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Are You a Christian Minimalist?

Guest Post

At the risk of being labeled, would you consider something? Would you consider something that, if it were true, you might actually appreciate the diagnosis, because it would be a sort of warning? Since you’re still reading, I’ll ask. Are you a Christian Minimalist?

Technically speaking, minimalism ranges from a design concept popularized in the twentieth century to a recent philosophy of life which causes an obsession with tiny houses and living on as little material resources as humanly possible. Currently, much of the millennial generation appreciates, if not pursues this kind simplicity in theory, if not in practice. Such minimalism defines itself this way…

Minimalism is a lifestyle that helps people question what things add value to their lives. By clearing the clutter from life’s path, we can all make room for the most important aspects of life: health, relationships, passion, growth, and contribution.

— Minimalism documentary

Sadly, this philosophy has found its way into the theology of the Church. Here is what I mean. On the surface, it seems like something that easily translates into our Christian convictions with platitudes such as “major on the majors,” “focus on what’s matters most,” or “eliminate all unnecessary distractions.” These sound super-spiritual and even pious when applied superficially to our Christian lives. Who wants distractions? Who wants to focus on the things that don’t matter? No one! But something destructive happens to both theological distinction and doctrinal depth when we are not careful. What typically occurs is that anything which does not appear to be essentially or directly related to the Gospel (in a narrow sense, the life, death, burial, and resurrection) of Jesus Christ is treated as negotiable, as unimportant, or worse, as “clutter.”

Is Scripture unclear or just unimportant?

It is true, there are teachings in Scripture that many wish were more clear. For example, some conservative Christians believe that Scripture allows for women to serve in the office of deacon, while many others believe Scripture clearly and explicitly defines both elder and deacon as an explicitly male office. Another example is many firmly fundamental Christians hold to remarriage for the ‘non-sinning’ partner as long as the divorce was on biblical grounds, while others hold to the permanency of marriage until the former spouse dies. One final example is that of salvation, more specifically, how people are saved. While all Christians would agree that God is active in salvation, some disagree as to How He is involved and to what degree.

We could go on with several more examples, but the point is that perfect agreement among all believers regarding every point of doctrine is just not likely on this side of eternity. And while perfect agreement would be a glorious thing, it is simply not realistic among believers who care deeply about biblical doctrine. However,you can come pretty close among believers who don’t, if of course by “agreement,” you mean ignoring these touchy topics entirely. When faced with the question of where to draw doctrinal lines of belief, instead of working/studying to gain clarity and understanding of what God has revealed in His Word, many are content to settle at the very lowest common denominator of their faith, the Gospel. Don’t misunderstand me; nothing is more important or central to Christianity than the Gospel, nothing. And while it should be the sturdy common ground on which, say Lutherans and Baptists alike are unified, it can not be all that is important to us!

It is true that doctrine divides. That is its intent. Christians are not ultimately distinct from this world because of our deeds. From where do our deeds originate? Are they not the result of our creeds, our beliefs? We think differently; we believe differently. And while it is true, biblical doctrine can be unnecessarily divisive within the visible Church, that is a risk we must take. Consider the alternative.

Are we willing to call off our search for biblical understanding or stop short of theological clarity, because we might discover something that someone else is either offended by or disagrees with? If so, we have to ask, who are we most concerned with being in a relationship with, God or man? Andwho are we most concerned with pleasing, God or man? We do not have the luxury of deciding for ourselves which parts of God’s revelation we will care deeply about based on how it might complicate our relationships. We do not have the freedom of calling something God has spoken to us by His word a “non-essential,” because it might differentiate our worship. God is not honored by our selective submission to His Word in the name of Christian unity and peace. Too often, however, I suspect the problem is not so much that God’s Word to us lacks clarity, but that it lacks importance. The truth is there is nothing noble about intentionally reducing our concern for (and understanding of) certain parts of Scripture for fear of division. While Christianity unity is of the utmost importance, we have neither the freedom nor the luxury to embrace such reductions

When Jesus said “all,” He meant “all.”

