“Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1 NKJV).
When I first began to travel internationally most major airlines were allowing up to two checked pieces of luggage, each of which could contain up to 70 pounds. Additionally, each passenger was allowed one carry-on bag and a personal item such as a purse, briefcase, or camera bag. Over-weight was often ignored.
Those times are long past. Even before the pandemic weight and quantity of bags was reduced even on the largest jets. Now one must carefully consider just what is essential for travel and leave behind much that might be useful. Our concept of excess has changed drastically, as has that of essential.
This same transformation has affected much more than just travel. Tiny houses, small apartments, sub-compact cars, and many other reductions appeal to major sections of the population. So, too, do modern alternatives to traditional religions.
Words like church and familiar denominational names carry many negative connotations in the modern world. As a result, one sees a plethora of independent institutions whose signage suggests religion without the baggage of hypocrisy, harsh judgment, and sectarian strife from which so many recoil.
On a recent trip I saw such a sign. It proclaimed, “First Independent All Nation Full Gospel Church.” I could not help but interpret that as an effort to distance themselves from traditional institutions and to claim as much tolerance and acceptance as a visitor might wish to encounter.
The list of features of mainstream denominations considered objectionable in today’s society is long, and only partially covered in the list just above (hypocrisy, etc.). To those must be added intolerance, boredom, irrelevance, and others. Religious leaders who are committed to the meeting-felt-needs approach to marketing and church growth have sought to adapt by utilizing new and sometimes radical methods and doctrines. Prominent among these is the abandonment of what is perceived as excess baggage.
The idea of leaving behind that which is unnecessary, counterproductive, or a hindrance to one’s objectives is sound and even biblical. The issue is not whether we should shed those things, but rather just what is excess and what is necessary?
Take for example the problem of engaging modern audiences in the worship of God. For decades it has been charged that traditional church assemblies are boring. Especially is this aimed at sermons and Bible studies. The fact is that Christianity is a taught and learned endeavor (Ephesians 4:17-24; Romans 10:13-17). One cannot practice it without some time spent in study and thought. To those who have no interest in spiritual matters, all sermons, no matter how skillfully presented, will be tedious. The proper approach to this situation is not to abandon the effort to teach but to seek to prepare the audience for learning.
Other often criticized features of religion are harsh judgment and intolerance. Jesus taught us not to judge inappropriately (Matthew 7:1-2). But in the same context he also counseled his disciples to “beware of false prophets,” advising that “You will know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:15-16). Obviously, he did not ban all judgment, but rather that which was hypocritical and based on a double standard. Some judging is not only allowed but demanded.
With regard to the charge of intolerance, it is true that Christianity claims exclusivity. “Narrow is the gate and difficult is the way that leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Matthew 7:14). The biblical truth is that not everyone is going to heaven. Not every human choice is open to those who would please God. There are practices of which God himself is intolerant. His followers must not abandon those principles as excess.
One who would run the Christian race must avoid unnecessary hindrances. But he or she must also be equipped with all that is essential to overcome sin and to “Be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 15:58).