Death by a Thousand Cuts

 

Apparently there was a form of torture and execution that was used by the Chinese from about 900 AD to 1905 AD when it was banned. It was used only for the most serious of crimes. The guilty person was tied to a frame and a cut made each day until the person expired.

 

Most of us have cut ourselves at some time or another, and cuts vary enormously in their seriousness. Occasionally I have discovered that I have suffered a small cut without realizing it, and only discovered it when I have felt a sore spot or seen a small smear of blood. Much more serious is when we have an accident and suffer a severe cut or slash.

 

This term has been used metaphorically many times since, and I want to apply it to the way Evangelicalism is gradually losing its distinctives and its power through ‘a thousand cuts.’

 

It is not that important doctrines are jettisoned suddenly, or even traditional standards are abruptly abandoned. What happens is that very often beliefs and practices are quietly considered to be ‘secondary issues’ and so gradually abandoned. Obviously there are some things that are not very important and can be abandoned or ignored. But sometimes matters that are fundamental are considered to be of secondary importance which results in them being gradually abandoned. The difficulty is that many Christians are not able to distinguish between essentials, or serious matters, and non-essentials. One long-term result of this is that each new generation tends to accept the status quo as the normal standard.

 

Another example is when things die out from neglect, and a new generation does not realize that such things once were the norm, but now are not practised at all. Sometimes practices are abandoned without realizing that though the thing in question may not seem to be very important, it has a knock-on effect and produces unexpected results.

 

Among more important ‘cuts’ I have observed recently – and in print, too – are these subjects listed as of ‘secondary’ importance: Baptism, the historicity of Genesis 1-3, Hell, separation from worldliness, the concept of a ‘state church’ versus independency, abortion, homosexuality and gender issues. Are these really secondary issues?

 

There are a number of apparently less important matters over which there is disagreement. At first glance they may seem to be trivial, but so often they lead on to more serious effects. Here are three examples; please read the implications carefully:

 

  1. Dressing down. Please do not skip this! I know all the arguments: culture, the type of meeting; what the world is wearing; the country lived in, etc. But consider the following:
  2. Many men who dress down for the public worship of God are rather inconsistent, in that they dress smartly for a wedding, a funeral, or special civic occasion, such as attending Buckingham Palace. Which is the more important?
  3. I observe that very often sports commentators on television are very smartly dressed. They consider it right to dress ‘up’ for the worship of their ‘god’.
  4. The more important the profession and the occasion, the more smartly people tend to dress. For example, a minister is supposed to be an ‘ambassador for Christ.’ How do the UK (or other country) ambassadors dress when they are on duty?

 

I believe that if we consider the worship of almighty God to be relatively unimportant and dress down, it tends to affect our attitude. Consequently I have observed that where churches have adopted a ‘dress down’ policy, the worship leader tends to behave more casually in the pulpit, putting his hands in his pockets (which used to be considered bad manners when addressing older people or higher ranks) and awe and reverence are frequently missing.

 

  1. Making people feel welcome. I am all for that. But that is not the same thing as making them mentally comfortable. When the Word of God is preached sinners should feel distinctly uncomfortable. The Holy Spirit’s work is to make people uncomfortable (John 16:8, 9)! There is no regeneration where there is no repentance, and there will be no repentance where there is no conviction of sin. And if we take this making them comfortable too far we may be working against the Holy Spirit. We must, of course, welcome people. But this is sometimes taken so far that the real purpose of a worship service is forgotten, and everything is tailored to suit unbelievers! Worship services are meant to be for the church. Evangelism is meant to be carried out by the members outside the church, and the church services are for the edification of Christians, the exaltation of the Lord Jesus, and the worship of the Holy Trinity. A notorious example of this error is Willow Creek Church founded by Bill Hybels. Hybels set out to model the church on what the local populace wanted. A penetrating PhD study by G. A. Pritchard[1] revealed that this procedure has had unexpected consequences. In a nutshell, the Sunday services are more or less an entertainment with little congregational participation. The believers are ministered to at a mid-week service. The New Testament does not normally expect unbelievers to come to the services. I Corinthians 14:23-25 mentions the possibility that an unbeliever might come in. But if he does, he is judged, convicted and falls down in fear, convicted of his sin and aware of the presence of God.

 

  1. Hymns. Good, sound biblical hymns are being side-lined and so generations are growing up in ignorance of them. Let me begin by saying that a hymn is not good just because it is old, nor is it bad because it is new. There were rubbishy hymns in the past, but most have faded away. Generally speaking, it is the good, sound hymns that tend to last. There are some good hymns being written today, but there is also a lot of rubbish around, with poor poetry, monotonous tunes, and negligible theology. The tragedy is that many of the excellent hymns of the past are not being sung and learned by the new generations. Recently I was in a service in which the speaker had chosen the hymn ‘Crown Him with many crowns’ to be sung before his sermon. The young man who was leading worship said, “I have never heard of this hymn before, I don’t know it!”

Well, you can’t know them all, but if good sound hymns were regularly sung all the young people would get to know them. This is very important because, according to Colossians 3:16 hymns are meant to be didactic. People tend to learn much of their theology by a process of osmosis through good sound hymns. The trouble is some people hear a song on a CD by a modern Christian vocalist; they like it and think, “Oh, that would be good to have in church.” But that is not necessarily the case at all. Songs that are meant for private listening are not necessarily suitable for congregational worship.

 

What are the signs of a good hymn? I believe there are three necessities.

  1. The words must be sound and biblically based, allowing, of course, for poetic licence, such as the trees of the field clapping their hands, and so forth.
  2. They should be written in attractive and effective poetry, not doggerel.
  3. The tunes should be singable, memorable and worthy of the truth contained in the hymn.

 

There are many other matters one could mention, but the general area of concern should be clear. We must not allow the gospel and true church practice die the death of a thousand cuts.

I would recommend the small book, What is an Evangelical, by Dr. D. M. Lloyd-Jones for a thorough examination of what evangelicalism really is. This is also included as a chapter in Lloyd-Jones’ larger book, Knowing the Times, [Banner of Truth].

[1] Willow Creek Seeker Services by G. A. Pritchard. Pritchard is not antagonistic to Willow Creek, but he is a realist.

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