The Words Matter

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Gentle Reader,

I’m not Amish. (Obviously). I don’t think that Christians have to buck every fashion trend. Nor do I think we have to shun technology. I don’t think that anything righteous comes out of sneering at any and all art, literature, music, live theater, movies or television. It’s not sinful to use an electric guitar in a worship service or to use a Bible app on a tablet or smartphone (though the latter does make me twitch). We shouldn’t close ourselves off from society in the pursuit of holiness.

That said, I loathe the whole “we must make Christianity relevant” thing. I despise it and have from the moment I had realized that what this “relevancy” really amounts to is post-modernist nonsense wearing a thin, cracked evangelical mask.

A hallmark of post-modern thinking is that words have no meaning beyond that which the reader assigns them. It is relativism liberally applied to sentence structure. Thus, I might say that “the sky is blue” and three different people may read that statement and draw three different conclusions. One may accept the statement, another reject it and the third spend hours attempting to determine what “sky” really means. Each one is supposedly equally accurate.

Insert eye-roll here.

We run into massive problems when we attempt to strip words of their meanings or give them new meanings altogether. For example, relevant is defined as “having significant and demonstrable bearing on the matter at hand.” But is this what anyone really means when they talk about the relevance of Christianity? Is this what Rob Bell, Brian McLaren and Phyllis Tickle (among others) are talking about?

No. This isn’t what they’re talking about at all. (I don’t have time right now to get into exhaustive quotes from the above-mentioned or others, but by all means do some reading yourself). The “relevancy” imagined here actually makes Christianity entirely irrelevant. It addresses no real issues. It provides no hope. Central concepts such as sin, redemption, resurrection and judgment are redefined or done away with completely. It is feel-happy teaching. You’re good just as you are. There’s really nothing to believing in God. Doesn’t require any real change on your part. Oddly, it also winds up being elitist teaching; those of us who don’t jump on the fuzzy-warmness are just poor, bigoted, unenlightened souls.

It’s all packaged differently, but really this has been going on for centuries. Pretty much from the moment Christ stepped out of the tomb. There’s always someone claiming to have a “better” or “new” understanding. Nothing new under the sun. Nothing new at all.

Look again at the definition of relevant. Pretend for a moment that words really do have meaning. Then please, tell me: What is possibly and more profoundly relevant that the Gospel message of Christ who died and rose again? How can we not see that the beautiful truth that we are sinners in need of a Savior transcends time, culture, geography, class and gender? What person doesn’t need to know that he is so loved in his wretchedness that God, infinite and majestic, wrapped Himself in a tiny human frame to bring about redemption? What person doesn’t need to be brought to her knees in a deep, abiding awareness of her complete inability to save herself? What person doesn’t need to feel God’s hand on his shoulder, doesn’t need to hear God say, “I adore you far too much to let you stay here”? What person doesn’t need to be radically changed?

Do you see? Do you understand how important language and definition are?

When we strip words of their meanings, we wind up with statements like this from Bell, spoken in the context of a discussion about gay marriage but impactful in a much broader sense: “…the church will continue to be even more irrelevant when it quotes letters from 2,000 years ago as their best defense.”

There is so much in that sentence. So, so much.

The Church is defined by Scripture. What she is – the Body, the Bride. Who she is – people saved from their sins by the grace of Holy God. Her mission – to share the truth, the light of God with the dark world. The Church cannot be separated from the Bible. She ceases to be the Church without the mind, the thoughts, the heart, the will of God splattered in ink onto the page at the hand of His servants.

Two-thousand-year-old letters? How about “Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away” (Matthew 24:35)? How about “all Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17)? How about “this Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate in it day and night, that you may observe to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success” (Joshua 1:8)? How about

Oh, how I love Your law!
It is my meditation all the day.
You, through Your commandments, make me wiser than my enemies;
For they are ever with me.
I have more understanding than all my teachers,
For Your testimonies are my meditation.
I understand more than the ancients,
Because I keep Your precepts.
I have restrained my feet from every evil way,
That I may keep Your word.
I have not departed from Your judgments,
For You Yourself have taught me.
How sweet are Your words to my taste,
Sweeter than honey to my mouth!
Through Your precepts I get understanding;
Therefore I hate every false way. – Psalm 119:97-104 (NKJV)

The quickest way for the Church to become irrelevant is to reject the words of God, which can only lead to a rejection of the Word of God, Christ Himself. I desperately want someone to tell me how it is possible to believe in Jesus without holding Scripture in high esteem. Everything there is to know about Jesus is found in those 66 books. I cannot imagine the level of cognitive dissonance required to dismiss the Bible while claiming to love Christ. It just doesn’t make sense.

