Zealotry 3

Zealotry is the choice to protect holiness by living beyond what the Bible says, and it finds in that zeal a source of immunity from being wrong. I contend that zealotry reflects an absence of trust in God’s Word. Its motivation is the fear of freedom. Its implication is inevitable: judgmentalism and boundary-marking that together destroy, in separable ways, the unity in Christ. God’s people were not meant to be penguins, waddling all alike, but instead freed, separable, unique individuals who live in community.

I’ve never seen zealots who weren’t also judgmental; I’ve never seen those freed in the Spirit who were judgmental. The freed know the tranquility of where they belong in God’s society; zealots don’t know where they belong and therefore do not know where others belong.
The freed love others and, in so loving others, care for their moral development; zealots seek to control others, and therefore do not love others properly and do not lead others into moral development but into conformity.
Zealots judge and sometimes condemn others who do not live by their rules, who explore things they are uncomfortable with — not because they’ve thought through it but because they don’t trust others to make good decisions. The freed, however, can live with the ambiguity that freedom in the Spirit creates: they can trust God to work with others, they can trust others to be responsible, and they can trust another group to discern its way in this world. The freed can render judgment as discernment, the zealots only judgment as condemnation. The freed can say “that’s not good, that’s not wise,” the zealot will say “you are bad.”
(By the way, and off the record, in this post — when we combine fences and judgmentalism — we’ve wandered into legalism. But that’s a different post.)
How far would Jesus have gotten if he had lived by the fences of zealotry? How much table fellowship with sinners would have ever taken place? None. Ever. He suffered the judgment of zealotry, but he pressed on anyway. Why? Because he knew that God made people to live in freedom in order to love God and to love others and that was the essence of what it meant to be a spiritual person. It was what the Torah was pointing to then and it was the Torah is pointing to now. This is what my Jesus Creed is all about.
Zealots who judge and build walls lose touch with the essence of the Torah, because they break trust with God and break down trust with others.
Jesus’ harshest demands were reserved for Pharisees who had learned to construct fences around the Torah and who rendered judgment on others by those fences. They thought their fences were protecting people from breaking Torah; Jesus thought their fences were (1) boundary marking and (2) preventing people from living in the freedom of God and (3) a failure to trust the sufficiency of Torah/Bible and (4) they were leading others astray. Matthew 23.
So, the fence makers inevitably end up judging others who don’t live by their fences, who jump their fences and who mess around with the Torah by living on the edge and by experimenting in God’s grace with how to live in a new day and a new way.
James blasts away at those who judge others; try reading James 2.
Paul accuses the Galatians of tearing the body of Christ apart by constructing boundaries and by not living in the freedom of the Spirit.
John was willing to reduce God’s will to love God and to love one another. Read 1 John.
Zealots, however, would rather construct fences, build walls, and create boundaries. They fracture the Body of Christ and they deprive the community of followers from the freedom God has given us.

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  • Scot,
    Your connection here, tying zealotry to judgmentalism is a good one. Certainly it was a big part of what the authorities Jesus went after, were all about.
    People who adhere to this way never grow. They never learn to discern for themselves in community with others the way of the Lord, by the Spirit and in Scripture.

  • Scot,
    This line is sheer genius: “…and by experimenting in God’s grace with how to live in a new day and a new way.”
    That is freedom! Zealous fence-makers are terrified of freedom and hostile toward the free. At the bottom line they can’t even comprehend that they just might be wrong.

  • Scot,
    I understand and agree with most everything you are saying. However, I worry that these posts might indirectly cause some to think that “fence building” is entirely wrong. But Jesus himself was a fence builder. For what I mean by this see my post at http://resurrectiondogmatics.blogspot.com/2006/06/jesus-rabbinic-sage.html

  • Chris,
    Thanks for your reminder.
    I’ve only given a glance through your post, but it appears to me that Jesus’ antitheses both get to the heart of Torah and actually transcend Torah rather than construct fences around Torah. But, let me look at your post more carefully — we’re leaving the house for an hour or so. I’ll try to get to this soon.

