In my last entry, I talked about how our popular notion of “faith” actually amounts to a negation, a reversal of the gospel taught by Jesus and the apostles.
Instead of salvation by grace through faith, with faith as the converse of law, we turn “faith” into a kind of law. Instead of educating people on why Christianity is actually true so that genuine faith will result, many churches merely indoctrinate people by holding out a series of subtle reinforcements, positive and negative, to manipulate conformity to a set of beliefs, thereby reducing “faith” to mere agreement with that belief system.
Consequently, many people don’t believe Christianity because it’s true, but because they’ve been pressured to suspend disbelief, or because they want it to be true—because their sense of belonging and identity are wrapped up in their religion. They’re invested in their church community and culture, and doctrinal affirmation is the coin by which they pay into that investment.
That isn’t to suggest that I think that the rest of the Church is completely ignorant about the literal, factual truth of Christianity. No, there are a lot of really good, really effective Christian apologists out there, and their books can be easily found in the Religion-section of any popular bookstore (which isn’t to say that “Here, read this Josh McDowell book…” should be the standard answer when someone asks why we believe all this stuff. I also certainly don’t mean to endorse anyone and everyone out there claiming to uphold the factual truth of Christianity. It’s my intention to present my own case for the truth of Christianity shortly, though).
My point is that apologetics occupies but a small, barely-significant niche within the overall scheme of Christian thought and ministry, when it should be at the very center. In fact, our message should be apologetics more than anything else, and everything else that falls under the term “Christianity” should proceed from that foundation. That’s how the apostles initiated people into the Christian faith: by teaching people, rationally and reasonably, that it’s actually true. That’s how they generated authentic faith among their followers, and it was from this starting point that discipleship then proceeded, and Christianity grew into a world religion and transformed the ancient world.
For Paul, it was war. That isn’t to say that he compared it to a war—that “war” was a metaphor or a figure of speech he used to dramatize his mission. No, for him, it was an actual, offensive war of conquest to carry out the Great Commission. But, it wasn’t fought with swords or by physical violence. It was a war of ideas, a war of thought and reason. It wasn’t a war of one man-made philosophy against another, but a war of light against darkness, knowledge over ignorance, reality over illusion, of universal truth over falsehood, transparency over esoteric mysticism. It was a war to enlighten the world despite itself.
It was a war, but there was no coercion involved, because there was no violence, no leveraging by way of sticks and carrots. In fact, such an approach would have undermined and unraveled everything for which Jesus and the apostles fought and suffered. Rather, they fought and won by persuading and convincing people that the gospel actually is true, so that people could choose, of their own free will, to join the Church, and to fight in the war in which it was embroiled. Think Morpheus offering Neo the choice between the blue pill and the red pill, but only after telling him all about the Matrix, so he’d know what he was getting into.
In contrast, when a rank-and-file churchgoer is questioned today about why he believes in Christianity, his answer is likely to be, “…because it’s what I’ve put my faith in.” And he might even say that proudly, having been taught all his life that such an orientation is a virtue in itself—that it’s praiseworthy to believe and uphold whatever a religious authority or a long-standing institution tells you is true, without any justification in evidence.
Of course, in our rank-and-file churchgoer’s defense, that attitude isn’t without its vague basis in scripture. Or, at least, it’s not without basis in our conventional interpretation of scripture. After He had risen and appeared to “Doubting Thomas” and passed his criterion for belief, Jesus told him, “Because you have seen Me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen, yet believed.”
I think we tend to projectour assumptions of fideism onto this and other verses, though, instead of getting that idea from the scripture itself. If we read the text in its broader context, we’ll see that Jesus only expected Thomas’ supposedly “blind” belief after a few years of watching Jesus walk on water, give sight to blind people, raise the dead, and then hearing Him tell them outright on several occasions that He would rise from the dead. Anyone would normally be skeptical about such a claim, but given the circumstances, Jesus had a reasonable expectation to be taken seriously by the people who knew Him best.
So, Jesus isn’t holding out unreasoning credulity as God’s favorite virtue here. He isn’t saying, “Blessed are you if you believe every outlandish claim made in God’s name.” In fact, He explicitly told the disciples to maintain a posture of skepticism about such claims, and made a few remarks to imply that there would be more false teachers and prophets than true. Rather, He’s saying—once the fact of His identity and God’s nature and existence are established (as they were for Thomas), to trust Him. He was admonishing His friend for not believing in Him after He’d already passed every possible criteria for belief. And He wasn’t asking him to believe in Him as a point of doctrine, nor as the mascot of their local religious institution, but as his Friend and Mentor.
Most believers and skeptics today aren’t quite in the same position as Thomas, though.
