Dialogue with Robert Prater: Reflections on the Conversation with Robert

dialogueI’m been reflecting on this series of posts. What lessons might I learn from the back and forth?

The reason I undertake these conversations is for the benefit of the readers. I’ve always thought the best way to persuade those willing to be persuaded is to let them hear both sides and decide which is truer to the Bible. And so I’m always glad to discuss what I believe with those who disagree — even with those who plainly aren’t listening to what I say.

Now, I’ve come to conclude that the ultimate weakness of the conservative position is not their persistent refusal to actually discuss the issues, although that’s a very serious weakness. It’s their underlying misunderstanding of both God and man.

God Misunderstood

Reading over Robert’s arguments about instrumental music, the Regulative Principle, fellowship, and falling away, he obviously sees God primarily as someone to be feared. In the conservative mind, God puts his most serious requirements in the silences — and will damn those who misunderstand what the silences ban. Faith, penitence, and a life of dedication to God and his mission are all of no avail to the poor schmucks who worship God with an instrument. It’s not a matter of our hearts — it’s mainly about getting the rules right.

Jesus, however, says,

(John 8:19b)  “You do not know me or my Father,” Jesus replied. “If you knew me, you would know my Father also.”

And Jesus spent a lot of time condemning those who were about rules rather than the heart.

(Mat 15:8-9)  “‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. 9 They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.'”

The conservatives love to argue that this passage supports the Regulative Principle. Actually, the verses are a condemnation of Pharisees who criticized Jesus and his disciples for not washing their hands before eating. Jesus is upset that they imposed a rule that God did not impose! You see, there is no safety in imposing doubtful rules. None at all. It is just as wrong, perhaps more so, to impose a rule God doesn’t impose as to refuse to impose a rule that God does impose.

The Pharisees argued, with some justification, that during the course of the day a Jew might get dirt on his hands from any number of sources, while entirely unaware of where that dirt had come from. A speck of random dust might have touched a corpse or a menstruating woman or a leper. Who knows? Therefore, the safe course was to wash the hands. God would be honored by such care to honor his commands. And if we love God, mustn’t we obey his commands?

Jesus found the entire line of reasoning repugnant. After all, if God had wanted to require his people to wash their hands, he’d have said so. The rule the Pharisees taught was logical and made from a genuine fear of God. It just wasn’t God’s rule.

Jesus then explains his thinking quite plainly —

(Mat 15:18-20)  But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man ‘unclean.’ 19 For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. 20 These are what make a man ‘unclean’; but eating with unwashed hands does not make him ‘unclean.'”

Uncleaness comes “from the heart.” It’s not about keeping arbitrary rules that have nothing to do with morality. Christianity is, Jesus taught, a religion of the heart. Of course, a pure heart leads to righteous living because a man who loves his neighbor won’t commit murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, or slander.

There are plenty of “fear God” verses in the Bible, and some try to build a theology of fear. But Jesus says that God wants us, his children, to see God as just like Jesus. Jesus saved his most scathing criticism for those who invented rules — the conservatives of his day who felt that the safe approach to a fearsome God was to remove all doubt by imposing rules — just to be safe. Plainly, Jesus didn’t think the making of rules would lead to safety!

John tells us,

(1 John 4:17-18)  In this way, love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment, because in this world we are like him. 18 There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

Don’t we want to be made perfect in love? If so, then we must get rid of our fear. John says we — Christians — should be confident of our salvation and have no fear. A theology based on fear is a false theology.

Man Misunderstood

There’s a thread running through all Robert’s posts along these lines: if we don’t punish those in error by disfellowshipping them, they’ll have no incentive to do right. But this theory totally misunderstands people. There are lots of reasons, but the easiest way to see it is by parable.

At what level of disobedience would you disown your child? If your child makes mistakes, you certainly correct her, but what if she continues? Do you disown her?

I’m the father of four sons. They are good boys, but they are less than perfect. They make mistakes. At times, they are downright annoying. And sometimes, when I correct them, they don’t get better. And all too often, they misunderstand me. Sometimes they think they’ve cleaned the room or cleared the table, and they aren’t even close to right.

But as imperfect as they are, I’ve not kicked them out the house, much less disowned them.

And I rarely have to punish them. I mean, it happens, but on the whole, not much. I did when they were much smaller, but not much any more. Generally, it’s enough for me to make my instructions clear. You see, they aren’t rebellious. They’re good kids. They’re obedient — imperfectly so, but obedient.

God is, I think, more patient with me than I am with my own children. The Parable of the Prodigal Son makes the point plainly. The father never disowned his son. Rather, he patiently awaited his repentance. And, of course, Jesus left to the reader his disapproval of the elder son, who was hateful to the sinful son. The older son should have felt about his brother the same as the father did. He should have also been on road longing for the son to return to the household, anxious to celebrate his return.

You see, emotionally healthy people don’t act solely based on rewards and punishments. That’s not how God made us. My sons love me and I love them. And therefore it is normally quite unnecessary to bring rewards and punishments into the picture. Of course, when they were immature, punishment and reward mattered much more. Now I have to count on their love. They’re bigger and faster than me.

Most Christians obey God and serve him because they love him — not because they fear him. And the more they love him, the less fear they have. Love drives out fear.

Why would someone obey God if there’s no fear of punishment from the congregation down the road? Well, because he loves God.

But those who love God obey him. Of course. But if they misunderstand his will on one point or another, they still love God, and God does not disown them. I mean, if I tell my son to cut the grass and he instead gets a glass cutter and cuts the glass, I’m frustrated but not angry. People are imperfect and they’ll sometimes misunderstand.

