–November of 2004
Americans have long had a love affair with fences. A leisurely drive through almost any neighborhood will reveal miles of fencing. Fences give us protection and security. They keep small children from straying out and trespassers from coming in. They give us a sense of ownership and control over small parcels of real estate we call our own.
The Church too has had an appreciation for fences. Early religious leaders had a practice they called, “fencing the Law.” These fences were erected to keep people from transgressing God’s commands. In more recent times we have called these fences by a variety of names, such as prudential regulations, lifestyle standards, general rules, and personal convictions. Whatever we call them, their purpose is to standardize religious behavior, simplify obedience, and encourage habits that reinforce godly lifestyles. Their ultimate goal is to prevent violations of God’s Word. These fences are such a natural part of our religious landscape that we hardly notice them.
Fences Can Serve a Valuable Purpose
The teachings of the Bible require interpretation and application. We must take the truth of scriptural commands and biblical principles and make them applicable to daily life. The biblical command to, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy” must leave the pages of scripture and work its way into our life. Denominations take this command and formulate general rules about the Sabbath for their members. Churches create manuals with membership rules that provide guidelines for honoring the Sabbath. Individuals develop personal convictions as to how they will respect the Sabbath day. These fences are erected around the commandment to instruct us in honoring it as well as to prevent us from transgressing it.
Another example is found in the biblical principle of modesty. The Bible doesn’t tell us what to wear, but it does teach us to dress modestly. Spiritual leaders develop guidelines to define and demonstrate this principle. As people follow these guidelines, they have an assurance that they are honoring the principle and not transgressing God’s Word. This is important for young Christians, as they often need things spelled out in concrete terms so they can understand and comply with the Word of God.
Furthermore, fences can be helpful in minimizing ambiguity. People do not work well in a state of flux; they like to know what to do and what not to do. This knowledge gives them a sense of security. Fences can also guard us in areas of personal weakness by highlighting potential danger that for others might be a harmless activity.
The Danger of Fences
In our zeal to build fences that serve to keep souls in the straight and narrow way, we can fall prey to the dangers that abound in humanly devised fences. One of the first dangers is an inconsistent application of scripture. Sometimes this is caused by relying on proof-texts that do not square with the whole counsel of God. For example, some people are extremely focused on the biblical passages regarding the tithe, and somehow miss the host of others that deal with the overarching principles of stewardship. They take a false security in giving their ten percent and sense no guilt at all for failing to follow the biblical teaching that God owns it all and we are but stewards. In other cases, they build on a solid biblical truth but fail to apply it to the totality of life. For instance, there are those that apply the biblical prohibitions against worldliness to what they wear or do not wear, and then proceed to be as greedy, grasping, and materialistic as the man who does not even know God. What about those who speak out against defiling the body with tobacco, alcohol, and drugs and never mention the sin of over-indulging in food until obesity harms the body, shortens the life, and blights the testimony?
Another danger is erecting fences based on preference and taste rather than principle and truth. This is a slippery slope indeed. I’ve listened to spiritual leaders deride young people over the praise and worship music they listen to. They tell them it is shallow, repetitious, and has more entertainment value than worship value. While these criticisms have some validity, these same leaders attend Southern Gospel concerts put on by shallow, worldly performers, highly talented in vocalizing light weight lyrics, gifted in dispensing one-liners that poke fun at the Church and the “Man up stairs,” who have mastered the art of taking their hand clapping foot stomping congregation on an entertaining, emotionally thrilling journey from laughter to tears. It seems to me that both young and old need to put principle back into their music choices.
Fences become extremely dangerous when they are endowed with Divine authority and made equal to the Word of God. This can lead to division in the Church, create disdain for others who do not see it as we do, and breed judgmental thinkers. For example, there seems to be a renewed concern in the conservative holiness movement over facial hair on men. When the conservative holiness movement emerged over a hundred years ago, the leaders were amazed to see God blessing clean-shaved men in their meetings. This shift highlights the importance of not giving changing cultural fads the authority of scripture. Generally, fences have to do with the application of sound Christian disciplines and should not become issues that divide the church or condemn a brother. Fences may differ from one culture to the next, from one section of the country to the next, and from one century to the next. Fences may change, but the biblical principle they reflect never changes.
Fences are wrong when they become a higher priority than people. Jesus had a major confrontation with the Pharisees over this issue. They had laid down such strict fences for Sabbath observance that they prohibited acts of necessity and deeds of mercy. When Jesus healed the man with the withered hand on the Sabbath day they were so infuriated they began to plot his destruction. Jesus made the priority of people clear when he said, “The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath.”
Finally, one of the most subtle dangers of fences is that they can become a substitute for a living vital relationship with God. If all there is to the Christian life is just making sure we stay within the fences, then all we have found is a dead way. The true Christian life is a living way that can only be lived through the power of God’s Spirit in a journey marked by faith. Fences may direct us to God, but they cannot make us holy. They may aid us in living a Spirit–filled life, but they are not the source of that life. In fact, the deeper we grow in Christ, the more we assimilate biblical truth into our lives, and the more sensitive we become to the voice of the Holy Spirit, the less need we should have for fences to keep our feet in the narrow path toward heaven. Sadly, some people measure the depth of their spiritual experience by the number of fences still needed in their life.
I am thankful for the fences that have helped me grow in grace. They have protected me from unnecessary temptation and harm. These fences have been my friends, but they have never been my focus. I have endeavored to join with the Hebrew writer in, “Fixing my eyes on Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of my faith.”