It is one of the great conundrums and challenges of “Christendom” today: how can so many sincere people read the same book, ostensibly confess the same Lord, and yet come to such radically different conclusions about all kinds of doctrines and practices? All sorts of answers can be given, and many have merit. One such answer with great explanatory power involves perspective. How much thought is given to perspective, or frame of mind, when the Scriptures are approached? What are we attempting to accomplish with our exploration of Scripture and our claim to follow Jesus in all things?
Perspective can be a pernicious matter. We all have our perspectives based on our fundamental operating assumptions which we have developed through various influences: our parents and families, our education, our culture, etc. Everyone has a perspective, and everyone seems equally convinced their perspective is the best or right perspective. And yet all of our perspectives are flawed to some degree or another, for we are all human, continually fall short of the glory of God, and tend to be spectacularly bad at recognizing our blind spots (cf. Romans 3:23).
Yet we should not be driven to despair: we can grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ despite our flaws (2 Peter 3:18). But to do so effectively requires the Christian to do all he or she can to maintain a proper perspective in all things.
To this end humility regarding perspective always proves essential. God’s ways and thoughts are higher than our ways and thoughts (Isaiah 55:8-9); we are finite creatures and can only understand so much. God has made known to us some things regarding Himself and His purposes: they are sufficient to equip us to seek His will, but they do not provide a complete understanding of all things (Deuteronomy 29:29, 2 Timothy 3:15-17, Hebrews 1:1-2). We will always know far less than we can imagine; what we do learn ought to display our lack of understanding all the more. Just because something God has made known does not make sense to us does not make it untrue. We must be careful lest we make a god out of our own minds and our ability to understand, and attempt to force God and His ways to fit into a box of our own creation and imagination. Not a few heresies have arisen because people attempted to make fully human and rational sense out of the mysteries of God.
Let God be found true and every man a liar (cf. Romans 3:4): we must ground everything we believe in what God has made known in Jesus and in Scripture (John 14:6, Hebrews 1:1-3). To this end Paul encourages Christians to say and do all things in the name of the Lord, since we are always subject to His authority (Romans 6:14-23, Colossians 3:17). Yet our obedience must be not merely in pretense but also in truth: it is not enough to simply assert “the Bible says…,” but to demonstrate the truth of the claim in ways consistent with the context and in light of all God has made known in Jesus. We must be careful regarding both tradition and iconoclasm against tradition. A given concept, doctrine, practice, or structure is not made hallowed over time: just because some people claiming to follow Jesus have believed, taught, or practiced something for a few hundred years does not make it true or right. On the other hand, people have been reading the Bible and have attempted to follow Jesus for almost 2,000 years, and the odds that we today could discover a concept, doctrine, or practice which is truly grounded in Christ but missed by everyone over that time is impossibly remote. If we cannot find any precedents for an idea, belief, or practice in “Christendom” over the past two millennia, the difficulty is more likely with our own perspective than that of those who came before us. We do well to explore the heritage of Christianity lest we fall into the same heretical traps as did some who came before us. The voices of the past challenge our perspective: we do well to pray for wisdom to discern where we can find the failings of the perspectives of those who came before us, but also to be confronted with our own biases and presuppositions by them in turn.
God has made known His purposes in Christ; we can know how to be full of good works (2 Timothy 3:14-17). To this end Paul affirms that whatsoever is not of faith is sin (Romans 14:23). Far too many wish to reverse the statement, and approach authority as if whatsoever is not of sin is faith: as long as something is not condemned, it is acceptable. The New Testament upholds no such teaching; it may be the worldly definition of freedom and liberty, but it is not consistent with God’s purposes. Far too many innovations and deviations from God’s purposes were initially justified by the claim that “God never said we cannot or should not.” The Christian does well to approach all things by first asking if it is right, and then to ask if it is profitable (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:23). If both can be answered in the affirmative, strong ground exists to move forward. If they cannot be answered in the affirmative, the Christian must ask him or herself what would motivate the desire to proceed.
Christians must acknowledge the influence of worldly thinking so they may trust in God in Christ to overcome it. Paul exhorted the Colossians to be rooted in Christ, not the philosophies of the world (Colossians 2:6-10). All of the “-isms” of the world may contain some truth and wisdom, but all of them maintain elements contrary to God’s revealed purposes in Christ. Throughout time well-intentioned people have sought to “baptize” various worldly ideologies to fit a Christian mold, from Platonism to modern capitalism and nationalism; time has exposed the folly of all such endeavors, often to the harm of the witness of the faith. We must make Christ the ground and foundation of the way we approach the world, and not try to make Jesus fit what is commendable, or condemned, within the world.
The Christian is not the judge; God is (Romans 14:10-13, James 4:11-12). Nothing is right or wrong because the Christian thinks it is right or wrong; the experience of a Christian or someone whom he or she loves does not change the revealed will of God on any issue. We must own our perspectives as our own and give diligence lest we pervert the purposes of God in Christ because of our own inadequacies, insecurities, projections, or desires. Likewise, nothing is right or wrong merely because it is the opposite of what those with whom we disagree believe or practice. Sin is always crouching at the door, looking for an opportunity to seize us in rebellion against God’s purposes, hardening the heart to go in its own way and not after the ways of God. We do not know better than He; may we humbly submit to His purposes in Christ, and be ever careful with how we understand His purposes in Christ!
Ethan R. Longhenry