There seems to be a cognitive disconnect in the Adventist Church. Maybe it exists in other churches too. I think most denominations would agree that the process of sanctification (or whatever word the denomination has for gaining knowledge of Christ and how He wants us to live) is an individual process. We don’t get saved in groups. Each of us will be judged by the Father individually, with Christ as our Advocate. But if this is true it leads to a question. Why is it that so many of us insist that everyone, within the church and without, live by the standards that we have established for ourselves?
The Bible seems to have a lot of evidence that supports the idea that God will require each of us to do different things at different times in our lives, and that we will not all necessarily do the same thing in order to be in accordance with God’s will. For example, in Matt 8:18-22, Jesus responds differently to two potential disciples in seemingly the same position. A scribe says he wants to follow Jesus, and Jesus seems to discourage the scribe by telling him how difficult it will be. The second also wants to follow, but wants to bury his father first. Jesus is quick to tell him to drop everything and follow Him. Why doesn’t Jesus tell the scribe to drop everything? Why does he not talk to the other about how hard it is to follow Him? I submit that regardless of the reasons, Jesus treats them differently because they’re different. (Truism alert!) They each needed to hear different things, would respond to different stimuli. Jesus told some people to follow Him, and told others to stay where they were. There were different standards for different people and there is nothing wrong with that.
Paul gives an implicit example of this same point in Rom 2:13-16. Paul defends those who keep the law without any direct knowledge of it. These people are keeping the law because God is working with each of these people and guiding them to right behavior. This in itself is proof that God will be working with individuals separately to bring them to a knowledge of the truth (and that he does not even really need the church to do it.) Paul supports this point in Rom 14:5-6, and goes even further by implying that doing the “right” thing from an unconvinced heart is problematic. I’m reminded of one of my Dad’s favorite sayings – “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.” Someone should not be living a certain lifestyle simply because other Christians are doing it. Neither should the Christian refrain from what they believe is the right way to live simply because no other Christian is doing it. The point is that the road of sanctification is your road, and you should do what the Lord has asked of you.
But we still have not answered the question of why the cognitive disconnect exists and why we tend to pressure people to live by our own standards. I think some of the answers come from the realm of social psychology. In 1950 Leon Festinger gave two reasons for member pressure within a group – social reality and locomotion. Social reality means that members of a group look for consensus in the group to validate their beliefs that are not anchored in reality. It is easy to see how this would apply to religion. Religion is all about faith and proving things that we cannot anchor in any tangible reality. The principle of group locomotion posits that consensus is needed in the group to propel them to whatever goals the group has set. Once again, the connection to religion is easy to see. The church has at least a clearly stated goal. The members are all people who love Christ, want to do His will, and want to be saved in Heaven. How can we all reach that goal if we can’t agree on how to get there? In both of these principles we see that group consensus is important. Festinger believed that group consensus had two benefits for members. Consensus allows each member of the group to say, “I was right to think this because everyone else in the group thinks this (confirmation of opinion), and thinking this must be right because everyone else thinks it (the appearance of correctness). There is a subjective element where we convince ourselves of our rightness, and a move to the objective in terms of the standard of truth which is based on the group consensus.
The presence of outliers, however, destroys this dynamic. If an outlier does not agree with the consensus, he/she can cause doubt in the other members of the group, which has the potential to fracture the group itself. People begin to think, “Maybe I’m not right to think this, and maybe all these other people are wrong, if Jason thinks it’s OK to buy food on the Sabbath… or if Jason thinks it’s OK to wear his wedding ring… or if Jason thinks it’s OK for women to be ordained.” So we put pressure to conform on the outliers of our group because we are seeking to protect ourselves from our own doubt, not necessarily because we are concerned with the salvation of others.
The problem with that external pressuring of outliers is that there is a lot of biblical evidence to suggest that we should not be overly concerned with the appearance of other people’s salvation. First, God tell us in 1 Sam 16:7 that only God knows the heart, and that we are misguided to trust the outward appearance. Jesus addresses this issue more directly in Matt 7:1-5, when He warns us not to judge and that we should be more concerned with removing the beams from our own eyes before we are concerned about removing the motes from the eyes of others. Peter calls for us in 2 Pet. 1:5-10 to make your calling and election sure, not someone else’s. Sometimes we are so busy walking other people’s paths of sanctification that we forget to walk our own.
But here’s the great part – God tell us exactly what He wants from us. Micah 6:8 says, “He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?” If each of us were to act justly towards others, love to extend mercy to others, and focus on walking humbly with God in the way that He has given to each of to walk, I think we’ll all be OK in the end.
Jason Hines is an attorney with a doctorate in Religion, Politics, and Society from the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University. He is also an assistant professor at Adventist University of Health Sciences. He blogs about religious liberty and other issues atwww.TheHinesight.Blogspot.com.
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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/7339