Recently I offered to review a book for another author. She warned me that it contained some sex and language. I said I could objectively review a book that wasn’t intended for Christians. But then she told me it was intended for Christians, so I wondered what I was getting myself into.
I read the book, and the author pointedly asked me what I thought about the sex and language. It’s a story about a woman struggling with a combination of past abuse, bad choices, and addiction. Her husband became a minister after their marriage. She felt trapped in a life she didn’t choose. The author uses graphic language and sex descriptions in the first part of the book, but it is the story of her trying to submit to God’s will and change, so the explicit references fade as the book goes on.
I answered the author’s direct question by saying I was uncomfortable with the degree of explicitness and I did not believe it was necessary or appropriate to go into that much detail. She countered by saying she had been turned off about church by very conservative people who judged her for her standards. She considered those people to be sinning.
“Actually you responded exactly like I thought you would,” she said. “Some people are very conservative and judgmental and they don’t realize that’s a sin. The ironic part is using profanity is not a sin but being judgmental is.” We went back and forth about this but she was not looking for my advice or even my honest opinion. She had already made up her mind.
So I guess I am a judgmental sinner. That attack has been leveled against me more than once. Another example comes from a relative who tried to give me advice on an ongoing rift we have with our atheist son. This advice has been ongoing for many years, and comes from a mature Christian. Family troubles about churchgoing led these relatives to join a “less legalistic” church so that their children would not cease to attend. “The legalisms in my family by the three minister relatives,” she told me, “drove their kids away.” At the time she seemed to think all she was giving up was a requirement for females to wear dresses as opposed to pants. She still repeats that rationale as if she has sacrificed nothing else in the 30+ years I have known her. Her family’s problems over church have not only not lessened, they have grown, exponentially, into indifference, departure from the family faith, and apparent lack of any faith at all.
When I point out the dangers of giving in, and giving in, and giving in, in the hopes of nurturing faith and Christian growth by not being legalistic and judgmental I come under attack. Love is the answer, I am told, in essence. Love them, don’t judge them, and they will come around to right thinking, right belief, right behavior. I see, as a result of this philosophy, generations (it’s been going on longer than I’ve been alive) of irradiated Christians. I don’t mean healthy and germ-free like the vegetables. I mean mutated and unrecognizable like the 50s Sci-Fi movies.
So here I go with my judgmental, legalistic standards for what I think comprise the bare minimum in standards I need to see to recognize someone as a Christian. I really, really, really want to see a whole lot more.
1. I need to hear that you read the Bible faithfully. That doesn’t mean you read my preferred version, or read it at an exact time of day, or an exact amount every day, or even read it every day. Faithful means it’s important to you, a priority to you, and you do it a LOT. Don’t just tell me you do it. Make it show in your conversation, in your attitude, in the changes it makes in you over time. You might just be a sieve, letting it pour through you, thinking at first it’s all running out and none staying in your head or heart.
Some of those genealogies and long repetitive lists of offerings might tire you out. You might feel like you don’t understand a lot of it. It might seem impractical to your daily experience. But treat it as if you are a dish and it’s soap and water. It might run off you, but you’ll get cleaner every time you use it. Don’t tell me you don’t get dirty. All us dishes do. “That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, That he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish.” (Ephesians 5:26, 27)
2. I need to hear that you go to church faithfully. There’s an old saying to the effect that if you find the perfect church, don’t join it, because you’ll ruin it. But you need to go to church faithfully. Your “right” church might not be my “right” church, but I’ve got legalistic standards for that, too. It should preach the Word of God. It should support foreign missions. It should expect more of members than it does of visitors. It should not necessarily make you feel good or comfortable, but should challenge you and make you grow. It should not emphasize social activities and outreaches that are no different from what the world has to offer. Each activity must emphasize respect for, study of and growth in the principles taught in the Word of God. Feed the poor, clothe the naked, love the sinner, hate the sin. Those are just a few. “Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching.” (Hebrews 10:25)
3. Like the church you attend, I need to hear that you hate sin. You can say it makes you uncomfortable if you’re trying to be nice, but you have to take a stand somewhere along the line. For example, I’m sick and tired of being called a homophobe. I am not afraid of homosexuality or the people who practice it. I hate calling sin an alternative, a liberty, a choice. Yes, some of us are born into a behavior. It’s called original sin. It just takes different forms in different people. But you must understand that Christianity is not a cafeteria. We don’t get to pick what we want. Don’t demand that I accept opinions, thoughts and feelings as standards for belief. And if you think my standards consist entirely of “to don’ts” Here’s a “to do” list for you. “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.” (Philippians 4:8)
4. I do have one don’t. Don’t be a ham-fisted, insulting jerk when presenting your belief. We participate in a group focused on “loving discussions” between people of different Christian beliefs — Roman Catholics, Syriac Orthodox, Anglican, and others. We are a decided minority in representing our church background of Baptists and Fundamentalists. But we have been complimented for being unlike many Baptist Fundamentalists. Someone brought up an example of church members who literally tried to stuff pages of an “unapproved” Bible translation into the mouths of those who dared read from it to make them “choke on the words.”
This doesn’t mean we compromise, promote ecumenicalism, or agree with heresies. People bring up topics and we discuss them, ask questions about them, and present what we each believe. We have been labeled as “Sola Scriptura,” meaning someone who only recognizes the authority of the Scriptures and no other. But we all have physical and spiritual authorities in our lives outside of the Scriptures. The key is that only the Scriptures are without error. The others are authoritative, but not without error.
We have also had people try to lump all Protestants (they included Baptists in that group) into one set of beliefs. We don’t go neatly into a box like that. We generally follow Baptist beliefs. We agree with Martin Luther’s basics (Absolute authority of the Scriptures, Priesthood of every believer, Justification by faith alone). We don’t fit into a denominational compartment because we follow our convictions based on our understanding of the Scriptures. This sometimes causes us to differ even with others in churches we have been members of. But these have rarely been serious disagreements. They have been minor matters of interpretation.
Coming next: How You, Too, Can Become Judgmental and Legalistic