I often make reference to tendencies of American Christians because each culture has its impact on the way believers carry out their faith—and not necessarily in a good way!
There is an interesting representation of American thinking on the Great Seal of the United States, which is affixed to treaties and other official documents to signify that they genuinely represent official commitments of this great country. Specifically, I am interested in the backside of the seal, perhaps indicating “private thoughts” since it is rarely seen (except on the backside of $1 bills).
The symbol chosen is an eye within a triangle, representing the omniscience of the triune God, at the top of a 13 step pyramid as its capstone, yet distinct from the pyramid. That picture represents the testimony that God is distinct, yet over the country as originally formed.
The really interesting part to me is the Latin phrase over this image, Annuit Cœptis, which means “He approves our undertakings.” That sentiment has been most frequently been stated in popular history by the belief that “God is on our side”.
In churches, I think the mindset has been further refined. Many call the Great Seal image “the all-seeing eye.” I would suggest that American Christians have adopted the attitude through what I would call “the all me-ing I.” This happens when we take the mindset of the motto (“He approves”) and put it with a me-focus and assume that God approves what I approve and He disapproves what I disapprove. We signal it with the use of “I” and “me” in an attempt to control the church as a whole. We use phrases like …
· “I prefer”
· “I like”
· “I am comfortable (or not comfortable) with …”
· “I don’t like”
Plus many other phrases beginning with “I” and containing content based on personal valuations and preferences. The result is an implication that “God is on my side.”
The problem is that God is on no one’s “side” – we are either on His or we are wrong; there is no third option. When we are truly on His side, we can demonstrate His preferences and priorities from Scripture rather than falling back on “I …”
The challenge to our way of thinking is most acutely stated in Romans 14. I encourage your to read that chapter as a whole rather than individual verses. In the discussion, the one with greater scruples is identified as “weak” but not as an insult! It is an identifier which places greater obligation on the one who is “strong.” Which position is “right” is never identified as such in the passage. Instead, questionable things are evaluated by effect according to conscience (14:20)—the conscience of another! “It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble (sin against his conscience).” (Romans 14:21)
The issue is this: the church does not exist to please “me” (whoever “me” may be) or to conform to my personal conscience. The church exists for the Lord and for His good pleasure (14:4, 8, 10-12). At the judgment seat of Christ He will never ask, “Were you happy, comfortable, pleased (etc.) with the things the church did while you were on earth?” You may expect Him to ask about what you did with His Word and how you impacted others with that Word, but never “Were you pleased?”
I am writing this because it has been a problem throughout my 43 years of ministry in 4 churches. Many times I have found people come into a leadership role and treat it as the opportunity to impose their personal scruples on the church as a whole, or take polls to see what the prevailing attitudes may be. Many times people in “business” meetings see it as a time to take over limited leadership (not wanting a continuing responsibility) to have their own opinions and preferences control group decisions. We all need to wake up and be alert to this basic fact: the church is not about “me” but about Christ, who happens to love and accept both vegetarians and carnivores, ‘Sabbatarians’ and ‘slobbatarians’ (my word) – primary issues in Romans 14.
I will guarantee you that over time every one of us will love and loathe music styles, song selection, building décor, sermons (particularly illustrations and length) clothing styles, holiday observances and many other things God has not given us definitive direction about. It happened in Rome and it happened in Corinth, so it will happen here and God will still be glorified if we place the proper priority on being the Body of Christ.
“We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.” (Romans 15:1-3)
“Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” (Romans 15:7)
May God be pleased as we choose to please our neighbors for their good.