A Foolish Consistency
by Ken Green
When I first began preaching, I was enamored by religious debates. They were declining in popularity, but there were still a few taking place. They are now extremely rare. Some debates were transcribed and published and I read all of them that I could find. I eventually participated in a number of debates and always thought I did a fair job though it often irritated me that my fellow disputants and their supporters never seemed to realize how soundly they had been thrashed.
One debate tactic that often comes into play is pointing out inconsistencies in the opponent's position or practice. It is contrary to the generally accepted rules of honorable controversy to charge one with a position that he disavows; though this rule has often been ignored. But it is acceptable to point out perceived inconsistencies and to observe where a line of argument may lead if consistently applied.
One of the favorite debate quotes in reference to such is: "Consistency, thou art a jewel!" Often, Shakespeare is cited as the source of this satiric rejoinder. I have not been able to find this statement in his works. Shakespeare is falsely accused of saying almost as many things as the Bible.
Let's admit it! Consistency is a hard thing to maintain, and we run a good chance of getting goofy if we work at it consistently. I think that's what led the Pharisees to their extremes. For example, the Law simply said to keep the Sabbath holy and to do no work on that day. The Jews were left to determine what constitutes work. Over the centuries, volume-after-volume was composed by scholarly rabbis defining ever more minutely what activities constitute a violation of the command. Loopholes were blocked. Arguments refined. How much may a person lift without working? Fifty pounds? Ten pounds? Where do we draw the line? Doesn't consistency demand that if a seamstress picks up her needle, this constitutes work?
If harvesting and threshing is work, then to pick some grain and eat it as one strolls through a field is work (Matthew 12:1-8). Doesn't consistency demand it? The commandment says the beasts are not to work on the Sabbath (Exodus 20:10). We can't stop the hens from laying eggs, but certainly, we must not have fellowship with them in such flagrant disrespect for that holy day; hence the rule that an egg laid on the Sabbath is not to be eaten. Consistent? You bet. Silly? Absolutely!
Let's bring it home. In the 50s and 60s when the controversy arose over the church support of human institutions and sponsoring churches, a number of other issues soon followed which added to the widening gulf between "conservative" and "liberal" congregations. Criticism was especially voiced as many churches added kitchens and dining facilities and later, gymnasiums to their buildings.
Then, entertainment became a feature. Church bulletins that advertised greased pig chases, acrobatics for Christ and athletic teams were quoted, sometimes with glee, as evidence of apostasy in progress, I believe the principle we stood on is a valid one: The mission of the church is spiritual; we should be more concerned with feeding and exercising our souls than our bodies; we have houses to eat and drink in; the calling card of the church must be the cross of Jesus, not making merry.
But to be consistent! That is the hard thing! Many brethren have decided that it is absolutely wrong to eat in the church building. And to think of teachers bringing juice and cookies—horror of horrors—and giving the little ones a break during a VBS class—well, that has to be a terrible sin. After all, we must be consistent.
A brother told me that several had come together to do some work on a church building. He was rebuked when he sat down and began to eat a lunch he had brought. "You'd better take that out in the parking lot!" he was ordered; which he did. Now think about it. Isn't the parking lot, as well as the building, paid for with the funds of the church? Besides, didn't Paul eat in the place of worship (Acts 20:11). Isn't that an approved apostolic example? It seems that we don't quite know what to do with that one.
It's really hard to be consistent without getting goofy. At a congregation where I used to preach, some became concerned about people using the church parking lot during the week and walking across to a little grocery. "We need to erect a gate," they demanded. "This is the misuse of church property!" It was observed by some that the parking facilities of the store were often used by those attending church on Sunday mornings. Fortunately, I think, level heads prevailed in this matter.
One brother told me of his outrage when the city officials asked permission to use their church building as an emergency shelter or refuge in the unlikely event of a calamity and permission was declined. In exasperation, he excitedly described bodies lying about and emergency vehicles arriving, "and we won't unlock the doors of the church building!" he cried. I'm happy to say that the decision was reversed, but we may be sure that some didn't like it.
What constitutes entertainment? I know congregations that won't permit an overhead projector. Don't even think of PowerPoint. But a chalkboard is fine. I recall a brother bemoaning "picture shows in the church” when a missionary did a slide presentation. Some are critical of skits and puppet shows at a VBS. A few years ago a visitor asked me where the Bible authority is for kids clapping their hands and stamping their feet with some of the songs. I must admit that my reply probably left something to be desired. “I guess it's in the same place that authorizes VBS,” I said. “That’s what you do in VBS.” Probably the real problem is doing such in "the sanctuary." I know we don't use the word, but we tend to hang onto the idea.
And why is it okay to use a workbook or a film strip or DVD as a means of teaching the Bible and wrong to use the dramatization of a Bible story?
I can't find the word "consistency" in the Bible and for those few who may care, Shakespeare didn't have anything to say about it either. But, for what it’s worth, Ralph Waldo Emerson did. He said, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines."