Church Planting Lesson #9: Walking the Line


I wrote this article some time ago. It is, I think, about what it means to live out our faith in the tension. Typically, we’re more apt to live out our faith with ease resulting in either in liberal indulgence or legalism. We are supposed to walk the line between self-indulgence and self-righteousness…it’s called self-denial…a life like Jesus. But self-denial is much more than just depriving yourself of pleasure or some comfort in the name of “sacrifice”. Jesus said we must deny ourselves AND take up the cross. Self-denial is a life in pursuit of the glory of God in all things as opposed to my own glory (which is my default mode). If everything is about God’s glory, we will end up doing things are are difficult, intellectually offensive, emotionally uncomfortable, but ultimately satisfying.

Helen Keller once said the ‘the highest result of education is tolerance.’ I respectfully disagree. I would be more apt to agree with Ernest Hemingway who said the purpose of education was, “To develop a good crap detector.” Of course, Ms. Keller most assuredly sought to encourage the positive aspects of tolerance: the spirit of open-mindedness that respects difference without necessarily affirming or celebrating all of them. Unfortunately, respect of differences is not enough in today’s world. The world charges us to new vision of tolerance. The neo-tolerance movement, perpetuated by television talking heads and bloggers in their pajamas, demand that we not only recognize every so called ‘group’, but that we embrace their identity and ideology as equally worthy of recognition, equally valuable, and equally true. Today’s tolerance expects that we reserve judgment, withhold debate, and accept without criticism. Today, tolerance is a word-weapon, used to attack anyone brave enough to declare something right, wrong, good bad, or “absolutely” anything. Tragically, our pursuit of universal affirmation driven by misguided sensitivities has left us with a world where “anything goes” and everything is meaningless.

All of this, of course, is not a surprise. Anyone can hear about the moral failings of our culture from many a Christian book, article, or pulpit. Today’s Evangelical Church cannot escape the changing culture. Existing and living within the culture, the church can’t help but be influenced by these evolving definitions. The church typically responds to the new tolerance in one of two ways: 1) separate from the culture all in the name of Jesus-judging intolerance or, 2) immerse themselves into the culture all in the name of Jesus-loving tolerance. Both of the groups remain tolerant and intolerant at the same time. One group rightfully won’t tolerate self-indulgence as they sinfully tolerate their own self-righteousness. The other group rightfully refuses to become self-righteous as they tolerate their own sinful compromises. This attitude then begins to negatively shape not only their engagement with the world, but their own relationship with God—they become people of extremes.

We enjoy being people of extremes because it makes life easier. Indulgence or abstinence. Law or Lawlessness. All or nothing. We do everything we can to avoid the tension that wisdom and discernment require because we’re afraid. Having laws, rules, and lists means we can have formulas and rubrics to help us make decision—I am not required to think because someone else has done that for me. Having no laws, rules, or formulas is just as alluring. Having no rules means we have nothing or no one to hold us accountable—we cannot make mistakes—there is nothing wrong, nothing sinful, everything goes. It is easy to tolerate or be intolerant of everything. It is extremely difficult, deeply personal, and tiring to expend energy to discern what is right, wrong, good, bad, in the moment. Dare I suggest that we become a bit less tolerant of “extreme living” and more tolerant of the tension that relationship brings?

Consider what it means to tolerate tension:

Our approach to Self and Sin: Living in the tension between tolerance and intolerance requires that sin becomes more than a list of things that I do not do. Sin becomes a disease that impacts every part of my soul. Sin can take that which is good and pervert it to a dark end. In addition to seeing the sins I commit when I “hate”, I begin to see the sins focus only on the sins I omit when I don’t “love.” Sin is not longer just a bruise I can heal from, it is a cancer that will kill me without a savior.

Our approach to Others: When I cease to view myself with eyes of tolerance, or intolerance, I begin to see the sins of others differently. I refuse to separate myself from people who I once thought had a sin “disease’ that I could catch. I also refuse to compromise and affirm every behavior, lifestyle, or ideology in the world. I view sinful behavior as destructive and the people practicing it in need of love. I tolerate their sin, not because I am self-righteous, but because I recognize how much God has tolerated me.

Our approach to Scripture: I no longer read the Bible like a legalist or a liberal. I no longer approach God’s Word looking for the one verse to justify my intolerance. I also don’t approach Scripture as if culture is the authority, where everything is open to interpretation and re-interpretation as I look for something affirm my experience. I approach God’s Word less looking for what I want from God and more as a vehicle for learning what God wants from me. Scripture becomes less of a tool for others and more of a crucible for me.

Our approach to God: Finally, living in the tension between tolerance and intolerance transforms my relationship with God. God no longer serves as a divine vending machine to get what I want when I want it. He becomes the Father who guides with wisdom, the Husband who loves with care, the brother who walks in strength. By avoid the extremes and living in the tension, I must spend more time with God, talking with and learning from him, that I might discern what is the right decision to make among the hundreds of decisions I make everyday. I ask less what is the right or wrong in every moment and more of what is most glorifying to Jesus in this moment.

We must fight the temptation to go back to Genesis 3 where we want to know everything; where we must have all the answers; a place where we refuse to sit in the tension that trust in God. My prayer is that we will fight those sinful tendencies to fall into legalism or liberalism. I believe that God wants us not in a place of self-righteous proof-texting or self-indulgent ambiguity, rather, he wants us in a place of self-denial where, because we know we are accepted, we are desperate to know him more.


Author: Sam Ford

Sam Ford is a preacher, planter, and pastor from the Pacific Northwest. He is currently pastoring Restoration Road Church in Snohomish, WA.

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