Seeing hope in the catastrophic failure of Christianity

Written by on December 18, 2008 in Faith and Spiritual Life, Notes By The Way with 9 Comments

Greg Boyd writes compellingly about the catastrophic failure of Christianity. It’s a long article that’s worth reading. Here’s an excerpt (with some parts highlighted in bold letters by me):

A recent Letter to the Editor in my local newspaper went as follows:

When I read letters sent in by Bible thumping Christians telling us how sinful we are and how right they are, how God is on their side, not ours, how God hates gays, liberals and other evil people, I close my eyes for a moment and say a quiet prayer. “I thank thee oh Lord that I am not and never will be a Christian.”

I confess that I am entirely sympathetic to this editorial comment. In my own life, and in the lives of multitudes of people I’ve come across, the best and strongest argument against the truth of Christianity has been the Church…Just recently a young man responded to my invitation to faith by telling me, “I admit I feel the need for a savior, but I honestly just can’t stand Christians!” While he has perhaps not had a well-rounded exposure to Christians, I completely understood where this young man was coming from. Indeed, I’ve spend much of my professional life answering objections to the Christian faith from skeptics, and in all the scholarly tomes I’ve studied I’ve never found an argument against the Christian nearly as compelling as this one.

What makes this situation positively catastrophic is that, according to the New Testament, the Church – the community of those who follow Jesus – is supposed to be the main argument for the truth that Jesus is Lord. By God’s design, the radical love of those who follow Christ is supposed to convince the world that Jesus is for real (Jn13:35; 17:23). Instead, the Church has become the main argument for convincing people he’s not for real. I can’t imagine a greater crisis the Church could possibly face than this one.

Then there’s this:

How did this happen? To ask the question more pointedly, how is it that Jesus was a magnet for prostitutes and tax collectors – the two most despised classes of sinners in Jesus’ day – while the Church repels these types of people, just as the Pharisees did? The answer, I submit, is as inescapable as it is challenging. The Church, as a whole, is simply more like the Pharisees than it is like Jesus.

For those who aren’t familiar with the Bible, the Pharisees were sincerely religious people. Their problem, according to Jesus, was that religion (attending religious services and following rules and rituals) defined them, not intimately knowing and trusting God. And religion, when it comes to the center, is nothing more than a human system, serving selfish interests, and offering (an illusion of) comfort, goodness, and control.

But following Jesus is another matter. Following Jesus means rejecting pretense and embracing reality; it means living with my eyes open and engaged in loving the world, NOT sitting in a closed circle of “believers” trying to meet a minimal standard of grace. It’s not arduous or guilt induced. It’s the result of knowing Love that is so big that we can live without limits in its embrace (without the limits of fear, selfishness, greed, etc.).

This is something that I’ve been mulling over for a long time. That modern Christians resemble the Phasisees of the Bible is not really news in Christian circles. If you’ve spent much time in church, you can probably remember a discussion that went like this: Who do you related with in the passage (from the Bible)? The “tax collectors and sinners” or the “scribes and Pharisees?” (Another variation is the older brother/younger brother in the prodigal son story.) Invariably, many (or most) of the honest, long term Christians confess they identify with the latter group. They express a mild sense of guilt and a resolve to be more humble, and that’s it. They don’t question the very foundation of a religion that has formed them in the mold of those sincere, passionately religious and moral people who most strongly opposed Jesus.

But what a tragedy this is! It’s catastrophic. What is passed off so lightly is the reversal Jesus’ life and message. Somewhere along the way (probably starting long before Constantine declared Christianity the compulary religion of the Roman Empire) sincere people traded in Christ for religion.

Gandhi famously said: “I do so like your Jesus. I don’t like your Christians; they are so unlike your Jesus.” He also said that if Christians lived like Francis of Asisi then all of India would be Christian. But Francis was a radical. Jesus said many radical things, like: “Take up your cross and follow me.” A million Bible studies have established a million rationalizations not to take Jesus’ most radical ideas too literally. Why? Because we don’t believe in the reality behind the words. But Gandhi of all people did.

Greg Boyd concludes that the church of the future will be “religionless.” Jesus not Christianity (as a religion) will be at the center.

I’m not sure how Greg Boyd applies all this concretely, but here’s what I see happening in the world today. People are being attracted to Jesus but not to Christian religion. A flood of people raised in traditional churches are leaving BECAUSE they want to follow Jesus without the religion. Many are creating new structures (like house churches) and simply repackaging their damaged good (we crave comfort and control that much).They are still defined by fear (of getting it wrong) not by love.

Others are casting off religion and tasting freedom in Christ (something the Bible emphatically recommends). They may not get everything right, but here’s what they understand: God’s love is a reality, and it’s huge. They are not concerned about what form their relationships will take, or how to structure gatherings. The Bible says Christ is the Head, and all his followers are like the Body; these people trust the Head can put the Body in order and in motion, so they are resigning from the job (and removing themselves from under the authority of little “heads”).

Their journeys and the turbulence of their departure from religious Christianity may be messy, but who ever said messy is bad? Jesus created a real mess in his day. Really, we can celebrate the mess.

