Friday, January 25, 2019

Self-flagellation is wrong. Don’t do it.

I have lately been in discussions centering on the premise that as Christians we ought to be distinct. True dat. But the introspection has been going deeper, and more or less jumping to the conclusion that we are failing miserably. 1 We are not distinct. We are not worthy. We are the chiefs of sinners. Woe is us.

None of which is true. And in fact, if we truly are not distinct, we should hold mass mutual excommunications:
16 You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. (Matt 7:16-17)
Why do I apparently see more clearly the distinctiveness of my fellow believers? Do I have special vision? Of course not. I don’t know for sure, but I suspect it is background. I grew up inner-city urban poor, in a non-Christian family. White trash would be the common pejorative description. (I could bore you to death with working class hero nonsense. 2) But the important fact is that I spent (still) more than half my life as an unbeliever among unbelievers. This is obviously 180 degrees removed from growing up in a Christian home, and even quite different from being a Christian living amongst unbelievers. Among American Christians in a mostly white, reasonably affluent, and college educated congregation my background is not unique, but it is definitely the minority. I will tell you this. While there were unbelievers in my background who were every bit as moral and charitable as any Christian (∃ common grace), everything interpersonal was worlds apart. We do live in a different world. We do have a different (I hate this term) world view, and it overtly manifests itself. If you are a Christian man and were raised Christian and want to see what I’m talking about, go to a lunch with five garden-variety unbelieving men. If you have an attractive waitress, sit back and listen to the conversation. You will note the distinction. Trust me on this.

If you could construct an experiment where there were 50 unbelievers and 50 True ChristiansTM 3 in a sample, and I could spend an hour with each person one-on-one, and any discussion on religion was prohibited (no cheating), I predict that afterwards I could select the Christians with a statistically significant accuracy. I've seen this played out in reverse, as have all of my (there a few of us) professorial colleagues. We all have had the occasional student ask us, "Dr. So and So, do you mind if I ask, are you a Christian?" After a physics class.

You are agreeing with me, aren't you? You could pick out the Christians with reasonable accuracy. We have a working Christian-dar that detects the difference.

We are distinct. It is perfectly obvious to me. Of course that does not mean that we have arrived and our sanctification is complete. Far from it. But if any of what we believe is true, then we should acknowledge that progress is occurring. To deny that is to call God a liar.

C'mon my friends. The Christian life is supposed to be one of joy, not self-flagellation.

1 Most use the rhetorical tactic of qualifying that they speak just of their own inadequacies. But we never really mean that, do we? We always mean: I'm saying it may only be me, but we both know it's you too. Amiright?

 2 I suspect my inner-city background has made me distinct in another way from most of my brothers and sisters who, the white ones at least, tend to be products of very different socio-economic and demographic circumstances. I get reminded now and then that I am much more, shall we say, "rough around the edges" and/or "earthy" than those around me. But that's not the distinctiveness I'm discussing here.  It is probably important, but I'm not discussing it, except in this meta-discussion about not discussing it.

 3 Yep, I'm going to go there. A True ChristianTM, for purposes of this experiment, attends a gospel-preaching church weekly, has a high view of scripture, and affirms this.


  1. I agree that we are being sanctified, and one can make the case that we will arrive to where we should be at exactly the right time because God is sovereign. But there's a middle ground IMO between a complacency that can lead to passivity and guilt over not having arrived 2 weeks ago. The difficulty is finding where that balance is. To encourage one another to love and good deeds without shaming.

    And as to what distinctiveness looks like, I think that depends on so many things - background, majority culture of the church, and issues one is personally burdened with. What is considered distinctive for one person may be just majority culture to me. But it can only help to talk about these things and not assume that everyone is on the same page.

    1. As an example - Pre/post WW1, the rising fundamentalist movement was standing against liberal German theology so there was an obvious national connection with standing against the Kaiser. Some of the theologians had influence with Woodrow Wilson and used it to try to get him to advocate for policies that were consistent wth their religious convictions. Problem was Wilson had racist policies. For black Christians, the fundamentalists were not distinctive enough morally because they were too much like the majority culture. Jim Crow was alive and well.

      Were those early fundamentalists believers? Yes. Were they being sanctified? Yes. But did they have blindspots? Yes. Addressing those blindspots, which we all have, can be used for our sanctification.