Posted in Christian ethics, discipleship, reflections

Upright, or uptight?

There’s just one letter difference, but what a difference it makes.

To be upright is to be righteous. It refuses moral compromise but does so in a way that attracts rather than repels. It’s the loving, kindhearted, winsome quality of character and integrity epitomized by Jesus.

In the quest to be upright, some become uptight. Uptight religion scolds; it’s suspicious of laughter, always serious, and rarely lets down its hair. Steering clear of the ditch of sin, it ends up in the opposite ditch of joyless austerity. Uptight religion repels rather than attracts. It empties churches, then calls itself persecuted, blaming the “devil” or “the world.”

Uptight religion majors on what good Christians don’t do. In the early editions of my denomination’s Manual, they were called the “special rules.” Here’s a sampling:

Don’t dance.

Don’t go to the movie theater.

Don’t play the lottery.

Don’t swim with members of the opposite sex.

Let’s be clear. There’s a place for prohibitions in the Christian life. After all, the 10 Commandments include multiple “do not” statements including “do not steal,” “do not murder,” and “do not commit adultery.” (See Exodus 20:1-17). But while the church of my youth did plenty right, it also unwittingly sowed in my heart the notion that religion is mostly about keeping rules. Mine was an uptight religion, and I still struggle to see faith through the lens of what God asks me to do rather than what he commands me to avoid.

Uptight religion was certainly not God’s intention for Adam and Eve (See Genesis 2-3). The LORD created an amazing garden, with a dizzying variety of plants and trees. God turned them loose in the garden and said, “Go have fun!” Imagine the freedom they enjoyed. They could drink of the crystal-clear brook, soak-up the sunlight that filtered through the canopy, and – best of all – feast on the fruit of hundreds of trees. There was a single tree that God said was off-limits (Gen. 2:16-17), the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. We can’t know for sure how many trees were in the garden, but it’s safe to say that (as a percentage) more than 99% of the trees were in-bounds. That’s freedom!

Sadly, uptight religion wants to fence-off more trees in the garden than God ever intended. It forgets that God is much more often the God of “yes” than the God of “no.” This positive outlook is captured by Paul in 2 Corinthians 1:20 (NLT): “For all of God’s promises have been fulfilled in Christ with a resounding ‘Yes’ And through Christ, our ‘Amen’ (which means ‘Yes’) ascends to God for his glory.”

As the scales of uptight religion fall away from my spiritual eyes, I’m coming to see upright religion in a new light. If uptight religion is negative, emphasizing what we don’t do, upright religion is positive, accentuating what God calls us to do. I’m coming to understand holiness as engagement with the world rather than a rules-based sequestering myself from the world. It’s a confident thrust forward rather than a suspicious step back. It’s Jesus’ attitude as he sends out the 12 apostles in Matthew 7:8-9 (NLT): “Go and announce to them that the Kingdom of Heaven is near. Heal the sick, raise the dead, cure those with leprosy, and cast out demons. Give as freely as you have received!”

What about you? Is your Christian faith of the upright or the uptight variety? May God help us to discern this crucial distinction.



Greg is interested in many topics, including theology, philosophy, and science.

2 thoughts on “Upright, or uptight?

  1. Greg: I have never heard the term “Uptight” before regarding the early religious days of the Church of the Nazarene.  My problem is that I have more respect for the saints of my early years in the church than I have for the saintsin the church today.  I understand that many people will call me judgmental because of that statement.  I realize the danger  of that statement and am concerned about being judgmental.  The Bible also says that you will knowthem by their fruit.   There is certainly a large gap in understanding what God meant  by this “fruit” statement.  I am concerned when you cannot tell the difference between a person who calls themselves a Christian and a person in the world who does not believe in Jesus Christ.    Are you equating an “uptight” person with a “sinning” Christian? As the scales drop from the eyes of an “uptight” Christian, some also see that the new modern teaching in the church is less effective than the teaching of the early church.   Look at the statistics for the early church verses the church of today.  Maybe I have missed it, but the church grew in America when the church was “uptight”.  When the enlightened or more educated people came into the church, the church changed as you have suggested. Was that a good thing? You acknowledge that God has “Thou shalt nots ” as well as “Thou shall do”.  How far has the pendulum swung?  The middle ground that God certainly speaks about seems difficult for humans to find.  The pendulum swing seems related to individual learning.  Is that what God desires for His church the Body of Christ? . You seemed concerned about the church fencing off more trees.  An equal concern may  be the so called freedom in Christmovement which thinks that I have total freedom in Christ – very little is wrong.  This seems to imply in the church today the individual is free do do what they think best. It is the old fogies, the uneducated in the church that live by standards.  Remember, everyone the “old” or the “new” fogies live by some set of standards – right and wrong.  .  I certainly do not want to return to the church of my youth, but those folks were dedicated to Christ and wanted Christ in their life and the life of the church. Is the modern church, the free thinkers dedicated to God? I certainly do not know the answer to that question.  Hope you do!  I am not sure what you see as real dedication to Christ?   Your last question is a great question.  One of the difficulties that I have with the Old Church is that the “sanctification” that I was taught seemed impossible to live.  I finally came to the conclusion that sanctification for me is really Romans 12:1&2 (NKJV)  1 I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service.2 And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God. For me Romans 12:1&2 is my answer to  your last question.   I realize that you will not agree with me on all of these ideas.  That is alright!  It  is good to have an exchange of ideas and I  thank you for this letter.  You did a good job!   I hope you do not drop me from your mail list. Terrel and Ruth Samuels

    1. Thanks so much, Terrel, for your thoughtful reply. Your idea that the “pendulum swings” is probably correct. It’s possible that today – in 2020 – our danger is not so much being “uptight” as I’ve defined it, but having an “anything goes” attitude, what Paul called “sinning that grace may abound” (Romans 6:1). My essay was probably more of a reflection of my own growing up in the church of the 1960s and 1970s. One example would be the movie theatre. That anti-cinema stance could bring us to some absurd practices, like when we felt guilty going to the cinema to see the Billy Graham produced film, “The Hiding Place.” I think that sense of guilt was not from God, but was needless baggage placed upon us, a “heavy yoke” something like what Jesus criticized. He said: “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:30). But some of those old rules were a needless yoke. I’ve thrown it off, and haven’t missed it a bit. Another example from the early days of the church was a woman who asked Dr Bresee: “Should Nazarene women wear make-up?” He famously replied: “Well, I’ve always said, ‘If the barn needs painting, then paint it!” And so I think sometimes we chased minor things, and missed major ones, like the fact that most Nazarene churches are not racially integrated. I appreciate you and Ruth. Thanks for reading.

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