Is it a Sin to be Ordinary?


Extraordinary is Required
  On the left is a review of Michael Horton’s new book, Ordinary. I haven't read the book. In this column I review the review. Or rather, argue with it.

The Bible is not ordinary. It is the most extraordinary book in the history of the human race. It is extraordinary in its composition and preservation. It tells of extraordinary sin in the face of an extraordinary God, extraordinary love and an extraordinary salvation. It promises "Peace on Earth" "swords into plowshares," and everyone dwelling securely under his own Vine & Fig Tree. If the Bible is not true, it is still the most extraordinary fairy-tale and literary work of all.

I don't argue against the claim (of both Horton the author and McKnight the reviewer) that we should take seriously our obligations and opportunities that are wrapped up in home, family, calling, church, charities, etc. These "ordinary" institutions are opportunities for service, which is the heart of the Christian calling (Mark 10:42-45), and are far more important than fads, status, "Xtreme" sports, and other empty but purportedly "extraordinary" events.

I have a problem with "celebrities" and "stars." Too many inner-city kids (and their parents) neglect ordinary academic study in the hopes that the kid will become a sports phenomenon.

Being a Christian should not be about being a "celebrity" by going to an exotic foreign land as a missionary, or starring in a Christian rock band, or leading a mega-church. This kind of "extraordinary" is measured in units of pride.

But there is another kind of "ordinary" which is measured in units of morality. We live in a very unGodly culture. An "ordinary" colonial American teenager in 1776 would be horrified at the things "ordinary" American adults exhibit or tolerate in 2014: Tyranny, public immorality, idiocy. Unbelievable.

Life is a tug-of-war. If one hundred powerful athletes are pulling the rope and you're on the other end, all by yourself, you can't win by being "ordinary." You're going to have to pull the rope with extraordinary strength, or you're in the mud. America's Founding Fathers would say that anyone who is content with being an "ordinary" "patriotic" American today is guilty of idolatry.

Adolph Hitler did not kill six million Jews. They were killed by millions of "ordinary" Germans. Hannah Arendt's book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, could as easily have been entitled, "The Ordinariness of Evil." During my lifetime, the "federal government" in Washington D.C. has murdered, crippled, or made homeless TENS OF MILLIONS of innocent non-combatant civilians around the world. Millions of "ordinary" Americans work for this "government," which spreads abortion and homosexuality around the world. This entity called "The United States" is the most evil and dangerous entity on the planet. (Other entities -- like "North Korea" -- might be more evil, but they are not more dangerous to the accumulated Christian civilization of the last two millennia.)

A Christian, I maintain, is called to rise above this level of death, mediocrity, cultural decay, laziness, envy, and rebellion against morality (antinomianism), and to strive to cross on the narrow way that leads to eternal life, and not be found on the broad and ordinary path that leads to destruction.

What does it mean to be the "salt of the earth" and "a light unto the world?" Great Christians of centuries of the past would look at America today and say with great firmness, it is a sin to be an "ordinary" American.

God does not have an "ordinary" standard of morality and holiness. Hell is reserved for sinners who thought of themselves as "ordinary." Jesus did not die an ordinary death, or provide an ordinary salvation.

Here's how the review begins:

From the days of Plutarch all the way to our modern world we tell stories about people who have the most extraordinary accomplishments. And once anyone’s story is told they move from wherever they were on the scale of accomplishments to the upper echelon. We don’t talk about the fella’s book that sold 2500 copies but the one who sold 5 million, even if the former fella’s book is actually much better. For some reason we are all tempted to be sucked into the vortex of fame and celebrity, so I really like the title and the theme of Michael Horton’s new book, Ordinary. The problem here is not one of extent, but rather quality.
An "extraordinary" book is not necessarily the one that sells a million copies. A book which has only 2 existing copies could be more extraordinary, by virtue of its scarcity.
In our day, "celebrities" are air-heads of dubious moral quality.
McKnight admits that we call the book that sold more copies "extraordinary" even though a book which sold fewer copies might have been extraordinarily good in a moral sense, or some other sense that appeals to something other than pride and superficial status. "Ordinary" is often "superficial," and claims of "extraordinary" are increasingly ordinary.
Fact check: one famous study said a study of high school students discovered 90% thought they were above average. That tells us more about our culture than those students, God bless ‘em. It tells us about our government-run schools. That same "famous" study showed that South Korean students, who scored extraordinarily good on the academic side of the tests, were on the opposite side of the spectrum from U.S. Students, scoring dead last on "self-esteem" and believing they needed to work harder. It doesn't tell us about the students, but about their own perceptions (or in the case of U.S. students, their delusions).
Fact check: most of us are ordinary, and ordinary is OK. When everyone is extraordinary no one is, which means most of us — the vast majority — are ordinaries. Day in and day out, ordinaries. There is no other option. Ordinary is OK only when extraordinary doesn't matter. If you're an average American, it doesn't matter whether you score #1 on math in a high school academic test -- unless you're intending to be a mathematician. If you work for NASA and you do math as well as ordinary folks, the astronaut may end up lost in deep space. Not only is "extraordinary" a must, you must be perfect. (But that's another essay.)
In our culture, ordinary means mediocre or below average and average means below average so that anyone who really matters must be above average and that means we all want to see ourselves as above average. But only 49% can be above average, and that means at best one of two of us. If "ordinary means mediocre," then we should strive to be "extraordinary." We're commanded to do everything we do to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31). Can God be glorified with a "half-assed" effort? Can God be glorified by slothful indifference?

