Prophets or Scribes: The Dead Dogma Killing Evangelical Churches
Written by Dan Armistead
There were some big differences between Jesus and most of the other religious teachers/rabbis in Israel. In fact, it was those differences that ultimately led to his crucifixion, which, itself, was masterfully manipulated by these guardians of the faith and defenders of orthodoxy. Another heretic bites the dust. Another “win” for institutional religion.
One of the biggest differences between Jesus and the other rabbis was who his teaching appealed to. Undoubtedly, there were some good traditional Jewish synagogue attendees, but there were others who not only did not attend synagogue but were, in fact, banned from doing so. Jesus’s congregation included tax collectors, prostitutes, and a host of unseemly, marginalized people who the other rabbis not only despised, but openly spoke against.
Another huge difference between Jesus and the institutionalized religious teachers was how people responded to his teaching. The crowds were amazed at the teaching of Jesus! And why were they amazed? Because when Jesus taught, the people received more than correct, detailed, orthodox scripture instruction. The people received a life-giving word from God. It was cool water for thirsty souls. It was breath for the breathless.
The other rabbis were lost in their worship of doctrine rather than the God to whom that doctrine was meant to lead.
Christ tried his best to help these hapless dogmatics. He told them they were too busy straining out gnats in their teaching while swallowing camels. (Pretty funny, by the way. The guy had a biting sense of humor.)
He critiqued their exacting lifestyle, saying they were so careful to live by every little detail of scripture while missing the heart that beat beneath the words on the scroll they worshiped.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
I’ve spent thirty-six years as an evangelical pastor. During those years, I’ve witnessed what, at one time, was the prophetic voice of the church become more and more scribal in nature.
In my particular denomination, Southern Baptists, we engaged in a long drawn out “Battle for the Bible.” At least, that’s what it came to be called.
But when the dust cleared, and seminary presidents and professors were removed from their positions so the more conservative Bible teachers could help right the liberal ship, nothing changed.
That’s not exactly true. The powers-to-be took the choice, and I might add, high-paying positions in the denomination, and seized the reins of power.
I’ll never forget discussing these events with two very conservative pastors in our denomination. The three of us conducted a funeral together. Afterward, we spent some time reflecting on the changes in our denomination.
One of the pastors told an interesting story. He was attending a denominational conference and bumped into one of his former seminary professors. “Do you think we’ve gone too far in our so-called conservative resurgence,” he asked this highly respected theologian?
“Yes,” was the reply. “But if you tell anyone I said that I’ll deny it.” The power brokers of the “Battle for the Bible” were tightening their grip and tolerating no dissent in the ranks.
My friend, Mary Branson, wrote a book detailing the abuses of our new shepherds — Spending God’s Money: Extravagance and Misuse in the Name of Ministry. It is a scathing and accurate assessment of the abuse of our leaders.
Meanwhile, a major resurgence of Reformation theology is sweeping the evangelical landscape. I am convinced that its re-emergence is fueled by the conviction that our dying churches can be revived by orthodox doctrine.
Sadly, this resurgence has led its adherents to an obsession with the writings of the pilgrim theologians. I’ve read many of these authors. They’ve taught me a great deal. But when I hear them continually quoted, even mimicked, in the teaching and preaching of the modern-day reformation teachers, I can’t help but think about the scribes and teachers of the law in Jesus’s day.
Doctrinal connoisseurs not only strain out gnats while swallowing camels; their teaching also fails to penetrate the hearts and spirits of their hearers.
I learned years ago that this kind of Bible teaching only appeals to about twenty percent of the people in the pew. The truth is the overwhelming majority aren’t interested in detailed doctrinal analysis. They want to know what to do about their struggling marriages, toxic bosses, and unruly children.
That leads me to an important question: What about those outside the church? What kind of teaching appeals to them?
I’ve got a good idea that stories about Good Samaritans, Prodigal Sons, Corrupt Judges, and Persistent Widows are just the thing to touch their hearts and demonstrate the love and grace of God found in Jesus.
And in today’s culture, the good Samaritan would be the compassionate gay guy, the prodigal’s brother would be an elder in his church, and the persistent widow would be an elderly Black woman battling her slum lord.
Does our teaching appeal to the tax collectors, prostitutes, and “sinners” in society? If not, why not? This is a question that should haunt evangelicals.
There is no doubt in my mind that if Jesus were ministering in the United States today, the unchurched would make up a large percentage of his disciples. I’m also convinced many of our most biblically conservative leaders would condemn his “liberal” teaching.
It’s important to note that Jesus and the populist religious leaders of his day, the Pharisees, agreed on many Bible teachings. The difference was Jesus understood the spirit of scripture, while the Pharisees sucked the very life out of it. Their obsession with dotting the doctrinal “i’s” and crossing the doctrinal “t’s” kept them from recognizing God’s kingdom in their midst.
This was the reason they shut others out of God’s kingdom and made their converts twice the sons of hell they were. (See Matthew 23:13–15)
In my post, The Cost of Authenticity, I share my decision to speak out about some deep concerns I have about evangelicals in America today. I mention in that post that I expect to pay the price for following my convictions. I have, I am, and I will.
But God has burned into my spirit the words of Galatians 1:10 — “Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.” (NIV)
The apostle Paul, who, himself, is one of the most misunderstood champions of God’s love and grace found in Jesus, penned these words. Sadly, this big-hearted servant of Christ has been made into a rigid doctrinaire by many pastor-teachers today.
But it was Paul who said, “Follow me as I follow Christ.” (I Corinthians 11:1)
And the Jesus I’m following did not teach like the other rabbis of his day. According to those who heard his words, he taught as one having authority. (Matthew 7:29)
That authority did not come from his vast knowledge of scripture, though he certainly possessed more than all the other rabbis together. The authority of Jesus came from his understanding that His father would write on the hearts of his hearers, life-changing truths. (Jeremiah 31:33)
We desperately need to return to this kind of teaching in evangelical churches today.
Time is running out, both in our churches and in the lives of those whose hearts are thirsty for the life-giving water that Jesus offers.
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