Let Everything Be Cross-shaped

You cannot focus only on God. That makes no sense and is really impossible. You also must not focus only on people. That is also a serious error.

What is the meaning of my blabbering? See, there are two extremes of error into which people are prone to fall. On one hand, there is the error of liberal theology and so-called “mainline Protestantism.” In this, everything is horizontal, that is, about other people. “Love your neighbor” becomes the only important commandment. Community, fellowship, and harmony become the ultimate values. This is wrong, for the greatest commandment in God’s law is to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matt. 22:37). The error of liberal theology and focusing exclusively horizontally is essentially reducing Christianity to a set of moral/social values and sentimental nonsense.

There is another error, though. This is the error of fundamentalism and even many conservative Evangelicals. In this, everything is vertical, that is, all about God. “Love your neighbor” becomes an afterthought that is done simply because you are obeying the command to love God, and you know that He wants you to love others. Personal piety, private devotions, and individual salvation become the most important parts of faith.  This is also wrong, for God tells us that He identifies with humans through His Son, and how we orient ourselves toward others is taken by God personally (Matt. 25:31-46). The error of fundamentalism/pietism and focusing exclusively vertically is essentially reducing Christianity to a form of private therapy and often also sentimental nonsense.

The opposing errors Christians fall into as liberals and conservatives are being too exclusively horizontal or too exclusively vertical. See, there is a reason that Jesus said what He said about the greatest commandments. Let’s read the passage and then think further about it.

Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Matthew 22:34-40

The opposing errors Christians fall into as liberals and conservatives are being too exclusively horizontal or too exclusively vertical.

 See, while loving God is given first place by Jesus (which is why many would assume the exclusively-vertical view is most Biblical), Jesus refuses to stop there. Remember to whom Jesus is speaking. These are Pharisees. If anyone ever embodied the exclusively-vertical error, they did. They fasted every week, prayed daily and grandiosely, memorized entire books of Scripture, offered expensive sacrifices, and made themselves the most serious students and teachers of theology. To follow God most perfectly, they even created a number of special traditions and regulations around the Law so that no one may break the Law by accident. They made their whole lives about God, and in doing so they neglected and even hurt other people. Thus, Jesus reminded them, is wrong. God commands love for Him first, but He also commands love for others, and this is the next most important commandment.

The problem with the Pharisees, of course, is that in focusing only on God, they were not actually focusing on God. How is this? Jesus Himself explains that God is deeply interested in people. God loves human beings. So to really obey God and focus on Him requires that we also focus on others. The Pharisees professed to know God, but they denied Him by their poor treatment of others. Their lives of dedication to God were really idolatrous. They offered God sacrifice relentlessly, but never showed mercy, which He truly desires. So the Pharisees fell into the trap of being completely vertical, and in being completely vertical, they failed to actually be vertical at all.

The problem with the Pharisees, of course, is that in focusing only on God, they were not actually focusing on God. To really obey God and focus on Him requires that we also focus on others.

On the other hand, there is an equally dangerous error which many embrace, and is more popular in American culture. This is the error of liberal theology, as I said before, and this error comes from ignoring the greatest commandment in preference to the second. Sometimes people are overly horizontal. These people downplay—by word, deed, or both—the importance of faith in Christ and devotion to God as secondary to treating others rightly. This often leads to a kind of social gospel, in which love, cooperation, and respect supposedly fulfill the point of Christianity. In a less radical form, issues such as social justice, kindness, sharing, and community become the only talking points of an otherwise Evangelical church, while issues such as evangelism, salvation, and devotion are only given lip service. This is certainly wrong, as well. The core of the Gospel is Christ crucified (1 Cor. 2:2, 15:3-5). As I mentioned before, the greatest commandment is to love God. So to make Christianity too horizontal is to break the first commandment.

