Christian Metaphors

I was thinking about the recent Evangelical vs Fundamentalist dicussion (here, here, here, here, and sort of here), as well as the God Hates Sinners discussion at Deux Ego.

I was thinking about the question of just how Christians ought to relate to the world. What I was thinking is, “Why don’t they get it?” They, of course, being the folks who disagree with me. I mean, we serve the same Lord, read the same Bible, and have the same mission.

My mind wandered to a bit of a book I read once, Moral Politics. The author explains that conservatives and liberals don’t agree, and don’t even understand each other, because they view the world through different metaphorical models.

It’s probably obvious to everyone else, but I just figured it out. Fundamentalists and evangelicals don’t agree, or even understand one another, because we are using radically different metaphors to understand how Christians relate to the world.

I’ll attempt to identify those metaphors, demonstrate how they play out in our thinking, and suggest a possibly better metaphor.

Fundamentalists have a war metaphor. We see the world primarily as the enemy, to be defeated or at least defended against. We attack, with the goal of getting the enemy to surrender. If the enemy surrenders convincingly enough, and begins to behave like “one of us”, then they are accepted. But we must always be on guard for enemy infiltrators, who are to be shot on sight. An enemy soldier could be hiding anywhere; each door might be boobytrapped. There are also other soldiers who are the enemy’s enemy, but that doesn’t make then our friends. We’re very suspicious of them and don’t want them getting too close. Just like the Russians and the British/Americans in WWII.

Consequently, fundamentalists are very suspicious of the world. If it doesn’t come from a fellow fundamentalist, it could well be a trap. Secular entertainment is a full assault by the enemy. Christian rock is a trap. We could be ambushed at any time.

Non-fundamentalist Christians may be Christians, but that doesn’t mean they are on the right side. We can fight against a common enemy today, but tomorrow we don’t know. They aren’t Nazis, but they are Communists. Yesterday’s ally might be tomorrow’s enemy.

The lost are our enemies. You can’t get too close or you’ll get a bayonet in your gut. It’s best to shoot at them, and maintain a defensive position until we’re convinced they are surrendering. Even then, we have to be cautious. Once they are converted, it’s imperative to immediately begin to transform their lives just to be sure they don’t revert and betray us.

This explains why fundamentalists tend towards isolationism. We distrust the world, so we want to stay away from it. No telling what it might do. This is why we are separatists rather than ecumenical – we don’t trust Christians who do not identify completely with us. And this explains our approach to evangelism. Preach at them, hand them tracts, but don’t get too close. You can’t trust them.

Evangelicals, on the other hand, have an assistance metaphor. They see the world as in need of assistance, and not as an enemy. They use phrases like “just one beggar telling another beggar where to find food”. They view the world as either neutral or in need of help, and rarely as an opponent, because who would object to helping someone?

Evangelicals are ecumenical. Any little bit helps accomplish the mission, and does it really matter where the help comes from? If you’re trying to pull someone out of a lake, it doesn’t matter whose rope you use, or who else helps you pull it. The goal is to get a person on shore.

Evangelicals tend to embrace the world, and only reject that which is unmistakably evil. They’ll watch most movies, even those with some objectionable content. NC-17 and some R is off limits, but most everything else is OK.

Evangelicals will jump right in with the lost and try to help them swim to shore. They have little patience for those on the shore who do nothing but shout encouragement to the drowning victim.

Each metaphor has significant shortcomings. Fundamentalists tend towards holy huddles. We needlessly reject much that God has given to us. We are sometimes eager to separate from other Christians. We know Jude 23 but not Jude 22. Evangelicals, on the other hand, tend to embrace the world far too much. They don’t recognize the danger posed by the world. They fail to recognize that we do have enemies.

A better metaphor is available to us. It lacks the simplicity of the ones I described, but it perhaps more accurate and balanced.

Borrowing from recent world events, I present the war of liberation metaphor for Christians.

We are at war with the world to liberate, not destroy, the world. We’re rescuing people, but some of them are shooting at us. Not everyone needs to be shot at, not everyone can be loved on, at least not in the usual sense.

Jude 22-23 says
And of some have compassion, making a difference: And others save with fear, pulling them out of the fire; hating even the garment spotted by the flesh.

In the recent war against Iraq, there were roughly three groups of Iraqis. Some Iraqis vocally welcomed our arrival and even assisted us. Other Iraqis were, for whatever reason, pretty neutral. And some actively opposed us, and continue to do so.

I think there’s a spiritual analogy here. Some of the lost will welcome the proclamation of the gospel. Preaching, handing out tracts, and door-to-door evangelism will be very effective with these people.

Some of the lost are fairly neutral. They must be won over. Just like the Iraqis, we have to win over their hearts. They need to see Christ’s love demonstrated – Christians taking care of each other and the lost. Once they are convinced we’re authentic, they will be won over. Jude 22 works on them – have compassion, making a difference. Being “forceful” with them will just push them away. It’s unnecessary. These are the folks in Christ’s time who were the poor and downtrodden, who saw in Jesus something they knew they needed.

Then there are our opponents. They are not open to our message. They are like the people described in Romans 1. Jude 22 will not work on these people. The only approach is to defeat them. Sometimes we will win them over, per Jude 23. Often, we won’t. Gentleness is not appropriate here. It’s still love, just not the usual kind. In Christ’s time, these were the scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, and moneychangers. We know what approach He used with them.

Obviously, these categories are not rigidly defined, and I won’t bother to speculate about the size of each group. All three approaches to evangelism are Biblical and ought to be regarded as such.

When it comes to relating to the things of the world, apart from evangelism, the idea of a war of liberation is also useful.

We are generally in enemy territory. We must be very careful. Skepticism is called for when dealing with the things of the enemy.

