Secret Church is an annual event put on by David Platt and his church in Alabama. The event is promoted widely and simulcast to groups meeting across the U.S. and world. Some friends of mine had participated before and organized a viewing locally this year. So I joined them. It was scheduled for a single evening, from 6 to midnight, which because of the time zone difference, meant 7 pm to 1 am for us.
I have been aware of Platt and his book “Radical” since it received a fair amount of attention after its publishing. However I had not read the book nor was I directly familiar with Platt before attending this event.
I must say, I was significantly disappointed in Secret Church. There were a few songs and a bit of time for focused prayer for a specific country, but the vast majority of the time consisted of Platt teaching. A nearly 200 pages study booklet was provided to those attending. And Platt wholly attempted to go through every bit of it. In order to do so, he spoke about twice as fast as a normal preacher/speaker would. This didn’t bother me as I tend to listen to sermons and podcasts at this speed anyway. However I feel that the amount of ground he attempted to cover was a poor choice. (I left at a quarter-til two and he wasn’t close to being finished yet.)
The teaching was broken up into several segments. In the first of these, he communicated the reformed idea of the gospel. While basic, I had kind of expected this and wasn’t surprised. I didn’t get much from it myself, but I didn’t have a particular problem with it either.
After this first session, things slowly began creeping off track in my opinion. In essence, Platt wanted to communicate the entire paradigm of conservative Christianity in this one night. I had two problems with this. The first was that he attempted to cover way too much. I believe it would have been wiser to have focused and gone deeper in a narrower area. The second thing which disappointed me was how Platt veered into conservative Christian territory. This may not have been very pronounced but I am familiar enough with Christian topics to recognize it clearly nonetheless.
Early on Platt briefly mentioned the corresponding dangers of legalism and license (or sometimes referred to as libertinism). The latter is the fallacy of thinking we have freedom to act any way we choose because of God’s grace and forgiveness. It seems as though Platt understands legalism to be the idea of works (our actions) leading to salvation. In other words, it’s the idea that if we follow the rules we can become good enough to be acceptable to God. Platt correctly rejects this.
However I believe legalism goes beyond this. It struck me as a bit ironic that, after going over this, much of the rest of the night was about all the things we need to do. Unfortunately, I’ve discovered that conservative Christians tend to have an anemic view of the Holy Spirit. They certainly acknowledge the Spirit and he has a place in their theology, but they seem to have little understanding about how he actually works in a believer’s life. I believe this leads to some significant aberrations.
Because conservative Christians have a weak understanding of the Holy Spirit, in practice they act like we’re essentially on our own to understand the Bible and to “work out our salvation”. Thus Solo Scriptura becomes, “You must agree with our understanding of the Bible”. Because God doesn’t really work through the Spirit to teach us in other ways. Certainly, God doesn’t contradict the Bible. But he sure can contradict our understanding of the Bible. Jesus did this all the time to the religious leaders in the first century. (One of the most interesting of these is recording in Matthew 19:3-12 and Mark 10:2-12.)
Platt went through so many things we need to do. If I didn’t know better, I think I’d be overwhelmed. I got the impression—unspoken—that we basically need to be perfect. What a burden! The Bible does say, “Be holy, because I am holy” (Lev. 11:44-45, 19:2, 20:26, 1 Peter 1:16). Conservative Christians have come to understand holiness as complete perfection. However I’m not sure this is really the meaning of the word. As I understand it, holiness means set apart or dedicated for special, sacred use. I believe “be holy” means not “be perfect” in our understanding of perfection, but rather means that we are supposed to reflect the Father’s character as his children.
One of the first areas of Platt’s teaching which raised caution flags in my mind was when he began to talk about modesty. I am familiar with this topic due to listening to people discuss this controversial subject at the beginning of last summer. One main point of controversy centers on whether or not modesty can be codified. It’s not uncommon for conservative groups to have rules defining what is and isn’t “modest”. Platt didn’t have enough time to get into most topics beyond just mentioning them. So I don’t know that I would directly disagree with anything he said. The Bible does instruct us regarding modesty. But the warning flags were due to sensing the conservative point of view I’ve grown up around.
Basically, much of the latter part of Platt’s teaching seemed to encourage not sinning. This sounds good, and truly, not sinning is good. That’s certainly something we ought to earnestly desire. But I find that there are some problems with focusing on sin. First, it communicates that we are on our own to not sin, that we have the power to choose to not sin, and therefore the means to abstaining from sin is our own effort and will power. Anyone who has tried to live this way will certainly know the frustration. Paul captures the struggle in Romans 7.
