Social Issues, Theology

the straight and narrow

straight and narrow

Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.

If I had to guess, I think I’ve heard that verse preached on more than any other verse from the entire Bible, and since this verse only had one possible interpretation for Christian fundamentalists, I’ve heard that particular sermon a lot. This verse, in the communities I grew up in, was meant for us, because we were the only ones who had it figured out. The “straight and narrow way” equaled the fundamentalist lifestyle, being “separated from the world,” the “salt of the earth”– in short, we were of bunch of judgmental legalistic assholes.

But, we were convinced that we weren’t legalists because we wanted to follow the rules– all of which we got from the Bible, anyway!– because they were our personal convictions. And we weren’t judgmental– we were just right, and how can we help it if people were convicted by our modesty and our “upright conversation” (conversation here in the archaic sense).

We thought this verse applied to Christian fundamentalism for a few reasons: first, we thought of ourselves as a persecuted minority, so the “few there be” part was literally true (I thought at the time. I now have serious doubts about how much of a “minority” fundamentalists actually are). Second, we were extremely proud of ourselves for being one of the precious few who were truly committed to living a holy, righteous life. Any supposed “Christian” who didn’t look, talk, and act like us was on the “broad way that leads to destruction,” the sorry bunch of liberals.

Now that I’m one of those liberals, I’ve had to re-think this verse, but I’ve had to be careful. A huge part of me wants to keep the same exact idea, but instead of applying it to fundamentalists I’d claim it for the liberals; I could so easily take the “straight and narrow way” and make it mean “be a Democratic anti-capitalist yuppie,” thereby rendering people like me the “few there be who found it.”

I’ve been thinking about what “the straight and narrow” could possibly be over the last week. I’ve been driving the same four-hour route a couple times this week, and I’ve passed a church with “Straightway” in its name each time. I also just finished reading 7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess by Jen Hatmaker (the first thing I’ve read by her, and I really liked it. Enjoyable but challenging, too), and she raises the point that if Christians were truly following some of Christ’s simplest commands, so much of what is desperately wrong with the world would disappear (for example, there are 4o Southern Baptists for every child in the American foster system).

So, what in the world is Jesus talking about in Matthew 7?

Well, it’s part of the conclusion to the Sermon on the Mount, for one– a passage I’ve wrestled with more now that my viewpoint has shifted so drastically over the last few years. Judging, fasting, giving generously and sacrificially, loving your enemies, trusting God, the Golden Rule, bearing good fruit . . . it’s all there: The Teachings of Jesus: Condensed Version.

Interestingly, my ESV groups this “straight and narrow” bit with the Golden Rule:

So whatever you wish that others would do to you,
do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.
Enter by the narrow gate.
For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction,
and those who enter by it are many.
For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life,
and those who find it are few.

And as I’ve been mulling this over this week, something occurred to me– maybe I should be reading this passage just a little more literally, especially because of its context. Whose “destruction” is Jesus talking about? What does “life” mean here? And I’m wondering if Jesus might be talking about our world, our communities, as a whole. If we’re not making sure the needs of those around us are met, if we’re spending all of our time pursuing wealth, if we’re petty and vindictive to each other . . . are we not destroying our communities– literally?

Could it be that what Jesus meant by saying that “few there be” who find the “straight and narrow” was simply a statement of fact about the destitution of our world? That there is far more suffering and pain and death and sickness and poverty– destruction– than there is life? Isn’t part of the whole point of the Sermon on the Mount to instruct his followers in what it looks like to be a Christian in the day-to-day? That we must be the life-bringers, the merciful, the meek, the peacemakers?

The more time I spend reading about Jesus and hearing his words for what feels like the first time, the more I think I understand about what it means to be a Christian, and it is so far removed from the ridiculous pettiness of the Christianity I was raised in, where we were obsessed with “practicing our righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them.”

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  • Reblogged this on Heaven-or-Hell and commented:
    Awesome Post !!!!

  • Wow…this is possibly my favorite of your posts! Thank you!

