Zeal Without Knowledge
When religious zeal is off target it can be extremely destructive to the kingdom of God and the cause of Christ.
When religious zeal is on target, it can be extremely effective for the kingdom of God. The early Christians were zealous. They were more than committed to the cause of Christ – they were zealously committed to the Lord and His kingdom. Many of them even sacrificed their lives in order to share and spread the word of the Lord. No wonder there was the phenomenal growth of Christianity in the first few centuries after Christ.
However, when religious zeal is off target it can be extremely destructive to the kingdom of God and the cause of Christ. The Judaizers, who tried to undermine the gospel efforts of the apostle Paul, had religious zeal, but it was “zeal without knowledge” (Rom. 10:2). Following the example of the Pharisees who had zealously sent their Messiah to the cross in the name of religion, these Jews attempted to distort and even destroy the simple faith in Christ of many early Christians.
But non-Christian religious people are not the only ones who are guilty of zeal without knowledge. Well-meaning true believers can also wreak havoc in the Church because of misguided zeal. Many times the advance of the kingdom has been hindered and the cause of Christ hurt by Christians whose zeal is without knowledge. Religious zeal can be misguided in the area of doctrine (how we think), and in the area of means (what we do). Let’s consider two incidents in the life of Peter which God has included in His Word to illustrate these two forms of misguided zeal.
Peter’s response to his experience on the Mount of Transfiguration is an illustration of misguided zeal in the area of doctrine. When he said to Jesus, “Let us make three tabernacles: one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” (Lk. 9:33), Peter must have thought that this was an appropriate gesture of a doctrinally sound faith. But he couldn’t have been further from the truth! His motive is to be commended, but his theology was way off target. In his religious zeal, he actually demoted Christ, the Son of God, to the level of mere men. God the Father had to remove Moses and Elijah from Peter’s vision and speak audibly from the cloud in order to get Peter’s thinking back on the right theological track: “This is My Beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him” (Mt. 17:5). Although the idea of building three shrines to commemorate this event certainly involved commitment and zeal, it was misguided zeal.
Misguided zeal in the area of doctrine is certainly seen in Christendom today. It can be evidenced in literal shrine-building, when distorted thinking elevates material buildings to an unhealthy importance, and the cause of Christ receives a secondary place. But it can also be evidenced in ways other than literal shrine-building. Anytime a “social gospel” is preached, misguided doctrinal zeal is involved. The value of the saving work of Christ, which is of the utmost importance, is demoted to a status below the material needs of mankind! While Christians have a definite responsibility to bring relief to the hurts of people, and we should establish relief ministries to help hurting people, our primary focus must always be on their need for salvation from sin.
Getting Health And Wealth
Another example of misguided zeal in the area of doctrine is the teaching that God wants to make every Christian “healthy and wealthy.” Many Christians today are zealously promoting this false doctrine. The “prosperity gospel” actually teaches that the faith of Christians who are not experiencing good health and growing wealth is somewhat suspect. How devastating this false doctrine must be to Christians who have been particularly called by God to a life of suffering!
The distortion and sin of this misguided “doctrine” is clearly seen when the “Christian prosperity lifestyle” is contrasted with the lives of those believers who, in this life, have sacrificed all opportunity for personal gain to serve the Lord. The commitment to Christ of these dedicated people of faith is definitely more in line with Scripture than the commitment to self of the misguided zealots of the prosperity gospel (Lk. 9:23-25; Phil. 4:12; 2 Tim. 3:12). God has not planned for all Christians to be poor or sick, but health and wealth are not guaranteed to any Christian – regardless of the zealous teachings of the prosperity evangelists.
The religious zeal of gay activists for the acceptance of homosexual lifestyles within the Christian church, the religious zeal of feminists for the ordination of women, and the religious zeal of so-called Christians who favor a one-world religion are further examples of doctrinal “zeal without knowledge.” The fact that false doctrine may become popular and be promoted by many people – perhaps even the majority – doesn’t make false doctrine any less false. Let’s be careful that the doctrine we hold is not distorted by zeal without knowledge!
Cutting Off Ears
Peter’s defense of the Lord In the Garden of Gethsemane is another occasion on which he illustrated “zeal without knowledge.” In this case it was misguided zeal in the area of means or method. When Peter cut off the right ear of the high priest’s servant, he was zealously committed to defending the Lord. He probably was aiming to cut off the servant’s head, but in the excitement and emotion of the moment missed and only got an ear!
Even so, his intention was to defend his Lord and Master at all cost – even death. Perhaps Peter wanted to prove that he really meant what he had said a few hours earlier in the Upper Room: “I will lay down my life for your sake” (Jn. 13:37). In any case, Peter showed a lot of courage and religious zeal here – but it was misguided. Zealously standing up for the Lord was not the problem. Even the use of physical force was not the real problem. The Bible indicates that there is a time and place to use physical force as a means of expressing religious zeal.
