By Ann O’Malley
I sit in church listening to the sermon. I’ve been a committed Christian for more than fifty years, so most of what the pastor says is familiar. But I have an active mind. I hear his words, mull over each comment, accept it or reject it or revise it in my head.
I’m an independent thinker by nature and a Baby Boomer by birth. I was raised in a family of critical thinkers and in a generation whose catchphrase was “Question authority.” In addition, I didn’t grow up reading the Bible or going to church more than a few times a year.
One of my strengths: I’m not as biased by man’s interpretation of God’s Word as I would be if I’d been immersed in Christian culture from the start.
One of my weaknesses: When I’m exposed to a new idea, I can take the art of skepticism to a ridiculous extreme. It took me about a year of hearing the gospel on a weekly basis before I believed it, and more than a decade of hearing the case for creation before I accepted it.
Even though my fellow Baby Boomers would say that I was never really a rebel at heart, I’ve always enjoyed thinking for myself.
So my sense of independence was seriously challenged when I became a Christian and I started coming across all those pesky verses about obedience and trust and submission.
Right from the start, God demands that Adam and Eve obey Him. When they don’t, He punishes them severely. And not just them, but all the generations that follow them. Reading some parts of the Old Testament, you could easily get the impression that God will tolerate nothing less than mindless submission.
Even the New Testament, which most people think of as emphasizing God’s love, reinforces the twin ideas of obedience and submission:
Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. ~ Hebrews 13:17
Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities. . . He who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted. ~ Romans 13:1-2
These writers command us to do what the authorities in our churches and governments tell us to do. I won’t even try to list the many verses that tell women to obey their husbands, and slaves to obey their masters. In every situation in life where someone has authority over us, we’re supposed to submit to them. (Unless that requires disobeying God. ~ Acts 5:29)
Because of passages like these, throughout its history, the Christian church has tended to emphasize obedience over thinking. My memories of life in an evangelical church in the 1970s and 80s:
Relying on simple faith, not on the mind.
No questioning authority within the church. The Israelites got into trouble over and over again on the way to the promised land because of their grumbling. (e.g. Exodus 16) Therefore we mustn’t grumble, which was often interpreted as meaning criticizing the church in any way. Paul urged the Corinthians to “agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought.” ~ 1 Corinthians 1:10. No disagreement allowed.
In the 1990s a good friend of mine, who could quickly discern inaccurate teaching and was constantly seeking a deeper understanding of God’s truth, was told by a leader in our church, “You think too much.” As if that was a fault to be overcome.
But as I continued to study the Bible, I found a God who listens. A God of patience. A God who encourages us to use the brains He’s given us.
Abraham and Moses both had the audacity to try to convince God to change His mind. (Genesis 18:16-33 and Exodus 3-4) Jacob wrestled with God. (Genesis 32:24-28) And God didn’t destroy them! Instead, He graciously made them the forefathers of His chosen people and used them to bless the entire world. (Genesis 22:18)
The first four chapters of Proverbs encourage us to actively seek knowledge and understanding and wisdom.
In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul emphasizes the role of the mind in worship. In Romans 12:2, he tells us to be transformed by the renewing of our minds, so that we can discern God’s good, pleasing, and perfect will.
Paul condemns any teaching, even if it comes from him ~ and even if it comes from an angel! ~ if it conflicts with the gospel. (Galatians 1:8) He wants his readers to think about, meditate on, and exercise discernment about what they’re being told.
John encourages his readers to question and think through what they hear so that they won’t be led astray by false prophets. (1 John 4:1-2)
In Acts 17:11, the Bereans are described as being of “more noble character” than others, because they “examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.”
Most of the letters in the New Testament were written to strengthen their readers’ understanding of the triune God. The authors knew that passive submission with a refusal to think would make us more vulnerable to false teaching.
So I’m sitting in church, struggling (as I often do) with the question of how to maintain both an openness to learning from others and a willingness to question whether what I’m hearing agrees with the Bible. I want a simple formula for how to resolve this conflict. Later that day I come across a bit of wisdom in Letters of C. S. Lewis.
Lewis is addressing a woman’s questions about worship styles. He writes that during the worship service, “We are therefore called upon to carry on a critical and a devotional activity at the same moment; two things hardly compatible.” (Emphases in the original.)
The brilliant C. S. Lewis wrestled with the same issue as I do! He confirms that we are to be both critical (in the sense of raising legitimate objections, not in the sense of simply criticizing something that we don’t like) and devotional (giving ourselves wholeheartedly and unreservedly to God, which is difficult to do if I’m analyzing everything I hear).
Lewis recognizes that there’s a problem. These two things are hardly compatible. As limited human beings, we will always struggle as we try to carry on both activities at the same moment. There is no simple formula. And yet that’s what we’re called upon to do.
As for me, too often the critical part tends to crowd out the devotional part. The next time I’m sitting in church, I’m praying for greater submission and trust and obedience. For a deeper ability to simply devote myself to worshipping God. Not for complete mental passivity. That’s not what God desires. (And it will never happen anyway, because I’m an independent thinker by nature and a Baby Boomer by birth.) But I really could use a better balance.
About the author:
Ann O’Malley is the pseudonym of a new author seeking a publisher for her memoir of suicidal depression. Her pen name comes from “anomaly,” that feeling of being different, of not really belonging, which plagues so many of those who suffer from depression. For more of her writing, check out her blog, “Those Who Weep: Not-Quite-Evangelically-