  • 2e

    Is personal zealotry wrong? If an individual chooses to create certain fences without placing those limitations on others, is that okay?
    One practical suggestion I was given in regard to personal purity: “It’s not about walking as close to the line (of right and wrong) as possible without slipping over; it’s about staying as far away from the line as possible.” This speaks of placing ourselves in temptation’s path. Is creating personal fences (without instituting a public expectation for it) wrong?

  • The Upward Way Press » Blog Archive » Over and Above

    […] In the third post, Scot discusses how zealotry turns into judgementalism and legalism. I’ve never seen zealots who weren’t also judgmental; I’ve never seen those freed in the Spirit who were judgmental. The freed know the tranquility of where they belong in God’s society; zealots don’t know where they belong and therefore do not know where others belong. […]

  • Dennis Wood

    I see your take on Jesus and how fence-building could be construed from it, except that Jesus is creating an all-encompassing fence with the language that he uses. I think that another approach to Jesus discussion about Torah is important to consider.
    Scot posted recently (either in this current discussion or a recent previous one) that Paul asserts that Torah was created to point out the sin of the Israelites, not to create a zealous document and a method to determine “in” and “out”. Taking this bit into Jesus discussion (“You have heard it said, but…”), I believe Jesus is thundering down on just how hard it is to remain completely pure (impossible, of course). He stops zealots’ ability to judge by widening Torah, supporting its original purpose to continue to point out sin and the hopelessness, helplessness of us all being caught in it.

  • Seems to me it’s not the fences that are the problem, but the attitude towards them, the manner in which they are built, the reasons why they were built. Are they fortress walls (keeping others out), or prison walls (keeping us in) – or pleasant picket fences with unlocked gates, opening into cultivated gardens for all comers to enjoy?
    The Temple at the time of Jesus had become exclusive, with a separate, outer, court of the Gentiles beyond which Gentiles could not pass. It was an offense punishable by death (see http://www.bible-history.com/gentile_court/TEMPLECOURTWarning_Inscription.htm). Only Jews could pass into the inner courts – and that is one of the things Jesus was so enraged about. His Temple was for all nations, not only one.
    Scot, something on zealotry you said that really resonated with me: “Zealots judge and sometimes condemn others who do not live by their rules, who explore things they are uncomfortable with — not because they’ve thought through it but because they don’t trust others to make good decisions.”
    It resonates because of what I experienced during my own transition from the Evangelical megachurch world to the Roman Catholic world. Many of my friends were upset by my transition, and I lost many of them. It was very painful, as they were people I loved – still love. They were, and are, my brothers and sisters in Christ.
    My pastor, however, for whom I served on his leadership team for a large, regional singles ministry, when I gave him the news, said to me: “Aimee, I trust your relationship with the Lord, and trust that he is really guiding you on this.” He didn’t judge me, and he freed me. I had thought he would be upset. But he wasn’t. He didn’t even make me step off the team right away – he let me stay, until I was ready to make the transition myself. In him, I felt the love of Christ coming to me.
    I don’t blame my friends. They weren’t prepared, and probably experienced my transition as a loss. Some of them came back, and we are friends today. But I love Emerging Church so much, because of its openness to all forms of Christianity, including Catholic Christianity, which means I can come to this blog and be a part of the conversation. Means a lot to me, after what I went through before.

  • Wow! I believe you have arcticulated the gap that exists between the Church (in general) and the missional church. I see and hear the zealorty mindset everyday. GREAT POST!

  • “I contend that zealotry reflects an absence of trust in God’s Word. Its motivation is the fear of freedom. Its implication is inevitable: judgmentalism and boundary-marking that together destroy, in separable ways, the unity in Christ”
    A very astute observation.

  • SmartChristian.com » Blog Archive »

    Check Out Jesus Creed
    The first set of posts that caught my eye is his current Zealotry series. Among his many good points is the astute observation that building a “fence” around God’s commandments betrays a lack of faith that God’s Word is sufficient to keep us in Him…—–
    […] If you haven’t been reading Scot McKnight’s post series on Christian Zealotry, I really encourage you take this thought-provoking and insight journey. […]

  • Jonathan

    Not a bad thought, but I think ‘zealous’ is not the word to be used. We want to be like Jesus, and he was zealous (‘zeal for your house will consume me.’)
    Additionally, Paul wrote that we should never be lacking in zeal, but that we should keep our spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. And elsewhere that it is fine to be zealous, provided the purpose is good, and to be so always.
    On the other hand, Solomon wrote that it is not good to have zeal without knowledge, nor to be hasty and miss the way.
    In my opinion, this is the middle ground that we should be looking for. Zeal is not bad, but zeal without knowledge sure is. Zeal without knowledge is what led Paul to persecute and kill Christians. Zeal with knowledge led Paul to establish the church among the gentiles.

