Modesty and the Excluded Middle
The Fundamental Error of Oneness Theology
Last week I wrote about the critical importance of the Trinity, especially in contrast to its distortion by “Oneness” Pentecostals. Behind the theological errors of this movement lie an even deeper logical and methodological error, and I thought it would be useful to explain that deeper error in some depth.
A couple years ago, in an article I posted online, I quoted the following statement from a seminary classmate of mine talking about the devastating impact of Oneness theology.
“We have a close Christian friend who was very mixed up by the United Pentecostals. His theology is just BAD. The worst part is how badly it messed up his children. We visited his adult daughter on our holiday, and she broke down and told me how hurt she had been by the rigid belief system, and restrictions as a child her father demanded, although she loves him, and he is a very loving man... I believe this doctrine of the Oneness movement to be very damaging. I remember that when they went to UPC summer camp as children, they put black plastic around the pool fence, and the boys and girls swam at separate times, in full body bathing suits! This kind of legalism shocked me.”
I then went on to say:
“Theology matters, and bad theology can have horrendous consequences. In the case of this family, the legalism required by UPC beliefs disrupts even a loving family. It’s not for no reason that Paul warned the Colossians that legalism and observing outward regulations is of little value (2:23). Indeed, such obsessive law-keeping is a sign that one has not truly died with Christ to the world (Col. 2:20).
“But why does Oneness theology tend in this legalistic direction? Put simply, Oneness theology has driven a wedge between, on the one hand, what God ‘really is’ in Oneness theology, and on the other, what God inconveniently ‘appears like’ in the New Testament (and I would argue the Old as well). This dichotomy means that all of the New Testament teaching showing God as an interpersonal being – showing the Father relating to the Son, the Son mediating between the Father and mankind, the Spirit interceding with the Father on our behalf, showing love and affection between members of the Godhead, etc. – is all really just a ‘show.’ These are nothing more than mere ‘modes’ or ‘manifestations’ appearing to relate, to feel, to communicate, to interact.
“So while God reveals himself as three temporary and illusory ‘masks’ or ‘faces,’ the reality behind the mask, the ‘who’ of God, what God really is, is still elusive and shrouded. And as one former Oneness Pentecostal put it, ‘When one’s God is hidden, one must grab onto gods more tangible.’ And so the UPC and other Oneness denominations present a God obsessed with appearances and performances, who then gathers a people similarly obsessed with outward appearances. This is a deity who, because he is ever hidden behind the masks he shows to the world and is ever acting like something other than what he truly is, expects (and gets) the same from his people.”
After I posted those observations, Scott, a Oneness believer, wrote back. His response was, in my opinion, very revealing. Let’s look at what he said:
“In fact most denominations 60 years ago believed and looked the same way.
Women had long hair, wore dresses and there was a standard for modesty. Now to even state that there should be some modesty is ‘Legalism’?”
Is it “legalism” to state that there should be some modesty? No, of course not. But that wasn’t what I said. So it’s important to define some terms here. Modesty is not legalism. Modesty is dressing in a manner that demonstrates discretion and respect for God and one's own body.
However: prescribing a specific dress standard (i.e. long dresses) in opposition to other manners of dress that also demonstrate discretion and respect, and then threatening adherents with loss of salvation if they do not comply, is not modesty. That is legalism - because it makes a certain kind of human performance a necessary condition for salvation. In fact, insofar as it represents a temptation to think you are "better" or "more holy" than others, it can potentially result in the exact opposite of modesty.
As I went on to point out to point out to Scott: “I have a wife and a daughter [now, two!]. Modesty is of great value to me. I have no problem with long hair and long dresses. And I know our culture is hypersexualized and has a far lower threshold of what is ‘acceptable’ than should be the case. As a husband and father, that scares me. However, I don't see how the fashions of the 1950's are the biblically prescribed answer. You keep talking about denominations some forty years ago. Why only go back that far? Why not go back to the 17th century and hoopskirts? Why not dress like the Inuit in furs from head to toe? What about burqas? What is your standard, Scott? What sets a certain outfit apart as modest, over and against what is immodest? Why does your dress standard please God, over and against, say, the hijabs of fundamentalist Muslims?
