Monday, July 10, 2006

Scot McKnight's Zealotry Series

A few notes on Scot McKnight's fabulous series, "Zealotry," and the comments he's been getting about it.

What McKnight means by Zealotry is doing what ancient Rabbis called, "building a fence around the Torah"--i.e., creating man-made laws that codify and quantify God's Law. The ostensible purpose is to prevent people from getting close enough to the edge to actually sin; the real motivations are fear and control: fear of the consequences of allowing varying understandings of "how far is too far," control over others to achieve uniformity. Underlying all this is the desire for immunity from criticism: if I am willing to restrict myself beyond what God requires, then I cannot be criticized. I can, however, judge those who are unwilling to go as far as I am in zealousness for the Law.

Some people commenting on Jesus Creed are misunderstanding McKnight's terminology: he's using "zealotry" (I believe) as a means of getting past our knee-jerk reactions to more famiar terms like "legalism." (He distinguishes the two by stating that fence-building--the central component to zealotry--plus judgmentalism equals legalism, but also states that he's never seen a fence-builder who wasn't judgmental or a judgmental person who wasn't a fence-builder, so the distinction doesn't seem to mean much.) In McKnight's terms, "zeal" is generally a good thing, "zealotry" is a bad thing.

Others seem concerned that provision be made for "personal fence-building." In other words, is it wrong for me to choose a more restrictive lifestyle out of concern for my own weakness? It seems to me that we need to deal with the fact that the same Holy Spirit inspired (and the same Paul wrote!) both 1 Corinthians 9:19-22, in which Paul makes clear that he has the freedom to live like a Gentile and to live like a Jew, to live as though under Torah or to live as free from Torah, to live as weak (even though he does not count himself among the weak), in order to win others to Christ; and Galatians 3:10-14, in which Paul makes clear that relying on the law leaves one under a curse, that justification is by faith, and that it is by faith and not by keeping the law that we are justified. Not to mention Romans 14, which is totally devoted to the issue of different Christians having differing convictions, the general upshot being that we need to allow one another to have differing convictions. In other words, Scripture allows for us to choose either a more or less restrictive lifestyle for various reasons. What it doesn't allow us to do is to imagine that a more restrictive lifestyle makes us more acceptable to God, or to impose that more restrictive lifestyle on others. Colossians 2:23 makes it clear that man-made regulations "have an appearance of wisdom," but "lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence."

What excites me about all of this is that it reminds me of where I was as a young man, just discovering for myself the truths of God's grace. I recall the excitement and joy I had in recognizing true freedom in Christ, and wanting to share this with everyone. I've lost that along the way, partly out of disappointment at seeing many who spouted anti-legalistic jargon simply using it to justify immorality. But trying to live the Christian life as simply another Law misses the point of life in Christ entirely. Paul says, "Live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature" (Galatians 5:16). The more "in the Spirit" we are, the less we will want to do things that are sinful and destructive to ourselves and others. Neither will we want to construct a new Law for ourselves and for others. We will simply be motivated to do what we can do for our Lord and for His Kingdom. Focusing on what is positive automatically helps us to avoid what is negative.

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