And besides all that, there’s a world of difference between an honest and completely reasonable question of “Why should I believe Jesus rose from the dead?” and “I will not believe unless God does thus and thus to satisfy my requirements, because the burden is on Him to do things on my terms...” There is a sense in which we “see” the truth when we’re exposed to the evidence and take it under honest consideration, but that’s a far cry from the kind of seeing Thomas demanded and experienced. It’s one thing to ask for evidence for honest consideration of a seemingly incredible claim, it’s quite another to demand a personal Theophany on the road to Damascus, or to demand a sign from heaven because you disapprove of the miracles you just saw Someone perform.
The latter is a dishonest excuse to reject belief in the face of clear and compelling evidence; the former is reasonable and expected, and it’s for the purpose of answering such questions that the Church exists in the first place, which is why learning how to do that was an essential occupation of the original Christians, hence Peter’s instruction to “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.”
“…because it’s what I’ve put my faith in” is obviously not such an answer, though. That’s just a restatement of the question, which implies that the question can’t be answered, because our faith has no justification in evidence, because it’s nothing but a culturally-ingrained superstition. The rank-and-file churchgoer hasn’t been equipped to give an answer, though, because the objective truth or falsehood of Christianity is really beside the point in today’s religious climate.
Whether or not Christianity is true is completely incidental to our paradigm of religion. Where most people are concerned, it doesn’t matter if any of it is actually real, it only matters if it’s emotionally useful—if it’s “uplifting” or “encouraging.” So, there isn’t much concerted effort to follow the apostles’ example by presenting Christianity as demonstrably true. Instead, we spend all our time and energy trying to make Christianity attractive.
But, I recognize that I’m just one guy with a blog, shaking my fist at the rest of Christendom and claiming that I’m right and they’re all wrong, so I imagine I might appear something of a raving lunatic by now… or, at least, a self-important narcissist with messianic delusions.
“Lots of really smart church leaders would disagree with you, Brian,” said one of my critics in recent years after hearing a small sample of my case against the false gospel of mainstream Christianity. The implication was “If all of these learned professionals are saying one thing, and you’re saying another, who’s more likely to be in the right?”
So, yeah… I fully acknowledge the apparent audacity of my position so far, and I recognize that guys like me and blogs like this are a dime-a-dozen, and that any given church-reject isn’t likely to have too many answers worth listening to, and so I probably wouldn’t listen to me either…
Except… where has their leadership gotten us? This thing we’re calling “Christianity” right now—is this really what Jesus and the apostles envisioned? Does anyone out there really think it is? If you were to ask even the learned professionals at the helm of the Church, even they would tell you that it’s not. We’re almost constantly hearing calls for revival and repentance from the pulpit and over Christian airwaves, so it’s all but universally acknowledged that something is off-kilter about the Church, even by its leaders. (See my About page for a full explanation of what I’m talking about.)
And then there’s the explicit warning of Jesus against basing our security on how many people agree with us: the road to life is narrow, He said, and the way to destruction is broad, and many follow it. So, doing what everybody else is doing is never really a safe bet. In fact, according to Jesus, it just about guarantees that we’re off the rails.
So what does that mean, then? That any and all Christian gatherings with a big turnout are necessarily bad, and that we should bet on the crazed loner instead?
Well, no… I don’t think it means quite that. I do think it means that all leaders—from crazed loners with blogs to world-renowned megachurch pastors—are suspect, so we shouldn’t follow any of them blindly, nor should we disqualify them out-of-hand, crazed loners included.
It means, instead of following crowds or trying to find safety in numbers, we each have to exercise our own judgment and discernment, first and foremost by finding out for ourselves why Christianity is true… if it is true. If we’re just looking to be safe by going with the crowd and only believing what’s “officially-approved,” then Jesus doesn’t have much to offer us: “Whoever tries to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will find it,” He said. If we give up our security blanket and resolve to follow the truth wherever it leads, that truth will set us free, He promises. But, if we’re just trying to hide in a crowd and live by conventional wisdom, we’re missing the point.
Most importantly, we need to calibrate our BS-detectors by reckoning with the fact that much of what we encounter in the marketplace of ideas is shaped in large part by (what can best be termed) Religious Consumerism. And this is a pretty obvious phenomenon to outsiders, I think, but it isn’t always so plain to people on the inside. Fish don’t know they’re wet, after all.