One of the most interesting and deceptive aspects of Christian Minimalism is that it is often mistaken for being Gospel-centered. The hidden danger is its over-emphasis on the historical Gospel narratives and the “red-letter” words of Jesus to the neglect, if not the utter exclusion, of the Old Testament Scriptures as well as everything recorded beyond Acts in the New Testament. In this way, Christian Minimalism is so “Gospel-centered” that it is unbiblical. This minimization offers the Christian the opportunity to loosen up on many of the details of God’s revelation that tend to divide, such as the Old Testament law, the holiness of God, sovereign election, the role of men in the church and the home, the work of the Holy Spirit, church discipline, etc.

There is an irony in Christian Minimalism that seems to escape its adherents. You can’t be a true Gospel-centered follower of Jesus without caring deeply about every letter of Scripture, both Old and New Testament. Consider Jesus’ words in what we call The Great Commission…

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age. 

–Matthew 28:19-20

Based on this text, as Gospel-centered Jesus followers, we are expected to know “all” that Jesus commanded His disciples in order that we would teach new disciples “all” that Jesus commanded them. So these commandments…are they limited to the red-letters found in the first books of the New Testament? Notice what the first Christians were studying…

And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching… 

–Acts 2:42

It was clear to the first church that Jesus had authenticated the ministry of His first disciples, the Apostles. Subsequently, it was also clear to the first church that these men wrote with divine authority. As a result, everything in our Bible written after Christ’s ascension, by nature of being written by or under the supervision of an Apostle, is part of the “all” that Jesus refers to in His commission. Therefore, the writings of Paul, Jude, John, and whoever wrote Hebrews, are just as authoritative and worthy of our devotion as the Gospels themselves.

Not only that, but all of the Old Testament is worthy of our most sincere interest and deepest submission as Gospel-centered Jesus followers. To many Christians, the Old Testament is seen as theological clutter, non-essential and of secondary important to their Christian life. Sadly, the irony continues for them when confronted with what Jesus believed about the Old Testament…

And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, He explained to them what was written in all the Scriptures about Himself.

–Luke 24:27

You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me.

–John 5:39

For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me.

–John 5:46

The reality is, the Old Testament, from creation to the fall, Jonah to the exile, and everything in between is nothing less than theological gold. It is gold for a couple of reasons, first of all, because of what is reveals to us. The Old Testament powerfully and profoundly teaches us about the nature of God and His promise to redeem a people to Himself for His glory. It also presents a profound revelation of Christ that, through the lens of the New Testament, is unfolding in fantastic detail, revealing the many symbols and shadows of our prophesied savior. There is a great depth of understanding and amazement offered to the Christian who sees Jesus in the Hebrew Scriptures.

Secondly, the Old Testament is theological gold, because it is (still) intended to teach us how to live. It is relevant. This is where ignorance leads to incidental antinomianism (lawlessness). Some Christians wrongly think that, because Christ “fulfilled the law” they are no longer required to obey it, or that it’s not a big deal if they don’t. Christ has been misunderstood. We are simply freed from having to perfectly obey the law in order to be saved. In fact, Christians who love Jesus (which are all Christians) will desire to obey the law, and the law will no longer be a burden. The point is the moral law at no point became irrelevant to new covenant Christians. Also, while we may not live in the theocracy of Israel, its civil and levitical laws should be invaluable to us not only for how they reveal God to us but also informs how we live and worship in a significant way.

So, what do you think? Are you a Christian Minimalist?

  • How much do you desire understanding?
    • Are you more committed to peace and unity with other people than the truth of God’s Word?
    • Do you find that you are quicker to soften your belief of a particular doctrine than you are to defend it, if someone disagrees?
    • Are you discouraged to study the Bible, because you fear that your knowledge might lead to either pride or more disagreements? 
  • What do you believe about the Bible?
    • Do you sincerely believe that only the historical narrative of the Gospel is really important when compared to the whole of the Bible?
    • Do you believe every word in your copy of Scripture is inspired by God?
    • Do you believe every portion of scripture is just authoritative as the others?

Every word in Scripture, every letter according to Jesus, is God’s Word. Therefore, we should show all of Scripture the same level of devotion, as Gospel-centered followers of Jesus, who is the Word.

[Guest Post by Chad Bailey]
[This post first appeared at Doctrine Matters]