14 February 2016

The Razor's Edge: Covenant Faithfulness and Apostasy Part II

The antithesis requires that our children will grow up knowing that it means something to be a Christian and this affects the whole of life and the decisions and plans that we make.

But it also means that they will realise it's not the 'both-and' of mainstream Christianity but the definitive 'either-or'.
There are plenty of issues and questions that can be addressed and answered by the incorporation of 'both-and' thinking, and can even be done so in a non-accommodationist way. We can widen the question, embrace types of multi-perspectivalism and thus to a degree embrace and entertain a reduction in certainty without giving in to absolute extremes.

And yet this question of 'What is a Christian?' is not one of them. In fact Sacralism perhaps more than any other doctrine has led to confusion and the redefinition of the term itself. It has created definitions of 'Christian' that incorporate the nominal or cultural Christian as well as the devoted inner-circle type Christian. Some mistakenly attribute this to or tie it in with paedobaptism. All doctrines are subject to abuse to be sure but that's not the real issue. Paedobaptism (assuming its Biblical which I would vociferously argue it is) can function in a separatist model as long as there is Church discipline. Don't become confused by its Sacralist abuses that equate cultural normativity with Christianity.

Again the risk is... the same risk that ought to be functioning in any Bible-based ecclesiastical system, that of discipline and ultimately excommunication.

Separatism is imperiled and distorted when a host of legalistic requirements are attached to it. Over time it is inevitable that the focus is on the extra-Scriptural. The legalistic issues of conduct (dress, food and drink etc...) end up becoming the criterion of separation and a de facto expression of the Gospel standard. The groups that fall into this trap end up focusing on these secondary points and the man-made restrictions concerning them as the dividing line between them and the world. The legalistic standards become the Gospel and Christ is all but lost in a Pharisaical fog. This is a real danger and often it is the breaking point for many a young person who begins to question it all. The legalistic standards don't stand up to scrutiny or even surface level exegesis. They are almost always rooted in some kind of cultural meta-narrative which is easily dissected and dispensed with. The standards seem arbitrary, even superficial and often enough this is true. The young person (and not a few adults) is left standing on shifting sand and they begin to look elsewhere for a more firm foundation. They sometimes think they find it by abandoning the faith altogether which is of course catastrophic in the end. They start down a road of misery and rebellion.

The antithesis is necessitated by Scripture but it like the whole of the Christian life is somewhat dangerous and fraught with multiple perils. We are called to take up the cross, we are called to lay down our lives as it were and as parents that includes the lives of our children. That may seem a harsh way to put it but the stakes couldn't be higher. We have to prepare them for the reality of Christian life in an absolutely hostile world and one filled with false teachers and counterfeit Christianity.

I urge all to read the New Testament through once more taking special note of how often we are warned of the perils of false teachers and false doctrine. It is both implicit and often quite explicit and once you discern this point it starts to become a very prominent theme and you realise how much this is missed. Sacralism in seeking the conquest of culture identifies the world as the ultimate enemy. The world is the enemy to be sure, especially when its values are incorporated within a Christian theology, but there's not a single verse in the New Testament that suggests our goal in the New Covenant era is to conquer culture, seek to transform it, appropriate it or anything of the sort. There's not one. It's a wholly Judaised concept that is imposing Old Testament thinking on the New Testament paradigm. It is a rejection of the New Testament and the authority of the Apostles that they exercise in Christocentrically interpreting the Old.

The Plymouth Brethren as muddled as they are on certain points grasp the nature and necessity of Biblical Separatism. The particulars can be debated for sure but largely they have understood (unlike the Amish) that we must be in the world but not of it. It's difficult and requires a great deal of wisdom. Have the Brethren fallen into some legalistic traps? Undoubtedly they have but I would argue they are closer to the truth than the Evangelical (and much of the Reformed) world that have all but sold out and given in to accommodating the world. Sacralism once again has facilitated this and provided rationalisations for what can only be described as worldliness. All too often the fleshly lusts of covetousness, greed, pride and revenge are transformed into spiritual virtues and veiled by the language of theological discourse.

I often think of the Puritans in New England and how they endured countless difficulties to arrive at their position. For many the struggles led them to abandon England and seek the New World. And yet their children did not grow up in the world of opposition, in the setting of contention. They started to lose the character, the fire that characterised their parents and grandparents. I'm not for a moment agreeing with the Puritans on all points. Far from it. But practically speaking it always strikes me that part of who we are is our experience and our struggles. For many of us today we have had to wrestle with ideas and in many cases we have struggled within congregations. Our children are often experiencing something different which is in one sense a very good thing.

But it's difficult to foster within them a stern, sturdy and resilient character that upon reaching adulthood will wrestle with these same issues and exhibit a spiritual fortitude. It's all too easy to create little robot soldiers parroting their parent's arguments. That's not what I want. I want young adults that can think and hopefully I've made my case and the things we as parents stand for will withstand the test that is the world and the easy path offered by the false church.

But if they fall away, great bitterness will likely ensue. They will be overwhelmed by feelings of despair, frustration, anger even rage. I mention the Brethren because it's both sad and interesting to view some of their examples. Some are quite prominent. Some of these people have become very hostile to Christianity even devoted to waging war against it.

Some view this as a testimony against the Brethren. I think that's a mistake, at least in some sense.

While legalism can lead to frustration and confusion it alone cannot be blamed. Legalism can indeed drive people away, but the Brethren inculcate that sense of antithesis with the world and when adult children reject that they seem to grasp (even if intuitively) the magnitude of the severance. They understand that by breaking with the Separatist/Antithesis 'group' they are making an absolute break and are now wholly outside. They are now in the world.

That's harsh, even painful, but it's right and proper. There's a line between the Church and the world.

Those who break with their faith and yet don't 'feel' this intense division actually testify to the worldliness of the particular church they broke with. They testify to the fact that there wasn't all that much that made them distinct from the world and thus in many cases they don't feel it that acutely. And if that church treats their defection something less than grave, they feel the break even less so. In the end this is actually far more harmful to the child or person that is broken away. It seems like in the end it's not that significant of an issue. They don't feel the burden or magnitude of what they have done.

Continue Reading Part 3