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.

Posted in Christian ethics, reflections

Baggage surrounding the word “holiness”

suitcaseYou know a word has issues when you have to start qualifying it. Why does someone say they are a “born-again Christian”?  Shouldn’t “Christian” be enough? (Read more on that here.)

Similarly, Ken Abraham published a book in 1988 entitled Positive Holiness. But I wonder: For those in the holiness tradition, shouldn’t the unadorned word “holiness” be enough? Abraham added the qualifier “positive” because he admitted what we rarely do:

The word “holiness” has baggage.

Like at the airport, baggage comes in different shapes and sizes. Here are two kinds of baggage:

1. Legalistic holiness – This was nearly extinct but is seeing a resurgence in response to shifting mores in society. It is the judgmental, Pharisaical approach to religion with an emphasis upon rules and outward appearance. Here, holiness is defined by what we abstain from: “A good ______________ (fill in denominational affiliation) does not _____________.”

This can be trickier than it looks. No one is denying the moral content of Christian faith. Jesus affirmed the Ten Commandments (Matthew 19:16-21) which contain numerous negative commands, i.e. “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not steal,” etc. But the problem with legalistic holiness is that it never gets around to the positive side of the equation, the Great Commandment of Christ to love God and neighbor (Mark 12:28-34), itself a re-affirmation of Old Testament teaching (Deut. 6:4-5, Lev. 19:8). Rules devoid of love dry up the spirit.

2. Magical holiness  – Besides legalistic holiness, a second type of baggage is more subtle. I call it “magical holiness.” This well-meaning error is usually accompanied by calls to “revival,” to get back to a time when we really knew how to preach holiness! And so we plaster the word on our brochures and banners, and call holiness the “great hope.”

Yet hope in the New Testament is seldom attached to a religious experience, no matter how powerful that experience may be. Rather, our hope is Jesus!  Galatians 5:5 speaks of our hope to be made righteous, but Colossians 1:27 exemplifies the more usual pattern, where it is “Christ in us” that is our “hope of glory” (NIV). 1 Thessalonians 1:3 affirms the believers for their “hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (CEB). Likewise, Peter extols the “living hope” into which we have been born, a living hope made possible through the resurrection of Christ (1 Peter 1:3, NIV).

A comparison helps. When studying spiritual gifts, sometimes we speak of the importance of “seeking the Giver more than the gifts.” That’s good advice, and keeps us from overemphasizing spectacular manifestations. However, we forget that counsel when it comes to holiness theology. We urge our people to seek “entire sanctification.” But I wonder: Isn’t that seeking the gift rather than the Giver? And when we seek gifts first and foremost, we become like Simon the Magician, wanting the power without the relationship from which the power flows. (See Acts 8:9-24).

But you say: Did not Jesus call us to hunger and thirst for righteousness (Matthew 5:6)? Indeed, he did, yet that day on a hillside in Galilee, the people focused their attention on Jesus. They came to get to know this teacher better. They carefully listened to him, understanding intuitively that Jesus is the source of all righteousness. The order is important. If we desire holiness, seek first the Holy One.

Once we have sought Jesus for himself and not for what he can do in our lives, then we blossom into a growing, dynamic relationship with God. Later, in God’s timing, will God not transform us at a deeper level into the image of Christ? Paul affirms this clearly in Romans 8:31-32:

So what are we going to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He didn’t spare his son but gave him up for us all. Won’t he also freely give us all things with him? (CEB)

Seek the sanctifying experience only, and you make Jesus your magician. Seek Jesus for himself, and you can’t help but be transformed at every level of your being.

Jesus, the Holy One, is our hope! May we preach a positive Christ, one who fills us with love for God and others. And may we always remember: We serve Jesus not for what he can do for us, though he does much. Rather, we serve Jesus because he is enough.


Photo credit: Pinstripes and Pearls

Posted in missions & evangelism, reflections

On haircuts and fundamentalism

barber-shopLike many words, “fundamentalist” can be a slippery one. At the turn of the 20th century in the United States, the word was made popular by a series of books called The Fundamentals, a 1910 work including 90 essays outlining orthodox Christian teaching. In recent years, however, the term has come to represent more an attitude than a doctrinal stance. Fundamentalists are those who seem focused on why they are “in” and others are “out.” It is a combative approach that emphasizes doctrinal purity over loving God and neighbor.

