Zealotry’s Environment

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 environment 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.|inline

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 do 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.

Zealotry is to construct rules beyond the Bible and, in so doing, to consider oneself immune from criticism because of radical commitment. What we have learned is that such a radical commitment is actually a fearful commitment rather than a life of freedom. What are some examples?

We could give plenty. Let me hear from you some examples where (1) people add to the Bible and (2) create a sense of holy zealotry that leads to immunity and (3) leads people not to be or do what God wants us to be or do. Got some examples?

Sometimes there are real differences on interpretation of the Bible; sometimes genuine students disagree. Where there is genuine difference here, we might just as well admit that some “fences” are “legitimate”. I’m not really trying to address such instances, though everything I say below could be disputed by some. I’d rather that my examples be taken as legitimate examples and have us ponder (even if we might disagree slightly or more than that) the implications of what is being done.

Example: church attendance, church membership, and tithing. Are these things taught in the NT? Not directly. (Hear me out.)

The Torah on this one is Fellowship – regular and real and financial.
The Fences are that fellowship is truly expressed by attendance, membership, and tithing.
The Immunity is that by attending, by being members, and by tithing we are genuinely fellowshipping.
Judgment: Those who miss church are shallow; those who don’t “join” are not committed; those who don’t tithe are too materialistic.
Not so, I contend: You can attend, be members, and even tithe and not be committed in fellowship. When fellowship is where it all starts, the other elements fall into a natural place. When the other elements become the focus and the source of rendering judgments, fellowship can be lost or even missed altogether.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • http://scilla.org.uk/ Chris Jefferies

    I love the example at the end of the piece, it sums up the argument so well. I suppose we need to distinguish between ‘zeal’ – a good thing and ‘zealotry’ – not a good thing.

  • RJS

    I don’t know Chris, the example at the end leaves me scratching my head, and this even though I agree with almost everything in the post.

    I know that attendance does not equal committed fellowship – but it still seems that something important is lacking in the argument.

  • scotmcknight

    I slightly clarified the last lines, RJS, what is it missing?

  • RJS

    That helps quite a bit.

  • T

    I think this is right on, Scot. I think the zealotry I most often encounter is more tribal. For instance, real, right preaching is expository, line by line. Or, on the charismatic side, worshipping God means this or that passionate expression or activity.

  • DMH

    Worship perhaps? You can go through your churches expected motions but be miles away from worshiping.

  • Cameron M

    My wife and I attended a young, small non-denominational church for about a year. We loved the community. After about ten months of being there, the head pastor “stepped down” so a new pastor could take the lead. I remember the first two times he came to our men’s group, because both times he “rebuked” the group for various things. First, it was because people showed up a few minutes late. He found that disrespectful and a reflection of one’s spiritual sincerity. The second, he sat quietly during the meeting, then at the end spoke up and said he could “discern” that many of us were not “truly into this” (studying scripture) and that if we weren’t serious about spiritual warfare that we should not even come to the group. He set up fences that defined who was “living biblically” and who wasn’t – categories defined by him alone, of course.

    Not even a couple months into his new position, he was standing in front of the church, pointing to Hebrews 13 (literally) and telling the congregation they had problems with submitting to their authorities (I’m pretty sure no one even knew what exactly they were doing that was “unsubmissive”). For this guy, it was all about living up to his standards of “doing gospel” and not about seeing God’s grace active in different people’s lives who were in different places of spiritual maturity. When I challenged him (politely) over the phone, his sense of immunity was clear. I was a rabble rouser, being used by satan to accuse his ministry. We never darkened the doors again.

    “Zealotry is to construct rules beyond the Bible and, in so doing, to consider oneself immune from criticism because of radical commitment.”

    This statement defined that kind of leadership better than any I’ve come across. Thanks Scot

  • http://scilla.org.uk/ Chris Jefferies

    I hear your heart, Cameron (7). DMH (6) mentions worship, surely one of the areas in which this kind of attitude is particularly easy to spot.

    We are to worship in spirit and in truth.

    In spirit is an internal thing, not showy, not for effect, and not done in order to conform to some expected pattern. It’s for the Lord and him alone.

    In truth is even easier because Paul was explicit about it. It involves offering myself as a sacrifice that is alive, not dead. He want all of me and all of my living, not just my arm-raising or singing voice or fervent expression on a Sunday morning.

  • Missy

    I used to think that it took a zealot to lead people to the Lord. What I observed is that zealots seemed to find other zealots. They found others with a similar propensity for judgmentalism and boundary-marking, and turned away others that would not or could not conform.

    I have seen a great deal of damage done by zealots, and carried around a lot of guilt for years while trying to be one. I’m thankful to have experienced the liberating love and acceptance of “the freed”.

  • Carol P.

    ” The freed can say “that’s not good, that’s not wise,” the zealot will say “you are bad.”

    Good description!

