The burden of knowledge

My wife and I have rediscovered Scrubs on Amazon Fire. We haven’t watched it for a while – probably since the days it was endlessly repeated on Channel 4 – so it’s good to reacquaint ourselves. It doesn’t take a lot of effort.

As we were watching one episode, the following clip came up that put me in mind of two types of people we see in the church.

The first type of person is the prodigal who has returned to the Lord. My friend, Natalie Vellacott, has done an excellent job of summing up her experience as somebody who went away from the Lord. You can read her post here.

I have seen a tendency in some such people to lean toward a pharisaism. Many are sensible enough to recognise that there are principles of wisdom that, given their former waywardness, are important for them that in no way need to bind the consciences of others. But there are always some who consider those principles of wisdom that work for them something approximating a command from the Lord himself.

The issue is that they’ve seen too much. They suffer from the burden of knowledge. They know how far things can go and so they become ultra-protective. Because they see the depths to which sin can take us, they begin erecting fences around their self-imposed fences and are adamant that this is the way to keep everybody else from sin too. There is a rightness to that desire to keep away from sin; you have to admire the desire to honour the Lord. But it is not good to bind the conscience of others where the Lord doesn’t, it is tantamount to blasphemy, or is it false prophecy? Either way, it’s insisting the Lord has said things he hasn’t.

The other type of person is the pastor. There are some pastors who have seen the very worst side of the church. They have seen churches collapse, people spread strife and division throughout the church and have faced some of the worst kind of destructive criticism. Such experiences can have the knock-on consequence of causing pastors to either become so controlling for fear of what will happen if they let go or paralyse them so that they can’t lead because they fear what will happen if they make unpopular decisions.

Again, they suffer from the burden of knowledge. They have seen how churches can go down in a ball of flames and how one unpopular decision can lead to years of strife. It often leads to mistrust of church members and an unwillingness to relinquish any aspect of church life or some sort of paralysis that simply means they can’t make a decision and lead the church anywhere.

In both cases, if these two kinds of people can’t get a handle on their burden of knowledge, as the clip said, it will crush them. Both types of people will cause major problems for their churches. The former prodigal will end up binding the consciences of others and winding themselves up as they feel nobody loves the Lord as they ought. The fearful pastor will end up either burning out as he refuses to relinquish control and lead a stagnating church as capacity cannot expand because nobody is to be trusted or the pastor is simply too fearful to do anything. In both cases, the knowledge needs to be kept in check. We need to let scripture be the only thing that states ‘thus says the Lord’ while allowing that knowledge of catastrophe to flag to us if our church is genuinely heading in that direction.