I want to begin with admitting that I have been guilty of both of these urges. I have greatly desired to accept whatever is considered the prevailing wisdom. I have also greatly desired to scorn the prevailing wisdom. Both the impulse to fall in line and the impulse to buck the status quo can bring you to jewels of Christian truth but also dangerous heresies and false teachings. Whichever path these impulses take you down, both good and bad, the impulses themselves are not worthy and good guides for the Christian who is eagerly desiring to rightly discern truth from lie. Contrarianism and a need to conform are both a rejection of our Christian calling to examine all things.
I spurned the traditions of my Southern Baptist upbringing and that brought me to High Church Reformed Presbyterianism. Although I did study and looked into various doctrines, and although I am not saying that all of those doctrines are false (by no means) a great deal of my motivation was a contrarian spirit within me. Although most of these churches got a lot of things right (especially the churches my father pastored earlier in my life), I knew that the churches I grew up in were missing the mark, so I sought out something that looked different and talked different. I swung from evangellyfish seeker sensitive baptist churches to stuffy and heady Presbyterianism.
Once I felt comfy in that vastly different culture my instinct switched from wanting to be the contrarian to wanting to be as “truly Reformed” as can be. This meant a lot of good changes and this also meant assuming some other not so good things; especially ecclesiastical traditions. The motto of the day was “doctrinal truth by good and necessary consequence”. I swallowed everything hook line and sinker. If there was a “more” Reformed position, I held it. Do not misunderstand me, I read the Westminster Standards and its commentators. I read the gold standard Reformed theologians. I am not saying I blindly accepted everything, but I did blindly accept the words of dead theologians on certain topics without doing due diligence and examining their prooftexts. The strong desire to be a good, consistent, and MOST Reformed Christian led me to read every text, especially texts having to do with the Church, with “Reformed” colored glasses. In addition, I wanted to please certain men in my life. I wanted to be seen as intelligent and mature more than I desired to be trully intellegent and mature. Whatever theological tradion one comes from, having systematic theology tomes and highly detailed confessions gives a young believer a quick and easy short cut to appearing to have studied God’s Word without spending hardly any time in the texts critically examining particular doctrines. These are not bad tools, and to this day I reference them, but they are no replacement for knowing God’s Word. Too often we think strictly in seventeenth and eighteenth century theological lingo that does not do justice to the nuances in Scripture. Somehow a text about sending financial aid to Jerusalem (1 Cor 16:1) becomes a proof text for an institutionalized “Lord’s Day” worship service. Somehow the acceptance of Biblical elders becomes an acceptance of elder tyranny. Those are just a few examples. Note here that I am Reformed, but I am not very interested in holding all the accepted Reformed positions by default. My wrong headedness in desiring to conform does not negate the truths that God was gracious to lead me to. Ecclesia reformata et semper reformanda.
After a few pillars of idolatry fell in my own life, such as the idolizing of particular teachers, I had to resist my old urge to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Needless to say, the last several years have been an exercise in examining, reexamining, and doing it all over again. Throughout that time I have learned a great deal, secured some doctrines even firmer, and have ditched a few old ideas.
Whatever idea we are pondering and studying, we must remain vigilant in not allowing our emotional and relational urges to weigh in too much in what ideas we adopt and what ideas we reject. As a Christian Reconstructionist and Abolitionist I am all too aware of the deficiencies in modern churches. Many of my fellow Reconstructionists and Abolitionists are also very aware of many great errors within evangelicalism. With this knowledge it can be too easy to become a stereotypical curmudgeony contrarian in regards to ecclesiastical and doctrinal practices. Too often our “radical” nature draws us to discounting ideas and practices simply because those ideas and practices are common and accepted. I will be the first to call the churches to repent and I will be the first to critique certain practices, but we must be slow to do so. We must remember that there is some practices that should be tossed into the fire, but there are some that need reforming. Hint: it is not a forgone conclusion that an assembly owning a building is a corrupt or false church. Remember that although William Goodell (Abolitionist author of Come-Outerism) did call Christians out of corrupt churches, he also called them into true assemblies. Even our desire to be good Reconstructionists and Abolitionists (both radical and minority ideologies) can lead us to not rightly discerning our favorite movement forefathers. Some of my favorite authors, such as William Lloyd Garrison and RJ Rushdoony, must be examined and corrected. God’s Kingdom is progressing. This also means that we can expect there to be errors even in the best thinkers and activists. Some more than others.
Our contrarian impulse can lead us to reject good ideas, but it can also lead us to accept false ideas. We must be very careful to not quickly buy into any new theological novelty. Yes, the mainstream church gets a lot wrong, but not all of the mainstream church’s detractors are wise and many are plainly false teachers. For many of us, we feel as if the wool has been lifted from our eyes. We see the Church, its doctrines, and its practices as what they truly are. And it doesn’t look good. It is like seeing the man behind the curtain. It is disappointing and heartbreaking. It leaves us digging through the rubble to find the truth that was mixed in with the traditions and false teachings. We must look to scripture when we search for the truth. Many spurious men and ideas vie for our attention and we must be very careful to not let an urge to reject the status quo bring us to rejecting sound doctrines and ideas. The strong desire to go “against the grain” in spite of reason, evidence, and scriputre, is truly a problem of the heart. The desire to hold to the most radical, most minority, most counter-cultural ideas is nothing more than a desire to hold yourself above others.
Whatever the topic is, we must be very wary of diving headlong into the rabbit hole of traditions and we must be very wary of discounting doctrines because they are the “establishment” positions. Conformity and novelty are both sweet temptations, but the difficult path of hard examination and discernment is the path of the Christian. The desire for conformity is an easy path of social and emotional security. It will surely gain you friends and little controversy. The desire for novelty is an path that can build up esteem for your own self. After all, buying into the extreme and the novel puts you “in the know” and therefore over and above other “sheeple” who just don’t get it. Ultimately, these desires are self serving and will rarely lead to true and vital Christianity. Church history and its accepted doctrines are like a good chunk of meat filled with bones to be spat out. To deny this and suppose that a historic church or movement had it all figured out is to prop up dead men and make them an idol. To deny this in another way and suppose that Church History is all bone is to arrogantly prop yourself up over and above countless saints and what God has shown them. God didn’t start his church with a handful of twenty first century Abolitionists or Reconstructionists. He also didn’t start His Church in fifteenth century Germany. Both errors are rooted in prideful idolatry, and the Church along with even our own movements are not immune to these addictions to conformity and novelty.
Although truth can be found in widely held traditions, and although truth can be found in the most minority of ideologival communites, these ideas are not true because they’re a tradtion or because they’re radical. They are true because they’re true. Sometimes the common view is true. Sometimes not. It is our strong desire to adopt the easy and comfortable view that is sin. Sometimes the novel view true. Sometimes not. It is our strong desire to adopt the view that sets oneself apart that is sin. Truth can be found in both novelty and conformity to tradition, but neither are the standard for truth.