Here’s what I mean: It is widely held (among regular churchgoers, at any rate) that the leaders of Christendom are there because God Himself approves of them and appointed them to the task of teaching and guiding us—they’re the shepherds, we’re the sheep, they know stuff we don’t, they’re closer to God than we are, etc., and that’s why they’re up there on stage and we’re not. This is a belief reinforced by liberal quotations of certain verses of scripture, but these verses simply could not have been intended in the absolute and unqualified sense in which they’re typically construed by church leaders, lest we take them as God’s endorsement of Pope Leo X against Martin Luther, Emperor Diocletian against Christianity itself, Emperor Nero against Paul and Peter and the rest of the Christians of Rome, the Sanhedrin against the apostles, and the Pharisees and teachers of the law against Jesus, or the priests and kings of Judah against the prophets. Clearly, simply having authority in some form is no real indication of God’s endorsement or approval, and therefore it isn’t sufficient basis for authority in spiritual matters.
The fact is that not only do we (theoretically) live in a free market economy, but we also live in a free religious market: people are free to believe whatever they want to believe and to worship however and wherever and whatever they please. And so, yes—it is a “market,” because the same principles apply in popular religion as they do in economics. That being the case—if he wants to draw the largest number of people into his church and be economically successful, a religious leader has to offer churchgoers as much of what they want while asking as little from them as he can. If a church-shopper can get what he wants and pay less for it in Church A than in Church B, he’s obviously going to attend Church A, especially if he goes to Church B and hears teachings, music, or theology that he doesn’t like or that makes demands on him he’s not willing to meet (and by “asking a church-shopper to pay,” I don’t mean payment in mere tithes, obviously).
Ergo, the preacher—in actual practice—doesn’t necessarily function as God’s servant to lead His people. Instead, he is—in actual practice—a purveyor of religious goods and services. Being the leader of a massive megachurch, for instance, doesn’t necessarily mean a preacher enjoys God’s approval and anointing. It only necessarily means that he has the approval and support of a great many religious consumers. More than anything else, and regardless of whatever titles he accepts or proclaims for himself, he is very often more entertainer than prophet or apostle or God-inspired teacher.
And, the more patronage a preacher has from religious consumers, the greater share of the religious market he’ll enjoy. Having a greater share of the market, of course, means having more influence over what constitutes “Christianity” in the popular understanding. His brand of “church” sets the standard for the market, and all other brands will be measured by that standard. And because people tend to equate what is normative with what is true, a sort of auto-immune disease sets in whenever that normative version of Christianity is challenged or is not adhered to: if it conflicts with “God’s truth” as it is commonly understood, it must be heresy, the reasoning goes. Except, it isn’t God, necessarily, nor even the preacher himself who ultimately sets the standard. Again, it’s the consumer.
The consumer is king in the Church, then, no less than in the marketplace. The preacher might bear the titles of “shepherd” and “leader” but, ultimately, he’s not actually in charge of the shape or direction of the Church, and neither are the elders or deacons, any more than a pop singer is in charge of whether his concerts sell out or how many downloads his music commands. The consumer is. If the consumer doesn’t like what’s being taught, he’ll go to a different church and he’ll take his tithes with him. This, obviously, means less income for the church, and most likely a smaller salary for the preacher and other staff, if they manage to “stay in business” at all. If they want to increase their income, then, the preacher will have to either change his message and his depiction of God to better appeal to the consumer, or he’ll have to find another livelihood.
I want to clarify, however, that I don’t believe most church leaders deliberately manipulate this to their advantage. I’m not saying pastors get together to conspire to intentionally present a watered-down, counterfeit gospel so they can get rich. I’m not even accusing them of insincerity, for the most part. I think they’re wrong in a great many respects, but I do think they’re preaching what they sincerely believe to be true, for the most part. Of course, there are those of whom (I think) it’s pretty obvious that they don’t really believe in God and Christ, but have found a tried-and-true method of parting people from their
money. I’m pretty cynical, but I’m not so cynical that I believe this to be true of the majority, though. There is always the temptation to do what’s popular and profitable before what’s right—to succumb to the temptation for all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor—so it’s inevitable that some would knowingly give in to it, to some degree or another, but I don’t believe most church leaders have purposefully tailored their teachings to maximize their income. I think most of them believe in what they’re teaching and doing (shallow and ineffective though it is) and many of them are as alarmed as I am at the present state of the Church.
Naturally, though, most of them started out as religious consumers themselves before they became purveyors, and so they are as much products of normative Christianity as they are the medium through which it’s purveyed. Instead of guile and manipulation, I think most popular and “successful” church leaders got where they are simply because they preach what they believe—what they’ve been indoctrinated to believe by normative, mainstream Christianity—and do it with verve and eloquence and energy, and so the market responded favorably to them. If people hear what they want to hear and are entertained in the telling, they’ll come back for more of that preacher’s sermons and listen to his radio program, buy his books, adopt his theology and terminology and turns of phrases, etc. Also, I’m sure he’s
completely sincere—at least as much as any secular pop star or actor giving an acceptance speech—when he inevitably credits his popularity to God and to His “blessing” or “anointing.” And in some rare cases, I even believe that to be true. For the most part, though, it’s plain that it isn’t really God reaching down from heaven and lifting them to the heights; it’s the market of religious consumers holding them up because they’ve cultivated a brand of “Christianity” that appeals to them, whatever the reason might be for that appeal.