“Did God really say?” is the oldest question.

How are we answering it?

My journey to faith. (15)

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3 thoughts on “The Words Matter

  1. People usually say they want to make the church “relevant” meaning, relevant to current social standards. The flip side of the coin is as you say, to reject anything current and live in the past. Finding a middle line isn’t always easy and you’re right, the Bible should be our enduring standard.

    But how we interpret the Bible changes over time. Also, many social conditions addressed by the Bible don’t exist in our modern world. We no longer walk everywhere and wear sandals on our feet, so when we enter another person’s home as a guest, they don’t have the obligation to wash our feet as was done in Jesus’s day. In ancient Israel, slavery was instituted in order to provide for the poor. If you couldn’t pay your debts, you became a slave, more like an indentured servants with rights really, of someone for seven years. At the end of those seven years, your master was obligated not only to set you free, but to provide you with enough resources to set yourself up in the business of your choice.

    Jewish or Christian communities aren’t the primary organizations caring for the poor these days. We let the government take that job (although in ancient Israel, there was no separation between government and religion, it was all one thing).

    I say all this to emphasize that living a Biblical life, day by day, moment by moment, letting God fill each and every thing we do, not just in church on Sunday, but in every minute of every day of every week, requires a lot of dedication. We must strive to get below the surface of the words on the pages of the Bible and to understand how they are applied in our current era and how they are applied to each of us as individuals.

    I find that Micah 6:8 provides a good summary of how to live a Biblical life:

    He has told you, O man, what is good; And what does the LORD require of you But to do justice, to love kindness, And to walk humbly with your God?

    As an aside, I find it interesting you quote from a Psalm that is dedicated to the eternal beauty of all of God’s statues and commandments, the Torah, or what Christians call (usually with some disdain) “the Law”. Our Christian history and tradition has been rather unfair to the Jewish people and Judaism by failing to comprehend why God gave Israel the Torah at Sinai in the first place. It was never to be a straightjacket of inflexible rules and regulations, but the constitution of the only nation on earth ever to be directly ruled over by God. It adapted to changing conditions while maintaining eternal principles. In that sense, the Torah for the Jewish people, has always been “relevant.”

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    1. Certainly the way we apply Scripture changes as society changes and technology advances. Only the most hardcore fundamentalist would argue otherwise. My problem is that so many seem to think that entire principles can be thrown out because they’re outmoded or “no longer apply.” That’s dangerous. If, as Bell has stated, we (the church) need to “embrace” homosexual marriage, then that requires throwing out ALL codes of sexual ethics found in Scripture. Because if one is false or “no longer applies,” then how on earth can it be argued that any of the rest of them do?

      Like I said, that’s dangerous.

      I love Micah 6:8. It’s been my favorite verse for years. It points to the dedication you touched on. Walking humbly with God means walking with Him in all things, not only in certain areas. I also love Psalm 119 and that’s why I quoted from it. The words of that piece…they move me every time I read them.

      I’ve never liked the position that somehow everything in Judaism, both ancient and modern, is nothing but legalism. All other religions have to guess at what their gods want. Our Lord actually tells us. He had people write it down – including the Law. That’s so incredibly beautiful.

      The beauty of God speaking and the intense beauty of the Law itself was made more clear to me when I did Beth Moore’s study on Deuteronomy, “The Law of Love.” It was an overview of an incredibly dense book, but she really showed how the Law came from the God who is love and how it was meant to be applied with love.

      There is nothing at all wrong with the Law itself. Nothing at all. It is gorgeous portrait of how God involves Himself intimately in every aspect of life.

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