Something has been bothering me about the evangelical church in the UK. It's certainly an issue elsewhere, and it's nothing new, but, as an evangelical Christian in the UK, I'm most aware of it in that context. It shows up to a greater or lesser extent in different parts of the evangelical church. I'm going to call it spiritual reductionism. It goes like this:
The only things that ultimately matter are God and human souls.
Reductionism is when you say X is really nothing but Y. In the evangelical church, it shows up in this kind of attitude:
- This world is nothing but a stage for the real spiritual action to take place.
- All the details of our lives are nothing but opportunities for us to grow in holiness and to share the love of Christ, so that people's souls can be saved for eternity.
- Nothing matters in life but our personal, spiritual relationship with God and his people.
Now, you might not hear that expressed in so many words, but what would the Christian life be like if someone believed those things?
- While the Bible speaks of the future in terms of God coming to set his creation free, to restore all things and to raise the dead to physical life, the spiritual reductionist would speak about the future simply in terms of believers spending eternity in the presence of God. The other details don't matter.
- While the Bible speaks of godliness in terms of both inner and outer transformation, the spiritual reductionist is really concerned only with inner transformation: how much you love God, how satisfied you are in him, and how pure your thoughts and attitudes are. Good works are of no value in themselves, and their real value is as a window into our inner, spiritual state. Hence the evangelical emphasis on those good works that show most clearly the state of our personal, inner, spiritual relationship with God: reading the Bible, prayer, going to church, talking to people about Jesus, and not having lustful thoughts.
- While the Bible gives plenty of examples of God's concern for people's material needs, for issues of social justice and the like, the spiritual reductionist would speak of people's needs almost exclusively in terms of their need for a personal spiritual relationship with God. Any other needs are barely even real in comparison.
- While the Bible gives plenty of accounts of God's dealings with his people in terms of their physical dwelling places, and in terms of their relationship to the land, the spiritual reductionist would receive those accounts as nothing but images for us of our spiritual relationship with God.
- While the Bible gives plenty of examples of God's concern for physical health, and even for a reversal of physical death, the spiritual reductionist would understand those primarily to be illustrations about our spiritual health and our spiritual life.
- While the Bible speaks as though all aspects of our lives really have significance, the spiritual reductionist will think that the only aspects of our lives that really have significance are those that contribute to the saving of souls and our spiritual relationship with God.
Does that sound familiar?
The problem is not that the spiritual reductionist emphasises the importance of having a right relationship to God. The problem is that this relationship is limited to some invisible "spiritual" dimension. But what the Bible teaches us, from Genesis to Revelation, from generation to regeneration, is that all dimensions of human life are important aspects of our relationship to God, because all dimensions of human life are part of how God made us to be, and all dimensions of human life will remain significant and important in the coming age, when the eternal reign of Christ has been established on the earth. Let's try to recover a sense of that in our churches today.