By The Rev. Dr. H. Gene Straatmeyer
I recently ran across an article by Stephen Matson who was on the Staff of Northwestern College in St. Paul, MN when he wrote it. One paragraph caught my attention, “I used to be like the Pharisees, someone who proudly believed certain things that I thought were utterly and undeniably true — until I realized that I didn’t.” I believe those growing in their faith have to reach that same threshold sooner or later in life or be mired forever in the likeness and behavior of the Pharisees.
Being like the Pharisees is the inability to re-think one’s theology or to incorporate new information. The usual result of that mind-set is to hunker down amid the swirling sea of change
When we decide to move forward it becomes a significant step in our spiritual growth – to understand that when we thought like a child and believed like a child we were children but when we grow into adulthood we have to leave so much of that behind by understanding it was our starting point rather than our final destination.
Of course there are too many Christians who cap their growth at the Pharisee stage or at other various levels and then form their own churches or join churches who feel as they do. To reinforce their intransigency they usually brand others as not having the truth. They then spend enormous amounts of energy trying to convert those who are already Christians by using fear or implying that they are not real Christians – they are one or two doctrines away from the truth which only their Pharisee-type-religion possesses.
I met such a Christian recently. I started visiting with him when I saw him sitting in a booth in a café. He was reading a Bible. We soon found out about each other. He is a Christian who is not highly educated. I am a highly educated Christian. He told me how many years ago he came to faith in a highly emotional way. In many ways, he is to be admired. He knows what is between the covers of his huge King James Bible and he interprets each word of it literally. He is not afraid to joyfully share his faith. He is a pillar in his church. He prays for me. So why does he fit into the group of Christians who are hunkered down in their faith and won’t move forward beyond what he absolutely knows to be true? Because, he believes that every Christian has to have exactly the same spiritual experience he had nearly 50 years ago. To him, I am not a Christian because even though I see his faith experience as valid, he doesn’t see mine that way – because mine does not replicate his. Now, we may have to go to another restaurant on Sunday morning for breakfast because we are locked into his radar – educated people who worship but who “are not saved” like he was saved.
Groups like this maintain their existence for a time but if they are to last for any amount of time, they have to rely almost solely on their children to believe as they do or proselytize others like myself to squeeze into their mold of the Christian faith. In the whole scheme of Christianity they tend to become inconsequential as they cling to the belief that they alone have the pearl of great price.
These types of Christians build a wall to protect their personal doctrines because they cannot deal with change in culture or different but valid understandings of the Christian faith. They are fearful that if they change they will fall out of favor with the Almighty. One of their popular hymns always has been “Give me that old time religion! Give me that old time religion! Give me that old time religion! It’s good enough for me!” Backwards is good, forward is questionable! In the words of another old hymn, their theology is “Hold the fort for I (Jesus) am coming!”
Until I was 12 years old, I knew nothing of the Bible other than the King James Version (KJV). In 1947, my Sunday School teacher warned my class of an impending catastrophe. She claimed that if we accepted the new translation, the Revised Standard Version (RSV), which, according to her, had not been translated properly, Christianity would move quickly away from the truth.
The result was that some Christians moved forward with the RSV while others dug in their heels and stayed with the KJV. When I listen to Christian radio and television programs these days, some 65 years later, I notice there are a number of ministers who still read Scripture from the King James Bible. I have heard laity say King James English sounds more godly and sacred. English has changed so much since King James but apparently the near perfectness, in their minds, of that translation, supersedes the necessity for modern people to understand what the Bible says in the English language of today.
Change is difficult. Moving from what we think we know as truth to what I would call a greater truth, is a step of faith growing Christians take all the time. Growing as a Christian is when the Holy Spirit leads us forward. Phariseeism is when we think the Holy Spirit has a tether on us so that we will not be led astray. Growing Christians see that God deals with each one of us in different ways so that our spiritual experiences are not the same. Phariseeism is when we are thoroughly convinced every spiritual experience is nearly the same and those who haven’t walked that line are off the narrow path which leads to spiritual safety and certainty.
Bill Tammeus, writing in a recent “Presbyterian Outlook” magazine says one of these small/giant steps forward is to understand not only Biblical literalism but also Biblical metaphor. He believes, and I agree, that if we don’t move beyond literalism we may eventually move away from faith. I believe we are seeing that in our time with the growing numbers of “nones” in our society, mostly younger people who have abandoned the faith of their parents because the faith of their Sunday School days caused too many questions as they approached adulthood.
Tammeus believes children not taught the power of metaphor in Scripture may think the church is irrelevant as they grow older and more educated. He says the Bible is written as a sufficient revelation of who God is and it was written in religious language, which is inevitably metaphorical. He says it is critical for Christians to “understand not all truth is literal.”
Stephen Matson concludes, “Wise people admit when they’re wrong, but when it comes to theology most people spend all of their time and energy buttressing and protecting their own personal beliefs instead of critically, prayerfully, humbly, and honestly questioning them…. Thankfully, through the grace of an unchanging God, I changed. When the time comes, are we willing to accept and embrace change within ourselves and those around us?” He asks God to help us to move forward rather than to become immoveable.