“Authenticity and Following the Rules”Categories: Meditations
We live in an age that values authenticity above all else. It’s perfectly OK to practice whatever sin, so long as you’re Really You while you’re practicing it. Conversely, through the years I’ve heard a number of indictments of brethren as being Not Really Authentic. Supposedly, members of churches of Christ are the spiritual heirs of the Pharisees. They’re so focused on following the rules that they forget about loving God.
That’s never sat quite right with me, so I decided to put it to the test on that impartial arbiter of wisdom, Facebook. Is this actually a Scripturally intelligible concept? Anywhere in the Bible, do we see people who follow God’s rules without caring about Him?
When I posed this question on Facebook, it generated a great deal of discussion, but nobody could come up with a clear Biblical example. The Pharisees weren’t heartfelt followers of God, but they weren’t obedient either. Instead, they were hypocritical lovers of money who won their reputation through self-promotion. The church in Ephesus had left their first love despite having all sorts of good works, but the cure to their disease was still repenting and doing the works that they had done at first. And so on. It seems to be universally true in Scripture that everybody who has a heart problem has an obedience problem too.
On the other hand, being on fire for God, passionately sure that you’re doing what is right, showing everybody how much you care, does not appear to be a guarantee of righteousness. Saul of Tarsus thought he was doing good by zealously persecuting Christians. Apollos thought he was doing the right thing by preaching the baptism of John. Both learned that they had some changes to make.
It seems to me, then, that the cultural idol of authenticity isn’t actually a very good way to evaluate somebody’s spirituality, whether our own or somebody else’s. Saul was a really authentic enemy of God. Somebody else can spend all day long gushing about God’s goodness, yet be at best misled and at worst a hypocrite. We ourselves can be 100 percent convinced that our feet are on the path to heaven, yet be 100 percent wrong.
Instead, if we want to learn the truth, we have to turn to the time-honored pastime of fruit inspection. We learn who people are by what they do. Somebody who loves God will keep His commandments, and nothing but love can provide the motivation for an obedient life. Faithfulness reveals the truth, both without and within.
You want to indict Christians or churches for hypocrisy? Fine. You want to criticize them for loving tradition more than the Bible? Go ahead. You want to condemn them for Malachi 1 apathy? Sure. However, recognize that all of these are fundamentally obedience problems, and they are measured by the word.
On the other hand, saying that somebody cares more about the rules than they do about God is logically incoherent. Failure to emote appropriately is not a spiritual problem. Some people simply aren’t emoters. I preached both of my parents’ funerals without a single catch in my voice or a single tear. If you want to conclude that I didn’t love my parents, you’re at liberty to do so, I guess.
Rather than pointing to a spiritual weakness, concern with obedience points to a spiritual strength. People who truly do want to get everything right in their service to God are people who care about God and are committed to Him. That might not read as authentic, but it’s as real as godliness gets.