Saturday, January 11, 2014

Christian Cliches: "Don't Be Lukewarm"

When I was a member of Maranatha Campus Ministries in college in the early 1980s, we used to drive five hours to Seattle every few months for a regional "Maranatha Leadership Training Seminar," or "MLTS."  Maranatha considered every member of its churches to be in training for some sort of Christian leadership.   If you were called to Maranatha, you were supposed to be part of a special rank of Christians-- God knew who His leaders were and deliberately called us into this ministry.  We were meant to stand out, to be a cut above.

I remember one particular MLTS where we were all told to split up into groups and march around several college campus blocks where the seminar was being held, singing at the top of our voices a Christian song called "We Are Taking Over."

The lyrics were, as far as I remember them, like this:
We are taking over
We are moving out in God
We are lifting up our Jesus
In the power of God
There is none to hold us
No more shall we be afraid
He has given us the victory
In His mighty name
Please don't ask me who wrote it; I have no idea.  If I had a name to attribute it to, I would.  But maybe it's actually a kindness that the writer remain anonymous.

Aaanyway . . . 

Imagine standing on the steps of your fraternity or sorority house or college apartment building and listening to a group of 20 or 30 college kids singing this in unison as they march past.  

Even back then I was pretty sure what they were thinking was not, "Oh, look how bold that group is! Look at the fire in their eyes!  I want to follow Jesus like them!"

I was pretty sure that they were really thinking something more along the lines of, "Aren't those Jesus dorks ridiculous and arrogant!  Good thing they can't really take over!" 

But I sang and marched on doggedly, remembering Luke 6:36: "Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets."  I had to be willing to bear shame for the name of Christ.  If I didn't, I would be lukewarm. 

That was the one thing no one wanted to be.  Jesus couldn't stand you if you weren't on fire for Him.  Like a mouthful of lukewarm water, He would spit you out in disgust.  That's what Revelation 3:15-16 said.

To be lukewarm was to care what other people thought.  To be lukewarm was to be unwilling to give it all for Jesus-- to hide your light under a bushel.  On-fire Christians were bold and courageous, like God told Joshua to be in Joshua 1:7. Didn't Proverbs 28:1 say the righteous were as bold as lions?

So we held our heads high and sang as loud as we could, taking courage from one another's volume. Oddly, what most people did when our group came into earshot was not to smile (which would have shown they were Christians too) or scowl (thus revealing their apostacy).  No, they just put their heads down and hurried past as if they were embarrassed by us.  Or was it for us?  No matter.  Deep in their hearts they were under conviction by the Holy Spirit, right?

Looking back on it today, my husband commented that what we were actually being taught was that devoted Christians were supposed to act like the people Jesus described in Matthew 6:5 and 23:5 - 
[T]hey love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. . . Everything they do is done for people to see.
Doing religious acts boldly and publicly was what you did naturally when you were "on fire" - because you were so lost in your love for Christ that you didn't care what anyone thought.  People in love don't hide it, our leaders said.  A man in love will carry a dozen roses down the street while telling everyone around him how beautiful his girl is.  If we're really in love with Jesus, won't we act like that too?  We'll want everyone to see!  We'll want everyone to hear!  If we don't, there's something wrong with our relationship with Christ.

If we don't, we're ashamed of the gospel, and He will be ashamed of us when He returns.

Somehow the idea that the people Jesus was describing who acted like this were "hypocrites" never quite registered with us back then (and I'm not saying, nor do I think He was saying, that every spontaneous public act of religious devotion is hypocritical).  But for us, being on fire meant that we could thank God, like the Pharisee in Luke 18:11, that we weren't like other people.  Except that unlike the Pharisee, this was really true when it came to us.

Matthew 6:5 didn't apply to us.  We weren't doing all this "to be seen by others."  We were just so in love we couldn't help ourselves.

Except that these supposedly natural, supposedly spontaneous outbursts of public love for Christ were so often staged-- so often planned and executed in advance to make the biggest impact possible. So often what we were doing had everything to do with not getting rebuked by our leaders or despised by one another, and almost nothing to do with how we actually felt about Jesus.

Here's what the "don't be lukewarm" verse actually says.  In context, it's part of one of the letters from Christ to the seven churches in the early chapters of the Book of Revelation:

Revelation 3:15-20 -
I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see. Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent.
Was Jesus really talking about what we thought these verses meant?

Many Christians today think so.  The most common idea still seems to be that "lukewarm" means "not zealous, not passionate."

Christianity.Net explains it this way:
[B]eing lukewarm is akin to comfortable Christianity. One in which we think we are rich and prosperous and need nothing but fail to realise [sic] that we are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked. It is this type of Christianity that causes Jesus to say that he wants to spit him out of his mouth! And God’s counsel to us is in Rev 3:19, where he says to Laodicea and to us; ‘those whom I love, I rebuke and discipline. So be zealous and repent’. Lukewarm Christianity is one that has lost its sense of being zealous.
The word translated "zealous" or "earnest" in verse 20 is the Greek word transliterated "zelo'o," meaning, "to burn."  This does seem to be a play on words with the word"hot" in the same verse. To stop being "lukewarm," one can heat up to a state of zealousness. But there's a problem with thinking that what Jesus is talking about is simply emotional passion.  The problem is that in verse 15 Jesus also praises those who are "cold."  He isn't saying the only acceptable state is "hot."  "Cold" is also good.

