Our thought-life is all-powerful. If I think that my mailman intends to shoot me, this will profoundly affect the way that I feel towards him and behave. It will affect my words and my future plans, and perhaps even exert a long-lasting effect upon the direction of my life.
As such, our thoughts and beliefs are not merely the boat’s rudder; they are also its engine and sails. This principle also pertains to our worldview – our philosophy or theology of life – and we all have one, or several.
The atheistic poet turned Christian, W.H. Auden, wrote about the inevitable implications of secular-liberal thought in 1940:
- The whole trend of liberal thought has been to undermine faith in the absolute…It has tried to make reason the judge…But since life is a changing process…the attempt to find a humanistic basis for keeping a promise, works logically with the conclusion, “I can break it whenever I feel it inconvenient.” (Humphrey Carpenter, A Biography)
Without transcendent moral absolutes, convenience, not reason, reigns. Without these truths to feast upon, reason is a naked beggar living in a vacuum. It’s like trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle without its pieces. In the absence of absolute moral truth, the persuasive appeal of convenience becomes irresistible.
Even the modification of just one theological truth can create a paradigm shift redefining all other truths, like adding “not” to a sentence – “God is not holy and righteous.” This simple addition changes the entire meaning of the statement.
There are many examples of this. For instance, there is a great resistance, even in the church, to distinguish between “us and them,” “saved and unsaved.” Removing such distinctions is very appealing and even convenient in our professional and multi-cultural world. Where people hope to create bridges of common cause among all peoples, such distinctions have become politically unacceptable, even repugnant. Emergent Church pastor, Doug Pagitt, puts it like this:
- We are connected to each other as well. Christians like to talk about community, yet the dualistic [us-them] assumptions surrounding our theology make it almost impossible for us to experience true community. As long as we hold on to “us” and “them” categories of seeing the world, we live behind a barricade that prevents us from joining in with God and others in real and meaningful ways. And it doesn’t really matter who we decide “them” is – the non-Christians, the sinners, the liberals, the conservatives, the Jews, the Catholics, that weird church on the other side of town. Division is division, no matter how righteous we want to make it sound. (A Christianity Worth Believing, 91-92)
However, Pagitt is merely creating another division – this time between Emergents and Evangelicals. The Emergents have become the “we” and the Evangelicals are the “them.” More importantly, this one modification – removing Biblical distinctions – has the power to reformulate the entire Christian faith.
If there are no “us – them” distinctions, then many Biblical teachings must be either reinterpreted, ignored or simply rejected. However, these distinctions are an integral part of the Gospel – God’s purposes, our own identity and understanding of the world in which we live.
For example, Jesus taught that the “we” are set apart from the rest of the world. We are the “children of God” (Mat. 5:9; John 1:12) and the “light of the world” (Mat. 5:14).
Even as I write this, I do so with tinge of embarrassment, knowing that this represents pure arrogance in the eyes of the Emergent Church – “How can you think that you are more favored than others. It’s these kinds of distinctions that create prejudice and warfare!”
However, these are the very distinctions that the Bible has always made. The Israelites had been the people of God (and from the perspective of God’s future plans for Israel, they still are). Indeed, arrogance was a danger, and therefore, God guarded against this danger by warning that Israel was no better than other peoples. If anything, they were least (Deut. 7, 9). If they performed better, it was only because God had enabled them to do so (Deut. 8:17-19). However, to whom more was given, more was also expected. Therefore, Israel was judged with the stricter judgment.
We find these distinctions throughout the Bible. Although God’s people were chosen from among the dregs of society (1 Cor. 1:26-29), He would raise them up. However, He would never allow them to forget their humble and broken beginnings.
“Us – them” distinctions were always a part of Jesus’ preaching. Those who reject Him “will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life" (Mat. 25:46, 41; 13:42, 50).
“Us – them” distinctions – those who are with God and those against - are part of the fabric of the entire Bible, and we are required to heed these distinctions. Paul warned that God’s people mustn’t forget about this distinction:
- Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? (2 Cor. 6:14-15)
When we forget this distinction, we place ourselves at great peril. Therefore, a believer was warned against marrying an unbeliever (1 Cor. 7:39). Likewise, church discipline was applied to those who professed Christ and not those on the outside (1 Cor. 5:13).
While the “us – them” distinction has separated, it has also joined together. It has been the awareness of the lost-ness of the great masses of humanity along with of the blessedness of Christ, that has impelled Christian missions, and missions has done much to improve the world. The late theologian B.B. Warfield wrote:
- Hospitals and asylums and refuges for the sick, the miserable and the afflicted grow like heaven-bedewed blossoms in its path. Woman, whose equality with man Plato considered a sure mark of social disorganization, has been elevated; slavery has been driven from civilized ground; literacy has been given by Christian missionaries, under the influence of the Bible. (The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield)
Outreach requires an “us – them” distinction. However, this is the main point – if we want to eliminate the “us – them” distinction, we must also eliminate many other essential distinctions, and, ultimately, jettison the entire Gospel.
If we have to throw away the “saved – unsaved” distinction, then the eternal “punishment – reward” distinction must also be eliminated. Consequently, we would then be compelled to adopt universalism – the salvation of everyone!
However, this worldview tsunami doesn’t stop there. If we reject the “heaven – hell” distinction, then we have to reformulate the very nature of God. Hence, He can no longer be righteous and punitive. Instead, God must simply be indiscriminate-love, and salvation then becomes an entitlement program. We become entitled to salvation without any consideration of our response.
Well, if God is just love, and His righteous nature doesn’t require punishment for sin, what then do we make of the Biblical judgments, like the worldwide flood? A God who is just “love” would have no reason to bring such a horrific judgment!
Besides, if God is just “love” and His righteous nature need not be propitiated by the atoning work of Jesus, then the Cross was unnecessary, and therefore, it represents the worst case of cosmic child abuse, as the atheist claims.
Of course, it could be argued that after the Cross, God no longer required any form of retribution, and therefore, all are saved and going to heaven. However, this will bring about other, equally deadly, worldview tsunamis. If God is our role-model, and He has washed His hands of any form of judgment, then we too must do likewise. We have to give every student an “A” and every criminal his liberty – an absurdity.
Besides, such a tsunami contradicts Scripture, which requires faith-repentance as the condition of salvation and punishment for those who refuse.
Is this revelation offensive to humanity. Admittedly so! However, the more important question is this: “Is it true?”
When we begin to button our shirt with the wrong button, every subsequent button will be out-of-place. It is also this way with our theological starting points. One wrong idea can throw all the others out-of-kilter and birth many unintended consequences.
What are the consequences? It’s hard to tell. However, there have been many failed utopian schemes. What starts out looking so loving and accepting can turn into a house of horrors, as the various communist experiments have so amply demonstrated.
If the Emergent Church or others who believe that removing essential distinctions can build better communities and nations, could demonstrate but one such enduring community or nation, we might have reason to regard their formulation with some credulity. However, we are still waiting.