  • Huh. So interesting.
    As I’ve shifted from conservative evangelical (perhaps a bit fundamentalist) to one of those “sorry bunch of liberals” (the phrase made me giggle), this is a verse I’ve really been uncomfortable with (like have-I-been-deceived-and-am-i-now-heading-to-hell, sigh). But when you look at the context, as you point out, Jesus seems to be talking about living in our world rather than believing so you get to heaven or hell, which is quite interesting.
    Thanks for this post. 🙂

  • Hi Samantha–in this post,you used the word “convicted” in the phrase ” . . . convicted by our modesty . . . ” in a context that seems different from the usual understanding of “convicted” as referring to being found guilty of a crime. What does the word mean when used this way? I’ve seen “convicted” used this way several times and it puzzles me–and the Google is no help. 🙁

    • In Christian-ese, being “convicted” means that the Holy Spirit is pricking your conscience, or that you know that what you’re doing is wrong in the sense that God wouldn’t approve of it.

      It’s similar to feeling guilty.

  • Thank you, Samantha!!

  • I think this is the first post I have read about Jesus and his teachings that wasn’t being snarky or wry. thank you for your thoughtful insights.

  • Good words. I find it often flips my old black/white thinking on its head when I consider such verses as descriptive (as you’ve thoughtfully pointed out) rather than prescriptive. Thanks for writing.

  • In my evangelical campus ministry days, I was taught that verse means only Christians can go to heaven. I accepted that, on an intellectual level. I never really thought how that means that most of the world is going to hell (or is there already), and though I still consider myself a Christian (albeit a struggling one), I can’t help but wonder why the bible is so darn confusing if hell is real and imminent. I mean, you’d think God would make his instructions – heck, his very EXISTENCE slightly more obvious, don’t you think?

    Meh. I don’t what to think anymore.

    • Yes my assumption would be that if God had a rigid rule about who can and cannot go to heaven then God would have done a better job at articulating it and not contradicting himself.

      • I have yet to hear a satisfying theological explanation for it.

        • Cheryel Lemley-McRoy

          Beth, I have learned a ton of info about the Bible since I started studying Biblical Hebrew, and idioms and euphemisms in particular. And it’s infuriating to think that someone has to go to such great lengths to know what it’s actually talking about. But the basic message is still there: love God, love others, be kind. That’s all we need to know. All the rest is “burdens” imposed by modern Pharisees.

          • Many of my evangelical friends in college said the best way to love others is to warn them about hell…

          • I tend to fall into the belief that God is looking for reasons to bring people *into* Heaven, not excuses for keeping them out. What I *do* know is that even if you’re trying to love someone by preaching at them about Heaven and Hell, you are more likely to be the sort of person who would make those very people go “well, if that’s the sort of person who’s going to be in Heaven, I sure as Hell don’t want to go there…”

            And that’s a generalized sort of “you”, not a statement about you in particular.

            So yeah, I don’t have any simple answers for you either, but I don’t think the answers are as important as asking the questions. I really think that God cares more about the content of our hearts, about how we treat those around us, whether we agree with them or not, and less about how we follow rules of behavior set upon us by other mortal human beings.

            Besides, I don’t think that preaching a “fear of Hell” is going to make anyone live a happier, more fulfilled life no matter what form that life takes.

          • I like what you said. I was given an analogy in bible study that humans are like glasses of water, sin is like dog poo. Even if there’s only one drop of dog poo in the glass of water, you still wouldn’t drink it. Which is to say, even one drop of sin, even if it’s stealing your sister’s nail polish, is enough to make you unworthy of heaven.

            Makes me wonder why God doesn’t just zap the sin away.

          • No one’s ever going to be “worthy” of Heaven. It’s an impossibility. We’re *human*. We’re *mortal*. We’re fallible and broken inside, by our own acts and by the acts of those we cannot control. It wouldn’t be *just* of God to demand us to conform to a standard that we simply are not made to meet.

            I have to believe that God is not that petty, that vindictive and unjust. That said, I’m also starting to seriously question just what constitutes “sin” in the eyes of God, not the eyes of man. I think God cares more about the amount of misogyny in a person’s heart than whether they’ve cheated on a test question. A person could uphold all the apparent values of “righteous” living, but if they’re angry and hateful to their neighbors or to those around them… I think God would rather not have that toxic person around him any more than *we* would want that self-righteous attitude around us.