Eric M. Pazdziora at the Quivering Daughters blog sets this out very well in his post  Myth of the Lukewarm Christian:

[T]his is a bit confusing, given the standard interpretation. If the “hot” people are those who are “on fire” for the Lord, then the “cold” people must be… atheists? Flagrant sinners? Crooked politicians? Richard Dawkins and his merry band of infidels? Could be, but then why does Jesus say “I wish you were cold or hot” like they’re both equally good? Surely He doesn’t consider it the same to be on fire for Him and stone-cold against Him? . . .
And what does the passage actually say the state of being "lukewarm" is about?  It doesn't actually equate lukewarmness with lack of emotional passion; it equates it with believing we don't need anything, that we're spiritually just fine.  Lukewarmness in the actual Bible text is about not noticing our need for God.

Since this is so, both "hot" and "cold" must refer to differing states of noticing our need for God, both of which please Christ.  "Hot" could be a reference to the warmth of love we have when God's presence is felt, or the zeal of wanting to do something for the One who has done so much for us. "Cold," on the other hand, could refer to the need we feel in prayer, when we seek God in hunger and emptiness. Or they could mean something along the lines of what Pazdziora goes on to describe in the same blog post:
 If you’re “hot,” then . . . you’re seeing your need of Him and depending on Him to burn away your impurities and kindle your love.  If you’re “cold,” you’re apart from Him—and you feel it. . . Being “cold” is just as good as being “hot,” from a salvific standpoint, because in both cases you’re seeing your need, insufficiency, and helplessness, and coming to depend on Jesus for His grace, forgiveness, and righteousness.
The Pharisee who thanks God that he is not like other people is actually being lukewarm.  So is the one in Matthew 6:5 who prays aloud on the street corners.  To be lukewarm is to feel that you've got some sort of inside track with the Almighty; that your careful piety or public devotion have put you on velvet.  That God really should be grateful to have a devotee like you.

And when it comes right down to it, that was the attitude we were taught to have in Maranatha.  We were "God's Green Berets."  We were His special warriors, separate from common, complacent ordinary Christians, elite because of how very "on fire" we were.  If we were actually managing to feel what we were supposed to feel, we thought He was so pleased with us, that we were rich in devotion, wealthy in spiritual capital.

We didn't realize we were actually just over-stressed young people struggling with a spiritually abusive form of religion.  That our knowledge of our own devotion* had rendered us exclusionary, judgmental, and (especially when marching and singing about taking over) just plain obnoxious.  And that we were hurting not just those we found wanting, but ourselves too.

Pazdziora puts it like this:
[I]f you know about Spiritual Abuse, you recognize a few other all-too-familiar themes lurking in the subtext. 
There’s a strong temptation to elitism there—you want to be better than all those “lukewarm” folks, don’t you? Legalism’s waiting to pounce, too; it blends in perfectly as long as you define “On fire” as “Doing our things” and “Worldly” as “Not.” All that’s left is for us to spin “I will spit you out of my mouth” as “You might be eternally lost if you don’t do our thing” and we’re practically in cult territory.
 When "don't be lukewarm" is interpreted to mean "be emotionally hyped up at all times for God," the result is spiritual abuse.  Jesus never said we had to be constantly "on fire."  No one can actually live like that.  To think we can is to become self-righteous when we're feeling the "right" feelings and self-condemning whenever we're not.

The New Testament actually acknowledges that Christian people move in and out of many different emotional states.  Joy and sorrow, excitement and rest-- all are natural and expected parts of Christian life.  All that is asked of us is that we remember that He is the vine and we are the branches, and we need Him (John 15:5).  When we do that, when we let go of spiritual pride and self-righteousness and trying to drum up the right emotional state in ourselves-- that's when we stop being lukewarm.

We need to stop using "don't be lukewarm" as a cliche that means exactly the opposite of what the Bible is really talking about.  We're not doing anybody any good.

Especially not ourselves.


*I should add, in all fairness, that the devotion was often quite real-- and we were often prevented from truly feeling we were above needing God by the sheer weight and volume of the expectations placed upon us.  But self-righteous complacency still was a common result of understanding ourselves as "on fire for God."


Donald Johnson said...

I have read that the lukewarm ref. was to actual physical waters in the area that were hot and cold and then mixed to form lukewarm and much less useful than either of the first 2.

PLTK said...

Read similar to Don's comment in "Reading the Bible Through Western Eyes." Essentially from the geography comparing the hot of the waters of Pammukale (beautiful hot springs) and another place nearby known for cold and good tasting spring water. Both were very useful as compared to the "blah" lukewarm water not good for bathing or drinking.

heather said...

Interesting article... I recognize some of your experience in my own. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

I became a Christian in a context like this ... and they valued Maranatha as a group to emulate.

The biggest and worst issues have to do with being so superior... everyone, and I mean everyone, within a hundred mile radius of us was wrong. I was the pastor's secretary and i typed a letter to all the pastors in every church in our town telling them that as our leader was the only anointed leader in town, therefore our church was also the only right church... so they may as well pack their bags.

Years later, and in ministry myself, I shudder to think back on those years. When you feel superior, you've lost the plot as a Christian already.

Thanks for this really good and incisive article.