Quill and writing

The contemporary Church is Feelings-Focused

By this I mean its orientation is constrained primarily by feelings rather than by obedience to God’s Word.  We are, of course, constitutionally created with emotional faculties.  It is right and proper that our affections are exercised devotionally.  The eighteenth-century theologian of revival Jonathan Edwards composed an epic dissertation proving extensively that true religion stirs ‘Religious Affections’ in the hearts of true Christians.  I am certainly not, therefore, seeking to pit faith against feelings.  That would be a false dichotomy.  The Scriptures bristle with emotive language.  The psalmist declares: ‘Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good’ (Ps 34:8); again, ‘Delight yourself also in the Lord, and He shall give you the desires of your heart’ (Ps 37:4).  Our most greatest cultural stories played out in novels, dramas and operas, etc, are narratives of human love and affection.  Unsurprisingly, the Word of God portrays the same profound mystery with – at times awkward graphic detail – see the Song of Songs!  Let’s not be in any doubt: God delights in a great love story.  Indeed, the history of redemption has been whimsically summarised as ‘slay the dragon; capture the woman!’

But, returning to my basic criticism: I say that sentimentalism has subtly supplanted obedience.  Where the contemporary evangelical has erred (again generally!) is by capitulating to the belief that we may be safely led along in our respective pilgrimages ‘listening only to my heart’ (Bob Dylan).  As with most errors, this problem arises when something good which God created is unduly elevated and given an unwarranted priority.  CS Lewis, what we need to embrace are ‘ordinate affections.’ But that entails knowing what must properly rule and govern them.  An astute reader will not be surprised to discover that the answer lies in the Scriptures.  It is God’s Law – His rules & precepts – which must furnish our hearts and minds with right attitudes and convictions that give our hearts the liberty to be exercised in full accordance with our Maker’s instructions.  We dare not allow the bare impulse of our hearts constrain our thoughts and actions, for God has said, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?” (Jer 17:9). 

Right feelings cannot exist apart from right knowledge and right understanding. Through excessive tender-heartedness we have embraced the zeitgeist of 21st century academia believing that the pure, true doctrine of Scripture must give way to what Karl Barth termed an ‘experience of the living Christ’.  Van Til spent much time and effort seeking to expose this subtle shift of emphasis in Barth’s writings but sadly Barthianism continues to exert a strong influence among evangelical leaders and his existential motifs have effectively driven a wedge between imagined separate domains of heart and mind. 

It is not uncommon therefore today to hear advocates of true doctrine disparaged as those who, ‘like the Pharisees of old’ merely seek to “dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t’.”  They are to be especially indicted for ‘upsetting the feelings of others.’  But nowhere in Scripture is this sort of muddled thinking sanctioned.  Rather, everywhere the primary concern is whether God’s word – His Laws and commandments – are being honoured. 

We must enumerate a few concrete examples:

  • I am sometimes chided for speaking with an unduly ‘aggressive or impassioned’ tone. ‘It’s not WHAT you say that offends, but rather the TONE with which you say it,’ I am reprimanded. ‘Character first!’ I am told is what I need to consider.  Undoubtedly, gentleness and respect ought to characterise our general modus operandi (1Pet 3:15) but there are situations (and perhaps even persons) that warrant even anger and hatred (see Ps 139: 19-22; Rom 12:9; Gal 5:12). 
  • We are undoubtedly tempted to ‘keep the peace’ and desist from expressing the exclusive crown rights of Christ when in the company of folk of different faiths.  Relativism and multiculturalism pervade the cultural air we breathe.  All religions must be tolerated and portrayed with deferential legitimacy.  We are castigated as mean-spirited, unkind, intolerant bigots for defending religious objectivity.  We are urged to be more magnanimous, more generous spirited, more loving.  In short, we will be challenged to follow our heart rather than our mind.
  • We may be cautioned for talking freely in the presence of unbelievers about Biblical truth.  “Don’t talk about……; they may be unbelievers!”  Once again, the implicit charge is that we are being thoughtless or unfeeling towards those who don’t share our outlook.  But the boot is really on the other foot!  Our antagonists are actually ashamed of God’s truth – and unable to defend it.  There is an inevitable clash of worldview whenever we engage with covenant breakers.  But we need not hide our light under a bushel; we must not allow our salt to lose its saltiness (Matt 5:13)! 
  • But perhaps the most pertinent example of sentimentalism prevails when discussion is raised about the proper duties of the civil magistrate.  The Bible is unequivocal regarding capital punishment.  Rutherford’s 17th century treatise ‘Lex Rex’ has been summarised as ‘that is a crime which God says is a crime & that is the due penalty for a crime that God says is the due penalty for a crime.’  Such considerations are not arbitrary but arise from the ethical standards of God’s ancient Law which itself was an expression of God’s own character – His holiness and justice.  But contemporary evangelicalism would seek to distance itself from such fidelity.  Knowing the emotional reaction that would be triggered by any expression of solidarity with God’s estimations of civic good/evil, it hides behind a barricade of obfuscation and pseudo-dispensationalism.  God’s indictment of such an attitude is forthright:
    “Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; who put darkness for light, and light for darkness; who put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter! Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, and prudent in their own sight!” (Is 5:20-21)
  • Finally, the contemporary Churches exhibit idolatrous sentimentalism in their worship services where expressions of personal feelings and emotionality dominate their songs and ceremonies.  We desperately need to rediscover the Psalms – God’s own Book of Praises sung ubiquitously throughout two centuries after the Reformation across Europe.  May God restore us to authentic spiritual worship constrained by His law-Word.

There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.
Even in laughter the heart may ache, and the end of joy may be grief. (Prov 14:12-13)