It’s reckless to say “all truth is God’s truth” and embrace secular psychology for childrearing and unbiblical conclusions about evolution. It’s reckless to trust unredeemed educators with our little ones. It’s reckless to expose our minds to all but the worst (morally speaking) forms of entertainment that the world puts out. We have to be careful when dealing with the enemy.

We must always be careful when we identify our friends, too, and should realize that not all our allies are completely trustworthy. I’ll use the WWII illustration again. Americans and Brits had nothing to fear from each other. We were friends. We were allies with the Russians, but we all know how that turned out. You can’t trust everyone, even when they appear to be on the same side this time.

It’s great that Protestants and Catholics can work together against abortion, for instance. But when Billy Graham starts sending new converts into Roman Catholic churches, conservative evangelicals ought to cry foul.

Finally, among our true allies there ought to be pretty much complete trust. We don’t need to keep an eye on our friends. Sometimes our friends will make a mistake, but a friendly fire incident need not become a war itself. And we might not always agree perfectly, but pretty much the definition of a true ally means we will have essentially the same positions on most things.

“One size fits all” is not a legitimate approach to Christians relating to the world. Christ said we’re salt and light. The light was a city on a hill – separate, even aloof. The salt was mixed in with what it was preserving. The light must not be hidden and must not go out. The salt must not lose its saltiness. A light down in a valley does no good – it has to be elevated where it can be seen. A lighthouse is far more useful than a man with a flashlight. But salt in a shaker is useless.

I realize that not everything and everyone should be treated as an enemy. But can we also agree that we are in a real, spiritual war, and can we respond accordingly?

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7 Responses to Christian Metaphors

  1. Mac Swift says:

    “The lost are our enemies. You can’t get too close or you’ll get a bayonet in your gut.”

    I disagree with this sentiment, as I don’t feel the lost are our enemies in the sense you’re thinking of. Here’s what I’m drawing from:

    “Ephesians 6:12 For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”

    “1 Corinthians 10:4-5 (For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds;) Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ;”

    Our real enemies reside in the spiritual realm, and it is they who heavily influence the actions of man on a daily basis. Too often the lost serve as unwitting pawns in a devilish game. This is a sobering truth that is emphasised throughout scripture, and one we shouldn’t lose sight of as we interact with the world we live in.

  2. I didn’t mean to imply the metaphor was Biblically accurate, just that it existed.

  3. Bill says:

    Very interesting post, Robert

  4. Derek G says:

    Can you please comment further on the dangers of thinking “all truth is God’s truth” I have always been a believer in the inerrency of the bible, but also realize it doesn’t speake to all subjects or situations. Therefore, in those areas it doesn’t speak about, i tend to look for other types of science or philosophy which fits the pattern of reason to fill in the whole. I don’t really know any other way to do it, and I think even those who don’t think they do that, do it, but they do it based on religious and cultural tradition.

  5. tom says:

    BLESSED are the peacemakers….TURN the other cheek….return NOT evil for evil….LOVE your enemies….do GOOD to those that would harm you…
    Did jesus ever advocate violence against his enemies ??? Would Jesus today be advocating violence against Iraqi’s in his name for ANY reason ??? He FORGAVE his own killers….are we not called to imitate his examples, his life ?

  6. Derek, I agree that “all truth is God’s truth”. I think the problem is that not all of what is called “truth” is, in fact, true. That’s what I’m trying to address.

    Consequently, we embrace psychology instead of Biblical teaching about man’s nature. Instead of disciplining and instructing our children (per Deut 6:7, Prov 13:24, etc), we worry about their self esteem and try all sorts of techniques that God did not tell us about, because psychology tells us these things are true.

    Instead of believing that the lost are just sinful, we make them out to be victims of their circumstances, because the sciences of psychology and sociology tell us these things are true.

    Instead of reading and believing the first several chapters of Genesis, we embrace a lot of unbiblical conclusions about the age of the earth, evolution, early civilizations, and so on, because biology, geology, etc., tell us these things are true.

    I am painting with very broad strokes here. These are just some examples, perhaps not even good ones. I’ll even go so far to say that there are exceptions. A blind application of Proverbs 13:24 might well provoke your child to wrath (Eph 6:4); the exact application of discipline will depend on the child and the situation and the context. But these are just sweeping generalities. Not everyone who claims “all truth is God’s truth” would embrace evolution. I don’t mean to imply they would; these are just some examples.

    The other objection I have is that we tend to want to severely restrict the spheres in which the Bible speaks authoritatively, in order to make human science more authoritative. When I say that the Bible is inerrant, I mean that it is authoritative in more than just spiritual matters. I believe the Bible speaks to pretty much every sphere that deals with people. Granted, it won’t tell me how to write clean code. But it does have a lot to say when it comes to psychology, child rearing, government, economic systems, welfare, families, and so on. It’s also authoritative in sciences such as geology, biology, archaeology, and so on.

    When the Bible does not speak directly or indirectly, then certainly I agree. We are to love God with our minds as well as our hearts. He gave us minds to think with, and a universe to explore. As long as we do not set our efforts up in contradiction to God’s revelation, then science is a very good thing.

  7. Tom, I’m speaking metaphorically and not literally. I’m not going to go bash a gay for God.

    And, while I support the war on Iraq and a pretty interventionist US foreign policy, my purpose in this post is not to wonder about the morality of the Iraq war or any physical war.

    Christ was pretty militant and vocal against some categories of sinners who actively tried to keep people from the kingdom of God by the worldview they pushed. They taught that one could earn God’s favor through good works, and anyone embracing that worldview was necessarily damned. It’s quite understandable that He would vocally oppose them.

    Paul dealt similarly with an entirely different crowd in Romans 1. He said they were “worthy of death”. I believe the people he railed against in Romans 1 are closer to the world view Christians have to defeat today.

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