            But I also have to believe that within each and every one of us there is a tiny spark that reflects the Divine. In some way we reflect our Maker, even in our great diverse and individual natures. And I have to believe that even when we fail, and sometimes we fail badly, as long as we get back up again and just keep trying to do what is kind, what is truly loving, earnestly good, then when the time comes, God will look at us and smile, saying “Yes, this one is one of mine. Welcome home.”

      • This. Christians I grew up could never answer me this. This version of god is really just an abuser, which I suppose is why there’s so much abuse in fundamentalism. If a parent or partner or anyone else said, I’m going to give you tons of rules, make them super vague, expect you to feel immense guilt if you misinterpret any of them, make those rules have nothing to do with hurting anyone, and oh if you don’t do one tiny thing right, I’m going to torture you forever, that’d be horribly abusive. Yet they wonder why their message isn’t appealing to the mainstream. I don’t know if there’s a god, and probably will remain agnostic for life due to my own personal worldview, but I sure as hell don’t think he/she is anything like that if god does exist, and if that is god, I’d rather be ungodly. I’d think a god who created us would have the same basic morals that god instilled in most humans.

        • Tim

          I agree with you about the cognitive dissonance between the idea that God, in the Bible, is said to be like a father and like a husband, but yet he’s laid down a list of rules that are impossible to follow and if even one is broken, the penalty is eternal torture. Some (abusive) fathers and husbands may act that way, but it doesn’t seem to be the predominant natural human disposition. If God were really that way, wouldn’t all fathers naturally be that way as well? But even stories about fathers in the Bible don’t present fatherhood in that way. The story of the Prodigal Son comes to mind.
          I know, as a father, that if one of my children made an effort to reject me and cut off contact with me, they could, in effect, remove themselves from everything good that I would like to provide for them: my friendship, my conversations, my ability to help out in any physical or financial way (I’m a wizard at unclogging drains, for example), my advice (such as it is). If they wanted to seek me out later, I would be standing by to renew the relationship. And Jesus says that God is really like that; not the other thing. God may let us go, and we may suffer because of the absence of the good things he provides. But he doesn’t kick us out. That’s not the real story of who God is according to Jesus.
          Why are there passages in the Bible that seem to say that God is abusive? Why do fundamentalists interpret them that way? That’s a whole other story.

        • That’s true about the moral compass, most humans wouldn’t send someone to hell to be tortured for eternity so why would they believe that they have better morals than God who would do such a thing? And then they desperately try to make converts by preaching the love of God in order to save them from a fate that only God could inflict upon them.

  • Margaret N

    very thought -provoking. Thanks!

  • Aibird

    I love this interpretation.

  • Enjoyed reading this article. Will also check out the book you mentioned by Jen Hatmaker, it sounds really good. Glad I’m following your blog.

  • Just realised I wasn’t following your blog but this piece was reblogged on James Ramblings which is why it showed up on my Reader. I have remedied that though and am now following you!

  • J. Rachel


  • Rose

    Hmm, this is something I’ll have to chew on. I never thought about it that way before!

  • Emily N.

    I recently read something in a Bible background book suggesting that Jesus was actually making a political statement here–the wide road that leads to death is actually the road the Romans put in for moving armed forces. Apparently you could see the Roman road from the place where Jesus was when this passage occurred.

    • Tim

      That’s an interesting idea. I could see it as maybe not a political statement about Rome per se, but a visual analogy – people at the time would have certainly understood that the Roman roads were both highly convenient to the locals, but also significant in their subjugation under Rome. Metaphors that tie convenience and ease to bondage or destruction aren’t uncommon. People might have made the same connection here – feeling the ambivalence about Rome and the Roman roads and tying that to Jesus larger point in the context of the Golden rule that what seems easy (being selfish in your interactions with others, which does seem to be the more common behavior) actually leads to destruction, while taking the effort to be considerate of others leads to life. I’m sure this has a communal application, as Samantha suggests; I’m not sure it isn’t individually applicable as well. How many selfish people end a long life of grasping just miserable and unhappy? How many considerate people, even if not materially wealthy or “successful” seem to experience real contentment and enjoyment in their lives and relationships?

