Zealotry Today

Zealotry Today February 6, 2013

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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  • John M.

    Brilliant Scot. Do I hear another book coming?

  • MA

    Scot, thanks for this. Any thoughts about how one goes about living this out when our chosen profession or source of income is directly tied into the organizational policies that have been influenced by what you’ve articulated…..a fear of freedom? Trying to think through the balance of respecting those in authority above me and living free in Christ…..

  • Diane Reynolds

    I agree with John in 1. A great post, Scot.

  • As someone who may be considered a zealot by you, I would say that it’s the zeal in my life for Christ that keeps me from fear. I’m not afraid what man would do to me for my faith, I’m not afraid what will happen to the world or myself on the day of judgement– nor am I overly confident to assume I don’t need Christ and holiness, I’m not afraid of how people think of me as I follow the Word and Christ’s ways as separate from cultural “norms”. I live in a foreign country where fear abounds– a spirit of fear permeates. Um, and here, alcohol is the answer to most. I’m one who doesn’t drink– and never have tied my reasoning behind that to the Bible; however, as we are all called to be a holy priesthood, I thank God for his power to keep me sane and without anxiety, to be of clear mind in these days. There is freedom in that, an internal freedom which goes deeper and brings more meaning than any worldly freedom.

  • scotmcknight

    MA, I would recommend reorienting all codes toward Christ, toward God in Christ in the Spirit, toward grace and love and goodness — and holiness too (but many in the zealotic traditions equate their traditions with holiness, which is the problem often). Draw attention to what the Bible does say and not what it doesn’t say. Question something held in high honor that is not true to the Bible’s emphases.

  • Michael Teston

    Ah yes, trusting the Holy Spirit, what an absolutely “daring” thing to do. I like it.

  • dopderbeck

    where else? Politics — liberal or conservative.

  • Nate

    Scot, I affirm your comments and wisdom in #5. Additionally, I’ve found it helpful to use the language of redemption and restoration. Are the zealous codes leading toward the restoration of all that is broken?

  • Phil Miller

    It seems to me that the practice of putting up fences can be a worthwhile endeavor on a personal level, but when we try to do it for others, that’s when the problem starts. But I think individually there are things that people can do to help them exercise self-control.

    I think alcohol is a good example because while I don’t have a problems with Christians drinking, I do think it’s one area in our society where moderation doesn’t come easy to a lot of people. I know quite a few people who are essentially functional alcoholics. In one sense, I think this can be attributed to the forbidden fruit quality we project on alcohol in the US, but I don’t think that’s the only reason.

    A few months ago Miroslav Volf tweeted this:

    Compared to the damage we do to ourselves today with food, old style asceticism seems positively life affirming.

    I think he’s onto something. It’s easy to use our freedom to run right into the arms of another slavemaster.

  • MatthewS

    Scot, have you ever seen the TV Tropes site? They have a description of a trope they call the Knight Templar, which is like a generic and extreme version of your zealot here. http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/KnightTemplar

    It seems to me that the lack of trust is not only in Scripture but also in the Holy Spirit. I believe the answer is not to flaunt one’s freedom but to keep in step with the Spirit. The fruit of the Spirit results in a life against which ‘there is no law.’

    One such teacher was Bill Gothard. Some have called his teachings, “Bill Gothard’s evangelical Talmud”. It is almost as if he created his own Talmud which included many “zealous” requirements.

  • MatthewS

    To synthesize with yesterday’s post, I think what you are calling zealotry is what many people today call modern-day Pharisaism. Even though that term has the problems named in yesterday’s post, there is a point of contact where folks are going beyond Scripture to defend Scripture and have deputized themselves as the gate-keepers to the lifestyle that is right and good.

    This necessarily results in putting rules and doctrine over and above people. In their zeal for the law, the religious leaders of Jesus’ day said “we have a law, and according to that law he must die”. While being keepers of God’s law, they twisted it into an attack on its author. Jesus’ barb to the Pharisees about tithing on mint and cumin while ignoring “the weightier matters of the law (justice and mercy)” often end up finding a mark here. Same for the charge that they strain out all the gnats but end up swallowing camels; no amount of detail in keeping the finest laws with fine-tooth combs is too much, meanwhile, victims of abuse are swept under the rug in an effort to keep up appearances.

