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Contending for the Faith while Loving One Another

Category Articles
Date October 28, 2008

The Tyranny and Necessity of Narrowness

The story is told of a Puritan who was asked, ‘Why are you so precise?’ He replied: ‘Because I follow a precise God.’ I very much like the old Puritan’s answer. The God of the Bible, the living God, is indeed a precise God. When the Lord instructed Moses to ‘erect the tent,’ he said, ‘See that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown you on the mountain’ (Hebrews 8:5). Moses was not left, even with a sanctified imagination, to devise any detail of the tent of meeting. Everything was to be done the way God had specified. There was no flexibility. It was God’s way or nothing.

In the truest sense, this was actually a liberating way. God is all-wise, all-good, all-knowing. His ways are always better than our ways. Just as little children happily put their hand into their father’s hand and allow him to lead them wherever, so the child of God happily and contentedly does the same with his/her heavenly Father. This applies supremely, of course, to the way of salvation. At the outset of his public ministry, our Lord Jesus impressed on his disciples and on the crowds the necessity of ‘narrowness’: ‘Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few’ (Matthew 7:13-14). Without ‘narrowness’, no-one will see the Lord! Our Lord Jesus Christ is not one of many, or even the supreme of many, he is ‘the way and the truth and the life (and) no-one comes to the Father except through (him)’ (John 14:6).

Narrowness is necessary. And yet, it is also true that ‘narrowness’ is tyranny. One day, Jesus’ disciples saw a man casting out demons in his (i.e. Jesus’) name. They informed Jesus that they had told him to stop ‘because he was not following us.’ Jesus immediately rebuked them, ‘Do not stop him . . . For the one who is not against us is for us.’ (Mark 9:38-41). The disciples could not see beyond themselves. ‘He was not following us.’ They had a cramped, ungenerous, restricted understanding of what constituted a true follower of the Lord. I would guess that most of us are little different to Jesus’ disciples. Too often our first thought, our inherent default position, is ‘my church, my denomination’ (even sadly, ‘my country’). Paul had to rebuke the Corinthian church severely for its selfish, party spirit (see 1 Cor.l:10-13; 3:lff).

This is not an appeal for you or me to abandon long-cherished convictions, or even denominational allegiance. It is a fact, however, an uncomfortable fact, but fact nonetheless, that our Lord Jesus Christ welcomes (not tolerates only!) all who trust him as their only Lord and Saviour. Their theology may be defective, but if they are united to him, they are his – and if they are his, then they are yours and mine. I for one do not think it is an easy thing to imitate the large-heartedness of our Saviour towards his people. Why, many of them are not even Presbyterians! Some of them are Arminians. Some are Charismatics, with a woefully defective theology. And yet, they are Christ’s. No less elected by the Father, washed in the blood of the Son, and sanctified by the Spirit (unless you think only Calvinists can be saved).

The older I get, the more our Lord Jesus’ words confront and condemn me: ‘By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another’ (John 13:35). The disciples were a microcosm of the church: headstrong, at times arrogant, thoughtless, self-righteous. And yet, they were to love one another. It was Francis Schaeffer who said that love was the ultimate apologetic.

Some things are easier to say than to do – and this is one of them. It is an enormous thing to contend for the faith and rebuke even fellow believers without un-churching them or divorcing them from the Christian family. Rabbi Duncan, the eccentric but deeply spiritual nineteenth century Free Church of Scotland minister-professor, had a personal credo: ‘I’m first a Christian, next a Catholic, then a Calvinist, fourth a Paedobaptist, and fifth a Presbyterian. I cannot reverse this order.’ Whether you agree with Rabbi Duncan or not is beside the point. Here was a man, a godly man, struggling to express in his life the necessity of narrowness and the importance of catholicity in the believer’s life. Do people know that you are Christ’s because you love his people – all of them, especially the ones who are different from you?

Ian Hamilton is Pastor of the Cambridge Presbyterian Church.

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