Let him begin by treating the Patriotism or the Pacifism as a part of his religion.
Then let him,
under the influence of partisan spirit,
come to regard it as the most important part. (The Screwtape Letters)
C.S. Lewis points out in his intriguingly disturbing book, The Screwtape Letters, how easily neutral beliefs can be integrated into our faith. Patriotism and pacifism aren't the only examples where this happens. Well-meaning Christians can easily fall into the trap of allowing personal beliefs – other than God's Word – to become an absolute truth that they think is essential to being a Christian.
These can be anything from politics to our favourite church traditions. These things aren't necessarily good or bad. Each of them can have a moral element to them, and each of them are important in their way. Nothing wrong about having convictions about them.
Nevertheless, if we conflate them as being part of the gospel, we are missing the point, and harming our relationship with God. We start to think that God needs to share our politics or denomination, and looking down on others who don't fit that mould. At their worst, these beliefs can even drive people away from the church for not having the "right" beliefs – beliefs that aren't part of the gospel anyway.
Here are a few beliefs that we can mistake for the gospel.
Thinking through the theology when you're choosing a denomination is important. But ultimately, whether you're baptised as a baby or as an adult isn't what gets you into heaven. If I'm getting to a point where I think my denomination is superior to all the others, and I'm looking down on everyone else, then I've got a problem.
Let's have "family discussions" about our differences, but there are many disputable matters in Christianity that fall within the bounds of Christian liberty. I keep going back to how we should be aiming to "maintain the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace" (Ephesians Chapter 4, verses 2-6).
Teachings of popular Christian figures
Billy Graham was a great man and said a lot of great things. But I think he would agree with me that his words are not on the same level as the gospel. And we can't assume that "Billy Graham said it, so it must be true".
The same goes for Tim Keller, Lee Strobel, Matt Chandler, Max Lucado, Philip Yancey, Joyce Meyer and whoever else you read. It makes me deeply uncomfortable to suggest it, because I'm by no means suggesting any of these figures aren't learned or wise. But even the most world-renowned preacher is not infallible. We need to be active listeners and make sure we're not conflating sermons with absolute truth.
I've been enriched and deepened in my faith by listening to inspiring Christians (leaders or otherwise), but no human's words are above those in the Bible. Not even those of church leaders, who can and should be held to higher accountability (James Chapter 3, verse 1).
Here, we could mean anything, from traditional social expectations of Christians to how you run your church service. But traditions are not the same as the gospel. Traditions may be meaningful and important, but their primary function should be to help people get closer to God. If they're not doing that, they're distracting from what is more important.
As Ed Stetzer said:
You can be liturgical and not get trapped in a negative expression of tradition... The problem comes in when the traditions are built, not on gospel foundations or on liturgical /theological traditions, but on cultural milieu and are then held to as if they are gospel truth.
True story: some apologetics I've read have said that we should accept this interpretation because Christians have thought this way for hundreds of years. Yikes. I'm not saying that there may not be valid reasons why this is the case. But longevity itself isn't a reason for continued existence.
Think of how the church had slid into selling indulgences and empty rituals for hundreds of years prior to the Reformation. Traditional beliefs can exist for important reasons, but just because something is traditional doesn't make it an absolute.
Political views – we all have them. Not being into politics is itself a political choice. Your politics will probably collide with your morals and faith on the regular, and debates can get heated.
But we need to make room for the reality that the Bible doesn't lean left or right. It's both, and it's neither. Those banners that yell, "Jesus was a Republican" are just a poor understanding of what Jesus was really about – not about governments, but much more than that.
Joshua asked the angel if he was for Israel or for their enemies, and the angel said, "Neither" (Joshua Chapter 5, verses 13-15). The same applies here.
There are absolutely moral issues in politics that we need to be firm on. But we also need to keep cautious that we're not integrating politics into some absolute biblical truth that we all need to agree about.
Christians from the left and the right both go to church.
Thinking about how we add beliefs to our faith, it reminds me of the passages in 1 Corinthians Chapter 3, where Paul and Apollos have inadvertently attracted their own fan clubs. We fall into tribalism so easily and end up confusing other beliefs for ultimate truth, while alienating other people who might not agree with us.
When you look at our church today, there are so many things that divide us. The real tragedy with conflating personal beliefs with our religion is that there's just another thing we're arguing over. And it's not even necessarily part of our faith.
As Jesus said,
Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. (Matthew Chapter 4, verse 4)
Let's keep listening to the words that proceed from God first.
This article was originally published in Christian Today Australia and is re-published here with permission