There are some things where "49%" is not a relevant consideration. It's "binary": you either show up and perform or you don't. In many of the "ordinary" issues of life, you're a failure if you don't show up. If you don't murder, you've succeeded on that score; there's no "above average"; there's no "I'm a B+ grade non-murderer." Pass or fail.

Here’s a taste of what Horton’s up to:  

“Ordinary” has to be one of the loneliest words in our vocabulary today. Who wants a bumper sticker that announces to the neighborhood, “My child is an ordinary student at Bubbling Brook Elementary”? Who wants to be that ordinary person who lives in an ordinary town, is a member of an ordinary church, and has ordinary friends and works an ordinary job? Our life has to count! We have to leave our mark, have a legacy, and make a difference. And all this should be something that can be managed, measured, and maintained. We have to live up to our Facebook profile. It’s one of the newer versions of salvation by works (11-12).

Horton is irrationally and unbiblically averse to "justification by works." James says we're "justified by works" (James 2:21-16).  Horton doesn't understand what that means. So he tends to be against all "works," all performance of any kind, all law. He also advocates the "Two Kingdoms" philosophy, in which one kingdom is "spiritual" and the other is ordinarily sinful, but beyond hope of becoming spiritual.

By today's dumbed-down academic standards of "grade inflation," if you get an "average" grade in school, there's something really wrong. You have to be a no-show to get a "C." But statistically speaking, there's nothing wrong with getting a "C" in a subject that's outside your specialty.

But there's a time when getting only 70% correct -- which might be the "ordinary" score -- is frankly unChristian. What is an "ordinary" plumber? One who stops only 70% of the leak? A plumber is ordinarily expected to stop the leak 100%. So what makes one plumber "better" than another? This is the question that needs to be asked, and everyone needs to get the right answer in his own calling when his calling ordinarily requires 100% success, and less than 100% is a complete leaky failure. You have to compete with all the other plumbers who are ordinarily Grade A 100% problem-solved plumbers.

He doesn’t say so, but it seems to me he’s after those who think the Christian life has to be radical and sold out and totally devoted and surrendered, which language seems possibly useful — until the model being used is way outside the ordinary possibilities of ordinary people. Niggle, it ought to be recalled, painted leaves in an ordinary parish in an ordinary place. What was extraordinary was that Niggle discovered the leaves he was painted fit into the big plan of God in the kingdom of God. (I’m referring to JRR Tolkien’s wonderful short story, Leaf by Niggle.) I can't "recall" Niggle, because I've never read Tolkien.

"Radical" means back to the "roots." The Foundation or roots of a radical Christian life is the Bible. "Devoted" means "sanctified" or "holy." It's binary. You are either devoted and separated to God, or your god is a false god. Less than 100% holy means "unclean." When the ISIS troops invade your home and ask you if you're a Muslim or a Christian, you have to be "sold out." It's either "yes" or "no," and the right answer (the "radical" answer) means death. The wrong answer means you've denied Christ (Matthew 10:33). There's no "B+" -- it's "sheep" or "goat."

He will struggle and we will all struggle if we start advocating the ordinary.  
Horton drills down with this:  

The real problem is that our values are changing and the new ones are wearing us out. But they’re also keeping us from forming genuine, long-term, and meaningful commitments that actually contribute to the lives of others. Over time, the hype of living a new life, taking up a radical calling, and changing the world can creep into every area of our life. And it can make us tired, depressed, and mean (13-14).

Horton to the contrary notwithstanding, the Bible plainly calls us to "live a new life."

Romans 6:4
We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.

Ephesians 4:22 put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, 23 and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, 24 and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.

