Words I Hope I Never Hear Again: Part 2
Christadelphian Cliches, Misquotes, Pat Phrases, Wrested Scriptures, and Legalistic Formulas
“Straight and Narrow,” “In the Appointed Manner,” “Pleasing in Your Sight”
“Straight and Narrow”
This month, the first phrase to be dismissed forever is “Straight and Narrow.”
What’s wrong with it? It’s a misunderstanding and misuse of an already misleading translation from the KJV. The main culprit is “straight,” which is substituted for “strait,” which properly applies to the way, not the gate. There is no “straight and narrow” in the Bible; there is a narrow gate and straight (meaning “difficult”) way.
What’s at stake? “Straight and narrow” is a legalistic slogan. Citing Matthew 7:13-14 to refer to our walk in Christ being “straight and narrow” promotes a stenotic religious life of “contamination avoidance” rather than developing the fruit of the spirit and a trusting relationship with God and Jesus.
“Straight and narrow” is a legalistic slogan.
How can it be fixed? Quote the verse accurately and understand what Jesus is saying: Most people lead a life of self-gratification that leads to nothingness; few people make the difficult decision of self-denial and the challenging life that leads to the Kingdom.
Discussion: Three sources of confusion contribute to corrupting this saying of Jesus, recorded only in Matthew. The first is the pair of homophones, “strait” and “straight.” the second is the partially overlapping meanings of “strait” and “narrow,” and the third is the KJV misapplication of “strait” to the gate and “narrow” to the way. All of this adds up to fodder for legalist minds that construe religion as an exercise in avoidance of external contamination.
Jesus’ admonition to enter by the narrow gate is in the Sermon on the Mount, where he also taught that true righteousness must exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees. The idiom “straight and narrow” aptly describes a Pharisee walking a tightrope between chasms of defilements.
If “straight and narrow” were a real Bible phrase, it would be used by Jesus to describe the Pharisees, not as a guide for discipleship. It is inconceivable that Jesus was exhorting his followers to be better Pharisees, so the concept of “straight and narrow” as a prescription for religious life is dead even before examining the details.
What are the details? Jesus speaks of two gates and the roads that the gates open to. There’s a narrow gate and a difficult road that leads to life, and a wide gate and easy road that leads to destruction. None of the four adjectives used to describe the gates and the roads convey any sense of “straight,” meaning a direct line without bends or curves.
The KJV translators chose “strait” to describe the gate to life, presumably in the sense of “constricted,” but “narrow” is the ordinary sense of that Greek word. KJV then uses “narrow” to describe the road, but “narrow” is a one-off of about 50 occurrences of the Greek adjective and its cognate noun. They are elsewhere translated as trouble, affliction, or tribulation. The root meaning is evidently something like confined or constricted, so “narrow” is understandable, but clearly Jesus was talking about a difficult road of discipleship, with its troubles and trials, not a narrow road.
Thus, the KJV adjectives “strait gate, narrow road” are reversed and misleading.
It is the gate that is narrow and the way that is strait (difficult); as translated in NIV, RSV, ESV, NKJV and others (see table).
Our way in Christ is filled with turmoil, temptations, and troubles; it is indeed a difficult road. A narrow gate makes sense too, possibly because it is hard to get through, or because it seems an unlikely entrance to anything, or because it is hard to find.
Therefore, Jesus’ metaphor of the narrow gate and difficult road behind it conveys that the gate to the Kingdom of God is the hard choice of giving up one’s path of life to follow Jesus, and the subsequent way to eternal life will be filled with difficulties. Most people won’t take that course.
The little metaphor of the narrow gate and difficult road has an important message. It’s a pity that it has become the source of such a reprehensible saying as “straight and narrow.”
“In the Appointed Way”
The phrase “in the appointed way” or “in the appointed manner” is often spoken by presiders introducing the Breaking of Bread, or in prayers before taking the bread and the wine.
What’s wrong with it? There is no appointed way or manner, nor is the purpose of keeping the memorial service to follow a protocol. The breaking of bread service is not a ritual we perform to satisfy God by “doing it right,” as is implied by the word “appointed.”
What’s at stake? This is a legalistic formulation that turns the memorial service into an obligation that we fulfill rather than a ceremony introduced by Jesus to help us bring to mind his love and sacrificial life on our behalf.
How to make it better? Introduce the Breaking of Bread service by emphasizing that this is a gift from God to help us remember our Lord Jesus. Avoid any hint that we are fulfilling an obligation.