And church leaders have shown that there’s little they won’t do to cultivate that appeal, from free gas to high-end electronics, or church-sanctioned gladiatorial contests—nothing that gets butts in seats is beneath us. Jesus was known on more than one occasion to deliberately offend people so He could weed out all but the most committed followers, yet we’re more than happy to pander shamelessly in His name today—anything to “bring people to the love of Jesus”… and to cut out a bigger piece of the pie that is our religious market.
Hopefully, though, it’s obvious that none of this is meant as a condemnation of our freedom of religion. We tried compulsory religion for about a thousand years and that didn’t turn out so well, and so we obviously shouldn’t go back to that. If the Old Covenant teaches us anything, it’s that you can’t compel people to be godly and righteous through legislation. The very best you can do with legal enforcement is to compel them to fake it.
But, the reason we have laws in other sectors of society is that human nature, left to itself—left to lawlessness—inevitably leads to savagery and injustice and suffering. Without law, people do what they want, and what they (we) tend to want isn’t always very nice: the
strong take advantage of the weak, the clever take advantage of the gullible, and murder, theft, exploitation, and lies become the rule. When there’s no authority to compel us otherwise, our tendency is to act like selfish toddlers… toddlers with guns and cars and sex
drives and stockpiles of resources and means of production, that is.
Left to themselves, people tend to serve their appetites, and in matters of religion, people are generally left to themselves, which is why they tend toward the Broad Path to Destruction instead of the Narrow Road to Life.
Genuine Christianity is that narrow path, but the counterfeit version is so prevalent and so deeply ingrained that we’re not likely to find the real thing… unless we know to look for it and to distinguish it from cheap knock-offs (hence the effort of this blog entry).
Even recognizing the commercial and consumer-aspects of popular “Christianity,” though, Christians are still often reluctant to see it in those terms. After all, Christianity is of God, so it should be impervious to any deep or lasting corruption, right?
The message is of God and so, yes—it is pure and holy and powerful and everlasting. But, the medium through which it’s communicated and interpreted and embodied is us: frail, fallible, and vicious humanity, with all of our petty appetites and personal agendas. Christianity was God’s revolution when it started, but now it’s our institution, and so it’s subject to all the predictable sociological patterns of any other social movement or revolution.
Every cultural revolution, by definition, starts out as a challenge to the existing order. If it attracts any kind of following, it will eventually grow from a countercultural movement against established institutions and into a legitimized or semi-legitimized subculture. As it grows in popularity, it matures from subculture to mainstream culture, and then it is only a matter of time before it is institutionalized – as a set of axiomatic cultural assumptions, at least, if not a full-blown legal framework, and actually becomes the existing order in place of the previous order it opposed.
This pattern repeats itself in every successful political, social, or religious movement in history. We can see it plainly in the gay rights movement of the past 40 years, and it holds for the civil rights movement and for the sexual revolution, and it can be seen in the first four centuries of the Church, in the Protestant Reformation, and in any other enduring movement within Christendom since, and within civilization as a whole.
Of course, as the movement “matures” from Revolution into Institution, the conditions for belonging to it change dramatically over time. When it begins, it’s regarded as “heresy” or “treason” or “deviance” by those who support the existing order, largely because it threatens the traditions that have been enshrined into institution and now keep the existing order in power. Once it gains a following and outgrows some of its vulnerability to persecution, it might only be regarded as “underground” or “eccentric”—still something distasteful and disagreeable in polite society, but something to be tolerated, if only barely, by society at-large. As it grows in popularity and eventually becomes a part of the mainstream culture, it then becomes normalized. Once it’s normalized, it’s only a matter of time before it’s considered abnormal not to be a part of it or, at least, not to be a nominal supporter, and so it becomes institutionalized and allegiance becomes compulsory—if not legally, then at the very least, socially (What politician could have any realistic expectation of getting elected if he openly denounced Christianity, for instance? At the same time, homosexuality has come to enjoy the same kind of protected status as well in recent decades—not quite the same degree, but the same quality. We wouldn’t elect a gay president quite yet, but a candidate who openly denounced homosexuality would damage his chances as well).
