In conversations between believers, at some point you are likely to hear about the need to be faithful. By faithfulness, what is normally meant is faithfulness to what we believe the Lord Jesus says. The faithful Christian, then, is the one who seeks to stand in line with what the Lord Jesus teaches.
But questions of faithfulness are almost never held in a vacuum. There is usually some looming issue over which believers are being called to be faithful. It could be major first order issues, it could be secondary matters that don’t put us outside the kingdom but make it hard to be in the same church, it might be something else altogether. I don’t want to talk about any given issue here.
The question I am interested in here is why faithfulness matters. Isn’t it okay to flex a bit when these questions come up? Yes, I may think Jesus says something, but isn’t it alright for me to set it aside in this case because of the particular people in front of me? Isn’t it better to have them in the church and able to be taught and under the sound of the gospel – even as they disagree with chunks of it – or inside the church despite them departing from something the church thinks Jesus definitely teaches? Can’t we just set these things aside and all get along?
I think the basic issue is this: if Jesus teaches something in his Word, I don’t think we have any right ignoring it. If Jesus says something is to be this way, we don’t have any right to do it another way. If Jesus says something should be so, we have no business simply setting it aside.
Of course, there are times in scripture where direct commands of God are necessarily broken and this is acceptable to God. One obvious example would be the priests working in the temple on the sabbath. But, of course, we know that this is an acceptable breaking of that law because, when we look at God’s Word, God himself specifically appointed them to that task and commanded them, and them only, to break it. That is to say, the command no longer held because God specifically said it did not hold in that case. Other examples of this kind of thing can be found in scripture too.
But that is necessarily different to me simply deciding to set aside something God has commanded. If I think God tells believers not to marry unbelievers, I don’t think I have any right to set that aside because two people who I really like show up and wish to be married together. Much as I may want to say yes, much as I may want to please my friends, in the end, I don’t have the right to set aside something Jesus has expressly said not to do and for which he has not given me any instances where he has said we can overlook it. To do what I think God has said not to do in that instance – no matter how kind I think I am being to the couple in question – is to be unfaithful. I am doing what I do not think God wants me to do.
The issue here is that is comes down to sin. I think it is an act of sin to not do what I think Jesus tells us we ought to do. It is sinful to do what God has expressly told us not to do and to not do what God has expressly told us to do. And purposefully and wilfully continuing to do what we believe God does not want us to do is a matter of unfaithfulness. It is sinful.
This matters for a number of reasons. First, and most significantly for us on a personal level, is that wilful unfaithfulness is a problem for our spiritual state. Whilst we all sin, and will continue to sin until glory, to knowingly and wilfully continue doing what we do not believe Jesus wants us to do is a sign that we are not really repentant. If we have not repented of our sin, we have not really trusted in Jesus. If we have not really trusted in Jesus, then we are not really saved. To continue doing what we believe Jesus does not want done knowingly, without concern, is seriously problematic so far as our own standing before God goes.
Second, it matters for us as churches. If we are not standing on the Word of God, what exactly are we standing on? Either our own thoughts, the strength of our tradition or perhaps the wider views of the culture we’re in. But none of these things are particular unique. These are things people can get outside the church. More to the point, there is no particular reason to consider our thoughts, our culture, our tradition any better or more right than any other. In the end, if we are not faithful to God’s Word as we understand it, what have we really got at all? We have nothing to offer anybody that they can’t find in any other number of places.
Incidentally, it is for this reason that I do not find different denominations or churches to be a problem. It seems to me they are examples of believers seeking to do exactly what believers ought to do; namely, be faithful to Christ and his Word as they understand it. If they are convinced the Bible teaches Presbyterian, Episcopalian or Congregational forms of government, these kinds of church have come to exist because their people wanted to be faithful to what the Bible says. I think this is entirely right and proper. It is in nobody’s interest to force churches or individuals to go against their conscience and force them into churches that do and practice what they are clear should not be done or practised. This is good for nobody and necessarily forces somebody into what they believe to be sin.
Third, it matters for our witness to the world. What do we want people to think churches stand for? If we want people to simply think us “nice” people who are “welcoming” to all, then of course, the appropriate thing to do would be to have no lines at all. You don’t even have to be a Christian, just come on in and join the church. You can live in open and unrepentant sin, but we just want to be nice and welcoming, so in you come. That is a choice certain churches have made. It is a choice that has, largely, seen them head on a downward trajectory to both irrelevance and extinction.
Genuine believers in Jesus want to be faithful to him. We typically want to be known as people of God’s Word. We, therefore, want to do what Jesus asks us to do in his Word as far as we possibly can, even if that sometimes mean saying ‘no’ to certain people who may want us to marry them or bless particular things that we do not think the Lord has much interest in blessing. It means we want to run our churches in line with what we think God’s Word teaches and do not want to set those things aside without some clear evidence in the Word that is what the Lord would have us do. This is the only relevant thing we have to offer the world. Though it may be easier at times, or so it seems, to offer people what God expressly does not want us to offer them, in the end standing on God’s Word is the right and kind thing to do.
We will not create faithful believers by diverting from God’s Word. We will not encourage anyone to believe that we view God’s Word as ultimately important if we blithely set it aside when it suits us. We will not be growing ourselves if we feel free to set aside God’s Word whenever we will. If we are standing on God’s Word, we aren’t faithful. If we aren’t standing on God’s Word, what have we really got of any value?