A Path Filled With Peril
There are, however, many pitfalls and perils in a position such as ours. There is always, as already suggested, the danger of deserting those standards, which would sooner or later result in confusion and hurt to the vital principles of doctrine upon which the church has been built. Our standards cannot be ignored or depreciated without hazard to the whole and an inevitable wandering from the path we have taken. We must maintain our ethics with consistent conscience if we intend to remain invulnerable in our entire position. Anyone who thinks impartially can hardly say that the Church of the Nazarene has gone to extremes in its requirements of conduct for membership. The pattern chosen by our church is one generally accepted by all groups who have kept a definite line of demarcation between the world and Church. That there is such a clear line of cleavage is plainly and consistently taught by the Scriptures. “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (I John 2:15).
But the perils of our position are really twofold. On the one hand there is the always impending danger of worldliness, and on the other hand there is the lurking presence of Pharisaism. One frequently wonders if some of our people realize how small a margin exists between Pharisaism and worldliness. It is a paradox we will not elaborate: legalism and spirituality are poles apart; yet in actual living, close together. Herein lies a distinct peril to our ethical position, a failure to discriminate between that which is fundamental and basic and that which invades the realm of personal scruple.
After all, there is a realm of personal scruple which belongs to every individual. There is a domain of personal conscience in this over-all pattern of ethics which must be scrupulously honored if the consistency and strength of the whole are maintained. It is this particular phase of personal liberty, properly respected, which affords flexibility to the whole. It is really the cement which binds the whole together. To go too far in either direction is to make a misplaced emphasis which eventually will undermine the foundations upon which we have built our superstructure of conduct.
Moffatt phrases it well in his translation of Paul’s appeal to this point in the Roman letter:
“Welcome a man of weak faith, but not to pass judgment upon his scruples. While one man has enough confidence to eat any food, the man of weak faith eats only vegetables. Well, the eater must not look down upon the non-eater, and the non-eater must not criticize the eater, for God has welcomed him . . . . Certainly keep your own conviction on the matter, as between yourself and God…” (14:1-3, 22).[From “The Bible: A New Translation” by James Moffatt. Copyrighted in1935 by Harper and Brothers. Used by permission.]
Paul’s plea is well put: Respect the scruple of your brother and, when you have a personal conviction at variance with his, do not feel compelled to press your conviction upon him as amoral obligation.
I suppose that the two most pointed illustrations are to be found in the realm of dress and adornment. Some would be inclined to exert their own personal convictions through personal influence upon others beyond reasonable limits, and demand either by word or attitude that everyone must come under their particular conscience. Failure to respond frequently brings about a superior attitude on the part of those making the demands, resulting in a false sense of superior spirituality; and, consequently, Pharisaism is born. Such an attitude has sometimes been carried so far that individual criteria have been set as requirements for church membership. To become arbitrary at points where the church takes no stand, or to interpret the concise statement of the church to suit one’s particular view, brings nothing but strain and confusion. Whether or not it would be admitted, such a position cultures a sense of superiority leading to spiritual pride. It is here that the seeds of Pharisaism are sown. Strong feelings here lead to the temptation to question the genuineness and sincerity of those who do not agree. To avoid the snare of Pharisaism on the path we take, we must leave some debatable matters to the realm of personal scruple, insisting only upon that which the church clearly demands.
Is it not significant that Jesus always taught in principle and never in detail? He honored and respected the rights of human personality. If we, then, likewise will adjust our thinking to the principles of the Kingdom, we will not bring confusion on the path we take. We should never forget that, after all, “The kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost” (Rom. 14:17). As to dress: let it always be with genuine modesty. As to adornment: let it be with a deliberate avoidance of display. These principles, highlighting the specific statements of our General Rules, will be sufficient to index a consistency of conduct that should be acceptable to all. We must make up our minds sincerely to turn neither to the right hand nor the left. We should be solicitous for the welfare of one another, determined not to offend by careless tendencies toward either worldliness or legalism.
Remember that the pressures of life are relentless and subtle. Dangers will always lurk along the path we have chosen. Discriminations must always be kept clear and Scripturally logical. We must not stray from the highway of holiness wherein God has called us to walk as a church. God, in olden days, forbade His people to intermarry with neighboring nations. It was not that God had repudiated marriage, but rather that the insinuations of such mixed relationships would eventually wear down the vital convictions of His people until they became like their pagan neighbors. There always has been and always will be the danger of the insinuation of worldliness– the gradual invasion of little things, tiny indiscretions, until the accumulation has gathered weight and acceleration and the tide cannot be turned back. We must always be tirelessly and jealously alert for the integrity of our cause and the path we have taken.
Yes, the realm of ethics is important to genuine spirituality. The more particular the emphasis on personal experience, the more exacting are the ethics to justify that experience. We repeat that we, as a church, have chosen to take the path of the highway of holiness. Since this is the path of our deliberate choosing, we must guard the boundaries of that path with care and mutual sincerity by insisting that the collective conscience of our church has been settled beyond debate.
But we must also insist that, within this concept of conduct, there is a realm of personal scruple as plainly taught by Scripture. This position must be honored with due respect and confidence, with a definite loyalty to one another and to our common cause.
This path we take is one foundationed in religious democracy rather than on religious totalitarianism. This analogy should be clear in the light of current thinking. There is a political ideology which places all rights in the hands of the state, and the individual is completely subservient. In some ways the totalitarian concept would simplify life if it did not destroy, at the same time, the basic principle of personal sovereignty. If life could be operated successfully on this level, much of the stress and strain of personality relations would be avoided. But the hazards of democracy are wisely to be chosen rather than totalitarianism.
Transferred to the religious realm, we repeat, the analogy is apt and pertinent. There are those who would choose to operate the kingdom of God on earth as a totalitarian regime. This was a fundamental problem our founding fathers faced in the beginning as the basic philosophy upon which the church should operate. Although this particular terminology was not in vogue, its basic principles were. Our fathers chose a path for us wherein a greater service could be given humanity with full recognition of the many hazards involved. It was the choice between a path removed from all perils by drawing the lines close and a wider path of service where hazards must be taken to give the larger ministry. It was a choice between serving humanity lavishly and recklessly or offering to man a small, circumscribed ministry that feared the dangers of the larger way. The former is the path of religious democracy.
Legislating life and conduct to the extent that individual liberty and thought cannot function within the realm of our accepted conscience is antagonistic to the principles laid down by our founding fathers. This leads to totalitarianism. Within this realm a man’s life must be regulated not only in terms of spiritual principles, but also in such exacting detail that a restricted pattern of conduct removes all genuine freedom and individual rights. We believe, after all, that the democratic way of life is as fundamentally sound in the spiritual realm as in the political. We can agree on certain principles of truth that will determine our general conduct. But beyond that the individual must say what he will do.
This is the hard way, involving personality differences, calling for far more grace to accept one another’s views in the application of godly conduct. But this attitude will not only grant the individual a native freedom God intended him to enjoy, but it will also give latitude to the Holy Spirit to culture the soul in ways that will please God. When this basic freedom is unduly restricted, God’s function through human personality by the Holy Spirit is hindered. Every man is to be safeguarded in the fundamental privileges God intended him to enjoy in building himself upon his own most holy faith. There is a unique balance between personal spontaneity and the function of the Holy Spirit. This was the spiritual ideology upon which our church was founded. It is the path our fathers intended we should take. Let us guard it jealously and maintain the rights of spiritual democracy, not only for the sake of our own unique existence as a church, but also because it does mark the plain path God intended man to take. Our task is to show man the way he must go to find present peace and eternal happiness. This is the path we take.