  • Amy

    A few years ago I began looking at this a bit differently. I saw the narrow way as the way that each person was uniquely created to follow. The wide way is the was everyone said you’re supposed to go, like following the crowd. It’s easier to follow along with what everyone else is telling you is right and telling you you’re supposed to do. It takes more courage to follow what you know in your heart is right for you to do.

    • Crystal

      That makes sense to me! I remember slavery and Nazism as two golden examples of what you say, Amy!

      • Crystal

        I don’t mean golden as in those vile atrocities against humanity and other living things were golden; they were anything but. What WAS GOLDEN WAS STANDING AGAINST THEM AND GOING THE NARROW ROAD, WHICH LED TO ETERNAL LIFE, I SUSPECT IN MORE THAN ONE SENSE!

  • > I now have serious doubts about how much of a “minority” fundamentalists actually are

    What portion of Christians would you estimate fundamentalists are?

    • As far as I can tell, nearly every single conservative evangelical I’ve ever encountered is a hair’s breadth away, so … a lot percent?

      • Crystal

        Wow, okay! I thought fundamentalists were a minority of the Christian population myself! How do you define fundamentalist, Samantha?

        • That’s a … big, big question.

          There’s two aspects to being a fundamentalist: social and theological. Theologically they’re no different from your typical conservative evangelical– because evangelicalism is an offshoot of fundamentalism. Christian fundamentalism began in the early years of the 20th century with the publication of “The Fundamentals,” but evangelicals split off from fundamentalists in the mid-20th century because they disagreed with fundamentalists about the “doctrine of separation.” However, most prominent and typical conservative evangelicals are starting to revert back to the fundamentalist stance about social issues and separation. In the 50s, evangelicals distanced themselves from fundamentalists on a social level, but today conservative evangelical leaders are calling for their followers to be more and more “separated,” to “take a stand” on social issues.

          That’s why I think fundamentalists aren’t in the minority anymore– the line between conservative evangelicalism and fundamentalism is blurring; in fact, most of the time when I’m reading things (social and theological) written by conservative evangelical leaders I can’t tell the difference between them and any fundamentalist preacher I grew up hearing.

          Fundamentalists are people who believe in conservative evangelical theology + believe in extreme social conservatism + believe in being “separated from the world,” which can take on a variety of forms.

          • Crystal

            Your explanation was very helpful. Thank you, Samantha! Now I understand a few more things. It’s just that I thought that fundamentalists were a minority because most evangelicals wore trousers and other such things, and had CCM, etc, and some tolerated Harry Potter and Twilight – you know, just not as radical as the IFB idealogy (ideology with an idealist slant) I grew up with.

            One very smart young man of eleven years old, who had never heard of fundamentalism, when I told him about it (he was a relative) told me point blank while looking me in the face, that “They want the world to be just like them.” He said it so well that I saw it immediately. He couldn’t have summed it up better; he got to the heart of the matter all right.

            So basically, what you’re saying, is that evangelicals are fundamentalism-lite; they just don’t accept the more extreme version of Christianity put out by IFBs, etc. That was why I thought they weren’t fundamentalists, but conservatives, instead. That’s how I tend to personally classify them based on my limited experience, but you seem to have seen a lot more than me; I accept your explanation. One person I’ve heard said there is no such thing as an extremist Christian because Christians follow the teachings of the Bible if they claim to be a Christian – literally, of course. Such a statement sounds similar to what you’re saying, but are you saying that thought or something slightly different?

            I have a few more thoughts on this but would like to put them on reserve for now. I have to work now.

  • Wonderful explanation Samantha–very clear and concise. What I’m wondering now is, are fundamentalists or evangelicals more likely to be dominionists, or, since these two categories of Protestantism seem to be re-merging, are they all equally likely to hold the dominionist world view? Btw, how large would you estimate the dominionist population to be, w/reference to non-mainstream Protestantism as a whole?