With the change in the conditions of membership, naturally, comes a change in the character of the members, and of the movement itself, consequently. Because of the high price of membership during the initial Revolution stage, the movement’s purposes and principles are clearly defined and understood, and a person only joins because he or she believes wholeheartedly in the cause, because the price of membership might well be self-sacrifice. When the movement grows into a Subculture, someone might join because he or she believes in the cause, or they might just be curious or in search of a cause for its own sake, and so the movement and its membership get to be a little fuzzier around the edges. When it becomes Mainstream Culture, it then becomes a means to social currency, and so people are less concerned with what they’re joining or why—only that they’re a part of it. Membership has less to do with conviction than with conformity at this point, and so the fundamental principles of the movement become obscured beneath popular perceptions of, and popular uses for the movement. The movement then becomes more malleable, more adaptable to the culture’s lowest common denominator. When it becomes an Institution, then it’s compulsory, and the leaders of the movement become the new social order in the place of the one they originally overturned.
At this point, because commitment to or identification with the original principles and purposes of the movement are no longer necessary, nor even really relevant to joining it, the basic assumptions of the institutionalized form of the movement bear only a loose resemblance to the principles that defined the movement at its revolutionary stage, and might even directly contradict those principles. But, the original movement is invoked as the justification for the institutionalized principles, and they are enshrined as dogma and held to be sacred.
In this way, every revolution carries within itself the seeds of its own destruction. It begins with a small group of people who are absolutely committed to a specific, clearly-defined cause in defiance of the existing order, and they’re willing to sacrifice themselves in service to that cause because they believe it to be greater than themselves or anything they might lose in service to it. If they’re successful their movement will live on after them, but given enough time and success and complacency, it will eventually transform into the very institution they set out to oppose. Entropy is the natural state of civilization just as in the physical universe.
This is why many of Jesus’ supposed followers throughout the ages have borne such a striking resemblance to the very people who crucified Him. This is why the apostle Peter,
as leader of the Church of Rome, was murdered at the order of the Roman emperor, but Peter’s successors in later generations came to rule over the very same empire and preside over the torture and execution of “heretics.” This is why, for the first three centuries of its existence, belonging to the Church meant enduring persecution for their faith, but the same supposed “faith” has since become the rationale by which the Church has brutalized its enemies.
The fact is, whenever any movement or ideology or religion – be it of divine or human origin—transforms from revolution to institution, people will inevitably adapt it to their own purposes, and those purposes will rarely be consistent or compatible with the original aims of the movement, especially when a world hostile to God adapts God’s revelation for its own purposes. But, this bizarre hybrid of contradictory ideas and purposes and values will be the normative expression of the original movement. Because it’s normative, then, it becomes the standard by which all expressions of the original movement are evaluated by the general public. As a result, a sort of Institutional Auto-Immune Disease sets in, so that even if the original founder of the movement were to show up to make corrections, he’s more likely to be condemned and crucified than listened to.
And that’s what we’ve done with Christianity. That’s why we see such a striking difference between what we read in scripture and what we see with our own eyes on Sunday morning, and in national trends.
For some perspective, let’s consider what Christianity actually is, as it’s described in the New Testament:
Christianity is typically advertised today as the way to “go to heaven after we die,” but it’s actually even better than that. Heaven is “heaven” because He’s there, and hell is “hell” because He’s not. The earth is the hell that it is because of His (partial) absence, but the gospel is our invitation out of hell and into the paradise of His Presence.
Jesus offered Himself in atonement so that our sins—our sin nature, that is—would no longer separate us from God. But the gospel isn’t just God’s promise that we’ll get to be with Him, although that would be enough in itself. Not only can we know and be in the Presence of the One we worship, but we can actually become like Him: Christ’s resurrection and ascension mean that human nature, having been justified by the Atonement, has now been raised up into the Godhead, and the Godhead in turn descends to dwell within humanity, to remake each of us from within. Everything we admire, love, and worship in Jesus Christ, then, we can become—must become. That is what He gave us. That’s what He died for.
The apostle Peter summed up the Christian life as our “participation in the Divine Nature.” Paul exemplified the “mystery of the gospel” as “Christ in you, the hope of glory,” explaining that, as the “fullness of the Deity” resides in Christ, so does the “fullness of Christ” reside in us. If we have the Divine Nature within, we have everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of Him. We have His Essence inside of us—His Life, His DNA, so to speak. Having His Nature means we have it within us to become like Him, to take on His character and godliness, His goodness and holiness.
That’s the gospel, the “good news” the apostles told their followers.
They also explained it as being really, really hard.
