Friday, April 21, 2006

Judging the Genuine, or Following the False?

Where do we draw the line? Scripture tells us there will be people who will lead us astray in the Last Times. It doesn't tell us how many, or what date, or what they will say. We're supposed to be on guard, to test all things, and yet we're not supposed to judge.

Unfortunately, there seem to be two extremes. There are those who decry just about every well-known Christian in the last 100 years as heretical in some way. Just put 'heretic' and the name of any famous writer or speaker into Google, and you're bound to find someone who is convinced they're unsound.

On the other hand, there are those who accept anyone who talks or writes about God as valid, even anointed. I know of people who watch the 'God channel' on satellite TV, all day every day. They're convinced it protects them and their families from being perverted by the world. They trust any sermon they hear - in church or on TV. Sometimes they even think it's immoral to question other Christians, or to criticise faulty interpretations of the Bible.

Too many people in today's culture are not taught to think critically for themselves. Some schools teach to exams, insisting students toe the party line (whatever that might be) and ask no serious questions. Unfortunately, that includes some Christian schools as well as ordinary state-run schools. Some cultures do not allow children to question parents or teachers at all. Some Christians grow up in strict denominational churches, and automatically reject anything that doesn't fit in with their narrow view of the world. At the other extreme, some Christians accept anyone unconditionally as a brother or sister, if they say they believe in God.

So where DO we draw the line?

As far as I'm concerned, relationships are of primary importance. First my relationship to God, then my relationship to other people. So in general I err on the side of accepting people rather than rejecting them. We're all created in God's image, after all. That implies that there's something of God in everyone, whether or not they acknowledge it. And if they do acknowledge it, no matter how faulty their theology may seem, I don't see that I have any right to pass negative judgement on them. God works in many and often mysterious ways, and is a great deal bigger than I can possibly imagine.

I was reading Brennan Manning's excellent book 'Abba's Child' recently. Very moving and inspiring. One paragraph in particular struck me deep within: he and his wife met a young girl, who turned out to be a Moonie (ie from the cultic pseudo-Christian movement following the teachings of Rev Moon). Brennan Manning spoke to the girl politely, saying he admired her commitment and his wife gave the girl a hug. The girl then said that they were the first Christians to give her any sort of respect at all. All others she had met either yelled at her, or denounced her as demonised. One person even hit her with a Bible.

I would probably have said little, neither hugged nor hit her. But if I aspire to be like Jesus, then I need to be more prepared to reach out to anyone and everyone, to accept them for who they are, to meet them in the place where they are. It's sometimes worthwhile to expand the parable of the sheep and the goats to take account of up-to-date scenarios.

I was on the streets passing out heretical tracts, and you ignored me, or shouted at me.
I was a refugee, and you refused to grant me asylum.
I was sick, and didn't have private insurance, so you let me go bankrupt or die.

I could go on, but I don't want to point fingers. As soon as I do, even in a theoretical way, I'm myself guilty of being judgemental and non-accepting. God loves me - and you - and everyone else - for who we are. For the people he created us to be. With all our faults and hangups and the mistakes we've made. The entire law of God is summed up in the phrase: 'You shall love your neighbour as yourself.' And the word 'neighbour', of course, is explained by example in the parable of the Good Samaritan. An outcast treated a beaten-up wreck with compassion. It's sadly the case that in the 21st century our santised churches are often the last place that a beaten-up wreck would go to find help.

So, with other people I believe in showing love, acceptance, forgiveness. Not judgement. Not criticism. Not condemnation of their lifestyles, no matter how immoral they might seem to be. Jesus ate with sinners and prostitutes and cheating tax-collectors; how can I refuse to follow his steps?

But what about doctrine and teaching?

Here, my tendency is to question and analyse just about every theory or sermon I hear. I read a lot of Christian books and I don't expect to agree with everything in most of them. If the overall concept is good, and there are useful reminders in them, or perhaps something explained in a new way, or with an unusual perspective, then I'll value the book. If a sermon has a message of encouragement, some good examples, some clear explanations of Scripture, then great. I'm no auditory listener, and I simply can't keep my mind on a sermon for more than about 20 minutes, but others value this method of learning, and some sermons bear some positive fruit in the lives of those who listen.

What worries me is when people accept blindly all they are told or hear. When they seem to see the Bible as more important than the work of the Holy Spirit. When they take verses out of context, or quote a passage of Scripture without asking the basic questions: Who wrote this? To whom did they write it? Why were they writing it?

It worries me even more when people want to become legalist about the Bible and Christian life in general. A while ago my husband was asked, by a group of young Egyptian men, 'Is it right to go to the cinema?' He said that it wasn't a question of right or wrong. Most Christians would believe it wrong to watch certain movies - pornographic ones, or those with extreme gratuitous violence, for instance. And there might be certain other circumstances when it was wrong to go to a cinema: if it meant using money that could better be used elsewhere, or if somebody really needed to spend time with them, for instance. It might also be wrong to go every day because it could become a habit. But in the end, it's up to personal conviction and the Holy Spirit's prompting within.

Unfortunately, this didn't satisfy these men. They were brought up in a rigid educational system that taught them to obey their teachers, to learn by rote, and to live their lives in legalistic ways. They had never learned to think for themselves, to question authority or to do their own research and internal questioning. They wanted absolutes: yes or no. They were prepared to ask several Christians they respected and see what the majority response was, but they didn't want the responsibility of making their own decisions, or the vagueness of 'grey areas'.

It's to people like this that many modern books or speakers appeal: the kind that tell us Five Purposes or Seven Laws or Nine Rules... all we have to do is follow the author or speaker's guidelines and we'll be guaranteed success and happiness, and probably a crown in heaven. And unfortunately it's people brought up within rigid legalism who find it hardest to analyse these books or talks objectively. Do they give some good principles? Yes, sometimes they do. Are there only Five Purposes (or Seven Laws or Nine Rules...)? Of course not. Jesus proclaimed freedom from the law, not a new bunch of regulations.

So how do we keep following God's ways, not rejecting or judging those around us, but without being distracted from our path by all the diversions around? We can plan for the future, but can't expect to follow our plans rigidly since we can only live one day at a time. We can learn from the past, but there's no need to dwell in it since we can't possibly change it or follow what 'might have been'. We can be aware of cultural trends and political movements, but they're only temporal and should never guide us.

The only answer I can see is to keep our eyes constantly on Jesus. To reach out our hands and take his, acknowledging that we'll often fail but that he loves us unconditionally and will never leave us.

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