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If that’s not a loaded question, then I’ve never asked one. But I think it’s a question we need to answer. First, let me get this out of the way:
It is absolutely possible for well meaning people to end up stricter than God.
Examples from scripture
In Matthew 12, Jesus and his disciples butted heads with the Pharisees over the Pharisee’s interpretation of the sabbath rules. Jesus argued for a looser interpretation than the Pharisees did. In that case, it was obvious that the Pharisees were stricter than God.
That isn’t the only time in scripture a group was reprimanded for being stricter than God; Paul chastised the Judaizers (Galatians 2) for insisting that Gentiles be circumcised and follow other jewish customs. In those cases, the Judaizers were stricter than God.
Err on the side of strictness
How did these groups get that way? It wasn’t on purpose. Whenever there was a command or principle in scripture that was a little ambiguous, they defined it concretely and insisted that others do the same. The law said don’t work on the Sabbath so the Pharisees made up forty plus kinds of work that you must not do. There was little direction about how to handle non-Jewish Christians, so the Judaizers insisted on the strictest possible application. In both cases (and in many others) people ended up being stricter than God.
Could we be doing the same thing? Scripture says women should wear “modest apparel” but some Christians want to make up their own checklist (i.e. no pants, no makeup, no tights, no shorts, sleeved t-shirts, etc.) and then judge everyone around them by their man-made checklist. We do the same thing with music, with language, with how we dress at church, with entertainment, etc. We take a biblical principle, make up some concrete applications, and run with the applications.
We’ve got to apply the scripture some how. At some point, if we don’t turn principles into practices then those principles are pointless and powerless. But is it right to turn our practices and interpretations into a kind of extra-biblical orthodoxy by which we judge the world?
I had a good conversation with a conservative Mennonite brother last week. When asked why they wear home made clothes, refuse to have health or life insurance, and eschew wedding rings, they would claim they are just applying scripture. At some point for them, those scriptural principles evolved into a set of rules, and those rules have become their orthodoxy. Unless you live like a conservative Mennonite, then you are testifying with your lifestyle that you believe that they are stricter than God.
My point isn’t that rules are bad, they’re not. Nor am I saying that we shouldn’t have concrete ways in which we apply non-concrete scripture in our life, we should. What I am saying is that we need to realize the difference between God’s Word on something and our personal application of God’s Word on something and be crystal clear about that difference. We need to recognize the difference between God’s rule book and ours and put emphasis on God’s.
We also need to realize that we can’t always assume the the proper interpretation is always the strictest one. As we’ve seen in the cases of the Pharisees and the Judaizers, it’s not. I’m convinced people do this because they don’t understand grace and are think that by going for broke on the strictness scale they’ll earn favor with God.
Consider the consequences
Being stricter than God has all kinds of negative consequences. When we replace God’s rule book with our slightly stricter one, it effects our relationship to scripture, our relationship to each other, and people’s perception of God and Christianity. We end up replacing Scripture, grace, and God with something far uglier and less powerful than the original.
So are Indpendent Baptists stricter than God? We absolutely can be, and we need to be careful that we aren’t.
I’ve got a lot to more to say about this. (I’ll be writing about it all week.) Do you have something to say? Let’s talk in the comments.