There is a real danger within the church of something that is rarely talked about but ultimately can cripple a body of believers. Jesus confronts it consistently.
It is what I call “symbolism over substance!”
In the Gospel of Matthew, he gives the account of his conversion in 9:9,10. It is a fascinating study of how Christ goes after the heart of hypocrisy of symbolism over substance. Jesus goes straight to where Matthew was working and says two uncomplicated words, “Follow me!” While those two words are certainly simple, the implications behind them were enormous and life-changing. That call would forever change his life! Matthew went out and threw a banquet with all of his friends and co-sinners, I mean, co-workers! Jesus sat and banqueted with them and no doubt spoke of the Father as He was always quick to do! It would have been such a banquet like never experienced before!
But the Pharisees blew a gasket! Why? Because of symbolism over substance! They reacted to what it looked like (symbolism) rather than what was really happening (substance). It looked really bad for Jesus to sit with such sinners. To the Pharisees, it appeared to them that Jesus was giving some sort of approving wink at their sinful ways. Jesus was doing nothing of the sort! This gathering of sinners got to see first hand the power and authority of the God-Man who had just transformed one of their co-sinners, I mean co-workers. But the Pharisees got all bent out of shape because of what it looked like. You see, they had worked hard to get rid of these sinners who had so corrupted their society. Now Jesus was reclining with them.
Churches can get into this mode when their eyes are no longer on the real mission of the church. Jesus reminded the Pharisees of His own mission in 9:13: “Christ declared, ‘For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners’ to repentance” (as Luke 5:32 adds). Jesus’s own mission was the substance of all that He was and all that He did for real sinners. The Gospel is by nature substance. It is truth to be believed. We give ourselves to the truth of who Jesus is and what Jesus has done for us! When symbolism (what it looks like) becomes more important than the substance of the Gospel, courage is lost, love for others wains, humility shrivels up, and self-righteousness becomes the all encompassing way of doing church life.
The church cannot afford to pursue “what it looks like.” It must go for substance! It must find out what is true. In loving people, look past what their lives look like and how they appear to you. We very often carry self-righteous standards and quietly lay them on people without them ever knowing it. This is crippling to people who desperately need Gospel mercy and generous compassion.
It starts as a hair-line fracture in the foundation when one person decides what obedience to God looks like in a given situation. This “way” slowly begins to find approval with others. Over time this way becomes the “law of the land.” The law then becomes “tradition” and the people approve the tradition. Over more time it becomes “sacred tradition.” Even in leadership meetings, space is given to the sacred tradition and thus it rises to the point of unquestionability. Elder decisions are made in keeping with the sacred tradition rather than what God’s Word says. It then becomes about “who is right” rather than “what is right.” It is like this huge snowball meandering down the snow-covered hill and it grows over time and if no one stops it from growing it soon smashes into the structure and the crack in the foundation implodes. The church is left in shambles and people are crushed beneath the weight of something that should have never been that big in the first place. To be clear, there may be really nothing wrong with the first person’s way of obedience in a given situation. The problem comes when it is wrongly elevated to another level unchallenged, ignored, or worse, defended.
How do you know if that sound you hear is the tumbling snowball? Jesus speaks to Pharisees, “Go and learn what this means” (9:13) which was a rabbinic formula that encouraged humble repentance for their lack of knowledge about what they should have known. He then points their hearts to a passage in Hosea that speaks of God’s sweet mercy to the nation of Israel pictured by the prophet’s wayward wife Gomer. God pursued them with steadfast love and mercy. The remedy to their self-righteousness is simply the grace of Christ at work in their hearts through the Word of God. It is this grace that works into the people of God a humble heart that learns, a will that is filled with mercy, and emotions that are governed by truth.
May God keep His church from symbolism over substance!