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The Crooked Stool

April 23, 2015

When I was way, way younger – both in my Christian faith and life itself – a wise man told me about the three-legged stool of Christian life.  I needed to have right beliefs, a right heart, and right actions.  In other words, my basic understanding of what it means to be a Christian, working through a heart given to God, will result in right actions.

I remember him making it clear that the right beliefs were the foundation; the right heart was the engine; the right actions were the result.  He also said that the system couldn’t run backwards; that I can’t start with right actions.  He made it clear that the right heart was essential to avoid useless, or even harmful, actions.  He called this the “three-legged stool” of our faith.

When I look back into the Bible, particularly the Gospels, it seems clear that Jesus saw a right heart as the fulcrum that balanced the whole thing.  He was forever castigating the religious folk of the day for the way their lack of heart caused their right beliefs to produce unloving actions.  While affirming the Jewish law he never made it an obstacle to serving people; never made the beliefs of those he helped hinder his service to them.

Fairly soon in church history the “belief leg” became a serious bone of contention.  Just who was Jesus?  Was he Human?  Divine?  Both?   How exactly are we saved through him?  People had galloped off in all directions on these and other aspects of Christian beliefs.  The great councils of the early church were contentious debates on these issues and were often decided much more narrowly than we now realize.

The net result was, and still is, that the belief leg of the stool grows stronger.  Debates on this leg went on and on and still do.  The list of things we needed “right” beliefs on got longer all the time.  Issues like predestination, sign gifts, eschatology and others were added to the requirement to be right.  In modern times social and scientific trends and advances keep piling on subjects we feel the need to be right about.  Just what is the “right” belief on in vitro fertilization for example?

Today our churches, denominations, seminaries and religious organizations need ever-longer doctrinal statements and positions to assert their “right” beliefs.  When I was in missions administration there was a time when I had the rather unpleasant task of answering (often hostile) questions as to why something was in, or not in, our doctrinal statement.  As an elder in various churches I’ve been involved in the screening process of right beliefs of those who want to join.  I’ve often felt like a bouncer at the door of a night club deciding who to let in and who to keep out.  Little thought, if any, goes to the right heart and right actions legs of the stool.

Don’t get me wrong, our beliefs matter.  But I’ve seen people shunned or looked down on for “wrong” beliefs on all sorts of matters ranging from home schooling to political views on the nation of Israel.  Somehow our stool has gotten crooked.  The belief leg gets longer and longer while the actions leg gets minimal attention and the heart leg is all but ignored; as long as your beliefs are approved and your actions aren’t too embarrassing you are in.

I find myself going back again and again to look at Jesus and the way he walked.  Somehow I get the impression that he saw a heart to serve and a generous sacrificial life as the outward manifestation of faith.  Is the same thing true of our faith?  If not, maybe we need to take a look at that belief leg.  Perhaps we need to saw it down a little.

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From → Christianity

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