Majors And Minors | The Danger Of Extremism

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The appearance of Jesus on the Jewish scene was a dramatic collision between grace and spiritual performance. Jesus came preaching repentance and forgiveness for all people; not on the basis of their social status, their ethnicity, or their gender, but on the basis of God’s generosity and undeserved grace (Mark 16:15, Luke 14:23).

“For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that everyone who believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” | John 3:16-17, NIV

Grace gives us what we don’t deserve and cannot earn. This is why it’s so frequently contrasted against the Law of Moses (the Torah), which still resulted in condemning every man or woman, no matter their sincerity or good deeds. Righteousness could never come by law-keeping, simply because it was impossible for it to be kept perfectly in its entirety.

Straining Out Gnats, Swallowing Camels*

Many of the conflicts that were initiated with Jesus came from the Pharisees, members of a Jewish religious party that flourished in Palestine from around 515 BCE–70 CE. The movement was marked by both a meticulous adherence to their interpretation of the Torah as well as their particular eschatological (end times) views. 

The precise details of religious life were the Pharisees’ passion and the conflicts they engaged in were usually over minor issues such as fasting (Mark 2:18), sabbath keeping (Mark 2:24), eating with ‘unclean’ people (Mark 9:11), or attitudes towards civic duties, like paying taxes (Matthew 9:11) – all performance-driven markers of supposed spirituality. They made uncompromising stands on matters of no particular spiritual importance, while issues of greatest significance were minimised or neglected.

The Pharisees ‘majored in these minors’, presuming that this kind of religiosity made them more spiritual and ‘right with God’. In reality, they were actually inverting the spiritual values that God was really interested in, like mercy, justice, and faithfulness.

They should have known better. God had already made plain to His people what He required of them. He’d already told them that He found the saccharine solemnity of their religious assemblies nauseating and the melodious noise of their songs infuriating.

“He has told you, O human, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” | Micah 6:8, ESV

“I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the peace offerings of your fattened animals, I will not look upon them.Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps, I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” | Amos 5:21-25, 

Jesus called the Pharisees out on their hypocrisy in the gospel of Matthew, where he says:

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices – mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” | Matthew 23:24, NIV

The Pharisees could recite the law by heart yet they couldn’t have said what the heart of the law really was. They failed to see or understand Jesus had no interest in setting up rigid religious and social guidelines for his followers. His focus instead was on majoring in the majors; the gospel and the significant agendas of the kingdom of God.

The Danger Of Extremes

Legalism takes different forms at different times and is often hard to pin down, manifesting itself in subtle ways.

There is much that can be said about legalism and the hypocrisy that arises from it. An emphasis on externals makes it very easy to fake what is really going inside. Promoting or insisting on conformity to these outward markers of ‘spirituality’ often results in people who may look spiritual on the outside but who are, in reality, suffering from deep inner turmoil and sin.

“I know of only two alternatives to hypocrisy: perfection or honesty. Since I have never met a person who loves the Lord our God with all their heart, mind, soul, and loves their neighbour as themself, I do not view perfection as a realistic alternative. Our only option, then, is honesty that leads to repentance. As the Bible shows, God’s grace can cover any sin, including murder, infidelity, or betrayal. Yet, by definition, grace must be received, and hypocrisy disguises our need to receive grace. When the masks fall, hypocrisy is exposed as an elaborate ruse to avoid grace.” | Philip Yancey

The focus of this article, particularly in light of the global pandemic, is another issue that I believe arises from a spirit of legalism. This is the issue of extremism; when we begin majoring in the minors instead of majoring in the majors.

Right now, the world is being sharply delineated. Nearly as quickly as the virus has spread, so too has the chatter and the differing opinions about both the cause and the cure. There is an ocean of information and propaganda, together with an overabundance of access to information, some of it accurate and some of it not.

However, the most disturbing aspect of all this is the noticeable polarisation of people into two opposing groups; them and us. And the church is not unaffected in this.

We, the church, are being drawn into extremes, into focusing on external makers (whether you believe covid is real or not, whether you choose to vaccinate or not…). We’re using these markers as some kind of external test of authentic Christianity and displaying the same misguided zeal for religious purity as the Pharisees of Jesus’ day. We’re gazing outward, looking for specks of sawdust in other people’s eyes, instead of looking inward and paying attention to the plank in our own eye.

The dangers of this kind of religiousness – extremism – are as great a threat in the twenty-first century as they were in the first. As Philip Yancey comments, “the spirit of law-keeping stiffens into extremism. I know of no legalism that does not seek to enlarge its domain of intolerance.