It’s not a hardship that really registers if you’re in love with Jesus Christ, though, because it’s worth far more than any amount of effort or sacrifice we could make. It’s like being in a really dysfunctional relationship with someone we’re madly in love with (actually, it’s not like that, it is that): it’s work, and it’s hard, but you wouldn’t want it any other way, because you can’t live without that person. Of course, in this relationship, all of the dysfunction is on our side, because our natural sinful tendencies are the source of the drama, and our relationship with Him puts us at odds with the rest of the world.
That’s why Peter said we have to make every effort to add to our faith the qualities of the Divine Nature. Paul said to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” He compared it to intense athletic training, while he and Peter repeatedly exhorted their followers to consistent, single-minded discipline.
“If it is hard for the righteous to be saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?” wrote Peter.
As I understand it, again—it’s like DNA. We inherit God’s DNA, so to speak, so it’s as if He adds a third strand to the double-helix genetic structure we inherited from our parents. To elaborate, let’s say that both of our parents were Olympic gold medalists, which means we have it within us to become the same, because we’re made of the same material. Just like our salvation, we didn’t earn that. There’s nothing we could do to get that nature if we don’t already have it. We had nothing to do with our parents meeting and falling in love, yet we benefit freely from the outcome, by being alive and by inheriting their exceptional genetic qualities.
But, we’ll never become anything if we just sit around eating donuts and drinking beer and playing Xbox all day. We have to get out and train. We have to work to bring our nature to fruition. We have to want it. We have to believe in it. If we just do that, we’ll inevitably become what they were, because we’ll eventually find that the Higher Nature we’re tapping into actually lends itself to the pursuit– we’ll find our highest joy in becoming our best selves, so that we don’t even miss the self-indulgence and hedonism we had to give up to seek it.
But if we don’t, we’ll squander our inheritance and disgrace ourselves by wasting what we were given.
Our level of discipline is the measure of our belief in what we’ll become.
That’s how it is with our eternal inheritance. We didn’t earn it, but we still have to actively trust Him and His promises by being obedient—by following His instructions and those of His representatives.
According to the apostles, this demands our full, absolute commitment, and not just ours, but the commitment of others to aid our training. It’s actually far greater an undertaking than any individual person can accomplish alone, and so we need help, and we, in turn, are obligated to help others who join the Path after us.
That, we read, is why the Church exists. Paul explained that the entire purpose for apostles and prophets and evangelists and pastors and teachers and others comprising the leadership of the Church was to facilitate the divine training—to mentor believers in their participation in the Nature of God. I read it to mean that if a church follows this model—if a church is faithful and functional, that is—you shouldn’t be able to walk in for the first time and be able to tell who the pastor is, because he’d be behind the scenes. It’s his and other leaders’ job to train others in the use of their divine gifts and in the operation of the Church, so that everybody does their part in preaching and teaching and ministering.
It’s their job to train people in the spiritual disciplines, and in ministry in its various forms. The local church should be a place of intellectual development, philosophical refinement, intense prayer and meditation, and physical training, even, where it’s necessary (I’ll explain that in a later blog). The church should also be a staging point for local outreach and ministry—for putting all that training to practical use. The local church should be a university, a dojo, a co-ed monastery, a fraternal organization, and a charitable foundation all wrapped up in one, through which we become more and more like Christ by doing what Christ did. In so doing, not only do we transform ourselves, but we transform the world around us—we outgrow the defects of our own character by growing into the qualities of the Divine Nature, and as a part of that process, we work for the betterment and perfection of the world around us. That’s how God’s kingdom advances on earth—how His will is done on earth as it is in heaven: we become the light of the world and the salt of the earth. The general picture I get from the New Testament for what the Church is supposed to be is something akin to the Jedi Order (if the Jedi had day jobs). Our calling
is to attune ourselves to the living reality of the Higher Power to Whom we are devoted, and in so doing, we are personally transformed and empowered to become the agents of that Higher Power in the world.
How does all of this factor into our present-day paradigm of “Christianity,” though? When we carry out this weekly exercise known as “going to church,” what is our understood purpose? Do we typically have this understanding of what we’re doing and why we’re doing it when we rise early on Sunday morning to herd our families into minivans and shuttle them off to Sunday school and church service? Is it “participation in the Divine Nature” that we’re all really after when we go to Sunday services and Bible studies and other church functions?
Or, would we even go to a church that advertised this as its purpose? Could we even take that offer seriously, in view of what we’ve come to expect from Christianity As Advertised?
