This will be a heavy series. I hope to generate conversation, some consternation, and (at the end of the day) some light. Here’s my big point: Some evangelicals have been tossing sharp barbs for a long time at “liberals” or “mainliners” for disregarding the Bible. (It would not be hard to give good examples.) Most evangelicals criticize liberals on the basis of a robust commitment to the Bible — and in so criticizing they believe it is they who are being faithful to the Bible.
Evangelicals tacitly assume or overly claim that they believe the whole Bible; they practice the Bible much better; and their theology is based on the Bible and the Bible alone. The contention is simple: liberals deny the Bible; we (evangelicals) don’t; we (evangelicals) are faithful and liberals are unfaithful.
I call this problem Zealotry. Here’s what I mean: Zealotry is conscious zeal to be radically committed, so radically committed that one goes beyond the Bible to defend things that are not in the Bible. Which is the mirror image of the accusation made by many evangelicals against liberals. The “beyond the Bible” stuff is not in the Bible and it means evangelicals get themselves committed to things that are not in the Bible. What’s the difference, I ask?
Trotting alongsie this zeal is a friend named immunity: Zealots think their zeal makes them immune to criticism because they are so zealous for God; their zeal never to get close to breaking any commandment makes them better than others. In other words, zeal shows just how deeply committed a person is to God and therefore immune to criticism. What, they reason to themselves, is wrong with doing more than the Bible? Does not God recognize our zeal?
Is the practice of making a fence around the Torah a trust that the Bible is wise? I think not. Making fences around the Torah suggests God needs our help to make his will a little clearer.
And I don’t care if a group of good and godly folk get together and make a decision and say “we’ll avoid alcohol totally.” (Frankly, they usually have a little thump to the chest to show their commitment and assert their immunity.) By so doing, they are saying this: What God says isn’t good enough. We know better. Sure, they don’t say this, but it is what they are doing — in the name of zeal. They are zealous for one thing, while the liberals being criticized happen (if they care to examine the case) are zealous for something else. Those “something elses,” my friends, are not in the Bible.
Zealotry is only slightly different than the liberalism evangelicals complain about. You might just as well call it a zealous liberalism or a liberal zealotry. It is a failure to let the Bible be God’s Word and a decision to let something else be the final word.
Tomorrow: the motivation behind Zealotry.