Thursday, 19 May 2016

In what ways can church ministry and worship be infected by rationalism or relativism?

[A brief answer to a question posed after a couple of seminars on rationalism and relativism]

First, there is a danger of labelling churches or ministries that are word-centred as rationalistic. Here we must ask whether God himself is word-centred. John 1 tells us he is, as does the existence of the Bible itself. The first Christians devoted themselves to the apostles teaching (Acts 2v42). Paul preached through the night even after one hearer fell out of the window asleep, died and was raised! The book of Hebrews ends describing itself as just a “short” letter.

Second, there is an equal danger of labelling churches or ministries that make much of emotion or music as relativistic. Here we must ask whether God makes much of these things. The picture of the saints praising God in the book of revelation, and the existence of 150 psalms tell us he does. The first Christians were marked by joy, praising God day by day (Acts 2v43f). Paul taught that song was a particular mark of being filled with the Spirit. And even in the Old Testament temple, choirs were employed just to sing the psalms, with the whole range of emotion they portray.

The point is this: In all cultures it should be a both-and to the above, not an either-or. It is not that word-centred churches better reach rationalistic modernist people, and those stressing emotion and music the relativistic postmoderns. No, the worship God looks for is one that worships him in spirit and in truth (Jn 4).

Consider a biblical anthropology: We reject God as our hearts desire what is sinful, and so we refuse to accept his word with our minds. Conversely, when converted the Spirit of God uses the word of the gospel to change our hearts so that they desire God and so will accept his truth (1 Peter 1v23). And from that point, the means by which we engage with him is as his truth informs our mind and, by that means, enflames our hearts so that we love and want to obey him (Eph 4v17-24, Rom 12v1-2).

It is striking that in some churches, it is either the sheer quantity of Bible teaching that is assumed to prove God’s presence with the church, or the atmosphere evoked by a certain style of music or an inner sense of God those at the church claim to have. But a cursory look through the early chapters of Acts reveals that the post-Pentecost feelings that mark the presence of God the Holy Spirit are not so vague. They were certainly related to the tireless preaching the apostles gave themselves to. But they were the feelings that came in response, when the heart was gripped by their teaching: deep conviction when grasping the seriousness of sin (Acts 2v37, Jn 16v8), reverent fear when grasping God’s holiness (Acts 5v11), and joyful thanks when grasping his grace (Acts 2v46-47, Col 3v16-17). First and foremost, the primary feeling the Spirit evokes in the New Testament, is one of deep love towards God as our creator and redeemer (Gal 5v22).

Given all this, we can start to ask what a church infected with rationalism or relativism might look like.

We have seen that rationalism is not about engaging reason per se. All our teaching and wider ministry should do that. No, it describes those who rely on reason for knowledge rather than God. So a church is infected with rationalism when the teaching of the Bible is rejected because people think they know better – rejecting certain truths because they don’t understand them or can’t rationally accept them. Rationalism may also be seen in the preacher who presumes that just by teaching scripture people will understand, rather than by combining this with fervent prayer for God to enlighten them. It is seen in the preacher who simply preaches to the mind, rather than to the heart through the mind; ie. the preacher who fails to emphasize the appropriate emotional response, focusing simply on what should be believed or done. It would also be seen in the church that doesn’t help the congregational to respond from the heart by giving adequate time to pray home what is said, or express conviction of sin in confession or joy and thanksgiving in song.

Similarly, relativism is not about expressing feelings per se. We have seen that all our teaching and wider ministry move us to that too. No, relativism describes those who see all truth relative to what the individual establishes it to be, often grounding this in their subjective sense of what is right or wrong rather than the objective revelation of God. So a church is infected with relativism when the teaching of the Bible is rejected because it just doesn’t feel right and makes people uncomfortable. It is seen in the preacher who simply appeals to people’s hearts with exhortation and anecdote, rather than actually explaining the scriptures so they understand. It is seen in songs and music that seek to elicit emotions that are not in response to God’s truth. It is seen when it is assumed that a certain atmosphere or inner sense reflects the presence of God, rather than locating his certain presence in feelings of conviction, reverence, joy and love fanned into flame by the gospel.

Of course a final question is over how best to teach congregations that inevitably contain those who lean towards rationalism or relativism. The answer must be, by teaching the whole Bible - by making much of its internal logic and argument, and much of its images and emotion; by teaching not just Paul’s letters, but the poetry of the prophets, not just the law, but the gospels etc etc.