Do Christians strain out gnats and swallow camels?Written by Subby Szterszky
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“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 faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!” (Matthew 23:23-24)
These withering words of Jesus, part of His lengthy denunciation of the scribes and Pharisees, are some of the most sobering in all of the Bible. The Lord never spoke this way to the tax collectors or prostitutes or even the Sadducees, religious liberals who rejected much of the Scriptures. He reserved this scathing speech for some of the most orthodox, conservative religious people of His day.
This should give us more than a moment’s pause. In our own day, similar accusations echo within and outside the church: Christians are great at majoring on the minors. We spend our time arguing about theology or harping on sexual sin whilst ignoring social justice and the plight of the poor.
So we’d be prudent to ask: Is this a fair assessment? Have we become guilty of straining out gnats and swallowing camels?
The short answer is yes and no
The short honest answer is yes and no. Taking a broad view of church history, it’s not hard to find examples where orthodoxy was not tempered by mercy or compassion. Most of us can likely think of individuals, past or present, who appear to love doctrine more than they love the Lord or other people.
And in truth, there’s a bit of the Pharisee in all of us. We want to justify ourselves by minimizing our own sins and maximizing those of others. It’s a tendency each of us needs to watch for and repent of when we see it in ourselves.
But having said that, it’s equally important to acknowledge the key role Christians have played in every area of human flourishing: the creation of universities, hospitals and orphanages; the development of modern science and medicine; prison reform and the abolition of slavery; legal rights and protection of women, children and the disenfranchised.
Christians have always been, and continue to be, at the vanguard of such endeavours. As Glenn Stanton observes:
Look at the inner city in any decent size town. Find the soup kitchens, the hospitals, the substance recovery efforts, housing the homeless and so forth in any city. More than 90 per cent of the time, you will find these being founded and run by some arm of the Christian Church. . . . If the Church stopped doing all it does for the “least of these” tomorrow morning, the remarkable substance of that work would become tragically obvious within 24 hours and the State would crumble under the weight of needing to fill the void.
Addressing the controversial issues of the day
When it comes to addressing the controversial issues of the day, this is a challenge that has confronted every generation of the church. Christians are called to be salt of the earth and a light to the world, and to seek the welfare of their city (Matthew 5:13-16; Jeremiah 29:7). In other words, we’re to act as a cultural preservative, a source of health and wisdom to those around us. Part of that mandate is to speak out, not only against injustice but every form of moral evil that harms individuals and societies and invites judgment from God.
This will necessarily look different from one culture to the next. Each society has its own ethical strengths and weaknesses. Ours, for instance, is fairly clear on the fact that human sacrifice is wrong. There’s no pressing need for the church to address that particular issue.
On the other hand, when influential cultural voices continue to shout loud and long against Biblical standards of sexuality, it’s incumbent on Christians to answer them with truth and grace.
Even so, no matter how graciously we tell the truth, it’s unavoidable that people will get upset. Nobody likes to have their beliefs and actions challenged, especially in a climate where all such challenges are labelled as intolerant and hateful.
Indeed, there are those within the church who would rather we keep quiet about our culture’s fashionable sins and simply love people. But failure to warn them of their dire spiritual condition is not love. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
Keeping the main thing, the main thing
Are Christians guilty of majoring on the minors? In order to answer that, we need to be clear about which is which. According to the Apostle Paul, the thing of primary importance is the Gospel (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). That’s a very specific message containing specific information about a specific individual, Jesus Christ. In other words, it’s theology, and theology that matters. It’s only through a proper understanding and faith in the Gospel that all other issues of the Christian life find their appropriate place.
Theological orthodoxy and moral integrity, social justice and care for the poor, all of them are indispensable strands in the tapestry of the church’s witness. As Christians, we’re not at liberty to pick and choose between them.
As our Lord commanded, “These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.”
Sources and further reading
Glenn Stanton, “Does the Church focus on ‘hot-button’ issues over poverty?” Author’s blog, May 18, 2015.
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