Now, we do see glimpses of this today, but mostly only among “professional” Christians—the seminarians and preachers and pastors and charitable administrators and outreach volunteers. And, they do accomplish a lot of good, and I don’t at all mean to disparage that. But it’s not anything even remotely in the ballpark of the real good we’re promised and to which we’re called. Christian ministry and outreach today is not the outgrowth of that deeper, ongoing personal transformation into Christ-likeness that we see described in the New Testament, which is supposed to be the lifelong occupation of every single Christian. Most of what we do today is just patchwork on a leaky dam about to break, or propaganda to uphold our collective “Christian” tribalism (again, see my About section for the skinny on all that).
I acknowledge, however, that it’s incredibly extreme and oppressive to expect people to live this way: to put personal transformation into Christ-likeness before all else—career, family, recreation, etc. I get that. It’s a pretty tall order, and people have other things going on—things that are much more important to them.
It’s only extreme and oppressive, though, because we don’t really believe in the rewards we’re promised. We don’t really believe it’s worthwhile… at least, not on the terms we read about in scripture.
And that’s really it, isn’t it? I mean, we’re willing to say we believe all this stuff if it means we get a congregation (theoretically) full of friends and free babysitters, a cultural identity and a sense of belonging, a sense of purpose and, even, a sense of cultural superiority, along with a way to convince our kids not to have sex (which isn’t really working, by the way).
“Christianity” as we know it offers a lot of fringe benefits. But, when it comes to actually putting our faith in Him—not just affirming the party line and enjoying the support and approval of our fellows, but actually risking something of ourselves because we believe He’ll come through and that it’s worthwhile—that’s where we usually fold. Because we don’t actually believe He’ll come through. We don’t actually believe that putting Christ first and foremost and that “considering everything loss for the sake of Christ” would be a wise investment.
Now, all things being equal, correcting this should just be a simple matter of showing people the evidence and explaining that Christianity is actually true. That’s easy and simple enough to do (which I plan to devote my next entry to demonstrating), and so we should be able to just see that, understand that God is real and that He really did promise all this stuff, and then get with the program. After all, that’s how the apostles originally imparted faith and turned Christianity into an international movement in the first place.
Except, we have a couple of pretty daunting obstacles to that today.
First, we have the corrupting influence of Religious Consumerism: we approach religion as consumers, and the demands of the market have contorted Christianity into something that can be packaged and distributed for mass-consumption.
Again, our concept of “faith” is the most poignant and far-reaching example of this.
Our popular understanding of religion and spirituality tells us that “faith” is a matter of personal feelings and intuition—it’s subjective, that is, and its object and leadings vary from person to person. It tells us that God has a different plan for each and every person, and that plan is perceptible by this “faith.”
Such a “faith,” of course, is wonderfully self-serving. When we hear something we like from the pulpit, for example, we commonly attribute its influence to the very Spirit of God: “The Holy Spirit spoke to me through that sermon,” we often hear each other say, or, “The Holy Spirit spoke to me through this verse, and it means thus and thus for me…”
Curiously, these individualized messages from God are often contradictory from person to person, from pastor to pastor, from denomination to denomination: I’ve often heard completely opposite and mutually-exclusive messages from any two given preachers, but each with the same verve and conviction and moral authority that come only from the certainty that one is speaking for God.
So, either God just can’t make up His mind about theology, social issues, morality, and the meaning of any given scripture verse… or, it’s not really Him speaking in most or all of these instances. It’s much more likely that when we hear something from the pulpit or read something in scripture that we can interpret favorably to our own circumstances (because we never interpret it unfavorably, do we?), it’s not really the Holy Spirit validating whatever spin we’re putting on it, but our own wishful thinking.
What we’re really doing is creating a sort of psychic ventriloquist dummy to tell us what we want to hear, and we call it by His name—we turn it into an idol, and worship it in His place.
Because if “faith” is a matter of subjective feelings, “God” is whatever we want Him to be, and because we all have different desires for what we want God to be, the free market inevitably provides in the form of an endless selection of denominational variety, which gives almost all of us an altar of our choice to huddle around with people who think just like we do, who are happy to reinforce our preconceptions.
And then we attribute those preconceptions to God, and exalt our own wishful thinking and prejudices to His throne. Having done so, our Institutional Auto-Immune Disease sets in, and we defend our tribalism and cultural assumptions as mandates from on high, and condemn anything or anyone who challenges them as “heresy.”
And then a strange reversal takes place: Jesus said that if we try to save our lives we’ll lose them, but if we lose our lives we’ll find them. He said if we love our father and mother, brothers and sisters, wives and children more than we love Him, we’re not worthy of Him, and if we want to follow Him, we have to deny ourselves and take up our crosses daily.
