Many of us know the Indian proverb of the blind men and the elephant.
Several blind men come across elephant, something they’re never encountered before. Each blind man touches a different part of the elephant’s body, and concludes, based on his limited experience, what the elephant really is. The moral of the story, of course, is that we must be careful of seeing partial knowledge as complete knowledge.
The same is true when it comes to our walk with Christ. Often we substitute for the whole of Christian discipleship just those parts we like or find easy.
Pious people may maximize the corporate worship of the Church and underemphasize one’s social responsibility to the genuine needs of others. Intellectual people may spend hours a week studying Scripture and books of theology but seldom stop to pray. Socially-concerned people may think that all that matters is doing good to others and getting enacted what they believe to be better legislation, but infrequently read the Bible or attend corporate worship.
The key is, it’s often not either / or but rather both / and. Look at a few Scriptures that illustrate my point. First, from the Old Testament:
I hate, I despise your feasts; and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. (Amos 5:21)
Your burnt offerings are not acceptable, nor your sacrifices pleasing to me. (Jeremiah 6:20b)
… incense is detestable to me. New moons and Sabbath and the calling of assemblies — I cannot endure … (Isaiah 1:13)
Is God saying that various kinds of worship gatherings are unnecessary or even wrong? Is He saying the use of incense and the observance of the Sabbath are pagan customs not to be done by His people?
I have heard some people argue that way:
“What’s important is helping people in need, building homes for Habitat for Humanity, and working to pass ‘progressive legislation’ so needy citizens will be helped. That’s what is meaningful to God, not religious observances.”
But that’s not the whole story. What God is against in those verses listed above is hypocrisy, of projecting a religious veneer of godliness while lying, stealing, and cheating the poor. That’s what God is against. “Repent of your sins,” God is saying. “Live a genuinely caring life, and then perform the religious duties I established.”
We see this illustrated in one of David’s greatest psalms, the fifty-first. David had committed adultery with Bathsheba and arranged to have Uriah, her husband killed in battle. Nathan the prophet confronted David and David admitted his sin (read 2 Samuel, chapter 11). He acknowledged for himself the truths the Old Testament prophets revealed: God does not like religious observances done hypocritically. Psalm 51 is his confession to God.
For thou hast no delight in sacrifice; were I to give a burnt offering, thou wouldst not be pleased. (verse 16)
What David did next was to repent:
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise. (verse 17)
But lest we think God never likes religious sacrifices and only likes a repentant spirit, David ends his psalm thus:
Then wilt thou delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings; then bulls will be offered on thy altar. (verse 19)
Jesus’ sacrificial death made atonement of our sin, making animal sacrifices no longer necessary. But the lesson from the Old Testament is still valid for us. God does not like hypocritical worship. Repent. Then offer the things of worship.
We see the same principle at work in Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisees.
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith … (Matthew 23:23)
Did Jesus say the tithing of herbs and seeds of the garden was unnecessary, that what religion was really all about was social justice and compassion? Not at all. Just listen to what He said next:
… these [justice, mercy and faith] you ought to have done, without neglecting the other.
It’s both / and. Both justice-mercy-faith and also tithing on the smallest thing. Both. On another occasion, Jesus taught:
So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift …; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. (Matthew 5:23-24)
Again, it’s both / and. Both reconciliation with someone with whom you are estranged and an offering made in Church.
Christians who are concerned only about the pious activities of worship, tithing, and prayer, but not about repenting of various sins — individual and social — are disobedient to God. They also give the Christian faith a bad name with non-believers Christ hopes to save.
But what some have called a “religion-less Christianity” — solely an emphasis on interpersonal relationships and social concern but without regular performance of what we might call “churchy” acts of piety — also falls far short. +