When Orthodoxy Becomes Idolatry

Angry priest doing a sermonA troubling pattern I have beheld over the past couple of years within the more conservative Reformed circles of evangelicalism is the slow deterioration of the relationship between truth and love. Paul stated in Ephesians 4:15:

Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ

Here we see that neither truth or love are mutually exclusive in the Christian religion; but rather are to work in harmony to promote spiritual well-being within the Body of Christ (church) and maturity of the faith. Sadly, our depravity gravitates towards one extreme or the other. We will either guard the truth with ferocity (as we should) at the expense for genuine love for others or excuse all behavior under the banner of love (which is wrong). Truth apart from love is legalism, love apart from truth leads to liberalism and both are sinful.

During His last week of earthly ministry, Jesus confronted the Pharisees in the Temple and pronounced three “woes” against them. Matthew Henry commented in the passage of Matthew 23:23-28 that a “woe from Jesus is a remediless woe.” To consider the context of the passage mentioned in Matthew, these are Jesus’ last words spoken within the walls of the Temple and it shows that the sternest rebuke of truth can come from a loving heart. To see the fullness and the balance we must have between truth and love, let us consider the words He spoke in Matthew 23:1-3 to the crowds and His disciples:

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice.

Here Jesus teaches that righteous works and conformity to righteous standards are not in themselves evil. It is not legalism to be concerned with what God teaches us to do. It is the neglect of the “weightier matters” that the Pharisees were guilty of. The existence of truth did not depend upon the existence of the cold religionists. Here Jesus points to the beauty and purity of God’s word. Sadly, many today will excuse the disregard of truth based upon their experience with those who disregard love and grace.

Sadly, the Pharisees of Jesus’ day and many that we may have rubbed shoulders with at the biblically solid conferences that vast numbers of us have attended have made an idol or orthodoxy (right belief). To the Pharisees, doing right was more important than being right. We see this truth in verses 23-24 of Matthew 23:

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!

Here we see the importance of what was taught (the balance of truth and love) by Paul in Ephesians 4 and what John teaches in 1st John 3:18 when he states, “Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.” The Pharisees would embrace doctrinal purity but at the expense of the “weightier matters” of the law. They (the Pharisees) would be careful to tithe correctly (of the smallest things), yet neglect what really mattered. This teaches you and I that truth does not exist within a vacuum; it works in dynamic with people. We have often exalted the trifles of religion and are careful to “toe the line” in the smallest of things, yet we often disregard justice, mercy, and faithfulness. It was adherence to truth apart from the ability to love that brought this woe upon them. Love for God and others was not a part of their religion; it was all about pride, greed, and selfishness. What happens when religion only touches the outer man (our actions)? Jesus answers this as well in Matthew 23:25-28:

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.

An individual who is prompted to external conformity to a standard with no regard to the internal motivation (or a wrong one) is said to be a hopeless empty tomb full of death. The neglect of justice, mercy, and faithfulness was an indication of the wickedness in their hearts and renders them repulsive to God and worthy of Christ’s woe. Their inner compunction to appear religious and righteous led to the neglect and ignorance of the necessity of being made a new creation (2nd Corinthians 5:17) by being “born again” from above (John 3:1-8).

I myself have walked the aisle of religiosity and can say that while there is some inner satisfaction of doing the right things or being right theologically, we cannot remain as such and be pleasing to our God. The times of ministerial cynicism and looking down the nose towards those who were not as advanced in theological knowledge can lead to a coldness that is akin to the Pharisees. We must remember that the knowledge we have is only ours because of the graciousness of our Lord to open our eyes and hearts to receive such wonderful truths. We have nothing to boast about and would do well to remember that though God has granted us better understanding of His wonder, we cannot sacrifice love. One can have a thorough knowledge of the doctrine of “salvation by grace alone” and forget the grace of that salvation.

What is needed? There is a great need for the objective truth of God in our post-modern times. But in the same way, there is great need for grace as well. We can never convince a person of the truth, that is the job of the Holy Spirit, but we serve as witnesses to that truth; and the graciousness of our Lord must be seen in that witness. Perhaps we have need of hearing Paul’s instruction to Timothy in our day:

Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil,  correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will. ~ 2nd Timothy 2:23-26

Are we more concerned about winning theological arguments with a lost person, or are we disturbed that their error is leading them to an eternal suffering of God’s just wrath? Correct them with “gentleness” God tells us through Paul. Don’t sacrifice truth by any means, but at the same time, speak that truth with love.

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