Yet, when we huddle around our respective altars to hear teachings in His name and to hear about “God’s will for our lives,” it’s almost always concerned with bettering our marriages, finding a suitable career, managing our finances better, and a host of other earthly pursuits… because all that stuff about participating in God’s Nature and transforming into Christ-likeness will take care of itself, we figure. Our supposedly biblical instruction usually consists of going after the same things the people of the world go after; the only difference is that God is a means to those ends. So, it works out that Christ isn’t really at the center of our lives; He’s an accessory to our own ambitions.
But, if that’s what Christianity is really for, it’s not very useful. By and large, we’re no more successful at marriage than non-Christians, no better with money, and really no better at life.
So, our version of “faith” amounts to living our lives just as we would if we didn’t even believe in God. We’re just more pretentious about it, because we have loftier rhetoric by which to narrate our lives.
A faith grounded in reason, on the other hand, is far more useful and authentic, but it’s also far less marketable, because it’s far less malleable and adaptable. It’s objective and demonstrable and knowable. The basic assumptions of that kind of faith are those of intellectual honesty and personal accountability: it makes actual demands of us, and allows for none of our pious pretentions and ethnocentric prejudices, because it makes us answerable to something, to Someone outside of ourselves.
A Christianity that’s objectively and demonstrably true just doesn’t factor into our paradigm of religion, though. It’s Ok if it can be proven, but that’s really incidental to our purposes, because we don’t need it to be verifiably true. Our feelings have already validated the parts we like, and when we read passages we don’t like—so-called “problem passages,” the “Holy Spirit” validates our tendency to gloss over and ignore them.
As religious consumers, when we read the Bible or listen to (or preach) a sermon, we’re really looking to adapt whatever we read to our own purposes, and those are rarely God’s purposes, because our central consideration as consumers is to get the most bang for the least buck.
And that’s nothing new. We can see that tendency at work in Jesus’ interactions with His contemporaries, who would often approach him with questions that amounted, essentially, to “What can we get away with before God disqualifies us? What are the least requirements we have to keep to be saved, what’s a passable excuse to divorce our wives, etc.?”
The same minimalist, “good enough for government work”-mentality was common in Israel and Judah in the time before the exile: because they kept up with the sacrificial rituals of the temple, they thought they could sin with impunity and presume upon God’s protection and forgiveness, and so they beat and imprisoned the prophet Jeremiah for his supposed blasphemy when he told them otherwise. Centuries later, after Christendom had become an international empire in the form of the Roman Catholic Church, the same tendency of belief prevailed, and “faith” meant submission to Church authority in exchange for its sacramental ministrations, which God was purportedly ritually-bound to honor.
Today, five-hundred years after the Protestant Reformation, the “gospel” we preach is still essentially an answer to that same question: “What’s the least I can get away with? How can I placate God and get Him off my back, so I don’t have to worry about going to hell?” Our particular answer is to define “faith” to mean simply believing certain things about God, and if we believe those things, then everything else happens automatically, on spiritual autopilot, because God has supposedly ritually-bound Himself if we fulfill the doctrinal checklist (of our chosen denomination).
When people asked Jesus those kinds of questions, though, He never answered them on those terms. He answered instead in terms of the ideal—He pointed them to God’s best. That, after all, is what we’d actually want if we were seeking Him in genuine faith: not the bare minimum, but the absolute best. If we really love and trust Him, we’re not just trying to appease Him, like hired-hands trying to skate by, but to realize the full expression of His will in our lives and in the world around us: we don’t see His commandments as unwanted burdens to bear, or assignments to carry out, but as instructions to set us free.
Yet, whenever I point out the vision for the Christian life and the role of the Church outlined in the New Testament, there is almost always the protest of “Are you telling me I’m not saved because I don’t go to a church like that? Isn’t that works-based salvation? Isn’t it enough that I believe?”
The protester invariably points out the Thief on the Cross-model of salvation, and bases his or her security on having demonstrated at least that basic, minimal level of faith.
To that, I usually answer that I’m not the one saying we have to “make every effort to add to our faith…” all of the aforementioned qualities of the Divine Nature. It’s the apostle Peter. Also, I’m not the one who outlined that model of the Church and the Christian life—it was the apostles. So, if you don’t like it, take it up with them.
And the thief on the cross had only moments left to live, so he didn’t have much opportunity for anything but the bare minimum.
Most of us are obviously not in that position, though.
And it’s clearly not my place to render judgments on who, specifically, is or isn’t saved. All I’m qualified to do is point out the plain teaching of the apostles that we’re saved by grace, through faith.
But if we’re just trying to placate God with the bare minimum instead of striving joyously and hopefully after God’s best, it’s ridiculous to think that we have that faith– that we actually trust and love Him. And until we do seek after the full expression of God’s will on earth, we’re just fooling ourselves by this farce we’re calling “Christianity.”