  • MatthewS

    Modern examples:

    Music: Anything besides hymns and a narrow band of approved music is unclean, sensual, wordly, demonic. You can see an example of this in Bill Gothard’s response letter regarding former students who have stepped up to be whistle-blowers of sorts: http://www.recoveringgrace.org/media/Letter-from-Bill-Gothard.pdf (under the heading “The Underlying Battlefield”) His basic message: It’s not me that’s the problem, it’s that unclean music which led straight to porn and rebellion on the part of everyone who thinks I did something wrong. By his definition, Chris Tomlin, Matt Redman, David Crowder, the Gettys: all unclean, all inviting unclean spirits into our young people. For many folks this all died out after the ‘worship wars’ of a decade or more ago, but there is a significant number of churches and individuals who continue to wage the war.

    The reasoning offered in that letter is from Haggai, who asked the priests of something clean touched something unclean, which thing changed states. If something clean touches something unclean, it did not purify the unclean thing, rather the clean thing was defiled. From this comes a life philosophy of staying clean and ever more avoiding anything “unclean.” (keeping “higher standards” is a catch-phrase) This branched out to affect views on adoption (you really shouldn’t adopt, you never know what influences you might be bringing into your home), toys (burn your cabbage patch dolls because they have brought demonic oppression into your home), clothes (you must dress in a certain way that indicates you are not worldly), and marital relations (don’t make love on Saturday night, you should be clean when going to church on Sunday. Interesting that he actually made an issue out of circumcision – that it was not godly for males to be uncircumcised.

    It all sounds kooky out of context but many thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, were affected by those teachings, and those things continue to be taught today. It spreads like a cancer once it catches on in a group. There is no internal corrective. It becomes an issue of who is truly dedicated versus who is not so dedicated.

    The “quiverfull” movement asserts that you are rejecting God’s intended blessings of children if you engage in any birth control. The Duggars are a happy PR face for this sort of thing but many families (the poor moms!) have been driven to exhaustion and beyond trying to keep up.

    So many issues easily become markers for who is in or out of a given club: young earth literal 7 day creation, wives working outside the home, homeschool versus public school (and vice-versa).

    A particularly brash example is Michael Pearl, who makes a point of “laughing” at his detractors, in spite of the fact that his extreme methods of spanking have led to the death of children. The fence is: beat your children. The immunity is: I laugh at those who try to accuse me of contributing to any damage.

    My experience has been more with these sorts of examples on the hard Right edge but it’s fair to say that it happens on the Left edge as well. If your church does not exclusively use fair trade coffee or get involved in some particular social justice effort it is a bad church, perhaps. If you invite this speaker or don’t refer to that speaker, if you use this translation versus that one (these go both ways, Left and Right). I believe that this is an issue of flesh vs. Spirit, and neither Left nor Right have a monopoly on flesh or Spirit.

  • Barb

    I’m on my way to lead a women’s study on Ephesians.. we will be talking about how Paul piles on the grace and what the church would look like to non-believers if we did the same.

  • http://gregandmeg.net Megan

    I am LOVING this series. I am a missionary in South America where many of the people I talk to about Christianity are already burned out from evangelical groups making “rules” against NO drinking, NO dancing, NO movies, NO secular music, etc. One friend, (who I am about to finish the book of Mark with) told me she had interest in studying my faith. She explained that she has some doubts. I asked what her doubts were. She turned to Galatians and pointed to a subtitle, “Libertad en Cristo.” She wanted to know what it meant because it didn’t line up with what she had learned from other Christian groups. She was very confused by all the “rules” she had been preached. It has been awesome to guide someone through the story of Jesus as STORY and not as a set of rules. Thank you for this post and the one from yesterday on Zealots.

  • MatthewS

    Megan, I happened to hear Swindoll on the radio yesterday. He was telling a story about a missionary family who returned home disillusioned because of peanut butter. Apparently they had gone to an area where peanut butter was hard to obtain and the missionaries before them simply decided the spiritual thing to do was to give it up entirely as a part of their spiritual sacrifice. Which they then pressured each new family to do. This new family was in for a shock when they found out that the peanut butter sent by friends as a gift was being viewed as something that pushed them outside of godliness. I didn’t even hear the end of the story but… peanut butter!

  • Ray

    A favorite example/parable of mine out of Hollywood that explores the theme of religious zealotry vs. grace is the movie “Chocolat”.

    I suppose every “tribe” within Christendom has its own examples of zealous attitudes & behavior, the definition of “zealous” being somewhat relative here perhaps. Regardless, zealotry is an interesting social phenomenon, perhaps eventually popping up among any group driven by an ideology (religious or not). While it’s not exactly in line with your points of “biblical” zealotry, I couldn’t help but think of the example of McCarthyism in mid-20th century America. Just replace Bible/God with the religion of American nationalistic ideology.

    I’m curious to know of any social psych studies done on the nature and development of zealotry among groups, especially religious (analysis of personality types, etc). For Jesus, it seems that religious zeal must be controlled by grace/mercy (“you should have practiced the latter without neglecting the former”), lest the zeal give way to judgmental (& legalistic) zealotry.


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