational & organizational norms, personal preferences, past experiences, culture, family values, gifting, personality, gender, age, and so forth.

Generally speaking, we tend to perceive what we expect to perceive.

Information that is consistent with the prevailing mindset is perceived and processed readily, while information that does not fit into the prevailing mindset is easily overlooked, ignored, discounted, misinterpreted, or rejected outright.

Take, for example, the prevailing mindset on "church."

Though we all know that the Scriptures unequivocally teach that the church is people (a very special people but people nonetheless), the prevailing mindset cannot imagine church apart from buildings, programs, budgets, formal meetings, memberships, and elaborate organizational structures.

The prevailing mindset thinks in terms of “going to church” even though the Scriptures clearly speak in terms of “being the church.” Furthermore, the system we've built around this mindset continually reinforces, both implicitly and explicitly, "the going" over "the being."

To complicate matters even further, most of us sincerely believe that we’re not placing tradition, denominational norms, or personal preferences above Scripture.

All of us are quite capable of making the case, from Scripture, why our activity, program, denominational norm, or personal preference is really not a tradition at all. In our thinking, these are good and necessary if the truth of the Gospel is to be preserved and the body of Christ is to grow and function properly.

Furthermore, we all know what the Word of God teaches about “rules taught by men,” but all too often we assume that the Scriptures can’t possibly be talking about us.

In our mind, it’s always the other guy’s tradition, the other guy’s denomination, or the other guy’s deeply rooted assumptions that God is addressing in this passage. Essentially, it’s the other guy who is guilty of elevating a disputable matter to the status of non-negotiable absolute, not us!

The way we view it, in the prevailing mindset, as long as our core doctrine is in order we don’t have to bother with the warning in Mark 7 because it really doesn’t apply to us.

Believe me, I’m as guilty as the next guy, but how would all that change if we took the warning in Mark 7 to heart?

If the Holy Spirit began to open our eyes to even the possibility that the so-called "good tradition" can nullify the word of God, what affect might that have on us?

How would we even know what affect our forms, practices, and deeply rooted assumptions are having on the message if we’ve never even stopped to seriously consider the possibility?

I suppose that’s why missionaries tend to be so “weird” sometimes. We’ve been thrust into a new culture that approaches life in a manner different from our home church or country, and our eyes begin to see what has been previously unseen to us.

Indeed, the challenge of taking the Gospel to the rocky soil nations of the world is forcing us, albeit kicking and screaming, to go back to the Scriptures with fresh eyes for insight, answers, and perspective.

In the process, many of us come face-to-face with our own deeply rooted assumptions for the first time as the gentle prodding of the Holy Spirit brings about profound changes in the heart of the messenger. The foundational tenets of the message don’t change one iota, just the stuff that muddles the unique and radical message we hold so dear.

On a practical note, then, how do we determine whether something is truly a non-negotiable absolute or merely a disputable matter?

First: I would suggest that we need to learn to distinguish between form and function.

What I think you’ll find is that the function is the non-negotiable absolute from Scripture, and that the form is essentially free to adapt and change. You’ll save yourself and others a lot of grief if you can seek to agree on the necessary functions even if you can’t agree on the particular forms.

Second: When looking at a particular issue, I would suggest that each of us need to get together with a handful of other believers and, with Bibles open, discuss the following question:
Is this a non-negotiable absolute from Scripture that applies to any believer (or group of believers), in any culture, of any nation, in any time period, in any context - religious freedom or not, since the time of Christ?
So, for example, body life is a function that is most definitely a non-negotiable absolute from Scripture, but can the same be said about our buildings, programs, formal meetings, and denominational structures (i.e. our forms)?

Do the Scriptures speak to the possibility of engaging in meaningful body life apart from the existing "church system?"

Furthermore, would we insist that every believer in Iran and North Korea be held to this particular standard?

How about the believers in the 2nd or 3rd century?

Do the Scriptures speak of one set of absolutes for believers living this century in a country with religious freedom, and a slightly different set of absolutes for believers living in another era or in a country without religious freedom?

How might we approach things differently in America if we applied this kind of thinking toward those we’re trying to reach for Christ here?

I believe that we are going through yet another major paradigm shift in church history. It’s an uneasy time for sure, but it’s also an exciting time to be alive!

None of this is about dismantling what exists; if anything this is about new pathways for the Gospel and new expressions of body life for those who, like the believers in Iran and North Korea, will never be a part of our Western church system.

If there is even the slightest possibility that tradition, even good tradition, can muddle the unique and radical message we hold so dear, wouldn't it be prudent to at least examine these matters further?

For the sake of the Gospel, can we do any less?


  1. Welcome back to the Blogosphere old friend! I've added your blog to my "blogroll" and look forward to reading your ruminations.

  2. Thanks, Jailer, it's great to be back!

  3. I quite concur having spent the first two thirds of my life in Africa. I find the Western church mindset quite alien to my own understandings. This, even though I was a white person born and brought up in Africa. There is a saying "You are not born in Africa, Africa is born in you." I find a lot that is superfluous and there is a lack of the true love of Christ in the churches I have attended in Britain. I can't speak or the USA or the Afro Caribbean churches in London which might be quite different.

  4. I've heard several friends say the same thing about how "Africa is born in you." What a rich heritage you have!

    If I may ask, what in particular, about the Western Church Mindset, have you found alien to your own understandings?

    Sounds like there's a story there somewhere......

  5. just added your blog to my site.

  6. am following you, too. I assume blogger will keep me updated on your posts.

  7. Thanks, Rich, for following this blog on your blog site.

    When I figure out how to do all that technical stuff I will do the same.

  8. Great post. I find things different in other countries and particularly where Evangelism and/or meeting with "the body" can get you jail/torture time. A lot of Western traditions are just that and many appeal to building membership instead of disciples because of these traditions. Even with my online school, I ask for input from people world wide to what they have to deal with so I can attempt to cover issues here and abroad. Keep up the good work!

  9. Thanks for the encouraging word, Jeff. I've been meaning to get a hold of your book and this is a timely reminder.

  10. Thanking Jailer for pointing me here. I will be back. Blessings!

  11. Glad to have you aboard, Penned Pebbles, please give my greetings to my good friend, the Jailer!