Religious radicalism and the cult of commitment

What is it that drives a religious believer to act in the most fanatical and obnoxious of ways? What kind of motivation drives such a person to abuse others? Why is it that some who profess belief in a God of justice and even a God of love act in ways that are hardly just and loving? Why is it that some people commit murder as an act of service to their God?

Many people argue that religion turns an otherwise good person into a raging fanatic, and the sooner the world is rid of religion the better. ‘Religion’ is blamed for conflict, terrorism and oppression, and often not without reason: the emergence of so called ‘Islamic State’ can hardly be understood solely in political and social terms. A recent presentation on the iWonder page of the BBC website asks Would the world be more peaceful without religion? A cursory search for “atheist quotes” on the internet will reveal that many famous and distinguished people would enthusiastically answer that question in the affirmative! An example is the extraordinary statement from Gwyneth Paltrow: “Religion is the cause of all the problems in the world”. Clearly the oppressed people of atheist North Korea and those who had lived in “officially atheist” Albania under Enver Hoxha or in the USSR, would find it hard to agree with such a statement!

Even though Gwyneth Paltrow’s comment can easily be debunked when exposed to the facts of human experience, it is nonetheless true that religion has been the source of much evil and suffering throughout history. No intelligent believer in God can deny this.

But why is it that a person, who professes to believe in a just, merciful and loving God, can act towards others in a way that is, at best, cynical and misanthropic, and at worst, downright abusive?

A psychological process
To answer this question we need to understand the psychological process of religious radicalisation. This process, which may be subtle or overt, takes place within a culture and atmosphere that I would like to describe as “the cult of commitment”.

I am presenting my view from the vantage point of a Christian, but it can certainly apply to other religions. Throughout my Christian life I have often heard people referred to as “committed Christians”, for example…”Oh, did you know that such and such a celebrity is not only a great actor (or musician or sportsman), but he is also a committed Christian…” or some such comment. It is as if the simple term ‘Christian’ is not good enough! There is a need to distinguish between a run-of-the-mill ‘Christian’, who is – or could be – merely ‘nominal’, on the one hand, and a ‘proper’ Christian – that is, a “committed Christian”, on the other. What is often forgotten by those who deploy this term is that it is also possible to be a nominal ‘committed’ Christian! After all, if someone can make a show of being merely a Christian, then why is it not also possible to make a show of possessing some level of Christian commitment?

Because God is perceived by many believers as primarily an authority figure, and He is also the moral judge of mankind, many religious believers regard personal sacrifice and observable commitment to be the only authentic and faithful basis to their relationship to the Supreme Being. For them such a response to God must be costly: it must involve giving up aspects of life which are perceived to be characteristic of normal daily experience. The natural life therefore has to be suppressed. The religious life has to be seen to be ‘different’ from the common life. Since love and compassion are part of daily life and relationships, then these values are reinterpreted in a more ‘muscular’ and austere direction, to the point where they are stripped of their normal meaning. The world is then divided into two camps: those who are committed to God and those who are not. The latter are then described in depersonalised categories: “the lost”, “the unregenerate”, “apostates”, “unbelievers”, “the infidel”. These descriptions then provide a subtle justification for different forms of abuse. The task of the committed religious believer is to convert such people, or, in extreme cases, to be the agent of God’s supposed judgment on them.

A competition to win accolades
We only need to observe the behaviour of certain aggressive Christian street preachers to see this dynamic in action, in which unsuspecting passers-by – people about whom the preacher knows next to nothing – are subjected to verbal abuse and unwarranted accusations delivered in a strident and completely non-compassionate tone of voice. The “sins of flesh” are emphasised – usually of a sexual nature – and the more deadly sins of pride, self-righteousness, abuse of religious authority and a lack of compassion towards the poor and needy (the greater sins denounced by Jesus Himself) are almost never mentioned.

As someone who was once a member of a Christian fellowship, which valued street evangelism above almost any other aspect of the Christian life, I can understand what most probably motivates these preachers, and I doubt it is the love of God. What drives such people is the need to be affirmed and praised within their Christian fellowship for having had the ‘courage’ to go out to “lost and fallen” humanity and do battle with the forces of evil. This is the narrative that is persistently reinforced within such fellowships. It’s a game – a competition – to win accolades within your faith community. The preachers may meet up after their ‘mission’ and exchange notes – and literal or figurative high fives – about what brave things they have done out in the devil’s backyard. This is the psychological reward within the cult of commitment. It has, of course, very little or nothing to do with genuine Christian discipleship motivated by the grace of God.

