An elder writes to inquire how the great work of revival can be carried out by earnest church members without their being accused of fanaticism. He lists a number of specific ways in which he understands that the church needs reviving and reforming. After mentioning the matter of health reform, for example, he asks, "Why is it that I am considered a fanatic for trying to live out these principles of health reform?"
It is quite impossible for me to give you a specific answer to your questions. If I were the pastor of your church, who had opportunity to talk with you frequently and to see you in relation to others in the church, I might attempt an answer as to why some think you fanatical. In the absence of such personal knowledge I must confine myself to discussing the broad principles underlying the question of fanaticism versus healthy fervor.
There is a fine line that separates holy, healthy spiritual fervor on the one hand, and fanaticism on the other. Time and circumstances may change the position of the line a little, but not a great deal.
The following are seven marks of a fanatic:
Fanatics generally first reveal themselves by their inability to keep a sense of proportion in their beliefs and practices. Not only are they impressed with some important truth; their minds soon become filled up with it. They talk it to everyone. They see everything else in terms of it, and thus their spiritual vision and sense of proportion are lost. The situation is worse when they focus on a minor point, as is often the case, until it looms up so large that it quite obscures all the major features of the faith.
Fanatics seek to make all others around them in the church conform to their views. It is natural that they should do this, because if they believe that their particular view or views are of tremendous importance, why should they not seek to have all others think as they do? The trouble here is not so much with their ardor as with the reasons that prompt this ardor.
Fanatics almost invariably proceed to condemn others when they refuse to accept their line of thinking. When ardor thus deteriorates into intolerance, the most dangerous effects of fanaticism become evident. Fanatics, in most instances, are unable to believe that those who refuse to go along with them might base their refusal on common sense and intellectual and spiritual honesty.
As church members around fanatics refuse, in general, to accept their views, fanatics usually begin to become critical of the church and of the whole Advent Movement. As the mood of criticism develops, fanatics may feel that the church is so far from salvation and so hopelessly set in its wrong ways that they must withdraw from it. More than one fanatic has finally left the church.
Fanatics, despite their fervor and zeal, rarely accomplish any great constructive good. There have been great men of God who, for a time, were thought fanatical because of the emphasis they gave to some tenet or feature of the faith. But time has proved that they were wrongly judged, because some constructive results followed their fervent emphasis. Fanatics, when examined in terms of years, are those who show little or nothing for their ardor except a spirit of division, criticism, and doubt in the circle in which they have moved. This is true, whether they stay in the church or whether they leave it.
Most fanatics seem to be tainted with that most subtle heresy; namely, that by the works of the law men can be justified. It is so easy for all of us to begin to think that if we but follow a certain program and do certain things, we shall thereby become holy and just in the sight of God. This heresy often displays itself in the emphasis that some give to the doctrine of health reform. We cannot ensure holiness by what we eat or do not eat, though one would well conclude that from listening to the way some have promoted the doctrine. But, let me hasten to add, obedience to the laws of our physical being is vitally related to good religion.
Fanatics are generally distinguished by spiritual pride. Pride has a thousand ways of displaying itself, and a thousand ways of concealing itself. It may appear in the guise of fervor for God, yes, even in the guise of humility. What is it but spiritual pride when finite individuals, with no better natural gifts or acquired training than others, begin to sit in judgment on all the church members around about them because they do not agree with their particular ideas of holy living, or their particular sense of relative value of certain beliefs?
Now, I do not know whether any of these distinguishing marks of a fanatic apply to you. I hope not, and leave you to be the judge.
Let me now offer a few suggestions on how one may be zealous in the right sense of the word. Christ could declare, "The zeal of thine house hath eaten me up." No one can doubt His zeal and ardor and the greatness of the work He accomplished. Yet He had no taint of fanaticism. He displayed, first of all, an ardor in living the holy life. His life was a constant rebuke to sin and a stimulus to holiness to everyone who came in contact with Him.
May God give to each of us in all our churches an ever increasing ardor and zeal, and may He give to us, along with those fervent graces, the equally important gifts of sanctified common sense, good judgment, humility, and tolerance for others who do not see eye to eye with us.
The answer is given under the supervision of the Editor.