  • Jonathan,
    Cognates to be sure, but I’ve tried to focus on “zealotry” and not “zeal.”

  • Chris

    Having read your most recent two posts on this topic I have to say I think you’re largely correct but feel I have to warn you to step carefully in two areas:
    1) Be careful not to make “fence building” synonymous with zealotry or legalism. It is not necessarily a lack of trust in God’s word — it may be a lack of trust in one’s self. I have a rule against going anywhere alone with a woman besides my wife. Is it because I don’t trust God? Hardly. It is because I know how weak and stupid I can be and want to keep myself from situations where I could end up compromised. All hedges aren’t bad — only those we try to make universal which, as you pointed out, is legalism.
    2) Be careful not to confuse a judgemental attitude with the biblical requirement to hold each other to high standards. Jesus and Paul both taught that it may eventually be necessary to cut a brother off from fellowship (and there is nothing in the text to suggest these aren’t “real” brothers) so that he can be shown the error of his ways. Certainly such things must be done carefully, prayerfully, and gracefully, but we are occasionally required to judge.
    Grace be with you.

  • Jonathan

    Point taken, it’s just that it seems to me that there needs to be at least a little nuancing done when two words that are so close to each other in meaning are used with meanings that are so far apart; one usage means something that is to be commended while the other usage means something that is to be condemned.
    And yeah, I know nuancing isn’t a word. Also, I don’t mean to nitpick. I know what you’re saying and generally agree.

  • Chris,
    I have no problems with personal discernmennt, though I’d not call them hedges or fences. Fences are rulings laid down as official interpretations.
    And I agree with the many who think they need to make rules for themselves; I do the same. But I would not call those “fences” or “hedges.”
    In my post I allow for this in the freed folks who act wisely and judge discerningly.
    I will contend that freedom and the creation of freedom is dangerous: and that is why Paul got into trouble at Galatia. To argue that Spirit fulfills Torah was inherently fearful for some. Not for Paul. I think this series is little more than a midrash on Galatians 5:1: “For freedom Christ has set us free.”

  • Neal

    I was once invited to participate (as a co-officiant)in a wedding at Willow Creek. I was told how to dress. If I want to join Willow Creek I have to agree that all ministry roles are open to women. I can’t decide if these are glorious freedoms or worrisome fences. Or can there be glorious fences?

  • “Fences are rulings laid down as official interpretations. And I agree with the many who think they need to make rules for themselves; I do the same. But I would not call those “fences” or “hedges.” In my post I allow for this in the freed folks who act wisely and judge discerningly.”
    Dr. McKnight, are you suggesting (and I don’t mean to read more into your comment than what is there, but I need ask) that you think those of us who are in denominations with official interpretations are unfree, and those outside such denominations are free? I hope I’m just misreading your comment. I’m coming from the Catholic world, which is a little bit different, so it’s an easy thing to do.
    I’ve gotten plenty of valuable insights from your comments and these discussions, which is why I keep coming back here. Right now, however, I’m struggling with the idea that there is such a thing as “just what’s in the bible,” as if the meaning of what’s in the bible is clear and obvious to everyone, and everything else is just an add-on. Not everything in the bible is crystal-clear; that’s why there’s always so much debate about it.
    I’d suggest that, for some of us, what you call “fences” are actually how we explain what the bible means, and how to live it. The bible is rich, it is the mind of Christ, and therefore, I believe, infinite and inexhaustible in meaning. Can we really confine that meaning to “just what’s in the bible,” when there is so much more to it than what meets the eye?
    Maybe I’m just not clear on what you mean by “fences” and “hedges.” Or maybe I’m reading more into it than what you mean. My apologies, if that’s the case.

  • Mandi

    How do you know if you are being zealous?? I work at a crisis pregnancy center and we deal with a lot of issues such as abstinence, abortion, birth control, etc. In your first post when you were talking about evangelicals vs. liberals these topics immediately came to mind b/c they seem to generate constant conflict. (We have many churches that support our center and even they don’t all agree) I sure hope and pray that love just oozes out of me when I am counseling young women….but I do take hard stances on the above issues and the balance at times can be quite tricky. If possible maybe someone could give a couple more real life examples to give me a better grasp. Thanks!

  • Aimee,
    That’s a tough one, as I had no intention of raising the issue of Catholic Tradition. We could ask if the Nicene Creed is a “fence.”
    I’m thinking of praxis-oriented questions, rather than theological beliefs central to how we define ourselves as Christians.
    But I will tell you that I’m a Protestant. Let’s leave it at that.

  • Mandi,
    As I said to Aimee at #20, we are dealing here with praxis issues and not “belief” issues. I don’t think abstinence is much of an issue from a biblical point of view; birth control was unknown and it is up to Christians to decide how best to deal with that (RCs would differ with me here); I can’t for the life of me accept the abortion argument that women can do what they want with their body, as that is not a biblical moral argument at all.
    I’ll get to some examples Tuesday.

  • “I’m thinking of praxis-oriented questions, rather than theological beliefs central to how we define ourselves as Christians.”
    That answers my question nicely. It’s what I thought – just wanted to make sure. I know my viewpoint is a little different; for that reason I need to make sure I’m understanding yours correctly. Thanks.
    A different thought: several times in your comments you have used the words “free” and “unfree.” This is an idea probably too big for this thread, but maybe good for another day: how do we define “free?” What do we mean by the “freedom of the children of God?” It’s not freedom as the world defines it, that’s for sure.
    Thanks again.

  • 2e

    Scot –
    Following up from my last questions. How do the Nazirite vows impact your thinking here? Samson, Samuel (1 Sam 1:11), and John the Baptist (Luke 1:15) had taken Nazirite vows to abstain from certain things, including alcohol. Also see Amos 2:12.
    Where do these instituted vows fit into your thoughts on zealotry? For those who are the least in the Kingdom of Heaven, yet greater than John, should such vows be expected in response to God’s extravagent grace and love?

  • 2e,
    Good question.
    I would distinguish a personal vow from zealotry, which has to do with interpretative praxis and use of that interpretation on others.
    If Samson said all had to do this, it would be zealotry; he didn’t.
    Personal acts like this, however, could become zealotry (if used against others).

  • When do we cross over from building a “fence” — as a healthy and healthful act of devotion or for our own spiritual formation — to an unhealthy and unhealthful zealotry? Chuck Colson’s BreakPoint commentary from July 5th may add a helpful insight:
    “I read the New York Times every day. But I can’t remember the last time I found profound theological wisdom in its columns—that is until recently.
    “Lauren Winner, an insightful new voice among Christian writers, graced the New York Times op-ed pages with a straight-talking explanation of Harvard’s recent studies showing that abstinence pledges have proven ineffectual among teenagers. According to Winner, we shouldn’t be surprised.
    “Now before getting defensive, listen to her well-grounded theological explanation: ‘Pledgers promise to control intense bodily desires simply by exercising their wills. But Christian ethics recognizes that the broken, twisted will can do nothing without rehabilitation by God’s grace.’”
    Zealotry is built on they myth that we can be wholly holy by our own force of will, and judges (ourselves and) others when we don’t measure up. A healthy and healthful “fence” recognizes our need of God’s grace.

  • RJS

    So – there is good zeal and bad zeal.
    But Zealotry, by the definition in play here has two features, both of which must be present:
    (1) Zealotry is a practice carried beyond that clearly proscribed or prescribed in the Bible.
    (2) Zealotry results in broken relationships with others.

  • Zeal does not equal zealotry. Zealotry is a subset of zeal, the bad subset.

