“[God], I can’t tell if I’m being insubordinate in exploring these thoughts or if I need courage to go farther. I feel that I may be falling away from my faith. But then again, if I hold back from honestly pursuing the truth, wouldn’t that be pulling away from you—even worse?” – Dan in Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christian
When you begin to break away from your family or tribe’s traditions, it can feel like falling away. When you have been taught that what you believe is “the truth” and that there is no room for negotiation, it can be difficult to go where you feel you are being led by the Spirit, even if you can put words to why you are going the way you are.
My journey from legalism to freedom has been fraught with guilt and insecurity. This is what legalism and pattern theology does. It’s a voice that never goes away totally, even once you learn it is there. At least, it hasn’t disappeared for me.
But these same things have happened to every person who has moved beyond the traditions of their fathers.
Remember Jesus and His disciples.
One day they were picking heads of grain on the Sabbath. The Pharisees said, “Look, Your disciples do what is not lawful to do on a Sabbath” (Matthew 12:1-2). Someone may tell us that the way we do things isn’t “lawful,” “scriptural,” “biblical,” or “according to the pattern.” They may be called “innovations” or some other term. These phrases trigger feelings of guilt and can cause us to second guess what we are doing.
Jesus responded by giving a couple of examples from the Old Testament where someone did something that wasn’t “scriptural” in the strictest sense but was still accepted by God. He then said, “But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire compassion, and not a sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent” (Matthew 12:7).
Jesus sets a precedent here for an important way of approaching Scripture. The question isn’t “Strictly speaking, what does the Bible say?” Going off of that, the disciples would have been in trouble.
Instead, the question is more along the lines of “what does this passage do” or maybe even “what is the spirit of this law or text?”
Take, for example, Proverbs 26, “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, Or you will also be like him. Answer a fool as his folly deserves, That he not be wise in his own eyes.” (Proverbs 26:4–5). If you are looking for a black and white answer here, you won’t find it. Instead, you have to use wisdom in the situation you are in to determine what is best in that specific situation. And if that is true for two passages next to each other, how much more careful should we be when dealing with two passages that are chapters or even books apart?
The purpose of the Sabbath was to remind them where they came from and who God is. It was a law to live by, not die by. Mercy takes priority over sacrifice.
This interaction between Jesus and the Pharisees teaches us a few things: (1) pursuing truth may not only feel like falling away to us, it might also look like it to other people – people we care a lot about, (2) people who emphasize sacrifice over mercy may use words and phrases like “unscriptural” or “not biblical,” so we should be prepared for that, and (3) Jesus didn’t read His Bible in the same way that these sorts of people do anyways, so why should we?
Moses was warned to make the tabernacle according to a pattern (Hebrews 8:5). When God gives a command like that, He doesn’t leave anything up to human reasoning. He went point by point and spent several books of the Old Testament saying exactly what He wanted down to the smallest detail.
The New Testament operates in no such way. The New Testament wasn’t delivered all at once on a mountain to establish a pattern. It was revealed piece by piece over several years to people in cities that were hundreds of miles away from each other.
Jesus said that His yoke is easy to bear, but apparently less than 2,000,000 people in the whole world are able to find the pattern. Unlike with Moses, God has not given us a step by step pattern that we are to follow in the worship assembly. People who propose one take passages that were written years and miles apart, and then they kick anyone out who disagrees.
But when you know the arguments better than anyone else, can quote all of the relevant texts, and are accustomed to a certain way, leaving that behind can feel like falling away. You will be ridiculed and you may even ridicule yourself, but keep your head up. The same thing happened to Jesus and His disciples. They were thought of as just a sect, a problem that would eventually go away and die out, but they kept going where Jesus led, and we must continue to follow in His footsteps.
This may lead us into the grain fields on the Sabbath. It may cause us to leave our sacrifice at the alter to go and make amends. Jesus may lead us into the houses and tables of the outcasts. He may just lead us to a cross.
But wherever He goes, we should go. Wherever He lodges, we should lodge. Because the least of these, His people, are our people and His God, the One who He reveals, is our God. We may be rejected by our old tribes. We may “fall away” from our old, immature faith. But as Dan reasoned in the introductory quote, holding back from pursuing truth would be pulling away from God, which would be even worse.