Christianity is in crisis.
“Yes,” you reply. “I know that. Everyone knows that. Look at the assaults against the church and the Lord’s people from the world and the culture on a daily basis. These attacks grow in intensity and ferocity against even our children. We are bombarded with messages of covetousness, greed, and perversion as they attempt to dismiss the gospel at a minimum and eradicate the church altogether at a maximum.”
All true. However, that external threat is not what this article is about.
“I see,” you might say. “Then what you are surely speaking of is the internal threat of those that, though outwardly appear to be sheep, are inwardly ravenous wolves seeking to devour the flock. Or perhaps you are speaking of those that are doubled-minded, living in two worlds. They profess one thing and live another. They have compromised with the culture and have thereby become enslaved to it, and as a result the gospel is smeared and compromised.”
Also true, and related to my thesis, but this internal threat is still not quite it.
My subject is a much bigger threat to the church; much more dangerous, much more calculating, much more insidious. Although the external and internal threats are very real and very serious, the deeper threat is more internal, still. It does not infiltrate the church from the outside like a thief or a robber, nor does it exist inside the walls of the church like an incapacitating and numbing fog. Yet, understanding where the threat exists and how to deal with it provides an answer to addressing both the external threats and those within the confines of our churches.
This threat exists inside of us.
The Real Problem
I am speaking of the select application of the Word of God and of His Christ in our daily lives. I am speaking of the tendency, and even the ingrained habit, of considering the clear and unambiguous teaching of scripture lastly in a given situation—if we think of it at all. I am also speaking of the times when we do think of what scripture says, yet deliberately push it aside lest we “give offense,” become embroiled in arguments or controversy, or because we are simply uneasy or lacking in confidence.
That is, we “compartmentalize” the gospel and only apply it if no offense is anticipated, an argument or controversy is unlikely, and we happen to be full of confidence (and how often do all those things align?). Thus, we have placed Almighty God in a box, as if that were possible.
“We ‘compartmentalize’ the gospel and only apply it if no offense is anticipated, an argument or controversy is unlikely, and we happen to be full of confidence.”
In other words, we have compartmentalized minds. You and I have the perverse ability to selectively obey and apply God’s Word in some areas of our lives, but not in others. Sometimes we do it consciously and sometimes unconsciously, but we never do it without being guilty of a serious and destructive sin.
All Have Sinned—and That Means You and I
We have all been guilty of this sort of compartmentalization and have felt the pangs of guilt as we realize we have grieved the Holy Spirit. Yet these pangs are a good thing, as they are evidence that God, despite our manifest weaknesses, is yet working within us to mold us and shape us ever more into the image of His Son. However, I am persuaded that this situation, believe it or not, is not the most serious issue.
No, the greater issue, by far, is lukewarmness towards God’s Word—not taking it seriously; being selective in what we read and find useful; dismissing the very validity of the Word, especially when the going gets tough and the issue becomes stickier. Not without irony, the tendency to do this is directly proportional to the difficulty or seriousness of the situation.
Yet here is the worst problem of all. These things are done by professing Christians, both consciously and subconsciously, without pangs of guilt, without uncomfortableness in the soul, without the understanding that the Holy Spirit has, in fact, been grieved. And all the while those that do such things pat themselves on the back, convincing themselves they are good people and have actually rendered God a service. This is the greater issue in the church at-large today and is a serious problem, eating away at the soul of both the church and the individual like a ship full of dry rot, happily sailing along on seemingly smooth seas.
“These things are done by professing Christians without pangs of guilt, without the understanding that the Holy Spirit has, in fact, been grieved. And all the while those that do such things pat themselves on the back, convincing themselves they are good people and have actually rendered God a service.”
Is there, then, any wonder that our churches are weak, are ineffectual, are given to the slings and arrows of outrageous culture, and have the stench of death about them?
The Root Cause
Understand that this is hardly a new thing. This compartmentalization, this dismissal, this watering down of God’s Word, all while attempting to make His Word subservient to our wills, has been with us since Eden. It “began at the beginning” when Satan whispered into the ear of Eve, “Hath God truly said?”, thereby casting doubt upon the very veracity of God’s Word. And just how did that turn out?
That first temptation that led to the first sin is still with us. It is the foundation stone of man’s rebellion against God, denying not just His General Revelation, wherein “His invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived…that all men everywhere are without excuse” (Romans 1:19-20)—which is bad enough—but in also turning our backs upon His revealed Word, which is His unilateral gift to express to us His divine will, given for our good and His glory, that we might have life and godliness, in both this world and in the world to come.