    The ‘immunity of zealotry’ often has a twist to it – while the leaders tend to load the followers down with too many rules and burdens too heavy, the rulers themselves are often conveniently immune to their own rules and burdens.

  • I have been thinking a lot about the difference between holiness and piety. I think holiness has to do with intimacy with God. It involves smashing whatever idols and fetishes hinder me in my pursuit of the living God. Its goal is to be pure in heart and see God. You can have a zeal for this pursuit but it’s not going to be visible to other people because you recognize exhibitionism as
    an idol that makes your pursuit of God farcical.

    Piety is different. Its goal is a flawless *display* of correctness, whether your audience is fellow believers or even just God Himself. If we see God’s most fundamental function as evaluating and saying yes or no to us, then justification becomes about proving ourselves to God even if it’s through “faith” (ideological purity) rather than “works” (loving your neighbor). Justification by faith is supposed to save us from piety for the sake of holiness, but piety gives us more social power than holiness so we create a God who wants us to put on a show for Him rather than a God who just wants to be intimate.

  • Sean Gladding

    I wholeheartedly agree that what so often lies behind the “zealotry” you describe is primarily the various fears you describe, and the need to control – which may just be humanity’s greatest addiction. I think AA has a lot to teach/remind the church when it comes to this. The preamble read at every AA meeting says, “The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking.” You don’t have to stop the problematic behavior in order to belong – just have a desire to. And if you don’t have that desire yet, then by all means, carry on with the behavior until you develop that desire. Later in the meeting, when “how it works” is read, we hear “If you have decided that you want we have and are willing to go to any length to get it – then you are ready to take certain steps.” In my experience, “zealots” act in the exact opposite way that the fellowship of AA does: zealots assume that people want what they have (even if they quite clearly do not) and are willing to offer it to them IF those people will just stop the problematic behavior/beliefs. Rather than beginning with living a life of freedom that draws people in who are beginning to come to terms with their own bondage and then offering to walk them through the Steps that lead to freedom, it seems that “zealots” act in the way that Morgan describes above – offering a flawless *display* of correctness, while all too often living a life of bondage just below the surface. (“I would never have sex before marriage…but please don’t check my ‘history’ in my search engine.”) It is the work of the Holy Spirit to convict people of sin – my partnership in that is to walk alongside people as they awaken to that conviction and support them in that place, rather than show up with my ‘hierarchy of sin’, and demand they start where I think they should, rather than where the Holy Spirit is actually at work in them.

  • Chelsie Crook

    I’m yelling “Yes, yes, yes!” at my computer. I needed this today more than I can express in comments. Just…thank you.

  • Norman


    Very helpful discussion: between this post and RJS’s post (Absolute Truth is the Enemy of Freedom). You both have covered so well such an important topic and done so with wisdom. Thanks so much to both of you.

    As a confirmed teetotaler in response to a conversion vow I embraced, I have spent my life having to work through the ramifications of my decision. Although I soon dispensed with much of the legalism of my conviction I held on to what I considered practical reasons for continuing to abstain. However after raising my children and indoctrinating them with the real-world reasons to abstain they both married into families that are not abstainers. I believe I made their transition more difficult because perhaps I missed the opportunity to demonstrate responsible usage and interaction even though I always taught them that I did not hold my convictions over others heads.

    I don’t completely regret my “zealotry” because it provided a tension to work away from as I sought a balanced view. I look at working out of some of the evangelical misconstrues in similar light as a benefice tension that makes me examine carefully “liberal” biblical constructs. Otherwise I might blindly accept wholesale biblical scrutiny without asking needed questions from the evangelical point of view. There is profit in seeking the freedom road.

