Serious, not fanatical

I’m reading Timothy Keller’s The Reason for God. In a section on Pharasaism – and its modern analogue, the overbearingly judgmental and self-righteous Christian – he writes:

“Many people try to understand Christians along a spectrum from “nominalism”at one end to “fanaticism” at the other. A nominal Christian is someone who …does not practice it and perhaps barely believes it. A fanatic is someone who is thought to over-believe and over-practice Christianity … The problem with this approach is that it assumes that the Christian faith is basically a form of moral improvement.”

This is profoundly important, because it underlies much of the misunderstanding that crops up whenever we talk about “morality” in a Christian context. It is often pointed out that non-Christians can live in accordance with high moral standards, and I agree with that completely. (For some related thoughts on relative moral standards inside and outside the church, see my recent post).

Keller goes on to point out that the judgmental and self-righteous attitude observed in Pharisaic (or fanatical) believers is ultimately rooted in an idea of justification through right-living, or (if you’ll pardon the Christian jargon), a doctrine of “salvation by works”. But this is not the essence of Christianity. The fundamental message of the gospel is that we are saved through grace, not through our own efforts, and because of that we have no reason to be proud of our own moral standards.

This is a deeply humbling message. We understand by the doctrine of Grace that our personal moral behaviour will always fall short of God’s perfect standards. Therefore we have no right to judge others by comparing their behaviour to our own lives.

Keller continues:

“The people who are fanatics, then, are so not because they are too committed to the gospel but because they’re not committed enough.

“Think of people you consider fanatical.They’re overbearing, self-righteous, opinionated, insensitive and harsh. Why? It’s not because they are too Christian but because they are not Christian enough. They are fanatically zealous and courageous, but they are not fanatically humble, sensitive, loving, empathetic, forgiving or understanding – as Christ was. Because they think of Christianity as a self-improvement programme they emulate the Jesus of the whips in the temple, but not the Jesus who said “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone” (John 8:7). What strikes us as overly fanatical is actually a failure to be fully committed to Christ and his gospel.” (emphasis added)

Commitment to Christ is not a set of options between which we can pick and choose. We need to go all the way and let him rule our lives completely – we can’t just observe from the outside and try to emulate the bits that we like. True transformation can only come from indwelling of the Spirit, not from self-motivated imitation.

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Modelled behaviour

The church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.”

The line above is oft-quoted and, I believe, captures elegantly a fundamental truth of Christianity. Rather than a mechanism for personal improvement, the Christian doctrine of Grace states that we are fundamentally unable to meet God’s standards through exemplary living.  Oh sure, there will be improvements in our characters as our relationship with Christ deepens. But such improvement must be measured from the baseline of our personal starting point, not an arbitrary societal average.

As Timothy Keller writes in The Reason for God:

“The mistaken belief that a person must “clean up” his or her own life in order to merit God’s presence is not Christianity. This means, though, that the church will be filled with immature and broken people who still have a long way to go emotionally, morally and spiritually.”

Keller later makes a related point:

“It is often the case that people whose lives have been harder and who are “lower on the character scale” are more likely to recognise their need for God and turn to Christianity. So we would expect that many Christian’s lives would not compare well to those of the non-religious.”

This got me thinking about models of behaviour. (Hey, simulation modelling is what I do – it’s not always easy to separate work from the rest of life!)

If we assume that:

1. Christianity is true

2. Relationship with Jesus improves our character and behaviour

…but also that:

3. Spiritually and emotionally broken people may be more willing to recognise and accept their need for God’s grace.

…then I believe that we can arrive at a theoretical model which accounts for much of the observed behaviour in the Church. I see Christians who are broken and unethical, but I also observe Christians who are magnificently good, generous and loving. All of these are consistent with this framework.

Of course, I don’t for one second imply that this proves anything, and my belief that Christianity is true is totally unrelated to this line of reasoning. But I do think that it has a certain amount of explanatory power for the observed state of the Church – and for my own status as both a flawed human and a follower of Christ…