If I had an easy solution to the problem of zealotry, I wouldn’t need to write about it because an easy solution would create a situation were zealotry would not appear. The issues are complex, they involve human nature, and they involve the hopes of people. So, here are my suggestions, and I’m open to hear your suggestions as well.
Before I say anything this should be observed: we have to avoid making fences ourselves that will keep us from falling into zealotry. There is no solution other than to love God, to love others, to trust in God, to trust in others — that sort of thing. Rarely in life are their simple solutions to anything — and those who propose so are always mistaken. Sure, if you love God aright you won’t be a zealous, but loving God is obviously not quite as simple as it is right.
Above all, we are dealing the the zeal that leads to going beyond the Bible, finding immunity in such zeal, and the judgmentalism that develops from it. So, what to do?
1. Trust God, trust the Spirit. Believe that God is at work in the Church, in the local church, in the leaders, in the community of faith, and in individuals. Trust God to guide at each of these levels, trust that the Spirit is at work in each person.
Trusting God means that we will permit groups, even whole denominations, and individuals to make mistakes. Giving people freedom to be led by God’s Spirit means giving people the freedom to fail, to experiment with options we might not choose but which, in some cases, will lead to renewal and revival; in other cases freedom might lead to messes and problems.
Notice that I believe in God before the Bible; some get nervous here, but I find it almost impossible to avoid idolatry if we don’t make this separation. (For a study of something that addresses this issue, see Tom Wright, The Last Word, where he argues that the Bible’s authority is the authority of God through the Bible; or read John Franke’s The Character of Theology.)
2. Trust the Bible in what it says and what it does not say. If zealotry by definition is going beyond, we have to learn not to go beyond the Bible. But, what we need most of all is an acute and constant awareness of where we are biblical and where we are not. We could probably all benefit from routine evaluation of church statements to see if they are biblical.
Classically, this is called the sufficiency of Scripture. Trust it. Which means live with it.
3. Trust the Great Traditions as expressive of the Story. I am a Protestant, and I adhere to sola scriptura in the sense of the primacy of Scripture. I do not for one minute believe any of us is sola in the sense of “only, and that is all” when it comes to our theology. Each one of us expresses a tradition, little or great, and those traditions influence us.
On debatable praxis decisions we need to begin with the primacy of Scripture and then learn the perspective of the Great Traditions (East and West, Protestant — there are no other Great Traditions). The evangelical tendency, and sometimes zealous commitment, to neglect and disparage the Great Traditions is unacceptable and upfront confesses that God has by and large abandoned his people in the Great Traditions (or at least two of them). This won’t do.
So, we need to learn what the Great Traditions have said, and to embrace that God has been at work in these Great Traditions — not infallibly, but still at work.
We need to embrace those traditions as our story, the story of God in the Church, and to see how we can, in light of God’s Spirit and leading and Scripture and those traditions, with reason, forge a new way in our world.
4. Break down every fence in every official local church statement, or at least get together and talk about the fences. What we need, of course, is a reformational revival, the next reformation, or whatever you want to call it. How? By critically subjecting what we believe and what we do, our faith and our praxis, to the authority of God’s Spirit through the Scripture as expressed aforetime in the Great Traditions.
Pray to God that God’s mercy will extend to us in this great task.
I want to thank the many who have read this series and those who have engaged it in conversation; I’ve had numerous private e-mails that have mentioned tht this series has been helpful to them. To me, too.