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One of the great inventions of the modern world is the global positioning system (GPS). The devices that use this satellite system make travel easier and enhance marital bliss by eliminating disputes between husbands and wives regarding the need to ask for directions. By providing an objective and authoritative standard, the GPS has removed subjectivism and personal opinion from the process of navigation.
In some ways, God’s Word is like a GPS device. Like that device, the Bible provides us with an objective standard to guide us in the direction we should go. Of course, our culture has rejected this role for God’s Word. When it comes to truth and authority, our culture believes that truth is, at best, unknowable and that authority resides with the individual. Both of these cultural presuppositions ultimately lead to one reality—in our culture, truth is subject to the tyranny of the individual.
The rejection of objective standards of truth in favor of subjective opinion is known as “relativism.” When relativism pervades a culture, it spawns toxic effects. Relativism eats away at the fabric of national character and cohesion. Instead of being bound together by objective truths and shared beliefs, a culture riddled with relativism is torn asunder by a mentality that exalts individual and group rights above all else. This is an accurate description of the culture in which we live, and the toxic fallout of relativism is manifested every day in the news and in our neighborhoods.
While most Christians recognize the prevalence of relativism in our culture and lament its devastating impact, we are sometimes less effective in recognizing its impact upon the church. The church is not immune to the toxic effects of relativism.
A clear example of the impact of relativism on the church is the rise of the emergent church movement within evangelicalism. One of the distinguishing marks of the emergent church is the idea that Christianity lacks certainty and the truth is unknowable. For example, David Wells notes that emergents employ the same mantras as the relativists of our culture: “We do not know”; “We cannot know for sure”; “No one can know certainly”; “We should not make judgments”; and “Christianity is about the search, not about the discovery.”
While the perspective of the emergent church as expressed in these statements may sound humble at first, what it really represents is a surrender of God’s truth to the spirit of the age. After all, Jesus did not say that He “might be” the Way, the Truth and the Life—He said, unequivocally, that He is all of those things. Wells sounds the following warning regarding the risks of tolerating this type of relativism in the church:
Those in the evangelical church today who are being lured by the siren call of postmodern relativism, who are increasingly uncertain that truth can be known, or that it matters all that much anyway, would do well to ponder the fact that this uncertainty goes to the very heart of what Christianity is all about.
The foundation of our faith is that God’s truth is objective, knowable, and certain. While interjecting uncertainty into our message may make the church more “hip” in the eyes of the world, it will not make it more faithful or effective.
The problem of relativism, however, is not limited to the emergent church movement or to broader evangelicalism. Relativism is also impacting the Reformed church. One area where the impact of relativism can be witnessed in the Reformed church is in the erosion of the authority of the church regarding the interpretation of Scripture. R. Scott Clark notes this trend in his book Recovering the Reformed Confession, stating that the Reformed are increasingly adopting a “fundamentally individualistic approach to Scripture and tradition” that places individual private judgments of church members above the corporate and confessional voice of the church. In a mistaken application of the priesthood of all believers, the individual is being exalted as the ultimate arbiter of biblical truth.
Another area where the rise of relativism can be witnessed is in the area of church discipline. While lip service is paid to the authority of the church’s office-bearers and courts, it is often the case that when discipline is attempted, the authority of the church is trumped by the will of the individual. For example, if a member believes that discipline is inappropriate, he or she will simply reject the discipline by leaving the church.
In the days of the judges, Israel embraced relativism: “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit” (Judg. 17:6). Like our culture, Israel tossed out the GPS device of God’s Word in exchange for the authority of the individual. The result was that Israel regressed during this period.
Whenever the church embraces relativism, the effects are equally toxic. When we as church members begin to embrace relativism, when we begin to do as we see fit, we undermine the effectiveness and mission of the church. Therefore, it is vital that we ask ourselves, from whom are we taking directions?