This is also where the dangers of relevance come into play. When Christians try too hard to please and identify with people in our culture, there is the risk of going too far and becoming irreverent. At this point God, while still acknowledged and supposedly worshiped, takes a back seat in the way people do Christianity. How specifically can this happen? One way is the compromise of doctrinal convictions, either officially or unofficially. Some churches will, in seeking to reach people, change their official teachings. Others may just quit talking about uncomfortable topics. Liberal churches may write Hell out of their doctrinal statements, while more conservative churches that are too seeker-sensitive may just skip Hell in their sermons. Some churches may ordain homosexuals, while others might simply never mention that homosexuality is included in the great sin lists of Scripture. Either way, the core problem is pandering to people, focusing on the horizontal aspects of Christianity at the expense of the vertical. In this, the horizontal focus is self-defeating, for pure, undiluted communion with God in His awesomeness is what people need most. When you overemphasize loving people at the expense of loving God, you no longer love people properly.

Pure, undiluted communion with God in His awesomeness is what people need most. When you overemphasize loving people at the expense of loving God, you no longer love people properly.

In both cases, there is a constant: those who are too vertical are not actually vertical at all, and those who are too horizontal are not actually horizontal at all. For a God-focus requires a subordinate people-focus, and a people-focus requires a transcending God-focus. God loves people, so if you focus only on God and not on people you are failing to take Him seriously. People need God, so if you focus only on people and not on God you are failing to give them the best.

Now, most of us probably do not fall into the extremes of either error. However, we all have a tendency to lean towards one or the other, and sometimes our words or deeds do reflect the wrong ideas associated with whichever one we believe most. We must resist this. Our thinking must not be basically vertical, nor basically horizontal. In everything, we must be cross-shaped. For when you place a vertical line and a horizontal line on top of each other, you get a cross. I think that is fitting, for Christ crucified is the center of Christianity, and the Cross more than any other event in history shows the way that the vertical and the horizontal unite. At the Cross, God achieved the ultimate victory and magnified His glory, while humans received the ultimate grace and began their restoration to life. In Jesus Christ, the God-man, the interests of God met with the interests of people, climaxing at Calvary.

For this reason I say we ought to orient everything towards a united divine/human interest. Since I have been speaking so generally, though, let me give some specific examples. There is a debate among Evangelicals about church. Should our services be seeker-sensitive, fellowship-oriented, or completely vertical in glorifying God? If we are to have cross-shaped services, they ought to foster fellowship and mutual edification, make an evangelistic impact, and exalt Christ at every step. Not one point can be compromised. We must not say, as some do, that church is all about worshiping God, because the New Testament makes the necessity of edification, testimony, unity, and fellowship in church a huge point. We must not say either, as some do, that church is all about winning people to Christ, because the New Testament is clear that the gathering of believers in church is for our edification as Christ’s body and for God’s glory. We most certainly must also not say that church is all about our fellowship, for the New Testament writers challenge us to build each other up in the faith, exalt Christ, and preach truth.

When you place a vertical line and a horizontal line on top of each other, you get a cross. I think that is fitting, for Christ crucified is the center of Christianity, and the Cross more than any other event in history shows the way that the vertical and the horizontal unite.

Another place in which we must resist the temptation to break the cross is in the Lord’s Supper. When we come together for Communion, we often think of the event strictly in vertical terms, as something between “me and God.” The focus is all on Christ’s sacrifice and how I as an individual relate to that wonderful reality. Yet the New Testament reveals another aspect to Communion, namely a horizontal dimension. When we come together for the Lord’s Supper, we are one body. We are united at one table in fellowship, sharing in one sacrifice by our one Lord. There is a reason that we do not do Communion alone in our bedrooms, and this is because we are called in this ritual to celebrate what Christ has done for us, not just me, and enjoy our shared life in Him.

My point in all of this is actually quite simple: you cannot ever rightly follow God without seriously loving and fellowshipping with people, nor can you ever rightly love people without a devoted and faith-oriented eye to Christ. The vertical and the horizontal can never be separated. We never have to choose between them, nor should we. Instead, we unite the vertical and horizontal in a cross-shape, just as at the Cross God’s glory and human good united in the God-man. So fellowship in Christ, and worship God as part of one body. Basically, Jesus said it best. Love the Lord your God, and love your neighbor as yourself. Everything hangs on these two commandments.

I'm 22. I'm married with a toddler and a newborn. love Jesus Christ. I grew up a Southern Baptist and now situate myself within Evangelical Calvinism (which isn't TULIP!). I also draw substantially from N. T. Wright, Peter Leithart, and Alastair Roberts. I go to the Baptist College of Florida. I'm also a bit nerdy.