The zealot is the enemy of the faithful. Unfortunately, it is hard to tell the difference between the two. Time is the gift that helps one distinguish the two. Or as Jesus would say, “You will know them by their fruit.” (Matthew 7:16a) As I I say, this takes time. Thankfully, you can tell the tree by the flower. But only if you have experience. Let’s look at the fruit of the zealot.
The Zealot And Doctrine
Samuel Johnson said, “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” A corollary statement is religion is the primary refuge of the con artist. Both of these types have the appearance of faithfulness to the cause. And both people are using the cause as a means of personal gain. But neither of them is truly a zealot.
The zealot is usually an honest person. Such a person at least tries to believe the doctrine they have been given. Belief is the primary value of the zealot. It is the true test of belonging. No variation is allowed. Brian McLaren describes a person in “Stage One” of faith this way. I don’t mean the same thing he does. Zealots prove their convictions by actions that seem perfectly correct by them and are off-putting to others.
Daniel Sommers, an early 20th century preacher of the Churches of Christ, fits this description perfectly. He issues a declaration that declared, “The Church of Christ and the Christian Church are separated forever. Hallelujah!” How can any one say, “God be Praised,” while driving a wedge among believers? What doctrine was so important? It was whether or not any type of musical instrument other than a human voice may be used to praise said God.
Unfortunately, it is easier to see zealotry in others than to see it in ourselves. What doctrine is so important that you must withdraw from other believers? If you claim your teaching concerns “the authority of Holy Scripture,” then you should meet Daniel Sommers and his spiritual descendants.
Loyalty to Ideology
The zealot is easier to manipulate because their primary loyalty is to some type of ideological stance. More than that, the tactics of zeal of an enemy is often considered worthy of emulation. Hamas terrorists are zealous young people who are manipulated by old people. I once heard a speaker at a Youth Conference say, “we need Christian jihadists.” I explained that made as much sense as some one in the 1930’s claiming America needs a “Christian” dictator like Adolf Hitler. It was not a hypothetical statement. Reverent Frank N. D. Buchman, of the Oxford Group Movement, is quoted in the New York World Telegram on August 26, 1936 “Thank Heaven for a man like Adolf Hitler” and further claimed the United States needed “a God-controlled Fascist dictatorship.” (Thanks to Chaz Bufe for pointing this out to me).
Loyalty to doctrine or ideology makes people more likely to transfer their devotion to a single person who appears to support the ideology. Reverend Buchman was the type who preyed on vulnerable people like the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous to make them zealots. A. A. broke from the Oxford Group Movement the following year.
“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you dressed like sheep, but inside they are vicious wolves. You will know them by their fruit…A good tree can’t produce bad fruit. And a rotten tree can’t produce good fruit. Every tree that produces bad fruit is chopped down and thrown into the fire. Therefore you will know them by their fruit.” (Matthew 7:15-20) Jesus gives his classic example of bad people being incapable of doing good. We have all heard the claim about some bad leader, “Yes, but he did a few good things.” Jesus doesn’t look at it that way. Whatever good a bad person did is tainted in some way.
“Not everybody who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will get into the kingdom of heaven. Only those who do the will of my father who is in heaven will enter. On the Judgment Day, many people will say to me, ‘Lord, lord, did we not prophesy in your name and expel demons in your name and do lots of miracles in your name?’ Then I’ll tell them, ‘I’ve never known you. Get away from me, you people who do wrong.” (Matthew 7:21-23) The zealot is easily duped by grand gestures. Notice here that Jesus describes grand gestures and grand words is actions that do not produce good. Actions that are done for good because they are good is what the faithful do.
The Zealot Becoming Faithful
A zealot will overcome by doing good deeds without a test of ideological or doctrinal purity. Zealots must overcome themselves. The claim of “I want to be right” must transformed into “I want to do right.” Oddly enough the desire to be right is fulfilled by doing right. Christians of the second and third centuries after Christ put those desiring baptism to work doing good deeds before they were baptized. The reason was so they could reflect on the grace in their own lives. The God of Jesus Christ, about whom they were being taught, was to be known through their tangible acts of grace.
The new believers were not earning divine love, a place in the church, or a seat at the heavenly table. They were preparing to appreciate these things better. Zealotry denies the grace involved in being given these things. Once zealots accept grace being demonstrated for others they can appreciate it more for themselves. In their case, healing is doing.