For any readers who might not know, I belong to a Confessional Lutheran Church. It's hard to put everything into a nutshell, but it means I accept the Lutheran Confessions as the correct interpretation of the Bible. I believe in the inerrancy of Scripture and its literal interpretation. In a practical sense, it means some would consider me a religious fundamentalist or extremist. I do believe in heterosexual marriage, I don't believe in divorce (except under very limited Biblical exemptions), I don't believe women are allowed by God to be pastors, and yes, shudder, I believe that wives are to be submissive to their husbands. I also believe in creation and the flood and all the miracles of Jesus. I believe these things truly happened. I believe God has given us a set of rules (the Ten Commandments) by which we guide our lives. I believe no one can ever do this perfectly. But God is good and gracious and sent His Son Jesus to live a perfect life for us and to suffer a heinous death, He suffered the very pangs of hell, so that we may live eternally with God in heaven.
I also have other non-Biblical values that are strongly associated with the kind of "fundamentalist" Christianity I espouse. I these are not mandated by God, they are simply things that in my world view seem to make the best sense or to be good and wholesome life style choices. I prefer to see moms stay home to raise their kids, or at least one parent. I prefer to see people living simpler non-materialistic lives than our typical western society endorses. I like it when women wear dresses to church. It makes me happy to see couples let God choose their family size and spacing.
But I can't make a Biblical mandate out of this second category of things. God, in His Holy Word, is very clear how He feels about our adding to or subtracting from that Word. He warns us against setting up our own laws over and above His, and claiming that they are His will.
I was thinking about these things today after reading the article, "Why Would a Woman Convert to Islam?" Herbert London, the article's author, asks and then attempts to answer this question in light of the recent conversion of Tony Blair's sister to Islam. The author of the article makes certain assumptions that I'm not sure are accurate. But I do think his broader point is valid.
Our Western culture has become so licentious that some people are seeking life style bounds. It is sometimes much easier to follow precepts than exert self-control.
Mr. London seems to assert that Christianity is somewhat to blame, because the West, in our Christian culture, has not clung to any sort of religious strictures.
At its foundation, even in stricter or more old-fashioned denominations such as that to which I belong to, Christianity is a religion of freedom. We are free from the bondage of sin. God created us with free will. He doesn't make people believe in Him. He loves us all the same and His son Jesus dies for all to give us salvation and freedom from the bondage of sin.
Our good behavior, our ability to align our behavior with God's will, is not what makes us right with God.
In order to regulate their behavior, God gave His people in the Old Testament the Ten Commandments. Jesus Christ, God incarnate, later summarized those commandments as "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind. And Love your neighbor as yourself." (Matt. 22:35-40). He also has given us the entirety of His written Word. Within that written Word, we find more details about how to carry out those two directives.
So Christianity is two things, a set of strictures we can never hope to follow perfectly; and at the same time, perfect freedom, in that our very worst sins, when followed by a sorrowful heart, are fully covered when we give them to Jesus to do so. We are truly bound by God's law; and yet we have perfect freedom from that law in Jesus, God's son.
The way I see it, if Mr. London is correct in His assessment that Christianity's current licentiousness has caused people to crave the strictures of Islam, individuals within our historically Christian culture, have three choices. Firstly, leave things the way they are, some pursuing hedonism, consumerism, solipsistic behaviors; others clinging to what some call fundamentalist sects; and some falling other places on the continuum between the two.
Second, people could rush towards more strict religious experiences such as pietistic Protestant groups, traditional Catholic groups, or some other moralistic religious group, such as Islam.
I should take a moment to define the term pietistic as I'm using it. Pietism is adding laws and rules to God's Word. These laws and rules are often things that are good and wholesome. Things such as not smoking and drinking; wearing a certain kind of clothing; or not dancing or listening to rock music; etc. These laws and rules are presented in such a way as to allow performance of such laws and rules to bring a person closer to God. Those who perform these lifestyle choices are granted a bit of righteousness on account of the choice for holier living. But God's Word tells us that "All our righteousnesses are as filthy rags." (Is. 64:6). And, "By grace are you saved by faith. And that not of yourselves, it is a gift of God, not of works. Lest any man should boast." (Eph. 2:8-9). Any religion that adds rules to God's Word, strictures that are not Biblically mandated, however wise they might be as lifestyle choices, can be called pietistic. The choice to live within a certain set of moral choices is not the point. The distinction I'm making is when these moral choices are tied to a person's faith life in such a way as to grant a degree of righteousness before God.
This brings me finally to the third choice I see for people from Western and specifically Christian worldviews. (And yes, my bias is showing here.) We might return to Scripture in its original intent and interpretation, for both freedom and moral guidance. Think about it, we are free to behave how we choose. Jesus forgiveness will cleanse us from bad behavior if we are sorrowful over and repent of those sins. In a spirit of love and thanksgiving, we will want to adhere as closely as possible to the will of God. We will seek to love God with all our heart, soul and mind; and love our neighbors as ourselves.
And how hard that is. Even in light of the least pietistic choices, there are far too many ways to properly love God with all our heart, soul, and mind; and to properly love our neighbors as ourselves. We just can't do it. As Dr. Martin Luther pointed our in his large catechism, there are already plenty of ways to serve God aright. We don't need to add to them. If we could ever reach a point of being able to follow the commandments perfectly, then we might worry about extra rules ( only if not tied to righteousness before God). But until then, focusing on the rules already designated by God in His Word is enough.
There are plenty of strictures within the freedom of Christianity. We as a culture do not need to flee to non-western religions to get that. But we do need to study our own founding religious document (Holy Scripture, the Bible) to know what it says; we need to to be able to decipher its demands; we need to be able to balance its freedoms. We need to hear again and again of God's love for us and the path to salvation He has designated. We need to be reminded again and again that we can lay all the muck of our lives at His feet. It's all covered.
And most importantly, we read and study God's Word to receive the faith God promises through His Holy Word.
So shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth; It shall not return to Me void,
But it shall accomplish what I please,
And it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it.