“I do have a problem with mandating a specific cultural expression of modesty from a specific time period as the only acceptable expression of modesty – and I really object to the aspersions cast upon those who still dress conservatively and as fits their gender as distinct, but who don't see the dress of rural America in the 1950s as being the only way to glorify God in modesty. And when it becomes a test of salvation, that's a big line to cross. You now have to prove not that modesty is a Gospel issue, but that long dresses, segregated swimming, and the like are Gospel issues.”
Scott had also said:
"So, we should feel free to walk around virtually naked, save for a fig leaf over our private and frolick in public with the knowledge of Grace and Love, because lust and impure thoughts never enter the mind of a grace effected person."
This, in my view, was the statement that revealed the deeply flawed approach to theology that dominates Oneness Pentecostalism. Here is a textbook example of "the fallacy of the excluded middle." Because I think that making boys and girls swim at separate times and in full body swimming suits is excessive, I am obviously advocating that they fraternize together naked! This statement is ludicrous, and completely illogical.
Why is it illogical? Because it posits two opposite extremes as the only options and ignores the possibility that there may be a third option in the middle (“the excluded middle”). There are two stark alternatives: nakedness, or total separation and full body suits. What makes this legalistic is that it prescribes a law – say, men and women can't swim together - that the Bible never explicitly states (which, I pointed out to Scott, should matter to him since he was earlier “fishing” for an explicit Biblical verse defining the Trinity) and makes it binding on the conscience. Notice that, because this law’s not biblical, it is arbitrary – it has no biblical limits. So, biblically speaking, why stop there? Why not separate the men and women in worship or in community events, like Orthodox Jews? Why not separate them in the marital bed, like the Shakers? Where's the line?
I cited my classmate’s message not because I approve of sexually titillating swimwear (I most certainly don't), but because it represented the extreme reaction in the other direction that I believe characterizes Oneness theology as a whole. Such theology leaves no room for wisdom and discernment. Instead, it sets up a series of laws instead. Laws may keep a person safe from sexual sin, but they encourage trust in the rules and regulations and laws to keep one safe rather than developing Christian discernment and judgment.
That, by the way, is not just a Oneness problem; there is a similar tendency among evangelicals who seek, outside of the explicit commands and plain inferences of the Bible, God’s so-called “perfect will” in the particular details of their lives. Many Christians want God to tell them who to marry and what job to take and what investments to make and everything else. It’s the same basic problem, because it seeks a manual from God, for it resists the responsibility of cultivating godly wisdom and a discipline of living life in the fear of the Lord.
And this is a Gospel issue. The foundation for our salvation is the finished work of Christ, alone. What saves us is not the proper mode of baptism, but a living and repentant faith in Jesus Christ (itself a gift bestowed by God). What keeps us saved is not our own efforts, but that same finished work of Christ pointed to again and again by our Advocate and Mediator, Christ, before the throne of the Father. And what pleases God is not our imperfect and sinful law-keeping, but the perfect righteousness of the only perfect man, Jesus Christ. There is no need for a man-made “fence” to keep us away from the limits of the law, because obedience can’t save us – or “keep us saved” - in the first place.
This is why God inspired the Proverbs and other wisdom literature. God’s people are expected to grow to maturity and learn to make godly decisions. Christians are not to go looking for laws or rules or detailed directions to be obeyed in every conceivable circumstance, not only because it inhibits the growth of wise character, but also because it encourages faith in the “rules” as what keeps you in relationship with God.
And because it’s a Gospel issue, its application goes beyond just modesty. Oneness Pentecostalism’s entire theological methodology commits this very same error! By excluding the middle, they see only two stark choices: God is either one undifferentiated, monolithic Person, or he is three separate gods. No room is permitted for the one Being of God to exist eternally and simultaneously and fully in the three Persons of the Father, Son, and Spirit.
Hence, and I’ll say it again, the legalism. In the Oneness theological system, since Father and Son are essentially the same, you have no mediator, and so it’s up to you to live up to God’s standard. Salvation becomes something you have to "maintain" by your own efforts. You have to "stay saved." Thus, rules and regulations that focus on behavior while neglecting character, that point to the law instead of to Christ and what we are called to be in Him.
As we approach Reformation Sunday, let us thank God for giving us salvation without cost – a salvation that is truly, and eternally, sufficient.