"Changing the world" can be a political delusion. But the world will be changed by faithfulness, in God's time. This is also a matter of eschatology. Horton is a-mil: no positive change in history. Horton also advocates the unBiblical "Two Kingdoms" philosophy, which lets the State off the hook for its rampaging theft and murder, and leaves "ordinary" people looking good by comparison.

Being "tired and depressed" is why we need to remember that life is like a competitive athletic event, and we need to be in training so we don't tire out, and we must agonize all the way to the finish line to win the race.

Horton says extraordinary dedication to God's Law makes us "mean." That's right: we're "haters" if we say a man must have sex ONLY with his (female) wife. Again, it's binary. But what turns an "ordinary" monogamous heterosexual into an "extraordinary" husband? Does Horton's wife know that Horton only wants to be an "ordinary" husband? Does Horton's wife know he thinks she makes him "tired and depressed?"

Let me tell you about our church, a wonderful and profoundly ordinary church (@CoftheRedeemer). We run about 125 or so. (That’s my guess.) You don’t know most of the people in our church, or anyone in our church (other than Kris and me and our son and his wife and kids), and they don’t know you… and they are wonderful people from across the spectrum. Some teachers and some sales folk and some students and some lawyers and a guy who paints houses and some homeschoolers and some public schoolers and some public school teachers and a person or two who has lost a job and some elderly and some very young and some retired … my point is that we are wonderfully ordinary but extraordinary to one another in that ordinary kind of way. No one is changing the world and I’m not sure anyone wants to — well, someone probably does because they’re American and young and hopeful and have been infected by our new make-a-difference virus. Our pastors are extraordinary because they are loving and faithful.  


Is the painter a "C+" painter? Does the painter paint within the lines only 70% of the time?


This paragraph and the one below are saddening.

Ordinary Christians are marked by one thing: faithfulness. They do the right thing over and over. It doesn’t make them heroes except to their spouses and children and parents, who alone experience that kind of faithfulness in the ordinary days of life. Really? Only one thing?
Do they over and over get only 70%?
Is a father a hero who is completely stoic and detached as he discharges "ordinary" responsibilities?
As Michael Horton confesses it,  

Even more than I’m afraid of failure, I’m terrified by boredom. Facing another day, with ordinary callings to ordinary people all around us is much more difficult than chasing my own dreams that I have envisioned for the grand story of my life (15).

Is Horton's "grand story" selling 2 million books and leading a mega-church? Getting slack jaws from the judges on "America's Got Talent," tears and a standing-O from the audience, a viral video on YouTube and a record & movie contract? That might be a problem. (Of course, if you've got talent, maybe God is disappointed that you're being ordinary and not reaching more people with it. But then, what does that phrase mean "reach people" -- does it mean getting applause for yourself, or "changing the world?")
Being an extraordinary professor at a seminary for the benefit of a handful of future pastors requires more than just "showing up."
I’ll tell you want [sic] I like about an ordinary Sunday in our church: we’re going to sing songs of praise and worship, and we’re going to listen to ordinary texts in the Bible (what the lectionary tells, which is often not the famous ones), and we’re going to have our pastors (Jay and Amanda, and sometimes another among us) talk about these ordinary texts and speak words to ordinary Christians who want to live Christian lives and our preaching tends to help us in the ordinariness of life, and then we’re going to do very ordinary things: we pray, and we confess, and we pass the peace to one another, and take the Lord’s Supper because we’re ordinary sinners seeking God’s grace and forgiveness because we are so ordinary in our sinfulness, and then we’re going to throw all our problems toward Christ and set our hopes on Christ, and then we mix with one another in fellowship hall and talk about how incredibly ordinary we really are, and then we return to our ordinary lives. And the kids run off to their classes — our two grandkids amongst them — making friends and having fun under the wise direction of Stephanie. This paragraph and the one above are saddening.
Do we sing our songs in an "ordinary" way, or is more enthusiasm required (see the Psalms, which speak of "shouting" with "joy," but never being "ordinary"). (On the other hand, do we "shout with joy" to make other people think we're extraordinarily spiritual?)

Is it an "ordinary" phenomenon that God has revealed His Word to man, and thousands have given their lives over the centuries to preserve and transmit that Word to future generations -- even the "ordinary texts?"

How long should a Christian continue to be "ordinary in our sinfulness?" Isn't sanctification a progressive mortification of sin and progress in holiness? Does "ordinary" mean "stagnant?" If it's not growing, is it alive?

What did Jesus say about the fellow who was ordinary and just "showed up," but didn't work hard to be extraordinary: "Throw this good-for-nothing slave into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ (Matthew 25:30).

God bless you Michael Horton because Ordinary is OK.