When we think this way and approach the Christian life this way, it leads to significant guilt and shame on one hand, or self-righteous hypocrisy (posing) on the other. And wouldn’t you know it, isn’t this what conservative Christians are known for? In other words, we’re taught that we need to be perfect because that’s what Christians are suppose to do. So we either learn to act perfect (hypocrite = actor) or we feel ashamed that we don’t measure up.
As I understand it, this is the fallacy which the Pharisees fell into. This is religion. Sure, in their systematic theologies, conservative Christians don’t believe our works lead to our salvation. But they sure seem to think that we need to work for our sanctification (changed life). However I believe this is a form of legalism too.
I have good news! Not only does Jesus make a way for our salvation, God works to sanctify us through the power of the Holy Spirit as well. Jesus said his burden is light. This is because we don’t have the burden of legalism, of all the rules we have to follow. We simply must follow him, commune with him, them obey his instructions to us. He will convict us of sin and give us the strength to overcome it.
Returning to the example of modesty, Platt was on the line of defining what is modest and what is not. This is where legalism comes in. This also brings us to a second problem of focusing on sin and not sinning. In our effort to not sin, we attempt to define clear boundaries as to what is an isn’t sin. We think that if we’re to avoid it, it needs to be clear—black and white. Unfortunately for us, life often isn’t so clear cut. Also, in most cases, whomever defines the boundaries of sin applies these boundaries to everyone else as well. In other words, I don’t just hold a belief about what would be a sin for me to do, I believe it is a sin for anyone to do. (If you don’t think there can be a difference in what is sin for different people, read Romans 14, especially verse 14.)
Again, I understand that this is exactly where the Pharisees found themselves. I believe that much of Jesus’ teaching confronted this religious understanding of God’s will. A problem with this focus on sin is that it’s extremely difficult for it to not lead to the kind of judgement and condemnation that Jesus instructs us to abstain from. If we have a list of sins in our mind, rules about what constitutes sin, and an understanding that Christians don’t (or shouldn’t) sin, then we almost can’t help but judge people based on how they measure up to our list. If someone is doing something which constitutes sin in our mind, we think—if not say—that they can’t be a Christian, or at least aren’t being a very good one. But no one can apply a standard of sin consistently. What happens is that certain more easily identifiable sins get targeted with harsh condemnation (homosexuality anyone?) while others are barely mentioned (division, pride, greed, envy, lack of care, concern, or respect of others).
A third problem with focusing on sin is that it tends to lead to isolationism. After all, “Bad company corrupts good character” (1 Cor. 15:33). We then think our witness to the world is our condemnation of our culture. When people are offended by this, we say that they are offended by the gospel. In reality, they aren’t offended by the gospel so much as being offended because we don’t know how to incarnate God’s kingdom the way Jesus did. It’s worth remembering that the people who were the most offended by Jesus were the most religious people. They were offended that Jesus didn’t follow their religious rules—rules for religious posturing—and he loved those who didn’t measure up to their standards. He criticized the “right” people and accepted the “wrong” people. And the “wrong” people were transformed by their encounter with Jesus.
To review, legalism can be more than simply thinking works lead to salvation. Three problems with focusing on sin and not sinning are:
- We believe we have the power to stop sinning, which leads to hypocrisy and/or shame.
- We attempt to make sin black and white though our rules are inconsistent with the Bible. We then apply our standard to others and subsequently judge them when they fail to measure up.
- In our attempt to separate ourselves from sin, we isolate ourselves from anyone who isn’t like us and condemn them from arms length.
So for all these reasons, I was disappointed with Secret Church. Platt’s choice to cover so much meant that his teaching was miles wide but very basic. I feel that it would have been much more productive to have focused on Christ and developing our relationship with him, choosing depth over breadth. I also felt the venture into conservative territory was unfortunate. I dislike when one version of Christianity is presented as Christianity. I feel like this leads to misunderstandings and divisions within the members of Christ’s body.
(Post script: It’s worth noting that in my writing I primarily address the main culture with which I’m familiar, conservative Christianity, which tends to emphasize rules and appearances over concern for and care of people. If I were addressing a different group of people, my emphasis might well be different.)