One of the first times I remember having an opinion all to myself that seemed distinct from what the preacher was saying from his pulpit (and receiving loud ‘amen’s from the congregation for) was in a church I had settled in after about two years – a fairly small church to the east side of Belfast. I had not attended any church for the first year after my conversion, choosing to sit in my bedroom every night and go through my NIV bible, with 3 separate books of bible notes, absorbing all I could from it, and trying to learn what this new faith in Christ really meant to me. This is probably why and how I am so opinionated! Or maybe it’s just in my nature that I always find myself challenging assumptions and presumptions. Opinionated is a very negative word in most contexts; it implies that someone is stubborn and unwilling to concede to others. In most cases, admittedly, it can lead to the most infuriating confrontations anyone can have: someone who is ‘never wrong’ is just impossible to deal with, and trying to converse with them usually just causes nothing more than frustration and anger. The book of Proverbs has many warnings about not engaging with fools, and these are not necessarily people of low intelligence, but those who will not take instruction, or who choose to live a life contrary to scripture.
However, are we believers not meant to be opinionated? Does not the apostle Paul admonish you and me to “not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but [to] be transformed by the renewing of [our] mind”? (Romans 12:2) – one of my favourite verses! This is not for us all to change our ‘minds’ to be as one, following a doctrinal decree. Rather, it is a singular charge to each of us to renew our mind and allow our thinking to be transformed. So I seek to follow this, and try to use my intelligence, experience and knowledge to make sure I am thinking as I believe God wants me to, not as everybody or anybody else does, however ‘great’ I may think of them in spiritual terms. Too often I hear believers say “we believe…x, y or z” – wait: WHO believes this? Shouldn’t it be I? Just because your minister or pastor says so, you follow along like a lapdog? Yes, many denominations have doctrinal statements and these are self-evident in establishing an agreed creed to which all adherents can concur, but beyond this determination of basic truths, there can be accepted dissent. I have heard of churches splitting over such unbelievably trivial doctrines like soul sleep i.e. whether we pass straight to heaven when we die, or we await, sleeping in the grave until the return of our Lord. Who cares? We shall all get there in the end, so let’s not fall out over the timescale!! In the face of eternity, what is such a matter?
So, there I found myself, not that long in this church, enjoying the worship and the sermons from the pastor, who was a great preacher of the gospel; souls were saved. Then one evening he started ranting about the world and its temptations and how a believer should not be a part of it. Yeah, preach it! He got a chorus of ‘amen’s. Then he said, “and if you have friends in the world, you shouldn’t! ‘Come ye apart’ the holy book tells me. You should have nothing to do with them!” More amens followed, but I sat there, cogs whirring in my brain, and it came to me: “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering round to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners, and eats with them.’ Then Jesus told them this parable:” (Luke 15:1-3). Jesus goes on to relate the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin, illustrating how he came to save the lost, not the righteous; something he often made clear (Matt. 9:13, 11:19, Luke 19:10). The Pharisees even accused him of being a glutton and a drunkard after they observed him with these… can I call them ‘profligate wretches’? (Matt. 11:19).
So was this pastor of mine right to decry associating with unbelievers? Or was I right in discerning a Pharisaical attitude that Jesus met with and dealt with by NOT changing his behaviour or his friends?
Grace be with you.