The Christmas season is a bit drawn out for us here, and in general, the holiday season is seen as continuing through Jan. 14th. Therefore we get to talk about Christmas for longer than you might. I like that.
Christmas is usually a time of warm and reassuring messages from churches across the land reminding us of how Eternal God became mortal man out of love for His creation and the desire to finally restore the fellowship which had been lost in Eden. That is the emphasis here in our little church as well, at least to a large extent. However, I have been wryly amused and quite disenchanted to hear The Fear Factor creeping into messages at church even during the holiday season.
"The Fear Factor" is what I’ve called the emphasis that is so thoroughly insinuated into the teaching and practice of the church here. That is, there are an abundance of veiled or open threats, reminders of potential punishment and urging to live in fear of God. This is presented as THE normal motivation for living in fellowship with God and leading a godly life. This is so prevalent that I often am unsettled, disquieted and just frustrated for hours after church meetings.
For example, an excerpt from an average Sunday morning service: “The Law of Moses didn’t bring anything to perfection, but then Jesus was born and now we can fulfill the Law with His help. ...We will only be blessed by God if we are constantly abiding in His commandments, like Israel when they were first given the Law. We must fulfill His Law worthily so as to be able to enter those heavenly dwellings He has prepared for us.”
Sound a bit confused? It is. This church is. What the Apostle Paul called “the Ministry of Condemnation that brings Death” is held up as the standard to strive for, the fulfilling of which brings blessings and at least some hope that a believer will actually make it to heaven.
“All who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: 'Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.'” (Paul the Apostle)
So what does this 'Fear Factor' look like?
(That is, aside from the foundational ideas of “Be Afraid, be Very Afraid,” and “Fulfill the Law in any way that is defined or be Punished here and eternally...”)
Some tendencies or local manifestations of The Fear Factor:
-There is an overarching motivation, especially among our church leadership of trying to avoid ‘spiritual responsibility’ so as not to be punished by God for some slight misstep.
-This is often related to avoiding ‘getting blood on our hands’ in any way.
For example: Not giving the communion cup to church members who we ‘know have sin in their lives,’ so as not to be 'partakers in their sins' and be punished for that by God. (Communion here has been literally called ‘the Scary-Good Commandment, by which we prove our worthiness not to be judged with this world.’)
-Along the same lines, when greetings from other churches/individuals are verbally passed along to our church on Sundays, we must warn the church not to say “We accept the greetings” if the person who conveyed them happens to be under church discipline or has sin in their life. If we say “I greet you,” or “We accept the greetings” from such a person, we become 'partakers of their sin' and expose ourselves to the judgement and punishment of God. (...Magic words, anyone?)
It's like walking a tightrope...
This is a quote I found in a slightly different context – but it could've been written down verbatim from one of the church leaders here:
“There is no more frightening reality in the life of any Christian than the reality of being held responsible for the souls of others. That we, by our negligence, can be guilty of a kind of spiritual homicide - that our hands can be stained with blood because of indifference... what an awesome truth!”
I could literally go on for pages, but maybe I’ve made my point? The thing is, the overall message of the New Testament seems to be pretty much the opposite of what I hear every Sunday. Sometimes I wonder if we’re reading the same book. (I won’t even bring up being on the same page.)
The New Testament letters to Christians speak eloquently and insistently on the themes of Christ Himself and God’s promises to us in Christ being THE Foundation of our Christian life. To make fear of punishment (temporal, physical, spiritual and eternal) the foundational and overwhelming motivation in and for the Christian life is quite simply to make our ‘Christianity’ an absurd and appalling travesty of what God intended to be a display of the riches of His grace to us in Christ Jesus.
“In love God the Father predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will - to the praise of his glorious GRACE, which he has freely given us in the One he loves!” Eph.1:4-6
I simply cannot find this God of love and grace who was revealed through Jesus Christ amongst all the fear. At church leader's meetings, I often end up biting my tongue more than actually contributing to discussions - because we may be speaking the same language in one sense, but theologically, we're on different planets. As I lead youth meetings and preach and teach I find myself repeating the same themes over and over and over:
God's undeserved goodness to us in Christ Jesus is THE total of our hope - both for regeneration AND for sanctification. Fear was never meant to be the main motivation for either, but the Love of God and his Grace.
“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.” 1Jn. 4:18
...to be continued.
(ps. all pictures from random internet image searches - not my own, unfortunately.)