Driven by fear
The cult of commitment operates through fear: fear of God’s displeasure, and at the root of this is the fear of hell. The leader of the group plays on this emotion and reinforces the loyalty of his flock by focusing on certain passages of the Bible, which speak of the need to be ‘wholehearted’, ‘single-minded’ and “a living sacrifice” for the Lord. The word ‘cost’ appears with great frequency in the discourse of such a fellowship. The cross of Jesus Christ is primarily interpreted in terms of an example, which we should follow. And thus we have “the martyr complex” at the heart of the cult of commitment.

Now clearly this cult is not limited to Christianity. We know the tragic effect of the martyr complex on the followers of other religions, and we have seen that there is a very small step from being willing to die the death of a martyr to being willing to end the lives of others alongside your own. This murderous understanding of religious commitment is really a fanatical extension of the more subtle forms of the cult of commitment, in which misanthropy is justified with reference to God’s judgment on those who are viewed as outsiders. Normal human emotions, which should act as a check on such radical behaviour, are ignored as the temptation of the flesh and the devil – a force seeking to weaken one’s costly devotion to the voice of God. Healthy feelings of fraternity, community and sympathy towards others are viewed with suspicion and the devotee in this cult is taught to suppress such sentiments under the weight of “God’s holy word”. When the disciple then suffers rejection as a result of his obnoxious behaviour, his commitment to his religion is reinforced, because he is now proud of the ‘persecution’ he is suffering. Such a person is, of course, a victim of brainwashing, and young adults, who naturally are seeking a challenge in life, are particularly vulnerable to this.

The true basis of commitment
The way to combat the destructive influence of the religious “cult of commitment” requires a complete rethink of the concept of discipleship. Christian discipleship is based on the love and grace of God, in which we are not required to prove our commitment at all. In fact, any Christian who tries to prove how committed he is, is disproving his commitment by that very act. True commitment involves a complete trust in God, in which we forget about our own level of devotion to Him. Anyone who says “I am wholehearted for God” has proven that he is anything but wholehearted, because a truly wholehearted believer would not be talking about himself at all in such terms.

As the Bible says…

“I desire mercy and not sacrifice”. Hosea chapter 6, verse 6

“With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before the high God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves of a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” Micah chapter 6, verses 6-8.

“Remind them to be subject to rulers and authorities, to obey, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to be peaceable, gentle, showing all humility to all people.” Titus chapter 3, verses 1-2.

True committed discipleship involves a wholehearted embrace of those values which describe God’s character: love, mercy, justice, humility and respect for others. Any other form of commitment is bogus, no matter how costly, no matter how much it may require courage and personal suffering.

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What is a “lukewarm Christian”?

In Revelation chapter 3, verses 15-16, Jesus described the church at Laodicea as ‘lukewarm’. What does this actually mean? Does the text give us any indication as to how to interpret this saying accurately?

The passage is as follows:

3:14 And to the angel of the church of the Laodiceans write; These things said the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of the creation of God;
3:15 I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot: I would you were cold or hot.
3:16 So then because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth.

3:17 Because you say, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and know not that you are wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked:
3:18 I counsel you to buy of me gold tried in the fire, that you may be rich; and white raiment, that you may be clothed, and that the shame of your nakedness do not appear; and anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see.
3:19 As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent.
3:20 Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.
3:21 To him that overcomes will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne.
3:22 He that has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit said to the churches.

It appears (from numerous sermons, articles and videos) that the most popular and prevalent interpretation of the highlighted verses goes as follows:

An unbeliever is ‘cold’.

A fervent, zealous and utterly committed radical Christian believer is ‘hot’.

An undisciplined, half-hearted, worldly, lazy, cowardly, non-committal professing Christian is ‘lukewarm’.

Jesus has told us that He would prefer a Christian to be an out-and-out unbeliever than to be a half-hearted believer. Thus ‘cold’ is preferable to ‘lukewarm’.

