On Erroneous Christian Extrapolation

Yesterday I warned about the dangers of people extrapolating from their own personal experiences, making them binding, and allowing them to trump everything else, including all the facts and evidence. Some people will ignore the data and research, and simply assume that their particular experience is normative for everyone everywhere.

They universalise their experiences and make them the test of truth. As I sought to demonstrate, that can be a very unhelpful way to proceed: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2018/08/21/on-erroneous-extrapolating/

In that piece I mainly used examples from the culture wars, and looked at how many non-Christians are guilty of this. But on the social media someone asked if Christians can also be guilty of this. I replied, ‘Yes of course’. So here is a look at how believers can also fall into this unhelpful practice.

Let me discuss this by once again mentioning the need for biblical balance. Going to extremes can lead to some real problems for the Christian in this area. One danger is to push for a cookie-cutter type of Christianity, where everyone is expected to conform to your life, your experiences, and your emphases.

The other danger is to so emphasise our differences and diversity that there is no commonality at all. Let me explain both of these in turn. First, many Christians wrongly extrapolate from their own personal experiences, expecting every other Christian to be the same or do the same.

Examples of this would be legion, and we have all encountered this. For example, a believer may have had a particular experience of God – or what he thinks is an encounter with God – and then he expects all other Christians to also have that same experience. And if they don’t, they are seen as sub-standard Christians.

A believer may have a particular experience with the Holy Spirit, which may differ from others. He should be humble enough to accept the fact that this may not be for everyone else. He should not assume that his particular experience must become normative for all Christians.

Or a believer may have a strong call to go to Bible college or seminary to get some hardcore training in theology or apologetics. That is fine. But if they then think every other Christian should do the same, they are wrongly extrapolating from what God has called them to do.

Sure, I often urge believers to read more, to study more, to take theology much more seriously, and so on. But I do not expect everyone to do the same thing I am doing. Yes by all means do take time to read and study, but my calling will quite likely not be the same as yours.

One more example. God may prompt you to do something, or maybe to give up something. He may lead you to fast for a week or abstain from the social media for a while. Again, great, and make sure you do what you sense God is calling you to do. But don’t insist that this is what every other believer must do, as God may not be leading them in those directions at that time.

The truth is, we are all different, and God deals with all of us in different ways – at least to an extent. In one sense, yes, we are all on a journey. We are all at different places with God. And the Lord graciously deals with us where we are at.

He does not expect a two-month-old Christian to be as wise and mature as a believer of twenty years. Some believers may experience real victory over particular sins, while others may still grapple with them. Some Christians may seem to climb the spiritual maturity ladder without a hitch, while others seem to go up and down a bit. Some Christians will struggle in some areas while others may not.

We need to give room for others and their particular growth and development. We must avoid putting all believers in a box, and we must especially avoid thinking that every other believer should be just like ourselves. God graciously deals with each one of his children as unique individuals, and we should do the same.

But that leads to my second potential error. We can so stress our uniqueness as individual Christians and so emphasise our differences, that we can end up with no common ground at all, and/or we can end up with no way to reprove or exhort another believer, since they will simply reply, ‘this is the journey I am on – it is between me and God’.

That is the other extreme to avoid. And the examples of this would be apparent. A Christian might be hovering on the edges of sexual impropriety, or clearly engaged in wrong – sinful – sexual behaviour. If you seek to point this out to him, warn him about it, and lovingly tell him to stop, he may foolishly say things like, ‘God has not convicted me of that.’ Or, ‘This is where I am at with God – you can’t judge me.’

Um, yes we can judge that person. Sure, we are all on somewhat different routes with our walk with God, but there are always clear boundaries for all of us nonetheless. We cannot use our uniqueness as a Christian to become a cheap excuse for sin.

So in that sense if a new Christian is flirting with fornication, I don’t have to wait till he has been a believer for decades before I can warn him about that, and if need be, rebuke him. Some things are clearly wrong for all believers for all times, and pushing the ‘different journeys’ bit just does not cut it here.

So, are there absolutes for the believer? Of course. The Bible is full of them. There are plenty of commands and exhortations and rights and wrongs that apply to every single one of us. But there is also room to move, certainly in areas which are not sinful in themselves.

