Zealotry Today

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.

Where are you experiencing “zealotry” today?

Evangelicals tacitly assume or overtly 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. Let me suggest that evangelicals, too, do plenty of Bible-denying but they deny in a different way. They question the sufficiency of Scripture at times.

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 alongside 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 is therefore immune to criticism. What, they reason to themselves, is wrong with doing more than the Bible? Does not God recognize our zeal?

This is an old tactic. An example from the rabbis, which at times is zealotry and at other times simply clarification of the Torah itself. They had a practice called “making a fence around the Torah.” Example: the Torah says not to work on the Sabbath. So, let’s specify every kind of “work”, they say. So they come up with 40 or so kinds of labors that are “work.” These various kinds of works are the “fence” and the Sabbath command is the Torah. If one does not do such “work” a person does not violate the Sabbath working law. The idea is “add, add, add” and “clarify, clarify, clarify” and if follow the “adds” and the “clarifies” you’ll not break the Torah’s commandment — always more general, always less specific, always open to some interpretation.

Is the practice of making a fence around the Torah a trust that the Bible is wise? Sometimes it is necessary but it is often (or more often than even that) unwise. Making fences around the Torah suggests God needs our help to make his will a little clearer. Making fences tends to make the fence the Torah itself.

I contend that evangelicals do lots of “fence making”. One example: the Bible says don’t get drunk (the Torah). The evangelical fence is “don’t ever drink alcohol, and you’ll never get drunk.” (True enough: if you never drink, you’ll never get drunk.) The problem is this: quickly, the “fence” becomes the “Torah” and drinking alcohol in moderation is no longer good enough. Anyone who crosses the fence has broken the Torah (which she or he hasn’t, folks). Zealotry commits to the fence and in so doing goes beyond the Bible. Commitment to keeping the fence is a sign of radical commitment. It gives immunity. It ends up being no longer biblical but lets something else be “biblical.” Is this what God wants?

Nope. Zealotry through fence-making is a failure to trust what the Bible does say, and it is a trust in what the Bible does not say, and it ends up snubbing God’s good Word which evangelicals believe is sufficient. Come now, let’s stop castigating liberals or let’s start being more biblical.

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 the Christian theory, never expressed consciously, that if we are more zealous than the Bible we are immune from criticism. After all, we’ve done at the least what the Bible says and more! Zealotry leads to a life that goes beyond the Bible and in so going there is convinced that such a life can’t be wrong. Not so. Why? Zealotry is motivated by the fear of freedom rather than the courage of faith and love.|inline

Zealotry, again, is motivated by a fear of freedom. A fear of freedom for ourselves — so we tie ourselves into knots and rules and boundaries and regulations — so we can contain what we fear about ourselves. Instead of living in freedom, in trust, and in God’s grace for power, we hang around the fences we have constructed to prevent ourselves from breaking laws.

A fear of freedom for others — lest they begin to do things we are uncomfortable with, lest they begin to explore things we’d prefer they not do, lest they take chances and make mistakes. Again, we do this to protect ourselves and to control others — in so doing, we fail to encourage others to grow in faith. If I fail to teach my children how to ride a bike because I fear they wander into a dangerous street, I fail to teach them the joy of the ride — and I fail to give them the learning that comes with that freedom. (Now, I’m not talking about encouraging kids to ride on highways.)

A fear of freedom for our group: our church, our small group, our whatever gathering. If we give everyone freedom to live in the Spirit, not everyone will be on the same page, and we’ll differ, and that will mean conflict and tension. Zippering everything up like this prevents the freedom of the Spirit, and it keeps others from developing gifts and from experimenting — but it keeps things the same. Which is why we have lots of churches that have been the same forever and ever.

A fear of what freedom in the Spirit just might create. In other words, the operative word inside the fear of freedom is control. Control of self and control of others. If we construct zealous rules, fences around the Torah to prevent anyone from getting remotely close to breaking some law, then we can control what others will do.

The reason we go beyond the Bible is because the biblical summons is ambiguous, or not as concrete as we might like. There are other reasons, most of them not good.

Jesus, however, says “no” to the fear of freedom and summons us to follow him in his radical life of loving God and loving others. Where will we end up?, we might ask Jesus. His answer: We’ll just have to see, won’t we. Come along.

Paul, however, says “no” to the fear of freedom and summons us to to live in the freedom of the Spirit — and when we live by the Spirit we need not have Torah for there is nothing the Torah can say to the Spirit. If we don’t need Torah, we don’t need fences. We need the Spirit. Read Galatians 5 sometime. The Spirit created the Torah and the Torah is designed to witness (in a preliminary fashion) to what life in the Spirit is like. Live in the Spirit, Paul tells his congregations. What does that mean, they ask back. His answer: We’ll have to see, won’t we.

This kind of life is threateningly free.

Zealotry, however, is afraid of freedom. Freedom opens the windows, tosses up the doors, and lets the winds blow in and the people go outside.
Zealotry, at its bottom layer, is the unwillingness (1) to trust God to work in others, (2) to trust others to listen to God, and (3) to trust ourselves to do what God wants. The ambiguity created by freedom is fearful to many, so they make fences and laws — and in so doing, they create a bounded society of zealots who convince themselves that, even though the Bible does not say something, what they are saying is really what the Bible wanted after all.


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