1647: An Extraordinary Year

Let's compare the "ordinary" Christian of 2014 with the "ordinary" Christian of 1647. In England, Christians were putting together the Westminster Confession of Faith and two Catechisms. Across the Atlantic, the second generation of Christian settlers of the New World were organizing schools to teach the Bible. In Massachusetts, civil leaders were passing a law known as "the Old Deluder Satan Act." It required every town with more than 50 families to build a school to teach the Bible to everyone.

It being one chief project of that old deluder, Satan, to keep men from the knowledge of the Scriptures, as in former times by keeping them in an unknown tongue, so in these latter times by persuading from the use of tongues, that so that at least the true sense and meaning of the original might be clouded and corrupted with love and false glosses of saint-seeming deceivers; and to the end that learning may not be buried in the grave of our forefathers, in church and commonwealth, the Lord assisting our endeavors. It is therefore ordered that every township in this jurisdiction, after the Lord hath increased them to fifty households shall forthwith appoint one within their town to teach all such children as shall resort to him to write and read, whose wages shall be paid either by the parents or masters of such children, or by the inhabitants in general, by way of supply, as the major part of those that order the prudentials of the town shall appoint; provided those that send their children be not oppressed by paying much more than they can have them taught for in other towns. And it is further ordered, that when any town shall increase to the number of one hundred families or householders, they shall set up a grammar school, the master thereof being able to instruct youth so far as they may be fitted for the university, provided that if any town neglect the performance hereof above one year that every such town shall pay 5 pounds to the next school till they shall perform this order.

"Knowledge of the Scriptures" was the reason for public schools. The Bible was not just for church, but also for civil matters ("commonwealth"). Both sides of the Atlantic were developing the implications of the Protestant Reformation. America was a Protestant Nation. By 1776, the Westminster Shorter Catechism was second only to the Bible as the most widely circulated publication in England's American colonies. Historian Richard Gardiner says of them:

indent.gif (90 bytes)The Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) In addition to being the decree of Parliament as the standard for Christian doctrine in the British Kingdom, it was adopted as the official statement of belief for the colonies of Massachusetts and Connecticut. Although slightly altered and called by different names, it was the creed of Congregationalist, Baptist, and Presbyterian Churches throughout the English speaking world. Assent to the Westminster Confession was officially required at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. Princeton scholar, Benjamin Warfield wrote: "It was impossible for any body of Christians in the [English] Kingdoms to avoid attending to it."
indent.gif (90 bytes)The Westminster Catechism (1646) Second only to the Bible, the "Shorter Catechism" of the Westminster Confession was the most widely published piece of literature in the pre-revolutionary era in America. It is estimated that some five million copies were available in the colonies. With a total population of only four million people in America at the time of the Revolution, the number is staggering. The Westminster Catechism was not only a central part of the colonial educational curriculum, learning it was required by law. Each town employed an officer whose duty was to visit homes to hear the children recite the Catechism. The primary schoolbook for children, the New England Primer, included the Catechism.  Daily recitations of it were required at these schools. Their curriculum included memorization of the Westminster Confession and the Westminster Larger Catechism. There was not a person at Independence Hall in 1776 who had not been exposed to it, and most of them had it spoon fed to them before they could walk.
The number of copies is "staggering" only to Christians who boast of being "ordinary." If today's Americans were as dedicated to learning the Christian Faith as the extraordinary Christians of 1647-1776, there would be a copy of the Shorter Catechism in every student's desk, and roughly 375 million copies of the Shorter Catechism circulating in America alone. But today we are ordinary, not extraordinary.

One might also ask why there hasn't been any progress in theological confessions since 1647. Is it possible that in a fallen world ordinary progress requires extraordinary commitment and effort, while merely "ordinary" effort allows a fallen nature to carry us downstream?

Read the descriptions of "ordinary" church in the left-hand column here and here. What would the Christians who risked their lives to cross the Atlantic for freedom of religion think about today's "ordinary" churches? What percent of today's church-goers can answer the questions from the Catechism as well as 9 year-olds in colonial America? What percent of today's pastors know their theology as well as colonial teenagers? We glory in our "labor-saving devices," what what are we saving our labor for? Not for studying the Catechism, evidently.

Christians of centuries past would be shocked and horrified at our spoiled ignorance. When Christians self-consciously choose to be "ordinary," society becomes extraordinarily secular.

To be clear, it’s not as if all of the values being promoted today by calls to be “radical” or invitations to change the world are wrongheaded or unbiblical. Taking a summer to build wells in Africa is, for some, a genuine calling. But so is fixing a neighbor’s plumbing, feeding one’s family, and sharing in the burdens and joys of a local church. What we are called to do every day, right where God has placed us, is rich and rewarding (19).