For example, the Lord asked Gideon to physically pull down and destroy the idol that his father had set up in their back yard (Jud. 6:25). Our Lord Himself used physical force to drive the moneychangers from the Temple (Jn. 2:15). On that occasion Psalm 69:9 was quoted: “Zeal for Your house has eaten Me up.” So the use of physical force as such was not Peter’s problem. The problem was the means Peter used. He lashed out with his sword without even the faintest “green light” from the Lord. Peter was not sensitive to the Lord’s mind and direction. The result was an action that God would never approve. Without direction from the Lord, religious zeal is an accident waiting to happen! Religious zeal out of God’s control can disrupt and destroy the work of the Lord for years to come. And it can happen suddenly, as in Peter’s case. We need to be extremely careful of the means we use to channel our religious fervor and zeal.
Disciplining Without Grace
Misguided zeal, both in methods and means, comes in all shapes and sizes. Everything from church discipline to fundraising techniques can be mishandled by religious zealots. For example, in the area of church discipline many churches have been destroyed because of a few overly-zealous “perfectionists.” While church discipline needs to be employed more frequently these days, carrying discipline to extremes is misguided zeal. The biblical emphasis in discipline is always on restoration. Unfortunately, the history of the church is filled with examples of graceless discipline carried out with destructive zeal.
It seems that the Christians who are most zealous for discipline are those who need to listen to these words of Jesus: “Why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye? … Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” (Mt. 7:3-5). Zeal in discipline must be tempered with wisdom, gentleness and humility. “If a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness … lest you also be tempted. (Gal. 6:1).
Evangelism is another area in which misguided zeal can wreak havoc. There are many methods, techniques and means that can be used to evangelize unbelievers. Without the Lord’s direction, however, misguided evangelistic zeal can actually drive people away from Christ. Should you shout across the fence to your new neighbors that they are going to hell if they don’t accept Christ as their personal Savior? Your statement may be doctrinally sound, but this means of communicating the gospel may be better served by building a friendly relationship and “earning the right to be heard.” The Lord often practiced this means of evangelism as he deliberately went out of his way to build relationships with unbelievers.
Breaking The Law
Another example of misguided evangelistic zeal would be breaking the law in the name of the Lord to spread the gospel. Often the Lord gets blamed for the mistakes of misguided zealots who think they can do anything, including breaking the law, as long as they are obeying the Lord’s command to evangelize. We are not speaking here of situations where “we ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29), but rather about those religious zealots who consider themselves above the law, and think they can use any means they want – such as spray-painting “Jesus Saves” on buildings and overpasses. This attitude goes directly against what God’s Word tells us about obeying authority (Rom. 13:1-5). And what a blemish this kind of misguided zeal has been on the testimony of Christ!
“Breaking the law” also applies in areas that are not literally the law of the land. What about breaking the law of love by zealously manipulating people and using excessive emotional pressure to force professions of faith? What about breaking the law of truth by zealously preaching a gospel that the Bible doesn’t proclaim, such as implying that “all a person’s problems will disappear if he accepts Christ?
There is a place for emotional persuasion, but let’s not “break the law” in evangelism by using unbiblical pressure and preaching unbiblical promises. That is misguided evangelistic fervor – zeal without wisdom.
Fundraising Without Scruples
Zealous means used in fundraising can hinder the growth of the kingdom of God. Think of the damage to the cause of Christ by unscrupulous fundraising schemes – made in the name of Christ! Christians are certainly not immune to the biblical truth that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (1 Tim. 6:10). The desire for unnecessarily large buildings or elaborate programs or lavish salaries have justified the fusion of religious zeal with the never-satisfied sinful nature.
Fundraising strategists actually develop never-ending lists of new programs, so the funds will never cease to flow from Christian givers. Unbelievers have been turned off and new Christians have been stumbled by constant pleas for money. The name of Christ has been mocked and maligned by skeptics when religious leaders zealously raise funds “for the Lord’s work” by offering gimmicks (like prayer cloths) or unbiblical promises of material reward for giving. The means we use in fundraising for the Lord’s work is an area where Satan knows he can get an easy foothold. The subtleties of the enemy are easily masked because we are all so vulnerable in the area of money!
A New Testament example of fund-raising is found in 2 Corinthians 8-9, where believers were encouraged to give – not for a building, program or salary for Paul – but to help the poor Christians in Jerusalem! In the Old Testament, when sufficient funds were raised to build the Tabernacle, the people were actually told to stop giving (Ex. 36:5-7). Has such an announcement ever been sent out by a ministry in modern times? Let’s be very careful not to employ “zeal without knowledge” in fundraising.
Peter meant well on the two occasions we’ve examined, but on the first occasion he actually demoted and defamed the Person of Christ by his misinformed doctrine; and on the second occasion he temporarily disrupted the program of Christ by his misguided means. How many “Moses and Elijah” items will the Lord have to remove from our clouded vision, so that we will learn to honor Jesus above everything else – and combine our zeal with sound doctrine? How many “cut-off ears” will the Lord have to heal before we learn to ask Him before acting – and be guided to combine zeal with wisdom? Let’s be zealously committed to Christ and His kingdom, but let’s be sure that our doctrine is sound and our methods Christ-like. Let’s be sure that our zeal is with knowledge.
By David Reid
With permission to publish by: Sam Hadley, Grace & Truth, 210 Chestnut St., Danville, IL., USA.