Thus some believers may feel very strongly about not drinking alcohol, and good for them. However, what can become a real problem is when those believers insist that everyone else do exactly the same, and they start judging and looking down on their brothers and sisters if they do not follow suit with their teetotalism.

There are many secondary issues like this in which we really must show Christian grace, and allow for Christian freedom. Some folks feel real comfortable in raising their arms in worship while others do not. Neither one should judge the other in this. Each one is accountable to God in these areas.

Of course here we are talking about matters where there is genuine room to move, and Paul himself wrote about this often. Consider just one passage, Romans 14:1-10:

As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.

One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God. For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living. Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother?

Thus believers need to be careful about erroneous extrapolation. Some things that may be good for you may not necessarily be good for others. Some things that may be real and helpful for you may not necessarily be normative for all others. We need to be careful here, and not universalise every one of our unique experiences or callings.

[1443 words]

3 Replies to “On Erroneous Christian Extrapolation”

  1. I’m a teacher. I was asked to use Finding Nemo as an example of a story genre for my student. He loved it, particularly the father/son aspect.
    How might teachers incorporate these stories, from media in our culture into their teaching about faith and life and Scripture?
    Text message the Bible?

  2. Slightly off topic but Bibilical intepretation of key words leads to people looking for signs and wonders that don’t exist. One key interpretation is “what is the endtimes “mark of the beast”? All sorts of concepts are offered, such as a subcutameous computer chip, a forehead tattoo to name but a few.
    The term “mark” may signify, according to its various Hebrew and Greek originals, a sign, “a target” an object of assault, a brand or stigma cut or burnt in the flesh, a goal or end in view, a stamp or imprinted or engraved sign.
    Consider the meaning of mark as “a target” or “a goal or end in view”.
    The English Biblical terms translated as “sin” or “syn” from the Biblical Greek and Jewish terms sometimes originate from words in the latter languages denoting the act or state of missing the mark; the original sense of New Testament Greek ?? hamartia “sin”, is failure, being in error, missing the mark.
    At the moment in China, Google and other tech giants are “beta” testing what is termed a “social score” which is obtained form information on a person gleaned form your use of social media and other data such as bank accounts, on-line paying of bills etc. (Facebook, Google, Twitter Instagram etc.) If you achieve a low “social score” you may be publicly shamed and even as far as being banned form jobs, loans and other commercial enterprises. It is conjectured that once this system is perfected in China, it will be introduced worldwide.
    So, could the “mark of the beast” mean a man-made “target” or “goal or end view” which will put control of the individual into the world system (controlled by Satan) rather than the goal, target set by God?

  3. This is a good posting Bill. Recently our pastor did a message entitled “5 years from now”, the idea being what can we do for God with a 5 year horizon. His suggestions were

    – Embrace August 2023 now.
    – Develop a sustainable (active, growing) faith
    – Have nourishing spiritual practices
    – Cement in some absolutes (Jesus, God, Church, generosity)
    – Get to know the season you are in.

    During the message he said he is open to hearing a pretty broad range of theological opinions and interpretations of the Bible, but that he will always bring it back to the person of Jesus Christ. Recently we had a visiting speaker who wrote a book “And Her Gates will Never Be Shut”. He has a hope that after the final judgement sinners will still be able to repent and enter into the New Heavens and New Earth. He is at great pains to say this is not Universalism as that presumes that all will be saved but that he has Universal Hope and hopes that all will be saved. However, at our church the visiting speaker’s message was about other stuff, not this.

    I disagree with Universal Hope. In discussing this with my pastor, we said that he can hear theological interpretations like the above and not agree with it, but that it is ok to hear them. I disagree on this particular occasion that we should invite people who have such wrong views in this area even if they don’t speak on them, but there may be a view that we should still invite those whom we do not agree with. When we differ on topics like eternal judgement, do you think we should invite them to speak at church or not?

    In bringing this back to the message I referred to at the beginning, having an absolute on bringing these theological positions back to the person of Jesus is a good one. You will already know, but Jesus spoke more about heaven, hell and eternal life and eternal judgment than anyone else in the Scriptures. So, to bring Jesus’ statements in Scripture into the picture as being the authority means that those who preach about Jesus as being meek, loving and mild have to also meet and acknowledge Jesus as being the absolute unbending judge upon whose verdict there will be no appeal.

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