The text in Revelation therefore presents us with a spiritual thermometer, in which the mercury rises as spiritual commitment increases, and yet our Lord hates the middle temperature more than the lower one.

A legalistic measuring stick
This interpretation thus provides the ammunition for certain church leaders to castigate their flock with accusations of “not doing enough for Jesus, not giving enough time or money; not evangelising enough and so on”. Those who wish to crush and control Christian believers with guilt and fear naturally champion such a reading of this text. Interestingly there are many images on the internet under the phrase “lukewarm Christian” which feature a thermometer. Clearly the idea of “cold – lukewarm – hot” is promoted as a rather legalistic measuring stick to assess a Christian believer’s level of commitment.

It might come as something of a shock to such overbearing leaders that this interpretation is completely false, as the application of common sense logic will reveal. A different – and indeed far more radical – interpretation can be deduced from the text itself, and this is supported by some background information regarding geographical context.

In verse 15 of the above mentioned biblical text we read: “I would you were cold or hot”.

Jesus made clear that He wants the believers at Laodicea to be either ‘cold’ or ‘hot’. Does Jesus Christ want professing Christians to be unbelievers and totally alienated from God? If this is what ‘cold’ means, then that is exactly what He wants! In the context of the entire testimony of Scripture, this is clearly absurd.

Scale of preferences
Of course, some may argue that what it means is not that Jesus really wants Christians to be out-and-out unbelievers, but that He would prefer that to their being ‘lukewarm’. There is a certain feeling of plausibility to this reading, but it is not supported either by the testimony of the rest of Scripture or indeed by this passage of Revelation. The verb ‘prefer’ or an equivalent does not appear in the text.

The original Greek word for “I would” is ophelon. W.E. Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words (Zondervan: 1940) explains that “Ophelon (the 2nd aorist tense of opheilō, to owe) expresses a wish, “I would that”, either impracticable, 1 Cor. 4:8, R.V. (A.V., “would to God”); or possible, 2 Cor. 11:1; Gal. 5:12; Rev. 3:15.”

Clearly the verb expresses desire, and the use of the aorist tense indicates that the action should be understood to relate only to the immediate context in which it is relevant. Concerning the use of the aorist tense, the New Testament Greek scholar J.W. Wenham in his book The Elements of New Testament Greek (Cambridge University Press: 1965) states: “The action of the verb is thought of as simply happening, without any regard to its continuance or frequency.” (emphasis mine).

Therefore the use of “I would that” relates directly and immediately to a particular church, that is, the Church of Laodicea, in which all to whom our Lord was speaking were professing believers in Him. Now it clearly makes no sense for Jesus to say to such people: “I would prefer that you were unbelievers than non-committal, compromising believers”. The point is that they were already believers, at least nominally. Was it really our Lord’s desire that they should completely unlearn and ‘unknow’ what they knew about the Christian faith and remain in that state of ignorance?

This would be as absurd as saying that a mathematics teacher, who is concerned about the educational attainment of his pupils in this subject, would say to those who are lazy and fail to do their homework: “I really want you to forget all about mathematics. Reject the subject and do all you can to obliterate all you have learnt from your memory.” Of course not! A responsible teacher would say: “What I really want is for you to knuckle down, do the work and get a good grasp of the subject”.

If the “spiritual commitment thermometer” reading of Revelation 3:15-16 is correct, then the only conceivable desire Jesus could have expressed is: “I would that you were hot, and not cold or lukewarm.” Now, as mentioned, someone may counter this by bringing up the question of preference: “OK, it is true that Jesus would really want believers to be ‘hot’, but He would prefer believers to be ‘cold’ rather than lukewarm.”

As I have already stated, this view sounds superficially plausible. The only problem with it is that it contains a terrible irony.

Second preference compromise
The whole point of this interpretation of Jesus’ words to the church at Laodicea, is that it speaks against compromise. Compromise is seen as the worst of all worlds. How then can such a position be defended by imputing compromise to our Lord? If what Jesus really wants for believers is complete commitment described by the adjective ‘hot’, then why would He state a second preference, namely, ‘cold’, and settle for that as long as His people were not ‘lukewarm’? The whole point of this interpretation is that there are no second preferences! There is no tolerating a ‘Plan B’ that falls short of God’s perfect and uncompromising desire for the Church. It is “all or nothing”.

Thus the interpretation shoots itself in the foot. How can we be expected to uncompromisingly serve a compromising God? It simply does not add up.

If the interpretation is not that of a spiritual commitment thermometer, then what is the correct reading of this text?

A question of water supply
Clearly both ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ are equally desired by Christ. Both describe genuine spiritual commitment and fruitfulness. In the context of the original saying, it really is not hard to understand that this is the case. ‘Hot’ and ‘cold’ concern the temperature of something to drink, which is, quite obviously, water. In a hot climate a cold drink is refreshing. Hot water can be therapeutic.

This interpretation is supported by the geographical and historical context of the city of Laodicea.

Laodicea was located near two other cities: Hierapolis to the north-west and Colossae to the south-east.

Hierapolis (today known as Pamukkale) was a spa town, with a natural spring producing hot water. This natural benefit induced the inhabitants to worship Heracles, the god of health and hot springs. Today there are seventeen hot springs at Pamukkale whose water ranges in temperature from 35 to 100 degrees centigrade.

Colossae was situated on the Lycus river, which disappeared underground for about 900 metres just north of where the city was located. The phenomenon would have cooled the water, and hence it explains the presence of cold springs near the city. It is understood that the ceiling of this underground chasm collapsed in the earthquake of AD 60.

Unlike these two cities, Laodicea, despite being the wealthiest city of the region, had no natural source of water. Water had to be piped in from other areas via an aquaduct. When the water arrived it was usually lukewarm and contaminated with various minerals.

It is therefore easy to understand how the Laodicean Christians would have understood Jesus’ words. Their water was neither refreshingly cold nor therapeutically hot. Being lukewarm, it had an emetic quality, likely therefore to cause vomiting.

The geographical context of the Laodicean Church strongly indicates that ‘cold’ cannot possibly describe anything other than spiritual blessing. In a hot climate cold water cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be considered ‘bad’.

Therefore ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ represent qualities of spiritual blessing and fruitfulness, with neither one being superior or more desirable than the other. Both are facets of Christian commitment. For this reason Jesus desires them both and they simply characterise different approaches to the work of the gospel. This is further confirmed by other biblical references to cold water, representing the work of the Holy Spirit, for example, John 4:6-15, when Jesus, being wearied from His journey, asked the Samaritan woman to draw water from the well and give Him a drink. Obviously this water would have been cold water, and Jesus then likens it to “the living water” that He can give and that will become in the person receiving it “a well of water springing up into everlasting life”. Are we seriously to believe that the drink Jesus asked for really represents “unbelief and a lack of a relationship with God”, because it was a drink of cold rather than hot water?! Clearly this is nonsense.

Set against the ‘good’ of “hot and cold” is the evil of ‘lukewarm’. The adjective ‘lukewarm’ clearly describes the kind of ministry and spiritual life, which falls short of providing the benefits that, spiritually speaking, “hot and cold water” provide. Cold water brings refreshment in a hot and arid land. Hot water has a healing property. Cold water relieves those who are burdened and exhausted, while hot water comforts and heals those who are broken by illness. By contrast lukewarm water falls short of providing both these benefits.

The message is very clear.

What a lukewarm Christian is not
The lukewarm Christian is not someone who just doesn’t measure up against a legalistic “spiritual thermometer”. It does not describe someone who isn’t giving enough in terms of time, money and commitment to the local church. But rather it is someone who manifestly fails to bring refreshment, healing and deliverance to those who are weak, burdened, ill and suffering.

Those who take it upon themselves to trouble other Christians with accusations of half-heartedness and compromise, really ought to consider whether they themselves are actually candidates for being vomited out of Jesus’ mouth. Burdening other Christians with guilt and playing on their vulnerability and fear of God’s judgment is not consistent with ministering the cold water of refreshment and the hot water of healing.

Those who refuse to live in the liberating grace of God and discourage others from doing so, are the true “lukewarm Christians”. As Galatians 1:6-7 indicate, they are “preaching another gospel”: the gospel of legalism. For this reason they are the ones who, tragically, will suffer the kind of judgment described in Revelation 3:16. Continue reading