Nothing crystallized this sour-faced, narrow approach to religion better than our Gospel concert at the Temple. (The name of the church has been changed). My family was a Gaither rip-off, “The Croffords: Musical Messages with Warmth and Love.” Our high water mark was in ’75/’76 when my dad, mom, my five brothers and I recorded albums at Pinebrook in Alexandria, Indiana, the studio owned by Bill and Gloria Gaither. Usually we sang only on weekends, but this was at the time of Jerry Falwell’s “Moral Majority.” A meeting of pastors was being held during the week at the Temple, and – not knowing the political agenda – my dad agreed for us to come and present a mini-concert for those gathered.

We pulled out all the stops. Dad took off work, as did my oldest brother. Very exceptionally, my parents released us from school a few hours early that day so we could perform. Before the concert, we had changed into our outfits in the men’s room and had to step around a barber chair. Yes, they were giving haircuts in the men’s room of the church! That was odd, to say the least.

Now this was the day of polyester leisure suits, extended sideburns, and (for boys of any age) long hair. After the concert, we were packing up the sound equipment when one of the men from the local church came up to talk to my dad. “See those sons of yours?” (He pointed to two of my little brothers, aged 6 and 7 at the time). “You really need to get their hair cut. They look like girls. Don’t you know that the Bible says that ‘It’s a shame to a man to have long hair'”?

My dad is soft-spoken, but this man had captured his attention, and not in a good way. “Really?” he countered. “Where exactly does it say that in the Bible?” The accuser left and huddled with a few others in the back of the sanctuary. In a few minutes, he returned and confidently intoned: “1 Corinthians 11:14 – ‘Does not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man has long hair, it is a shame unto him?” Nonplussed, my dad replied: “And what does ‘long’ mean? I have a friend whose hair is very short. He’d say that your hair is too long!” “Oh, no” he answered. “My hair is just right!”

Seeing that the conversation was going nowhere, my dad concluded: “You know, I took off work today. So did my oldest son. Exceptionally, we even pulled our other sons out of school so we could come today as a family and sing this concert because the Temple asked us to do so and we hoped to be a blessing. And after all that, did you come up to tell me that you appreciated the concert, that you had been blessed? No – instead, all you have told me is that my sons’ hair is too long. I think that’s pretty sad.”

That story happened 37 years ago, yet in some quarters, little has changed. There are still groups of sour-faced fundamentalists in churches whose mission is finding fault with other believers. They criticize professors who try to clothe the gospel in terms that will resonate with the current generation, even though the essence of the timeless Gospel message they present remains unchanged. Rather than penetrating the culture in winsome ways, sending out our young people to change the world, fundamentalism is the “pull up the drawbridge” mentality. It is always “us” vs. “them.” It has forgotten that the most effective evangelism is not hiking up the hems of our holy robes so as not to be sullied by the “world.” Rather, it is finding areas of common humanity with all people, then using these to build relationships with those who so desperately need Jesus. If all we ever read are Christian novels, listen only to Christian music, and limit ourselves to “churchy” things, what springboards for conversation will we have with those who have no interest in all that?

Can’t do the “Harlem Shake” – that’s demonic.

Can’t read (fill in the name of popular fun book) – that’s “worldly.”

Can’t listen to this music, or that.

Can’t, can’t, can’t…

And then we’re surprised when we’re unable to sustain a 5 minute conversation with a non-Christian?

In the Garden of Eden, God told Adam and Eve that they could eat of any of the many trees in the garden, except one (Gen. 2:16-17). So why are we hanging “don’t touch” signs on so many trees, wholesome activities that God has made for our enjoyment?

There was a time when I was ready to do battle over a long list of things. Maybe it’s just that I’m growing older and realize that life is only so long, but my list of “non-negotiables” has gotten a lot shorter. Yes, there are things we should avoid. Some activities are not wholesome and – if persisted in – will begin to cut off our relationship with God. But we should be careful in our world that has lost its sense of moral direction not to over-react, erring in the opposite direction, placing out-of-bounds many of the good things God intended for our benefit.

Paul gives us helpful advice:

“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things”(Phil. 4:8, NIV).

What an amazing world God has gifted to us! Let’s shake off the fault-finding, narrow spirit of fundamentalism. Let’s turn our young people loose; let’s send them out to affirm all that is good in God’s creation, modeling a wholesome life centered around loving an incredible Saviour, a love that can’t help but love others. Now that’s Good News!


Photo credit: Gene Juarez