“Quantifying Christianity”Categories: Meditations
In the qualifications of the elder in 1 Timothy 3:1-7, Paul lists 15 (-ish, depending on how one counts) qualities. The similar list in Titus 1:5-9 contains 16 (also -ish). However, brethren commonly take this list and reduce it down to (replace it with?) two questions. Is the man married? Are his children faithful Christians?
In practice, this spiritual shortcut easily can lead to the appointment of men who are unqualified, yet it remains powerfully appealing. Much of the appeal comes from the apparent opportunity it offers to reduce complicated judgment calls to questions that can be quantified. Is the man above reproach? Well, we could debate what that means and whether it applies for days. Does he have children who are Christians in good standing? There they are, sitting on the pews! Count ‘em!
We like simplicity. We like bright-line, black-and-white rules. Sometimes, God gives us what we like. At other times, though, he requires us to use our judgment. He presents us with a question that does not have an obvious, objective answer and asks us to think about it.
Consider, for instance, the subject of worship. I, along with everyone else who was “raised in the church”, was taught that there are five acts of worship: singing, prayer, preaching/teaching, partaking of the Lord’s Supper, and giving of our means. In some ways, this list is useful, but it is hardly a comprehensive exploration of the topic. What makes preaching an act of worship and appointing elders, for instance, not an act of worship?
Additionally, it fails to capture the essence of the subject. Worship is not a series of outward behaviors that can be reduced to five items on a checklist. It is entirely possible for somebody to go through the motions, check off the checklist, and never have worshiped once. Instead, worship is an inward prostration of the heart before God. It may express itself in one of those forms or take no outward expression at all (consider, for instance, Hannah’s prayer in 1 Samuel 1:9-13).
However, though checking off five items on a list is easy, seeking to worship in spirit and truth is difficult. We can’t ever say, “I have arrived as a worshiper!” because true worship isn’t an off/on yes/no thing. Instead, worship (like love, and for much the same reasons as love) is a spiritual discipline in which we grow for as long as we are alive, and growth is always uncomfortable. We also have to ask, “Where do I need to grow as a worshiper?”, and to answer the question, we must rely on our own judgment, which also makes many Christians uncomfortable.
As a result, it’s awfully tempting to retreat to the security of one wife, 2.4 children, five acts of worship, and all the other lists that appear to confirm that we’re doing a good job. However, lists are no substitute for the word of God, nor is checking off check boxes a substitute for discipleship. Instead, we must embrace the whole counsel of God, with its ambiguities, difficulties, and paradoxes, and accept that it is the path we are called to walk. It isn’t easy, nor is it safe, but it is the only path that will lead us to be conformed to the image of Christ.