I'm not a big fan of "missionaries" building wells for a few weeks during one summer. I'm a fan of global capitalism building economies.
I'm a big fan of feeding one's family. It is truly "rich and rewarding," unlike being a air-headed celebrity. There are single people who don't get to experience "ordinary" families, and they yearn for such an extraordinary privilege, would receive it with extraordinary gratitude, and treasure it as extraordinarily valuable. If you were to be suddenly deprived of these relationships, you wouldn't shrug it off and say, "Oh, they were pretty ordinary."

So why this book? We need books that are like heat-seeking missiles against pride, status, and air-headed celebrity-worship. We need books that destroy the fortresses of secularism (2 Corinthians 10:3-5). We need books that inspire us to be more radical than the extremists who risked everything to create a Christian nation out of a howling wilderness. But this book is not written by a passionate and dedicated "culture warrior," but by a defender of being "ordinary."

He picks a few examples, including the new craze for Calvinism (and he’s a strong Reformed guy, this Michael Horton is), and sees in each the seeds of seeking The Next Big Thing and the extraordinary. I have written about "little things everywhere" (with more passion than I can demonstrate with a Google search), as opposed to centralized behemoth spectaculars. My decentralized "anarchist" vision for society depends on "ordinary" people doing the right thing. The results will be extraordinary, and according to my prophecy charts, it's "The Next Big Thing."
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About Scot McKnight  
Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.  
  From the publisher's blurb on Amazon:

Radical. Crazy. Transformative and restless. Every word we read these days seems to suggest there’s a “next-best-thing,” if only we would change our comfortable, compromising lives. In fact, the greatest fear most Christians have is boredom—the sense that they are missing out on the radical life Jesus promised. One thing is certain. No one wants to be “ordinary.”

Yet pastor and author Michael Horton believes that our attempts to measure our spiritual growth by our experiences, constantly seeking after the next big breakthrough, have left many Christians disillusioned and disappointed. There’s nothing wrong with an energetic faith; the danger is that we can burn ourselves out on restless anxieties and unrealistic expectations. What’s needed is not another program or a fresh approach to spiritual growth; it’s a renewed appreciation for the commonplace.

Far from a call to low expectations and passivity, Horton invites readers to recover their sense of joy in the ordinary. He provides a guide to a sustainable discipleship that happens over the long haul—not a quick fix that leaves readers empty with unfulfilled promises. Convicting and ultimately empowering, Ordinary is not a call to do less; it’s an invitation to experience the elusive joy of the ordinary Christian life.

Can you be a half-way follower of Christ?

No. If Jesus is not 100% your Lord and Master, He is not lord at all and you deceive yourself.

If you reserve even a whit of autonomy for yourself, you are in fact claiming complete sovereignty. Even if you choose to follow Jesus 99% of the time, it is still YOU who are choosing, you who approve of 99% of Jesus' commands, you who put yourself in the place of God and judge some of what Christ said to be wrongyou who are acting as lord of your life. You view religion as a Smorgasbord. You pick and choose depending on what YOU like, but do not view the Word of God as an absolutely binding package deal. Everybody agrees with something Jesus said, even some real sickos. A Christian is someone who believes everything Jesus said. Nothing less than full submission counts for anything.

If you disagree with this -- if you want to avoid "extremes" -- then you want to be at point "M" on the chart below:

Extreme Middle of the Road Extreme
Capitalism Apathy Tyranny
Theocracy Lukewarm Atheism
Love Indifference Hate

Do you want to be a Grade "A" Christian? Then you had better avoid being a Grade "Z" Christian with all your heart, mind, soul and strength.

"It's a sign of mediocrity when you
demonstrate gratitude with moderation."
~ Roberto Benigni

If you are not an extremist in defense of "Liberty Under God," what is the guiding principle that prevents you from being a defender of tyranny, atheism and hate? Is "moderation" the Grand Principle that you believe will keep America from collapsing into chaos and lawlessness? When Jesus said "Love your neighbor," was He really just telling us not to hate our neighbor, to avoid extremes, and have an attitude of "moderation" toward our neighbor? Can Lukewarm Indifference ever be Christlike?

Even if our goal were no more than "moderation," if you are at point "Z," we must be "extremists" in the opposite direction, and advocate "A" in order to get you to point "M,"  because if we only advocate "Moderation,"  "Z + M" only brings you to point "T." Life is a tug-of-war. If you don't pull the rope with every ounce of strength you have, you're in the mud.

We advocate "A" on the scale above. We're trying to get you to adopt "A" as your position as well. If you're a Moderate and we move you toward "A" to any degree, we've succeeded. For now.