Discussion: What is meant by this phrase anyway? Is “appointed way” a Biblical term or concept? What directives are thought to be included in “appointed?” Are we following an example or making the Breaking of Bread service a duty to be performed?
The New Covenant has but two rituals: Breaking of Bread and baptism. Both of them symbolize essential aspects of the atonement. Neither one of them has any merit in the doing per se, as a good deed done to satisfy God. However, because they are rituals—that is, tangible physical acts—they can easily slide into legalistic territory.
This result is especially true of the Breaking of Bread because it is a weekly occurrence. Attendance at a meeting to break bread can become an obligation, something done to satisfy a command and invoke God’s favor. The inevitable extension of a legalistic perspective on any ritual is, “There must be a right way to do it,” and then the added formalities end up labeled as “the appointed way.”
Remember, our community’s religious worldview is influenced by what is routinely spoken on Sunday mornings or at Bible class. Partaking of the bread and wine “in the appointed way” sets the tone of fulfilling a duty, an act to satisfy God. And if we do it right, we must be righteous. A service that is meant to drive us to utter humility and appreciation of God’s and Jesus’ love becomes an instrument of “the salvation by works” agenda.
We are not made for the Breaking of Bread, but the Breaking of Bread is made for us. One of the presider’s duties is to prepare the congregation each Sunday for that ritual of remembrance that refreshes our minds in the great act of Jesus’s love for us, in his life, his teachings, and his submission to death on the cross.
“Pleasing in Your Sight”
The phrase “pleasing in your sight,” or more likely, “pleasing in thy sight,” is frequently included in closing prayers after a class or service.
What’s wrong with it? It implies God benefits from our worship, and the purpose of Sunday morning memorial service or a Bible class is to please God and gain his favor. Also, its typical use is logically meaningless.
What’s at stake? It’s another legalistic encroachment, so a lot is at stake. Pleasing God is not as theologically faulty as appeasing God, but it’s in the same line of thinking: that God benefits from our worship.
How can it be improved? Reverse the focus. Thank God for allowing us to join together for a service/class that has been pleasing to us.
Discussion: This legalistic formulation is conceptually similar to “in the appointed way.” It implies that holding the right kind of worship service or class pleases or satisfies God–that is, God is the one who benefits. How can God benefit from our meeting together? Is the purpose of our meeting together to do something for God’s sake? Who’s the beneficiary of our classes, exhortation, and worship? Is God better off for what we do?
To address concern for God’s pleasure leads down the same path as “in the appointed way.” It emphasizes satisfying an obligation, and on doing it the right way. Even if that is not the overt intention, as soon as these words come out, they are heard by dozens or even hundreds of ears. The message is: “We do this to please God. We do it the right way.” The attendees are misdirected as to the purpose of their being present.
Besides the theological travesty, closing a Sunday morning service or a Bible class by praying that what already transpired in the past hour, or two somehow pleased God makes no sense on logistical grounds. It’s over; there’s nothing to be done at this point. Even if it were the case that God was pleased or displeased by what had just transpired, then the prayer afterward wouldn’t change a thing about God’s pleasure or displeasure.
What Pleases God?
Despite the misuse of this phrase, Scripture does say that there are things that please God. There are several references to God being pleased by our behaviors. I John 3:22 is clear about this: God is pleased when we practice acts of love and faith. Hebrews 13:16 and Philippians 4:18 say that God is pleased with sacrificial acts of benevolence and generosity.
God is pleased when we grow spiritually.
When God sees you respond in a helpful way to your brothers and sisters when your faith is put to the test, then he is pleased—not because what you did benefited God, but because what you did shows that his love for you has generated a response in your heart and in your behavior. His word did not return to him void.
God is pleased when we grow spiritually. If a class or service benefitted us, then God would be pleased for us, not by us. The distinction is the difference between “pleasing God” and “pleasing to God.” The former is legalistic, the performance of a required obligation, checked off and now a credit to the righteousness account. The latter is God’s recognition of faith in action and spiritual growth.
God will be pleased to see that all legalistic elements are expunged from our worship proceedings, and the focus is on using the time to help us grow in our love for God and Jesus, our trust, and our development of the Fruit of the Spirit.
Denver Ecclesia, CO
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- Zimmerman, Jacob, Moving Toward Racially and Culturally Integrated Churches, Christian Perspectives: Society and Life, November 3, 2019.
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