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What’s A Rebel Anyway?

A friend once confronted me about a decision I made and told me that, “the rebellious piece of your heart will fester and affect other areas of your life.” Christians apply the “rebel” label frequently. There is the backslidden rebel, the social rebel, and the rebellious child. I try to live a conscientious Christian life, so when I was told that I am a rebel, I had to ask myself: What is a rebel, anyway?

This forthright friend of mine identified rebellion as taking action contrary to the will of an earthly authority: “To rebel means to go against one’s authority (not just God). It doesn’t have to be the out and out thumbing your nose at them. If a parent appeals to us about a decision we’ve made and we refuse to yield, instead standing our ground saying, ‘Sorry you don’t agree, but this is my life, and I need to make the decisions in it,’ that is rebellion. We might not want to call it that, but it doesn’t really change reality.”

Her last statement was true—that calling something by a different name does not alter its reality. However, I had to turn it back around on this friend because her definition for rebellion significantly alters the true meaning and focuses it in a direction that is not indicated in Scripture. This misuse of the word seems to be a common occurrence in traditional Christendom.

People are often accused of being rebels when behavior or attitudes do not match the ideal someone else has set up for holy living. Disagreement over the hot issues of music, movies, alcohol or religion could result in someone being branded as a rebel. It could be a whole host of issues—the issues are endless—but people believe they can assign the “rebel” label just because someone does not live up to a pattern of approved behavior.

Our ideas of a rebel are also influenced by James Dean, don’t-give-a-damn, go-against-the-system stereotypes. This is deeper than mere behavior; it is the cynicism that the system is broken and needs to be fixed. My view of the church today is that it needs a lot of help. This is not a rejection of the church—but we do need to constantly evaluate whether or not we’re in line with what Jesus envisioned for us. Sadly, if I speak out and say that Christians are hypocritical or that church is boring or that we should be more interested in love than in doctrinal purity, someone is sure to observe, “The church doesn’t need rebels like you.”

These definitions of a rebel describe a radical individual: a slightly hip, outspoken revolutionary who is not willing to accept things at face value from anyone, a thinker who is willing to reject the religious and cultural comfort zone in order to individually discover truth. If this is accurate, Jesus Himself could be classified as a rebel and I sure want to be one.

The problem is that God describes rebellion quite differently. When God used the term “rebellion” to describe the nation of Israel, it was most often applied when the people had turned away from serving him. Rebels in the Old Testament worshiped foreign gods, conducted human sacrifices using their own children, fornicated with unbelievers and refused to acknowledge God as their Lord. To be a rebel was a serious offense and invited the most serious of consequences. As Samuel warned Saul: “Rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry. Because thou hast rejected the word of the LORD, he hath also rejected thee from being king” (1 Samuel 15:23).

Rebellion, then, in biblical terms, was to reject God and to serve some other god, whether it be another deity or one’s own flesh. Rebellion was not a characteristic to be proud of, at least if you wanted to continue to exist. Reducing the gravity of true rebellion, as we have done with our modern definition of a rebel, is an inaccurate use of language and of Scripture. A child who is “sitting down on the outside, but standing up on the inside” hardly qualifies as a true rebel.

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It probably will not be long before I hear it again: “You are such a rebel.” As long as the pronouncement is not coming from God, I won’t worry too much.

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