Analysis Paralysis, part i

January 4, 2011 in Sovereign Grace Ministries

So, yesterday, someone emailed me a link to the handout for a teaching on the topic of “College Choices.”  This teaching was given at the Fairfax (Virginia) Sovereign Grace Church by GS.  (You can access the audio recording here.)

I spent some time yesterday listening to that talk and a couple of other teachings.  Frankly, I find these talks fascinating, as in my experience they are a cornerstone of what makes SGM churches different from non-SGM churches.  While all the other (Bible-believing, gospel-proclaiming conservative Evangelical/Reformed) churches with which I’m familiar typically do NOT spend much time teaching people specific approaches to the nitty-gritty “stuff” of life, SGM churches seem to be very big on offering special classes on how to navigate certain lifestyle choices.  You don’t have to look far to find presentations on choosing your child’s educational path, teaching your teens about how to conduct romantic relationships, deciding how to use “the rod,”  and navigating romance in your own marriage.  Dig a little deeper, and you can even find instructions for more obscure topics, like how to make a “To Do” list, or how to save money on all the discipleship meetings SGM members are apparently called upon to conduct individually with each of their children.

I actually feel conflicted every time I listen to one of these teachings, because as I’ve stated many times before, my own personal convictions about subjects like modesty, “Biblical Womanhood,” child-training, and the importance of purity before marriage basically parallel the ideals set forth by Sovereign Grace pastors.  I take absolutely no issue with a great deal of what is taught in these seminars and presentations.

And I can appreciate that in every single teaching I’ve listened to, the pastors are careful to insert disclaimers about the importance of avoiding legalism and not looking to manmade formulas to bring about righteousness.

And yet…

As much as I (and, I would venture to guess, most other conservative Bible-believing Reformed/Evangelical folks) would agree with so many of SGM’s teachings about specific lifestyle decisions, I always find myself feeling vaguely disturbed after listening to these talks.

I’ve been trying to figure out why that is.  After all, what could possibly be wrong with exhorting people to think about putting up “fences” or “guard rails” so that they avoid falling into the pitfalls of certain sinful choices, certain foolish behaviors?  What could possibly be wrong with a pastor’s then going on to lay out specific strategies for how to build these “fences” or “guard rails”?

I’ve talked about this before (in my responses – which appear in blue font – to GS’s teaching about how to make educational decisions for one’s children), but I think that SGM as an organization does something unique in the way they address areas involving specific lifestyle choices.  Aside from from the very fact that they seem to make a great deal of effort to talk about these things in the first place, I’ve noticed that they typically:

  1. introduce a topic by listing all the pitfalls and problems associated with the topic, doing so in such a way so that it sounds like the topic is always extremely confusing, always a source of great angst;
  2. then go on to say that while they would never dream of giving hard-and-fast advice, they do have some strategies for navigating the topic, which are “biblical” strategies (presumably extracted from Scripture);
  3. then present these strategies;
  4. but, interestingly enough, provide precious little actual specific Scriptural support for any of these strategies, beyond general Proverbs or a line or two from the Apostle Paul, typically cited without examining Paul’s larger context;
  5. always include, as one of the strategies, the concept of “seeking wise counsel” on the topic;
  6. cite examples of others within the church – particularly other pastors, and especially the speaker himself – who have followed the strategies;
  7. wrap up with additional disclaimers about avoiding a legalistic mindset about following the strategies;
  8. yet nonetheless manage to convey the clear impression that they (the pastors) believe that there are really only about one or two “truly wise ways” to deal with the topic.

As I noticed yesterday how all the teachings I listened to pretty much followed this same exact pattern time after time, probably a half-dozen different thoughts sprang to mind as discussion-worthy.  I’m going to raise two points, one in this post and another in a post to follow.

First of all, I wonder if anyone else joins me in thinking that a great many of the topics SGM addresses with so much urgency (and deems the source of so much confusion) really aren’t all that urgent (or confusing), especially considering the general makeup and mindset of SGM’s membership?  From everything I’ve seen, the vast majority of SGMers settled into their SGM churches because they were looking for a more intense and careful approach to the Christian faith.  They wanted continuationism combined with “sound doctrine” and an emphasis on man’s sinfulness.  And since the vast majority of SGMers are very aware of “indwelling sin,” they’re not going to be prone to taking a “laissez faire” approach to making life’s big decisions. 

In other words, most SGMers would NEVER be described as “Que sera, sera, whatever will be will be” types of people when it comes to their walk with the Lord.  Most SGMers certainly don’t need classes to tell them that they should put some thought into their children’s education, or into helping their kids avoid sexual immorality during their teen years.  Just as likely as not, they chose SGM as their church because of SGM’s emphasis on homeschooling, or because of SGM’s parent-directed, parent-controlled approach to youth ministry and other child-rearing issues.   Even the SGM newcomers (the ones who, arguably, might have a greater need for this kind of specific-lifestyle-choice instruction) have to be already at least somewhat primed to think along the same lines as everyone else, or they’d never have come back often enough to be attending these extracurricular classes.

So if these specific-lifestyle-choice classes (or seminars, or teachings) are not in response to an actual crisis or need for instruction, then I just wonder, why do SGM pastors spend so much time addressing these topics?  And when they do address them, why do they do it in such an intense way, like there’s this big crisis that needs immediate attention?

(It struck me, as I listened to “A Teen’s Relationships With The Opposite Sex,” given to parents by Lou Gallo, that SGM pastors even know that they are “preaching to the choir” as they wax eloquent about whatever “crisis” they’re addressing.  Mr. Gallo even used those very words as he assured his audience that he knew they already were doing the things he was urgently telling them to do.  He said, “I know I’m preaching to the choir here.”) 

So I think a very good question to ask is this one:  why, since the vast majority of SGMers are already “on the same page” as their church leaders when it comes to lifestyle choices, do the leaders continue to teach about them?  This question seems even more important to ask if you consider all the disclaimers SGM pastors always include when teaching about lifestyle choices.  SGM pastors are always careful to state that they do not view the procedures they teach as being the “final word” or the “only right way.”  They always back-pedal and soft-peddle what they urge people to do. 

But, if they truly don’t want to promote formulaic approaches to Christian living, and if they truly don’t want to foster any sort of legalism, then why are they even wasting time talking about formulas and doing more to promote the very thinking that could so easily lead to legalism?

Thoughts, anyone?

© 2011, Kris. All rights reserved.