Saw something interesting the other day. Folks, meet Mr Nicholas Barbon. Or, as the Mr and Mrs Barebone called him, Nicholas If-Jesus-Christ-Had-Not-Died-For-Thee-Thou-Hadst-Been-Damned Barebone.
Appropriately, he was one of the pioneers for the fire insurance business. Nothing like selling fire insurance along with hell-fire insurance, eh?
Now giving names of this sort wasn’t too out of the ordinary back in puritan days, so, although it’s mildly hilarious, it’s not news – just something I’d forgotten was a thing. My first (completely serious) reaction though, upon seeing the message his parents were trying to send to their child and others, was “Hmph. If you really wanted to be a witness you’d have made that his first name. What are ya, ashamed of Jesus? Don’t go hiding your light under a bushel, now! Lord wants all of us, not just a little piece tucked away!”
Now that whole reaction is absurd, yes. But this highlights something for me: don’t we do this already? Haven’t many churches, church folks, and communities done this, bluntly or subtly?
“Missed y’all at midweek prayer meeting!” (Usually meaning: “Are y’all really committed to this church? Why can’t y’all come??”)
“Are you reading your bible and praying and meditating every morning?”
“Your church only has a Sunday morning service?”
You were baptized at home by a parent? (“That’s not a very public profession of faith, is it?”)
Here’s one from my Baptist days: “Why aren’t you doing ministry on Saturday? We have a soulwinning time.”
“They’re getting married but they don’t want to have a wedding? They don’t seem committed to each other. This won’t last.”
“Do you two have devotions at night? You should!”
“Every time the church doors are open, you should be there!”
“If you miss a week, you’ll miss what God has for you!”
“Pastors, you’re probably visiting your people too much.”
“Pastors, you’re probably studying too much and need to put more time into your flock.”
“The preaching service is the most important event in believer’s week!”
“I carry tracts wherever I go and leave them in restrooms if I don’t get to talk to anyone about Jesus.”
“You’re not a member of a church? Are you serious about the fellowship of the saints, bro?”
“I don’t believe NFL players can be serious Christians because they play on Sundays.”
“Yeah, you have your tithe, but Jesus wants your all, brother. You can give a little more than 10%, right?”
“We do communion quarterly–WELL *WE* DO IT WEEKLY.
Well don’t y’all meet at home too? Why don’t you do it then as well?
Errr…” (Disclaimer, if you really think I care about how often you do Communion, or am mocking your tradition for how much or how little you celebrate, well, read on….)
I could go on. You get the idea, I think. If you don’t, and you think about any one of these, “but what’s wrong with that?” then let’s unpack this a bit.
Quite simply, there’s always more you could be doing. There’s always a little bit more flagpole available for you to run your Christian flag up a little higher. There’s always more you could burn yourself out on. There’s always someone else you could help. “The poor you have with you always”, hayman? The great thing about social media is that there’s no excuse for not seeing how the rest of the world is faring, and who needs your money after a disaster, or the 4000 worthy ongoing causes you could spend time and money on. How many bibles do you have? There’s always one available to read. There’s always time to redeem with study. There’s 7 days in a week and no law again’ showing up and “doing church” one more time – one more time than that sell-out liberal place down the road, I bet.
But to what end? On what grounds are you shaming others, and shaming yourself, for not meeting these standards? Think about what basis there is for all these things I’ve listed. I’m not going to dive into all of them, but here’s a few thoughts.
How did the thought process go from “Do not forsake the assembling of yourselves together” to “If you don’t assemble all the times the rest of us have decided to assemble (because we live in America and it’s legal and easy to meet whenever we want and we as a society literally set apart a day of the week for us Christians to conveniently meet on) then you’re not really a committed Christian”, for example?
How many little traditions and ordinances and conveniences of privilege have we subtly or not so subtly turned into measurements of spiritual commitment? How many luxuries of western civilization have been quietly baptized into faith?