“That first temptation that led to the first sin is still with us. It is the foundation stone of man’s rebellion against God, not only in our denial of His General Revelation, but also in turning our backs on His revealed Word.”
The early church, which we all respect for good reasons, was also buffeted from within and without. It had to combat attacks from the government claiming they were not proper Romans (addressed by men known as Apologists), attacks from the world saying they were upsetting the established order and were atheists(!) for insisting on the worship of one, invisible God (handled by the Polemicists), and, most dangerous of all, the internal threat of heresy from several parts of the empire. This last element was the reason for many early church councils and the driver behind most of the New Testament epistles. So then, we can at least take some solace in the fact that our situation is not unique in the history of Christendom, and we are hardly the first to face it.
Today, we see that when culture collides with the Bible, culture “wins,” even in the minds of professing Christians. Take politics as an example. Our religion ought to inform our politics (I use the term “religion” in the traditional, non-pejorative sense). Yet today, sadly, politics informs religion. That is, where religion does not square with the presuppositions of one’s politics, then it is religion that must give way and conform to the political. As a result, by definition, politics becomes the religion. This sad reality can be applied to just about any area of modern-day life.
So, given this state in which we find the church, what are we to do about it? We have been conditioned to this compromise and everywhere are the demands to conform. This pressure comes from the outside by “culture” which finds a willing reception within by our own sin nature which, Biblically speaking, hardly needs conditioning at all. How did we get here?
“Today, we see that when culture collides with the Bible, culture “wins,” even in the minds of professing Christians.”
Existentialism and the Church
In its most foundational aspect, this compartmentalization is the result of Existentialism. That 19th-century humanistic philosophy that places man, and not God, at the center of all things. The basic encyclopedic definition is as follows:
Existentialism is a form of philosophical inquiry that explores the problem of human existence and centers on the subjective experience of thinking, feeling, and acting. For example, in the view of an existentialist, the individual’s starting point is a sense of dread, disorientation, confusion, or anxiety in the face of an apparently meaningless or absurd world (emphasis added).
This appears to be a decent starting point as, indeed, the world is a fallen and dark place. Yet this philosophy deliberately and consciously rejects God and all forms of revelation, instead doubling down in its focus on and inside man which, as we know, is the cause of the fallenness in the first place.
Time and space do not permit an exposition of the creeping growth of this view into culture and, eventually, into the church, but the end result is a view that it is not God in any objective sense that is the determinate evaluator of what is good, right, and useful, but the individual. It is my personal worth, my personal story, and my personal happiness, that are the highest good and the highest goal of life. I am the supreme measure of all things; I am the captain of my soul; my “truth” over any “Truth” that might be God’s.
It is, at its core, the clear and proud Worship of Self.
Even a brief survey of what surrounds us bears this out in stark clarity. Our culture worships at the Altar of Self, and any disagreement is the height heresy, worthy of disdain, dismissal, and overwhelming public and private condemnation. They have exchanged the Truth of God for a lie.
Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen (Romans 1:22-23, 25).
A Real-Life Example of Compartmentalization
My wife Janet and I were recently in Scotland. It was Sunday and we wanted to attend church in the small town where we were staying. There was a church right in the public square in a grand building that, although not ancient, was a beautiful piece of architecture (as an architect myself, I am shamelessly attracted to such things). It was the Church of Scotland, which we have learned, like the Church of England, is uneven at best in its adherence to the Reformed Tradition under which it was founded (in the case of the Church of Scotland, by the great John Knox himself). We arrived early so I could speak to the senior minister a bit and ask what confession they adhered to, as experience has taught me that usually communicates a great deal about the nature of that church. When he replied they followed the Westminster Confession of Faith of 1646, I was confident we were in a pretty solid place. But I was wrong (note that I said “usually”).
He began with a reading of I John 4, with his focus upon verse 16, “God is Love.” He extolled the virtues of love and how it was a clear manifestation of God, everywhere. As he continued down this path, I could sense where he was going with his subject. “God is love,” he eventually said, and therefore, “love is God.” When he uttered that statement Janet said she could see me involuntarily convulse in the pew. He then used this statement as the cornerstone of a harangue against the immigration policy of the British government. And this, I realized, was what he really wanted to talk about, eisegetically selecting a verse that, he believed, bolstered his political point.
