Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Unavoidable Truth of Christian Distinctives

“A member’s attention to keeping the physical boundaries intact and impermeable in a number of areas safeguards the boundaries of the group, keeping them distinct and visible, and keeps its social ethos intact by stressing the distinctiveness of its values.”[1]

It is the observation of many pastors and theologians that Americanized Christianity refuses to admit that anything resembling boundaries or distinctives exist within the Christian community. In Americanized Christianity, you actually cannot tell the difference between non-Christians and Christians. Literally, I really mean that most American confessors of Christ take offense by the mere implication that there are real distinctives that separate the Christian community from the non-Christian community. In fact, on a recent Amazon review discussion, I had a brief chat with an individual who took issue with my statement that false Christians, pseudo-Christians, in fact, imposters of the Christian faith really exist. What is the usual response of people in modern American Christianity when one raises the idea of Christian imposters? Many will say something like, “everyone who doesn’t agree with your views of Christianity are false Christians I guess.” It is as if they don’t have a fixed idea of what Christianity is and those who claim to have such an idea are, well, arrogant. The truth is that they DO in fact have an idea about what constitutes true Christianity and, they think that everyone one who defines Christianity differently from how they define it is wrong. The real issue comes down to Scripture’s definition of the Christian community. If there are distinctives that the Christian group follows in order to be, by definition, Christian, then we must make inquiry as to what they are.

Receiving the gospel is what makes one pure, and those who do not believe can never attain purity: “To the pure all things are pure, but to the corrupt and unbelieving nothing is pure. Their very minds and consciences are corrupted” (Tit 1:15).[2]
It seems readily apparent that the early Church had an idea that such distinctives exist between the Christian and the non-Christian. The sense here is not that something that might be unclean becomes clean when a pure person does it. Rather, those who are pure are wholly concerned with engaging in nothing but that which is pure. In addition, those who are unclean predominantly pursue unclean things. The problem enters when the church receives unclean persons into her membership, as is often the case in American Christianity. Unclean, unregenerate, Christians label the distinctives of the Christian faith as legalistic or as “lists to keep” as one previous pastor put it in the most derogatory sense. (Here I intend to refer to confessing Christians who have not truly been born again.) The desire seems to be the utter destruction of any distinctives between the Christian community and the world even though the NT is replete with language that clearly teaches such distinctives are what makes the Christian group what it is.

The American version of Christianity wants nothing to do with holiness, with distinctives, with anything that requires separation from the unbelieving world. Such thinking is criticized as legalistic, out dated, old fashioned, naïve, and unsophisticated. Many even label it as unloving and hateful. Yet, we find such language throughout the NT writings. “Being holy, the Christians must also observe the boundary between themselves and those who still embrace the lifestyle of their unsanctified past.”[3]
Paul instructs the Corinthian Christians not to be bound together with unbelievers. Paul goes on to point out that believers and unbelievers have nothing shared between them. I once had a conversation with a lady who admitted to the fruitlessness of further discussion because we would never share the same ground. Repeatedly the Scripture refers to Christians and non-Christians as light and darkness, living and dead, seeing and blind, hearing and deaf, children of God and of the devil. This clear teaching of Scripture appears lost on American Christians these days. Immediately, the person who recognizes that such distinctions exist is accused of making sinful judgments, displaying a critical spirit, or of being arrogant. The truth is that they are simply recognizing what Scripture teaches as absolute truth.

The boundaries of the group are always permeable to those who would enter by receiving God’s favor extended in Jesus, but the boundaries must remain high and impermeable to the influences of the world and those who persist in opposition to the gospel.[4]
By definition, a group is exclusive. Otherwise, it cannot exist. What is necessary in order for the Christian group to exist is a set of commonalities. This is true of any group. Take a family for example. They share the same lineage, the same blood and flesh, the same last name, the same genes, etc. The Christian group also shares in some very fundamental commonalities. However, from the outset, the writers of the NT were extremely concerned with preserving the group. They recognized that the culture would attempt to win the members of the Christian back over to the culture with its shared values by way of pressure, shame, and even persecution. The same is true and becoming more apparent in terms of how American culture relates to the Christian group. God has called out the Christian group/church for His own good pleasure, determining the limits and make-up of her membership and defining through divine revelation the commonalities or values that this group shares. Man has attempted, from the very beginning, to change God’s definition of the Christian group. Those attempts have become intense and too numerous to count since the Protestant reformation some five-hundred years ago. Boundaries between the Christian group and the world, which include those who take the name of Christ in vain, exist and it is the duty of every member within the Christian group to preserve those boundaries.

