The Danger in Condensing the Christian Life
When you think about what living as Christian is all about, what comes to mind?
When you hear preaching of the Gospel and teaching regarding the faith, what examples are given that are to reflect the life of a Christian?
The odds are strong that among your answers to these questions, three elements featured prominently: assembling with fellow Christians, prayer, and studying the Scriptures. These three are frequently used as quick examples to describe the types of things Christians should be doing in their lives. They have become, for better or worse, a form of shorthand, a condensation of what God expects from Christians.
Such condensation and distillation is entirely understandable and did not develop with malevolent motives. Preaching and teaching frequently demands a series of examples to provide application of exhortation and instruction; preachers and teachers look for examples which will have the broadest application and appeal. Most exhortations to righteousness in the New Testament involve character attributes that are manifest in thoughts, feelings, and actions (e.g. Galatians 5:22-24); no one denies their importance or value, but they are hard to make into broad and generic points of application. Such is a feature, not a bug: the way the fruit of the Spirit should be manifest in the lives of college students will not be exactly the same as spouses and parents trying to manage work and family responsibilities or the elderly attempting to find ways of encouraging others despite their physical limitations. But it does mean that preachers and teachers look elsewhere to identify more wide-ranging points of application. What should be true of all Christians, regardless of age, station in life, or point in spiritual development? They should all assemble with fellow Christians, give to those in need (Galatians 2:10, 6:10, James 1:27), pray to God, and learn more about the will of God in Christ through His Word. Patterns of three are popular, and so the continual examples of Christian activity are assembling with Christians, praying, and studying the Bible.
Let none be deceived: these three activities are very important. Christians do well to assemble with each other to build one another up and strengthen each other (1 Corinthians 14:26, Hebrews 10:24-25). It is hard to overstate how much the effective Christian life depends upon prayer (1 Thessalonians 5:17-18, James 5:16-18). Our thoughts, feelings, and actions depend on what we know; growing in the knowledge of God in Christ in His Word is therefore essential if we will grow in faith (John 8:32, 2 Timothy 3:14-18, Hebrews 5:11-14, 2 Peter 1:21, 3:18). We do well to participate in these activities. Preachers and teachers should encourage Christians to do them, exhorting and instructing them as to how and when.
Yet there remains great danger in exclusively speaking about the Christian life in terms of the assembly, prayer, and study: Christians get the impression, conscious or otherwise, that Christianity is the assembly, prayer, and study. If all they hear about in terms of application is to accept the truth, assemble with Christians, pray, and study their Bibles, they will feel that such is all that is necessary of them as Christians. Preachers and teachers might have the best intentions of laying down the assembly, prayer, and Bible study as the “bare minimum” which Christians should be doing in their lives, yet far too many Christians prove willing to simply meet whatever expectations are given them. When days get difficult (or so they may reason), and time has run out for prayer and Bible study, too many Christians will then feel content with their Christianity as long as they have been faithfully assembling on the first day of the week.
The Christian life is nowhere in Scripture condensed to the assembly, prayer, and study; one searches its pages in vain to find a “bare minimum” of what it takes to serve Jesus. Instead God calls for Christians to be willing to renounce all things for the sake of Jesus and the resurrection, to bear the shame and reproach which follows serving the Lord, and to pursue the manifestation of the fruit of the Spirit no matter what the forces of evil and those who do their bidding may do in return (Matthew 6:33, 10:34-39, 16:24, Galatians 2:20, Philippians 3:7-16).
The assembly, prayer, and Bible study remain great opportunities for edification and encouragement. They provide us with many great benefits, but they are not ends in their own right. We are to take the strength we receive from them and go out to serve others, advance God’s purposes, and manifest His character to the world (Matthew 20:25-28, 1 John 2:3-6). It is appropriate and right to encourage Christians to assemble, pray, and study their Bibles, but it is dangerous if such are the only things they are encouraged to do! May we assemble with Christians, pray, study our Bibles, and seek to accomplish righteousness and avoid sin in our lives, and encourage our fellow Christians to do likewise!
Ethan R. Longhenry