  • A dictionary might help. From my Webster’s New World College Dictionary:
    ~Zeal: intense enthusiasm, as in working for a cause; ardent endeavor or devotion; ardor; fervor.
    ~Zealot: a person who is zealous, esp. to an extreme or excessive degree; fanatic. (this includes the variant “zealotry.”)
    I think zealotry is more an attitude in which a practice is carried out, than a practice itself.
    Zealotry can cut both ways – a practice carried too far by someone; but also hostility, on the part of some, towards others who have such practices.
    For example, as an Evangelical I experienced the former in an over-zealous church disciplining process that verged on micromanaging small details of a person’s life, and led to an unhealthy and damaged church culture. As a Catholic, I’ve experienced the latter kind from those who don’t like certain Catholic practices or beliefs, and would like to stamp them out, regardless of how useful and good they actually are.
    I can be quite zealous about what I do or don’t do, and that’s my business. I can share what I believe with others, even get into healthy debates with them about things. I do try to obey my Church, and I believe others in my Church should try to do the same.
    I can even try to correct someone I see really going wrong, out of love. But if I start beating them up for something they do or don’t do, make myself their judge and jury, put myself in the place of God, then I’m a zealot.

  • Excellent excellent musings. Thanks for this series. I could (sadly enough) relate on both ends of the spectrum.

  • Paul D.,
    And once we live by grace we are free.
    Freedom is from God’s Spirit, it sets us free from the flesh and sinful nature (never completely), and it empowers us to transcend ourselves to become the kind of person we are designed to be in God’s community.

  • BeckyR

    2e – I’d say a way to determine the dividing line is whether a personal prohibition (read: fence) imprisons one’s self, or enables us to live a life, loving God. Is the fence a way of me trying to live godly in my own power, or in companionship with God, the Holy Spirit. I think we all have our weak areas where there are things we have to “just say no” to, so to not cross over to active, conscious sinning. The zealot, or how I hear Scot referring it as, creates the line not to cross so that we will never sin, so there never is that personal line we know we must say “no” to so not to sin. Subtle nuances.

  • Scot,
    Good article, nice connections here.
    How do you sift the “zealots” from us who are called to be zealous by the Lord Jesus himself?
    Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent – Revelation 3:19
    Are not “the freed” called to be zealots of a different kind? I guess I don’t see the distinction between your separation of “zealots” and “legalists” here because the “zealots” you’ve described have implied fences already built that causes them to be judgemental. You say, “zealots who judge build walls lose touch with the essence of the Torah…” but I would assert that any zealot who judges (of the unrighteous variety as spoken here) has already built the wall.
    Scot, I didn’t come to quibble about distinctions or to take anything away from the fine connections you’ve made here, but I was a bit more curious as to how you pull the two apart. Thanks for a fine post and forbearance.

  • Brad,
    You are not alone in poking me in the eye over this term, but I’m hanging on to it for awhile. Had I used “Pharisee” it would have been yadayadayada. So, I use “zealotry” to focus our attention anew on a precise problem: the overzealous who, in their zeal, go beyond and, because of that zeal, think they are immune.
    There is a good zeal, of course. I’d not call them “zealots” or their drive “zealotry.”

  • David

    When Peter steped out of the boat he was trusting in Jesus. When he began to sink……he was allowing a lot of things principally fear to crowd that out. I think that whether you follow the Torah……..whether you are building fences….none of that matters if your heart is not in the right place. If the love of Jesus and his life and death and the sufficiency of the cross is not at the central part of what your doing, it is basically useless.
    Granted sin is serious and the effects are devestating but how do we combat it? It is the same thing about being faithful to my wife….. do I get points for being faithful because I want to win “that game” as opposed to being truly in love with her and not wanting to hurt her or being so in love with her that it is not even something I would consider. The law is like a wagon full of stone. No human being can even budge it. But along comes this
    beautiful creation called Grace……..and Grace can pull it. I think we always need to be aware of that wonderful awesome thing called Grace that can pull the wagon full of stone. “T’was Grace that taught…my heart to fear.
    And Grace, my fears relieved.” Are we walking on water?

  • Great post Scot. I see zealotry alot especially when people accuse people of being heretic because they do not believe a persons own particular interpretation of scripture and not because of The Church Fathers and reformers view of heresy. One example if you believe in Women ordination or a different view on the end times than the zealot calls you a heretic.

