For as long as we can remember my wife and I have had an occasional feeling of being “ecclesiastical misfits.” We often discuss a sense of differentness at church or parachurch gatherings, even among fellow believers with whom we are in total or near-total doctrinal agreement, but we have been unable to pinpoint the cause of that feeling. Unable, that is, until a few days ago.
At a fundraising luncheon for The Gideons International, of which we have proudly been members for nearly twelve years, all of the Gideons present were asked to stand and say a word about why they had become members of the association and continued to serve therein. (This made the meeting extraordinarily and excessively long, but I digress.) One by one men and women stood, each giving a rousing testimony of how he or she so greatly enjoyed the fellowship shared in the Gideon association and the good feelings experienced as a result of distributing Bibles and personal witnessing. This continued unabated until the last table was reached, and I stood to speak. My testimony was decidedly plainer. I said we joined the Gideons because we believed that spreading the Gospel was important (indeed, commanded by Christ), and that distributing Bibles was an effective way of going about it. We didn’t join the ministry for the fellowship or for the “good vibes,” but rather because we believed its mission to be in keeping with the commands of Christ.
That honest answer received no less rousing approval from those present than did the more emotionally-laden responses heard from the others, but it helped me to pinpoint just what it is that is different about my wife and me. You see, in our adult lives we have made nearly every decision about our religious affiliations and activities after periods of study, prayer, and discussion. For example, when we moved to Louisiana twelve years ago we chose to join a particular Southern Baptist church because we love God’s Word and the pastor there preached continuously through books of the Bible rather than topically. We left that church for a Reformed Baptist church plant because we had concluded that Calvinism was better aligned with what the Scriptures actually taught than was Arminianism, and later became Presbyterians because after continued prayer and study we came to that understanding of baptism and church government. After moving to Oxford we debated for some time which of the two PCA churches to attend. Having equally long lists of “pros and cons” for each after visiting both for several weeks, we made the simple and logical decision to join the one closer to our home. In fact, in sixteen years of marriage we have on only one occasion chosen a church to attend because someone there reached out to us, and even then it was a church with whose doctrine and practice we already agreed. We have rarely been motivated by feelings or relationships in our religious undertakings, but are instead motivated by a simple commitment to truth.
Maybe I’ve been missing the obvious for a very long time, but I am only now realizing that not everyone chooses religious affiliations and activities the way we do. Instead, many people visit churches because someone invites them. They stay because people are kind to them, or because they find the worship aesthetically pleasing, or because their kids have friends at that church. Likewise with other avenues of Christian service; people tend to gravitate to activities where they share good rapport with the other volunteers. This is not to say that such considerations don’t matter or that doctrinal concerns are unimportant to people—I don’t think anyone chooses a religion or denomination simply because “my friends are there”—but those doctrinal concerns are not always clearly in first place.
So, which approach is right? Actually, in the form that I’ve presented them, neither. On the one hand, a tendency to bookishness can create a Christianity that is too cerebral and rather off-putting to those who don’t like to study theology or quote long-dead theologians in regular conversation. The Reformed tradition is nothing if not intellectually vigorous, and a person like me can easily become swallowed up in Protestant versions of the proverbial “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin” debate while ignoring the real needs and opportunities for service lying before him. The Bible calls us to hospitality, community, and service, all callings which the solitary Christian in his study is sometimes far too quick to ignore. Christianity is an individual faith—God draws us unto himself as individuals—but it is not individualistic. God calls us to warmhearted fellowship with him and with one another. The calling to those of us who love the study of Christianity is to get our heads out of our books and to join in our corporate responsibilities of friendship and service.
On the other hand, even an unintentional and possibly unconscious elevation of feelings and relationships above doctrine will create its own problems. Of course, there is nothing wrong with enjoying fellowship with likeminded individuals and finding great fulfillment in diligent service. In fact, there is something very right about it—I would fully expect Christians to be more at home among fellow believers than among unbelievers (cf. 1 John 3:14), and to find unique fulfillment in following the direct command of Christ to share the Gospel (cf. Matthew 28:18-20). Nevertheless, if in sharing Christianity to those outside the faith or “on the margins” we emphasize camaraderie and personal fulfillment we present—perhaps inadvertently—a “gospel” that offers little that one cannot find in a civic organization, a fraternal society, or even another religion. The good feelings we derive from Christian fellowship and service must be grounded in something deeper.
Several months ago I posted an article here entitled “Fundamentals, Not Feelings.” In that article I noted a tendency among young musicians to prioritize emotional “highs” from music making above technical skill and diligent practice. In that article I suggested, as I often do to my students, that depending upon heightened emotional states to generate quality performances is an inconsistent method at best and a totally unreliable one at worst. The professional musician must be able to deliver a skilled and, yes, expressive performance regardless of his emotional state at the time. Much like actors, we must convey the emotive content of the piece being performed despite any contrary feelings that might be present. Interestingly enough, when we learn to do this the emotional highs do often come, but they come as a result of effective performance, not as a cause of such performance.
I see a parallel here with the Christian faith. Ours is a Word-based religion. We have the Holy Scriptures which claim to be the very Word of God and thus to convey to us God’s will for faith and life. The truth of the Scriptures is not dependent upon one’s feelings about or even belief in Christianity. Instead, if the Word is truly God-breathed (cf. 2 Timothy 3:16) then it is true and we are bound to obey it whether we are sad or happy, depressed or excited, lonely or surrounded by loving friends and family. It is therefore incumbent upon us to know what God’s Word says and then to join with the best churches and Christian ministries that we can in order to carry out its commands. And we are to do this not because we like the people and enjoy the work, but because God both demands and deserves our service. Just as for the musician—but on an infinitely higher level—the emotional highs will come as a result of faithful service grounded in the “fundamentals” of the faith as presented in Scripture, not as a cause of or motivation to the same.
And when we get this right, we should also expect to like the people and enjoy the work. That’s good—after all, we’re going to be spending eternity with these folks!