This is just one example of the many slippery slopes we can fall into when we don’t take the Word of God seriously. Including (and especially) from the pulpit. In this case, the terrible confusion between the attributes of God and the essence of God. Or, to take one attribute of God we particularly like and elevate it to the supreme position under which everything else is subsumed. As applied by my Church of Scotland friend, if God is Love (and misapplied as God’s essence), then the corollary must also be true (love is God). So then, one may love a tree, a cat, or another member of the same sex, and be one with God because after all, I am just reflecting in my actions the essence of the Creator.
“If God is Love—and misapplied as God’s essence—then the corollary must also be true (love is God). So then, one may love a tree, a cat, or another member of the same sex, and be one with God because after all, I am just reflecting in my actions the essence of the Creator.”
Not only is this the way he applied the sermon, but he went further to say that “everyone has the Spirit of God because everyone has the capacity to love.” Do you see the logical progression here? One does not even have to love to be one with God; it is sufficient to simply have the capacity to love. So then, one can be a very cruel and wicked man and still be one with God because, beneath it all, that man retains the capacity to love. No gospel, no repentance, no propitiation, no redemption. “Love is all you need.”
That low, rumbling sound you hear deep in the earth is John Knox shuddering in his grave. At least I knew why, in a church that can accommodate 600 parishioners, fewer than two dozen were in attendance that day.
But It Is Not To Be So With You
To be a compartmentalizer—to be someone who conveniently makes the Bible mean whatever suits our tastes—is not something that should ever be true of the child of God. We are to be changed, to be renewed, to be born again.
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect (Romans 12:2).
We often hear the phrase, “I know that God accepts me as I am.” This is true, to a point. God does accept us as we are, warts and all. However, he then anthropomorphically puts his arms around us and says, “Welcome, my child. Your sins are paid for, and you are a new creation. All of redemptive history has led to this point for you and there is nothing you can do to earn what I have done. Now, beginning today, it is time for you to begin the process of being conformed to the image of my Son” (Romans 8:29).
Where in the Bible are we commanded to stand pat from that point and to rest where we are? Where does the Word of God tell us not to diligently strive and sweat and stretch ourselves to become more Christ-like after salvation? Sadly, in many of our churches, Jesus Christ is but one of several equally valid inputs into one’s life that we may draw upon whenever convenient. Yet we are told that Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and no man comes to the Father except through Him (John 14:6). I may not know everything about scripture and fall far short of where I would like to be, but I do know what a categorical exclusion is, and Jesus lays it down in front of us like a gauntlet.
“Sadly, in many of our churches, Jesus Christ is but one of several equally valid inputs into one’s life that we may draw upon whenever convenient.”
I was talking once with a person (let’s call him a liberal professing Christian) who was really jazzed about how Jesus took to task those nasty Pharisees when they brought to Him the woman caught in adultery (“in the very act,” John 8), concluding with the well-known statement, “he among you who is without sin, let him be the first one to throw a stone at her.” Oh, he said, that was great. He really put them in their place. But then my friend said no more. When I asked him about the rest of the story, he said, “What rest of the story?” So, I read about how then Jesus looked at her (presumably for the first time in the narrative) and said, “Neither do I condemn you. Now go, and sin no more.”
This was not a suggestion; it was a command. This woman knew she was guilty (as, incidentally, did Jesus) and she knew what the punishment would be. She also knew that if Jesus had not interceded on her behalf, she would already be dead. But Jesus made it clear that now that he had extended his mercy, the rules had changed. Jesus was her kinsman-redeemer, and she now belonged to him. She did not protest that that was just the way she was, or something along the lines of, “But you don’t understand, Jesus; I love this man!” God spoke, and that was the final word.
So, first we must understand that, like this woman (“And such were some of you,” 1 Corinthians 6:11), we too have a kinsman-redeemer, and we are not our own.
Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).
You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants of men (1 Corinthians 7:23).
If we are truly believers, then we belong to Jesus because He has purchased us with his own blood, and we don’t have the option of picking and choosing which parts of God’s Word we pay attention to. We need to consciously embrace our obligation to obey all of it, all of the time.
Addressing the Problem
In this article, it has simply been my goal to explain and illustrate the problem of compartmentalization among Christians—what it is, where its roots are, and what it looks like in practice. In our next article, I want us to begin thinking biblically about what we can do to address this problem in ourselves.