However, I do know people who’ve disowned a child — but only when a child was rebellious and impenitent, not even trying to do right, persistently. Children who try to do right and fail are never disowned. Never.

Or consider marriage. I have no fear of divorce. My wife and I understand God’s will, and neither of us cheats. That being so, why do I do things for her? Why bother to buy flowers or candy on Valentine’s Day if she won’t divorce me?

Obviously enough, it’s because I love her. And that means buying flowers is not a matter of law, but it’s a fruit of our relationship — I take pleasure in whatever pleases her.

If you love God, and if you are in a genuine relationship of love with Jesus, then you’ll obey because you want to — not because of what the preacher of some church down the road might say about you. It’s that simple. And if you make a mistake, God won’t damn you.

But if the preacher down the road acts like the older brother, sneering at God’s generosity, he’ll severely test God’s patience. I mean, the thing that makes me most upset with my boys is when they fight.

Testing the theory

If I’m right, then love would be the central command for a disciple to obey. What do the scriptures say?

(Matt 7:12 ESV) “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.

Doing for others is a good summary of what it means to love others, as John explains —

(1 John 3:18)  Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.

More explicit are these teachings from Paul —

(Rom 13:8-10)  Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” “Do not covet,” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

Therefore, among God’s children, if a supposed command is not found in “love your neighbor,” it must not be a command. I am not, of course, speaking how one becomes a disciple. Paul is not describing how to become saved. Paul is describing how the saved should live.

(Gal 5:13-14 ESV) 13 For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. 14 For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Paul needs to answer two important problems here near the end of Galatians. First, if we are justified by faith, not law, what governs our behavior? May we continue to sin? Plainly, the answer is no, because we are to love each other. And this is to be an active love — one that serves others. That is, Paul says, “the whole law.”

Second, why bother? Well, in part, because,

(Gal 5:18)  But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law.

You see, God gives his children a bit of himself — the Spirit — to live in our hearts to encourage to live as God’s children should.

(Gal 5:22-23)  But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.

Paul credits the Spirit with bringing this fruit forth within us. It’s not fruit of my devotion or my hard work or my study. It’s fruit of the Spirit in me. And this fruit defines what God wants from us — first love, and then these other traits that spring forth from love. (Read Paul’s exhortations in chapter 6 and see how many of them are examples of fruit of the Spirit.)

Conclusions

As some have noted in the comments, it takes practice to think this way. And it takes teaching. And a conversation or two. Some intuitive, Spirit-filled souls see it right away. Others, like me, have to work it out step by laborious step. Some take minutes. Some take years. It’s hard to change a pattern of thought on which you’ve built your life, perhaps even your career.

Moreover, this is an humbling theology. No longer do you get to feel superior to the “denominations.” No longer do you get to condemn the church down the road. No longer do you feel justified by your superior theology.

No, now you stand before God stripped naked, realizing that you are saved purely by his love and mercy — which is quite a shock until you realize that it’s the only way you could possibly be saved. You see, you don’t get it until you get your sinfulness and inadequacy and so realize that all those sinners you’ve been looking down on, well, “Thou art the man!” That’s the realization that changes everything.

Many years ago, my congregation was a pretty standard-issue Church of Christ. We taught the same stuff and had the same classes are everyone else. But over the years we learned grace. And eventually God changed us.

And here’s the remarkable thing. The more deeply we came to understand grace, the more gracious we became. We became not only more tolerant, but spontaneous ministries to the poor and hurting began to spring up. Missions were better supported. Worship was richer and deeper.

So to the conservative mind, grace makes it less likely that a church would obey. But the proven reality is that grace brings about far more service, and for more love in action, than law. I’ve seen it.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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6 Responses to Dialogue with Robert Prater: Reflections on the Conversation with Robert

  1. konastephen says:

    Great post, and great reflections of the fear of God among conservatives.

    It reminds me of the parable of the Talents, that in the absence of explicit commands on how to do corporate Sunday worship we do what is safe—because we believe in the God of Nadab, Abihu and Uzzah. So we bury what God has given us and live of the world (blind and afraid) but not in it (unwilling to bring light into the darkness).

    Does God care how we worship? Yes.

    Thank you Jay, for helping others to see that there is a way between the abstract poles of anything goes and a mechanical pattern. Thank you for helping to others to see the beauty over the necessity of A cappella worship—it is beautiful!

  2. Royce says:

    A rule keeping, works based idea of salvation appeals to the flesh. The natural man, or immature believer, wants to be able to observe and be able to check off what he and others do in regard to God. They incorrectly believe they can get God to think better of them because of what the do or don't do.

    Jesus I'm sure shocked Nicodemus when he likened one who has been born from above to the wind, very hard to enforce legal ideas on the wind (breath of God).

    Legal zealots have little if any spiritual understanding. They try to understand God's revelation like one would understand a history book or a novel. Only the Holy Spirit can make the truths of the Bible clear. My fear is that many of our so called "conservative" brothers are not really brothers at all. There is little doubt that at least some of them are imposters, "make believers", not believers.

    I have never been able to get a legalist to admit he thinks he was saved by works. However, everyone of them to the last one believes he keeps his salvation by works, a lie from hell.

    Thanks for your work here.

    Royce

  3. Pat says:

    One of your best posts, Jay. You make it seem so clear ~ and your transparency is refreshing.

  4. Well, now I have my lesson for this Sunday morning's class. Thanks.

  5. kris says:

    Wonderful!!

  6. Your last section, Jay: cf. Matthew 22:34-40; John 13:34-35.

    These scriptures tell me Jesus left no doubt about what was most important.

    Approximate incidence of the words "obey" or "obedience" in scripture: 240. Approximate incidence of the word "love" in scripture: 700.

    I think there's a probably a good reason for that.

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