Our focus in this global crisis seems to have shifted away from our most basic and guiding principle: that is, to incarnate Christ in a darkened and impoverished world, and, instead, Christians are showing themselves to be intolerant, judgmental, and divisive to those who think differently to themselves.

Not only that, we’re being distracted from majoring in the majors; the gospel, and the significant agendas of the kingdom of God.

I think we must be careful, particularly right now, but in any circumstance, to ensure that the hills we’re choosing to die on are the ones that have a cross firmly planted at their summit.

Majoring In The Majors: The Gospel + Kingdom Of God

While the global pandemic is certainly is a troubling and anxious time, I don’t believe our personal opinion about it changes anything in relation to our right standing with God. Certainly, there are considerations around our response to the crisis which must be thought about in relation to our Christian witness, and these are convictions that each Christian must personally decide for themselves, in the light of scripture.

Jesus is the only way to find right standing with God. The name of Jesus is the only means by which humanity can be saved. Jesus’ performance, not our own, is what secures this extraordinary gift of grace. And in Jesus, God is saving, rescuing, atoning, justifying, ruling, and reconciling people for the glory of His name, all in pursuit of His purpose.

This is what the Bible describes as the gospel and the kingdom of God. These are the major agendas that Jesus focused on and these should be our focus too.

The world is changed by our example, not our opinion. Our primary purpose and responsibility as Christians and, collectively, as the church, is to point the world to Jesus. We do this, not by imposing our opinions or judging the world, but by being salt and light.

The significant agendas of the kingdom will be seen in lives that are surrendered to the guidance and leadership of God’s designated king, Jesus. Jesus has been given all authority in heaven and earth, he becomes the first claimant on our affections, the motivating force in our decisions, and the final judge of our soul.

Therefore, we will also be on guard to avoid any kind of system that employs the use of ‘formulas’ and ‘doctrines’ to press good people of faith into conformity with a system instead of conformity to Christ. We will be on the lookout for cultures that promote or enable power posturing, performance preoccupation, unspoken rules, and a lack of balance.

And we will resist mindsets that seek to quantify authentic Christianity by anything other than a confession of trust in the saving name of Jesus Christ.

What Does This Look Like In A Pandemic?

The ability to exercise critical thinking is an important reality for every person, but, in the end, opinions must be formed by each person for themselves and never coerced or compelled upon us by others.

Christians may therefore see a situation in very different ways but this doesn’t make them any more or less Christian than each other. It’s important to understand that unity as Christians is based on our commonality in Jesus, not our uniformity of thought or opinion about non-essential topics.

Whether I think covid-19 was created in a lab, whether I think covid-19 is no worse than seasonal flu, or whether I think covid-19 is some kind of elaborate ruse enabling Bill Gates to digitally track the world’s population through microchip-carrying vaccines, doesn’t make me any less Christian (although, arguably, at least one of those opinions infers I’m probably less adept in critical thinking than I should be).

How we respond or behave as Christians, however, is clearly set out for us in scripture and, in this, we should be united. The Apostle Peter, when encouraging the early church in their Christian witness in relation to the pressures they were under, had this to say:

What I think this looks like right now, in practical terms, is this; that Christians will be people of peace, kindness, and compassion. That we’ll look for opportunities to do good and love others well. That we’ll give no cause for the name of Jesus to be brought into disrepute and no opportunity for the kingdom mission of God to be thwarted.

That we’ll have soft hearts and open minds, willing to listen and understand, rather than judge and disparage. That we’ll realise that this time of trouble, at its core, is no different to any other crisis or trouble that Christians have faced and that, in all things, Jesus is over everything.

That we’ll choose to not let our differences divide us, but instead, we’ll be reminded of what truly unites us.

And that we’ll be people who choose to major in the majors, those things that the world needs most; the gospel of good news and the significant agendas of the kingdom of God.

*The Jews had a law that forbade eating any flying insects that did not have jointed legs for hopping (Leviticus 11:20–23), and in this, they were strictly observant. Because water could have insects and insect larvae in it, pious Jews were careful to strain the water through a cloth before drinking it. They did not want to accidentally ingest an unclean insect and thus violate the law. Jesus mentions this practice in His proverb and then contrasts it with a hyperbolic picture of gulping down a camel. In this way, Jesus accused them of taking great pains (straining out gnats) to avoid offence in minor things of little importance, while tolerating or committing great sins (swallowing camels) such as deceit, oppression, and lust. | Got Questions

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