It is not uncommon to hear the expression today that we must begin to “think outside the box” (TOTB). It is also not uncommon to find widespread support for that concept, that usually involves thinking differently and unconventionally or from a new perspective. The change may be just in how we do things or even in what we believed to be true.
Just what is the “box”? The reference is first of all not a cardboard refrigerator box. That is usually what comes to mind. The term TOTB is thought to derive from management consultants in the 1970’s and 1980’s challenging their clients to solve the “nine dots” puzzle, whose solution requires some lateral thinking. Nine dots were put on a paper and the challenge was to connect all nine dots with four straight continuous lines that pass through all the dots, and never lifting the pencil to do it. The problem is easily solved, but only by drawing the lines outside the confines of the square defined by the nine dots (see the image solution). The phrase “thinking outside the box” comes from the solution. The puzzle seems impossible only because you imagine a boundary around the edge of the nine dots.
That phrase TOTB, has give rise to both good and bad solutions in our lives. We hear this phrase batted around the church a lot these days, where some folks feel boxed in. One church claiming to be Reformed advertises that it is a church that thinks “outside the box”. Further reading indicates that this was not a biblical idea. Generally we hear most of this thought expressed by the youth of the church. Carl R. Truman says, “Innovation is cool, and the gravitational pull of cool is in only one direction: toward youth.” (Modern Reformation: “The Next Big Thing” March/April 2013 Vol. 22 No. 2). He goes on to say that this youth pressure often comes from those with the least maturity (and perhaps with the least knowledge of biblical boundaries and church history). Young people often have good ideas that can really help the church, as long as they will bring greater glory to God, as He has commanded it. Be careful for “trends” – they have a short shelf-life.
It can be good to get outside the box when it comes to traditions and superstitions that often direct the church without any biblical warrant. If “that’s the way we’ve always done it” is the only criteria used, it may be beneficial to examine it to see if there are biblical reasons for continuing a certain practice or whether they can be changed for the good of the church’s worship and witness. Before this is done, there had better be a careful examination to see if we are following fads or facts. We are here to be salt and light to the world, not to allow ourselves to be flavored or seasoned by the world.
Are there boxes in the life of the Christian or in the Church? Are there lines or boundaries that cannot be crossed? Is there a biblical approach to this concept? There certainly are. We can begin with the Ten Commandments. We are not to live outside that box, no matter how cleverly we draw the lines. In terms of faith and life, the Bible as a whole defines the lines beyond which we cannot go in living or doctrine.
The Reformed Church likewise has Standards that it functions with. First there are the accepted creeds of the church which define what we believe the Bible teaches. In the RCUS every member subscribes to the fact that those creeds (The Three Forms of Unity) are grounded in the Bible’s teachings. We are not free to altar those doctrines based on the perception that this will benefit the church’s witness to the world. Unfortunately, wrongly thinking outside the box has caused many to abandon these precious truths, for the cool and appealing unbiblical teachings and practices found in many modern churches.
We also have a Constitution, locally and denominationally, to which every member also agrees to submit. Agreeing to discipline is also promised. Going outside that box is not permitted. In addition, there are denominational positions that are taken as our understanding of the Bible’s teaching. The Directory of Worship, while allowing some latitude, also directs how the sacraments and rites of the church are to be conducted.
There are times when we can properly examine our practices to see if they might be changed, as long as there is not a compromise with the Scriptures. These should be carefully and prayerfully presented to the church, without the “its my way or the highway” threat.
We might ask whether getting outside the box will help us to bring glory to God – the ultimate box which God Himself defines. Interestingly, the New Testament church was not obsessed with getting outside the box. They were more concerned with defining the box and staying within God’s boundaries. Paul reminds Timothy to “continue in the things which you have learned and been assured of” reminding him that “all Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (II Tim. 3)
PHT, Modesto, CA