Zeal and Knowledge

The balanced Christian life:

What should believers major in: zeal or knowledge? If you know anything about me, you will know that I see this as a clear example of a false dilemma. That is, it is not to be a case of either/or but both/and. We should seek to have zeal AND we should seek to have knowledge. One without the other just does not cut it for the Christian.

Many believers have plenty of knowledge, but they lack any real zeal for God. Head knowledge alone without passion, and life, and the Spirit is not what God is looking for. But the other error is just as bad. Many believers have plenty of zeal, but they have little sound knowledge or understanding of biblical truth and doctrine. They in fact often play down knowledge altogether.

Cults of course thrive on the latter – members often have zeal and passion and commitment, but they are woefully ignorant of basic Bible teaching. They may be really off on doctrine, and will often be told they should not think for themselves, but just go along with whatever their leader tells them.

I know this from first-hand experience, having been in a cult myself long ago. We sure had lots of zeal, but we sure had a lot of dumb ideas as well. In my four-part article discussing my Christian conversion I wrote about some of these weird things we did and believed. As I wrote:

One, a bad interpretation of Scripture – specifically a passage like 2 Corinthians 5:7 which says “we walk by faith, not by sight” – led to some radical first steps. This text obviously meant we see by faith and walk in the Spirit, and need not worry about mere physical sight. So my first task was to take a hammer or a rock and smash my glasses to bits. That I promptly did, and I spent the next five months or so stumbling around the mountains of New Mexico, even getting lost once or twice.


You see I have long had terrible eyesight, so this certainly was jumping in the deep end on day one – a real step of faith indeed. But I was ready to do anything in my newfound faith, and so this seemed reasonable to me at the time.


Two, given the hippy/Indian/cult nature of this group, we often got back to nature in more ways than one – including running around with no clothes on, at least on our own land – which got us in trouble with the New Mexico police on more than one occasion, including stints in jail.


Related to this, we reminded folks that Galatians 5:16 tells us that we walk in the Spirit, not in the flesh. That was our explanation when asked why we walked around shoeless in the ice and snow for example. We had homemade looms and we did weaving which we learned from the Indians, so we made belts and related products, and sold them to outsiders to get a bit of cash.


In the winters we would go to fancy ski resorts in the nearby mountains where all these rich skiers and tourists would hang around at. We sold them our weavings, and they were amazed as we walked about barefoot up there in the snow-covered mountains. https://billmuehlenberg.com/2012/06/27/coming-home-my-testimony-part-2/

And there is more:

Thus our big problem was our way-out beliefs. The truth is, we all need the various giftings God has put in the church, and God has appointed teachers and pastors in the Body of Christ to properly instruct young believers. But we had none of that – no teachers, and certainly no commentaries or theology books or volumes on basic biblical hermeneutics.


All we had was the distorted views of our leader. And like so many cults, he made it clear that we were about the only true Christians around. Sure, we kept looking for others who believed like we did – but they were very few and far between indeed. As with all cults, we did not “rightly divide” the Word of God.


We took things literally where we shouldn’t have. Our main sticking point was the Second Commandment which warns about not making any graven images. We figured it meant what it said – or what we thought it said. We believed it meant no pictures of any kind – no art, no symbols, no illustrations, no photographs, no drawings, no images – zippo.


So if we got a can of beans from the supermarket (not buying it from inside, but claiming it from their trash outside, where we got most of our food), we immediately tore off the wrapping with those ghastly images! Once my parents sent me a nice Bible while I was there, thinking that with my new-found faith I would enjoy it.


But of course it had those horrendous images inside of it – maps and other pictures, which I ripped out and threw away immediately. So all images of any kind were taboo, and anyone who thought such images were OK was not a real Christian. So as you can imagine, there were not too many other believers around which we could get along with.


So in true cult fashion it was us against everyone else; all because we were misinterpreting Scripture on a pretty basic level. We were twisting Scripture, which is the clear mark of a cult, as is an authoritarian leader who demands full allegiance.


However there was one very good thing our leader often told us: he said we should always keep praying to know the truth. That we did, and it led to the downfall of the cult. https://billmuehlenberg.com/2012/06/27/coming-home-my-testimony-part-3/

Yep, this was cult city: zeal in abundance, but knowledge and understanding in rather short supply. It is not just cults that operate this way however. Think of a text such as Romans 10:1-4 where Paul says this about the Jews:

Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.

They had the zeal, but without proper knowledge and right understanding, it got them nowhere. They missed out on their long-awaited Messiah because of this – at least in good measure. How many others likewise suffer because of a zeal not corralled by intelligence, understanding and right thinking?

On interest, in my morning reading of Scripture, I came upon this from Exodus 31:1-5:

The Lord said to Moses, “See, I have called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, to work in every craft.”

For this job – associated with building the tabernacle – God appointed an artisan with both zeal (filled with God’s Spirit) and knowledge. There was no question of just one or the other, but both. Let’s aim to get the biblical balance right. Let’s love and serve God with passion and zeal, but with knowledge and understanding as well.

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