  • Scot, I just want to add my encouragement to that already posted above. My wife and I just enjoyed re-reading the series (to this point) together and plan on prayerfully considering its implications in us. We’re likely going to share it with some pastors in our ministry context. The Lord is moving in freedom among us, just like you wrote in your Zealots 2. We’ll be keeping a close eye on the rest of this series!

  • You are not alone in poking me in the eye over this term, but I’m hanging on to it for awhile.
    Ouch. I didn’t want to poke you in the eye, Scot, nor was I going in after a splinter or anything. I truly wanted to understand more about your distinctions as it relates to “good zealotry.” I guess I’ll just be a bit more patient to see how you evolve your term. My apologies if I got you riled up.

  • Brad,
    Friendly fire and some good pokes; each has led to some sharpening of what I’m thinking about this.

  • It seems to me that we need to deal with the fact that the same Holy Spirit inspired (and the same Paul wrote!) both 1 Cor 9:19-22, in which Paul makes clear that he has the freedom to live like a Gentile and to live like a Jew, to live as though under Torah or to live as free from Torah, to live as weak (even though he does not count himself among the weak), in order to win others to Christ; and Gal 3:10-14, in which Paul makes clear that relying on the law leaves one under a curse, that justification is by faith, and that it is by faith and not by keeping the law that we are justified. (In the Galatians case, Gentile believers living by the Torah circumcision commandment was their “fence” around the gospel.) Not to mention Rom 14:1, which is totally devoted to the issue of different Christians having differing convictions, the general upshot being that we need to allow one another to have differing convictions.

  • All too often Satan is portrayed as a licencious character. I’ve always thought that was a little too one-dimensional. He is also a zealot.

  • Dear Scott,
    I beg to differ. Zeal is activated love. It is uplifting, just concentrating upon the stuff!The lower passions by nature, self-fulfilling – zeal may not be motivated in that way. But like the higher passions, it is an accelerator alike to no other!
    The question is where is the zeal gone in learning?
    There are idealists who cannot find the necessary strength to carry through their ideals. What is missing?: It is zeal.
    To the dictator, it is attractive that men and women be deprived of their zeal. For a society without zeal makes for a complacent people.
    Zeal’s empowerment is a very great element of motivation in both Heaven and Humanity. Creation herself is not half-hearted- all life is activated with zeal.
    Zealous Regards,

  • Ian

    ‘Nother one of those, ah, “pokes.” (sorry… gotta)
    You say:
    “I’ve never seen zealots who weren’t also judgmental; I’ve never seen those freed in the Spirit who were judgmental. ”
    To play the part of a nitpicker – is this statement not judgemental in and of itself?
    Not that I’m disagreeing with the statement, or anything like that, just calling attention to its peculiar character.
    However, I do have to ask another question: how are you defining “zealot” in relation to being judgemental, and how are you defining “freed in the Spirit” in relation to being judgemental?
    To put it another way, is this statement not a tautology as you’ve defined the terms? In other words, judgementalism is not implied by zealotry as much as zealotry is defined by judgementalism? (again, the way you’ve defined the terms)
    Dig deeper, Scot. You’re uncovering good stuff, but dig deeper.

  • Ian,
    Thanks, even if it is a little nit-picky.
    You’ll have to read a little more carefully. Judgmentalism is defined as damnatory judgment, not discerning judgment. And claiming someone who is freed is not part of zealotry is, therefore, not judgmental.

  • Scott, thank you for posting this. I resonated with much of it, particularly the concern over the mutation of well-meaning desires for Christian purity and faithfulness changing into judgmentalism and obsessive boundary maintenance. This is evident in a variety of expressions of evangelicalism in the West, from those who admirably desire doctrinal purity for the church and yet turn this a confrontational methodology in interactions with adherants of new spiritualities, to those who oppose missional expressions and experimentations with church and Kingdom community.
    My colleagues and I in the form of a small but growing network in the West have written on the this topic in the form of boundary maintenance approaches to new religions and postmodern spritualities through a Lausanne issue group which resulted in a paper that readers may be interested in: http://community.gospelcom.net/lcwe/assets/LOP45_IG16.pdf.The dangers of boundary maintenance approaches in this context, and the implications of the increasing appeal of the self-oriented spiritual quest has great implications for church and ministry in the West, and we invite others into our discussion.
    Thanks again for a great topic and commentary.