The end is to be like Christ. The means is another matter entirely, and will differ widely as culture and circumstances and personalities require. God is a God of order, but He hasn’t put Himself into a box, either. What I grew up with, and what I see in so many places and put out by so many leaders, is means being held up as, effectively, the end. Holiness and virtue are presented as ends to themselves – whether they actually mean anything or help anyone is purely secondary. The standard must be upheld, or else cats and dogs living together and other fears.
I’m not trying to find a minimum that we can do to pass as living a Christian life. That’s always one of the accusations when a traditional standard is held up to scrutiny. That accusation woefully misses the point. What passes for calls to holiness, or condemnation of sin or a “lukewarm modern church” in many places is simply an exercise in projection. These other places have stopped heeding our hallowed traditions like we do, so it must be because their love has grown cold! A tradition or convenience that is unhelpful, harmful or completely inconvenient for individuals needs to be assessed. It does not harm the end to tailor the means to be individually more effective. Love often demands going out of our ways and routines and comfort zones, and not necessarily to bring the hurting to where we are, but to bring Christ to them where they are.
Speaking mainly to fellow Americans here (though if the shoe fits, feel free to take it for a stroll), the reality is, our middle/upper class Christianity, the kind that had enough power to institute a day of the week for ourselves and enforce it for many years, is a luxury and should never be mistaken for the essentials of following Christ. We cannot mistake the convenient means for the end.
So let’s see what this looks like in one example: Why do we meet? Because we’re supposed to? Because that’s what Christians do? Or is it because on a fundamental level, human beings need each other, and even more so those who are the outcasts in society’s system? The question isn’t how much meeting is too much, or too little, or what is convenient and then a little bit more so I don’t feel too comfortable, or how to play all the little games we play with our minds to feel like we do enough, but what does love demand? What do I need? Where am I lacking? Where is my neighbor lacking? What can I give? How can I lay down my life? How about, instead of shaming people for staying home, we, the supposed healthy, enlightened, obedient ones, go to them?
I don’t know what following Christ means for you. I don’t know what sacrifice looks like for you. I don’t know how God is drawing you to Himself. I don’t know what growth looks like for you. I have enough trouble figuring out what it looks like for me. I don’t get to tell you how much is your all – I don’t get to tell the widow her mites aren’t enough. All I care about is that the “widows” around us are in a place of enough health and knowledge where they can choose to lay down their lives and property for Christ and the least of these of their own free will.
Making it personal for me here (and at least in some ways my wife): I’m not into tradition much. I respect those who are just fine living with structure and order and things being done the way they always have – even need these things to have any kind of joy. I’m not interested in throwing traditions out the door as meaningless. I see nowhere in the bible where a wedding with a minister is even hinted at as being a required Christian norm (“by the authority vested in me as a minister of the gospel, I now pronounce you man and wife”? Where’d that one come from?), but it can be a beautiful thing and there’s no reason to project my indifference or negative preference onto what should be. I love things that bring people together, even if they don’t necessarily bring *me* any joy. I’ve experienced some beautiful weddings, profound communion services, heard good teaching and preaching, etc.
That said, on the whole, I get little personal value or joy out of tradition. Traditional church, I’m realizing more and more along with my wife, is an extrovert-normative source of constant anxiety for us. I don’t get much out of it for similar reasons that I don’t care for parties or weddings, and I don’t have much to put into them either. Besides the spiritual abuse we both went through in multiple churches, and the (even medicated) ADHD and anxiety which makes it extremely difficult for my wife to sit through a sermon, we just don’t learn that way, we aren’t encouraged that way, we don’t interact that way. It’s an emotionally draining experience, for mostly negative reasons. How’s that for a “Day of Rest”, eh? I know we’re not remotely alone in this, as well. So the burden is on us to figure out how our faith can play out in community, and where we can fit in and make a difference, and how others can keep us accountable and help us grow, etc, in a way that’s not needlessly draining or horribly inefficient for us.
So next time we want to look down on someone for not making a standard of commitment we’ve set up, maybe think about meeting them where they are, and trusting God to take them from there.