  • AHH

    You went a different direction with this than my mind did from the first few paragraphs of your post.
    The first such “zealotry” that came to my mind was putting a fence around Scripture itself. The Evangelical church rightly wants to affirm and protect the authority and inspiration of Scripture. So often it goes “beyond” that basic and constructs doctrines like “inerrancy” that put the Bible on an untouchable pedestal and hinder honest inquiry into the nature of inspiration and the relationship of the Bible to the world and human cultures. And it zealously defends this fence as though it were defending the Bible itself (Lindsell and Geisler come to my mind here, and those who forced Pete Enns out of Westminster). Perhaps this is partly out of fear of where such honest conversation might go.

    I also agree with MatthewS that Bill Gothard is a great example of zealotry along the lines you were discussing.

  • Luke

    I don’t know Scot. I like the general idea, but as I have been working on memorizing 1 Timothy lately, it seems that Paul had a specific way church is supposed to run (eg “so that you may know how one ought to behave in the house of God”). Yes, freedom is good and we should follow the Spirit, but some things are nailed down. Perhaps I misunderstood your point about church being pejoratively the same. Having Paul on my mind makes this all seem like over reaching. Paul hands Hymanaeus and Alexander over to Satan so that they may learn not to blaspheme. I suppose I’m curious how such strong action fits in the freedom paradigm as you describe in light of Paul’s restrictions.

  • Marshall

    Genesis 3:3, Eve points to just such a fence: “… neither shall you touch it …” which gives the Serpent all the opening it needs. It doesn’t even need to lie! … although I’m sure it would if it needed to, but Eve lied for it. Or maybe somebody lied to Eve.

    @MA #2: Just don’t lie about the Holy Spirit! Pick up your cross and follow … who? whither?

  • MatthewS

    Luke #17, Paul had some strong language and Jude had some very strong language. Certainly “freedom in Christ” does not equal “tune in, turn on, and drop out” (free love and all that).

    Something I would suggest is that Paul and Jude drew some hard lines with sharp corners but not over their own pet doctrines. Sexual immorality is clearly ruled out. Length of hair or wine with dinner are not on the same plane.

  • TJJ

    Excellent points all. Highlights an area of real and longstanding weakness/shortcoming among far too many evangelicals.

  • Milton Pope

    MatthewS @10! Don’t ever send anyone to TV Tropes! That’s a one-way street! If I didn’t need dinner, I’d still be in there.

  • Cheryl

    Fantastic post.

  • MatthewS

    Sorry, Milton! It is standard courtesy to offer a warning that it is a rabbit hole; I failed to do so. It’s kind of a mind trip, isn’t it?

  • Richard T

    Not just “I couldn’t have said it better myself”, but I’ve never heard anyone say it this clearly.

  • You’re all against making fences but you take out my comment. Nice. I wasn’t rude. I was just having some fun not agreeing. Can your anti-zealotry deal with that?

  • Andrew

    Well written critique. At the risk of sounding as though Zealotry is defensible your emphasis on ‘freedom’ comes with pitfalls.

    Quoted “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.”

    How does that apply to orthodoxy then? Consider your 3 points:

    (1) To trust God to work in others;
    Do we currently trust God to work in others when it comes to doctrine within the Church?

    (2) to trust others to listen to God; and
    Do we currently trust others to listen to God as they experience the witness of the Bible?

    (3) to trust ourselves to do what God wants.
    Do we currently trust ourselves to do what God wants (or is it maybe just possible that the voice of the Church rightfully, or wrongfully drowns out God)?

    Either you’re right, the implication being that we must apply the same approach entirely to all aspects of faith, including the management (and propagation) of orthodoxy, and ecclesiastical influence; or you’re partially wrong, that this has to be balanced against other things.

    Either way, trusting God completely to work in others, trusting others to be receptive to God, and trusting ourselves to abide by God (in our convictions whether they resonate with, or against the ecclesia) is fearful to Liberals and Conservatives.

  • MatthewS

    “I think purity is a good mask for corruption, perhaps most so in that it discourages inquiry.”

    That line from the Freakonomics documentary about cheating in Sumo wrestling (a sport brimming with rituals and customs about purity) seems applicable to the discussion about immunity purchased by zealotry.