Pastor and Christian Leadership Resources

Avoiding Extremism

  • Joe McKeever
  • 2011 14 Feb
Avoiding Extremism

One of the best ways to gauge your mental health is by what you do with the teachings of Scripture.

A few instances....

  • Jesus said, "Do not worry about tomorrow" (Matthew 6:34). Bad mental health takes that to mean that long range plans, insurance programs, and concerns about the future of one's loved ones is sinful. Good mental health keeps it in the perspective of the entire Bible's teachings on the subject.
  • Jesus said, "By their fruits you will know them" (Matthew 7:20). Bad mental health takes this as a license to inspect the lives and productivity of anyone claiming to follow Christ. Good mental health sees it in context, that one's works will, generally speaking, tell the tale on who he or she really is.
  • Jesus said, "As you have believed, so let it be done for you" (Matthew 8:13). Bad mental health interprets this (and similar scriptures) as carte blanche promises that we get what we believe God for, and if we are not getting, it's because we are not believing strongly enough. Good mental health knows that there is far more to this issue than some isolated scriptures or instances of the Lord's healing.

The shooter in Tucson from a few weeks back provided one more lesson that we seem to keep getting in this country again and again: The person with poor mental health can look at anything and make it into something bad.

Three texts in I Corinthians impressed this upon me during my reading this morning.

All three verses lend themselves to misinterpretations and extreme over-reactions by people with either limited biblical understanding or poor mental health. Or both.

  • Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never again eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble. (I Corinthians 8:13)

The person with either limited knowledge of God's word or an untethered mind will read that if anyone criticizes us for anything, no matter how good or necessary it is, we should stop it. "After all, doesn't the Bible say... (and he quotes this verse)?"

The believer of better Bible understanding and balanced mental health knows that people are always going to find fault with something you do. If the grand central truth in our lives were that whatever someone stumbles over has to go, then we would soon be existing as hermits in a cave somewhere.

Or we would be the worst neurotics on the planet.

  • If we have sown spiritual things for you, is it too much if we reap material things from you? (I Corinthians (9:11)

The person who knows little about his Bible or has a severe lack in his mental stability will read this verse and the passage surrounding it, and conclude that the church "owes" him a living.

Those with better knowledge of the Word and a solid underpinning mentally will keep it in context. Paul and Barnabas were supporting themselves in the Lord's work (see 9:6), but Paul is establishing that the ministers and missionaries should, if possible, be freed for full-time work by the Lord's congregation.

Some preachers--I'm tempted to say televangelists, but the culprits have not all been broadcasters--have used this verse and similar teachings in Scripture to manipulate congregations into over-supporting them. I confess to a concern on this point regarding some of my brethren who seem to feel that if their parish boasts members driving expensive cars and living in mansions, they themselves should have the equal. This may be news to some laypeople, but it is not unknown for some ministers of the largest, richest churches to pull down astronomical salaries in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Just once, I'd love to see a pastor of a church running 10,000 driving a 5-year-old car and living in a humble 3-bedroom house. I guarantee it would offend the pride of some of his members, but think what a statement on anti-materialism it would preach.

Missing the mark on I Corinthians 9:11 would turn us all into greedy materialists of the worst sort.

  • To the weak I became weak, in order to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that I may by all means save some. (I Corinthians 9:22)

Paul was adaptable. He believed in identifying with the people he was trying to reach. If they were farmers, he would don his overalls and meet them in the field. If they were chemists, he would study up on the subject in order to discuss it with them intelligently. If they were members of a cult, he would learn their philosophy to the point he knew it better than they.

In doing so, he would capture their attention and earn their respect. Then, he could communicate with them in ways they would understand and receive.

Poor mental health believers, however, have sometimes seized on this principle and corrupted it into something Paul never intended. They have justified associating with those they were trying to reach on a low level, participating in the things they're doing, speaking the same way, laughing at the same stories, smoking their pot, and more. "All in the name of evangelism" is their mantra, violating the overarching teaching of scripture on holy behavior in order to obey a single teaching of scripture on reaching the lost.

No one can accuse Paul or the other apostles of chameleon-like antics in order to reach their target audience. In fact, Paul faults Peter for taking this principle to the extreme, when in Galatians 2:11-21 he tells of confronting Peter for being one thing with Jewish believers and another with Gentile believers.

We can all think of texts people have gone to seed on and built entire denominations upon (I'm tempted to name some here, but that would open up an entire new dimension for this article, and I'd just as soon not enrage half our readers by attacking their pet scriptures! If that statement were on Facebook, I'd follow it by a :-).

Here are a couple of cautions for those who set themselves up to "do all things in moderation" and to try to come at God's Word with their heads on straight.

1. No one is suggesting our commitment to Christ should be half-hearted.

Half-hearted discipleship is no virtue. Jesus said we must be willing to deny ourselves and, if necessary, turn our backs on our families to obey Him. We are to love the Lord "with all our hearts, souls, and minds" (Matthew 22:37).

But zealotry in the name of Christ is often more of a problem to the gospel than an asset.

Is there a scripture teaching on this? I can't think of one at the moment. It's more of a personal observation than anything.

We've seen people fast for 40 days and then attack as unbelievers anyone not doing the same. We've seen them cut up credit cards and give away all their belongings and demand the rest of us do the same, otherwise be ashamed to call ourselves Christian. In churches, we've seen compulsive soul-winners (and by that I mean people manipulating unbelievers for all the wrong motives) upset that all believers are not as zealous as they.

Such people are a hindrance to the extension of the Gospel. On Paul's second missionary journey, he began to be dogged by a young woman who went everywhere he did, calling out with a loud voice, "These men are servants of the most High God, proclaiming to you the way of salvation!" Day after day, she trailed them, extolling their virtues.

Anything wrong with what she said? Not as far as we know.

However, she was crazy. A nut case. Okay, Joe--a little moderation setting in here (Another :-). The slave girl was possessed of an evil spirit, which Paul eventually cast out. Why he waited many days before doing so, we have no idea. (Acts 16:16ff.)

Our constant prayer should be: "Lord, help me to live such an attractive existence for Jesus that others will want to get in on what I have found."

2. Anyone trying to exercise good mental health in following the Lord should understand one thing: zealots will find your brand of discipleship unworthy.

The person who prays many hours a day will sometimes fault you for praying only one.

The person who fasts frequently and who makes a fetish of his Bible and who has gone to seed on one teaching of the Word will frequently attack anyone doing less as hypocritical, compromised, or even unsaved.

Think of truth as a ridge. On either side lies an abyss, waiting for the extremist who cannot walk that narrow road, cannot abide that others are successfully negotiating it, and cannot live without his own corner on the truth with which he can attack all not in agreement with him.

Dr. Joe McKeever is a Preacher, Cartoonist, and the Director of Missions for the Baptist Association of Greater New Orleans. Visit him at Used with permission.

Publication date: January 14, 2011