We preserve those boundaries by holy living. As obedient children, do not be conformed to the former lusts which were yours in your ignorance, but like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior; because it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.”[5]
Despite decades of cheap grace theology and its view that what makes one a Christian is a simple confession of the mouth, the true Christian group is extremely concerned with holy living. We preserve the group by living righteous, holy, sanctified lives as individual members within the Christian community.

Secondly, we preserve those boundaries when we confront sin not only in our own lives, but in the lives of our brothers and sisters. Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted.[6]
We also see these explicit instructions from Christ in Matt. 18:15-18 as well as I Corinthians 5. The idea is first and foremost to help a fellow believer recover from sinful behavior. We need one another, we rely on one another to help one another in this regard. Away with the pride that gets in the way of confessing and admitting this unavoidable truth. We still have sinful tendencies that require serious effort in purging them from our lives and from the group.

Finally, we preserve those boundaries by recognizing and removing imposters from among us. I have decided to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough? Clean out the old leaven so that you may be a new lump, just as you are in fact unleavened. For Christ our Passover also has been sacrificed.[7]
Paul, in dealing with the man who had taken his Father’s wife, in essence his step-mother, instructed the Corinthian church to put the man out immediately. Paul’s concern was with the damage this behavior done to the group in the eyes of the culture and with the leavenous nature of sin in the group. Sin has a tendency to spread among members if left unchecked. The group’s very existence was being threatened by its presence. Sin represents values that are not in keeping with group identity. Hence, if it is allowed to exist in the group, the group’s existence is at risk. In other words, if the group adopts values other than those prescribed by divine revelation, it ceases to be the group defined by that revelation. It becomes a different kind of group. Think of how Paul framed up the false gospel that threatened the existence of the Galatian churches. He said it was not another, but instead it was a perversion of the gospel. To permit false doctrine and sin to exist in the Christian group is a perversion of the group. It subverts the values that make the group what it is. Metaphysically speaking, the group ceases to exist and becomes a different group altogether. This is precisely what we have in Americanized Christianity. We have a perversion of Christian. We have a subversion of true Christian values and dogma and the final result is that we have many different groups that wear the Christian label without actually being the Christian group as defined by divine revelation.

Where are we? Boundaries between the Christian group and the world really exist. The values, distinctives and commonalities of the two bodies are clearly delineated in Scripture. We are responsible to recognize those boundaries and do our part individually and corporately to preserve them. The American version of Christianity is an aberrant deviation of divine revelation, a reflection and product of radically sinful and autonomous men desiring to have it their way as is always the case with the sin nature. The Christian group must stand up to the pressure of American culture and the numerous false Christian groups as she proclaims the gospel of Christ and focuses her time on making disciples and strengthening her members in the faith.

Therefore let us celebrate the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people; I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters, for then you would have to go out of the world. But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church? But those who are outside, God judges. Remove the wicked man from among yourselves.[8] I Cor. 5:8-13

After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish you. To Him be dominion forever and ever. Amen.[9]

A final remark from deSilva will serve well in closing, “We cannot compromise our mission to extend God’s love and healing to the world around us. At the same time, we cannot compromise our commission to be a distinctive people “holy to the Lord.” From what are we to remain separate? The authors of the New Testament writings provide rather clear and detailed instruction on this point, and we need only to pay attention to the lines they draw.”[10]


[1] David Arthur deSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 297-98.
[2] David Arthur deSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 299.
[3] David Arthur deSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 299.
[4] David Arthur deSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 300.
[5] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), 1 Pe 1:14–16.
[6] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), Ga 6:1.
[7] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), 1 Co 5:5–7.
[8] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), 1 Co 5:8–13.
[9] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), 1 Pe 5:10–11.
[10] David Arthur deSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 313.

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