What if the world encountered more and more people living as Jesus did?
Living in fearless love and freedom, not having lives defined by fear?
Trusting and actually surrendering to the Reality encountered in Christ and living it out like Jesus did, rather than attempting to seize control force others to accept “God’s way or the highway” (like the Pharisees did)?

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About the Author

About the Author: Andy Gray is a writer and photographer living in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and working with Alongsiders International. You can find him puttering around the streets of Phnom Penh on his Suzuki Viva 125, running stoplights and driving on the wrong side of the road or on the sidewalks like a local. If you see him in a coffee shop, he'll be the one typing and deleting the same line over and over again. .


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  • garooob

    I’ll comment.
    I came to a similar conclusion recently. The bad rap that Christians are getting is because we don’t do anything that Jesus told us to. 99.9% of Christians are Christian for one hour a week. You’re right; that’s the bare minimum. They do their time, pay the entry fee and go home. There are maybe a handful of missionaries and people who run homeless shelters; everyone else just sits back and watches. That’s not to say that you have to literally give everything to the poor to follow Him, but we as Christians still need to give. And we don’t. Not nearly enough, not with any feeling.
    But I’ll stop there for the sake of Internet attention spans (original essay was tl;dr, sorry to say). More discussion can be had at email, if you so desire.

  • I just want to clarify that I’m not saying Christians “should” do more. I think Christians (in general and, of course, with many exceptions) are already should-ing all over themselves and on everyone they meet. Saying I “should” do something creates a minimum standard mentality (e.g., okay how much should I do to be okay). I’d like to see Christians throw out the whole idea of a minimum standard and worrying about what they should do.

    Rather, my hope is that we will comprehend the love of God — that God really IS Love and that they are truly free. If more Christians grasped the love of God and the reality of their freedom then I’m confident they would desire to live to the maximum extent in the love of Christ. Then words like “should” and “ought” would almost disappear from their vocabulary, and they would recognize and discard their poisonous habits of guilt and obligation.

  • garooob

    I know you’re not saying we should do more; I’m saying that. But think of the difference it could make if everyone who claims to be Christian did the work of God and Jesus. I know we can’t do miracles, but what if we took some time to serve soup, read a book to a child, run errands for the elderly or something else you can’t just give money to someone else to do. Maybe that would open our hearts to love.

  • I don’t mean to suggest you are one of the people saying “should” or using guilt or obligation to motivate people to action. I just wanted to be clear that I’m not advocating these approaches, because I think they ultimately backfire. People motivated by obligation and guild seek out the bare minimums to make the guilt go away.

    But I think anyone who looks deeply into the love of God and begins to comprehend and receive it will change from the inside out. He or she will joyfully and freely act in love without any concern for “how much is enough.” They may begin with small steps, but as they continue they are capable of loving without limits and often do with no fanfare or regrets.

  • I feel like Boyd has hit it on the head and so have you. If we want people to follow Christ, then we have to follow Christ. The idea behind it seems quite simple, and yet we fail to do it almost daily in most churches. I find myself often out of bounds at churches because of the amount that I want to do. My ideas are often too radical: for instance, making the sanctuary into a homeless shelter the other six days of the week.

  • Andy

    I think that if I know Christ and follow him, then I don’t have to worry about getting others to do the same. I’m not saying I wouldn’t love others and want them to know Jesus, but I won’t feel any pressure to make them come along. As a result, they won’t feel like I’m pushing them (because I won’t be).

    One problem with Christian clubs (a.k.a., churches) is that they own buildings and have resources. Then they all feel an obligation to use their resources one way or another, and this leads to much discussion (to put it mildly). I’m not saying it’s bad to be a member of a Christian club, but I do think these structures sometimes make it harder, not easier, for us to follow Jesus (which as you say could be very simple). In fact, it’s still possible to have rich community and work together with others without being members of a club.

  • garooob

    I went on vacation, but now I’m back. I know you’re not saying I’m a guilt tripper. It’s cool.
    What I’m saying about people should do stuff to help rather than give money or do nothing is this: Remember the WWJD fad? If Christians really wanted to do what Jesus did, miracles aside, they would DO something, anything! Jesus didn’t skip stones on the Sea of Galilee all day, he did stuff to help people. Again, I’m not saying that everyone needs to stop what they’re doing and go invite homeless people into their guest bedroom, but we need to stop the apathy!

  • Andy

    I’m just having a hard time deciding whether or not to agree with everything you’re saying. On the one hand, I agree that it’s crucial to act. If you don’t know what to do, start putting one foot ahead of the other. I’d like to invite people to do something and stop thinking having the right beliefs will amount to anything. As James wrote in his letter, to paraphrase, show me what you believe by what you do. Believing “correctly” all by itself is meaningless, and the person who is acting (listening and walking with Jesus) won’t have to worry about beliefs much.

    I also agree that if Christians really wanted to do what Jesus did, then they would do something. I think that’s right.

    On the other hand, I’m hesitant to go along with statements like “everyone needs to…” and “we need to…” I think it’s pretty futile saying what other people need to do. One problem is that people who listen (to others telling them what they “should do” or “need to do”) don’t end up looking inside and listening for the authentic voice of God speaking to them. It’s just easier to try and conform to what others say than to be transformed (by surrender to Love). So I’m just not going to take responsibility for what others “should do” or “should believe” or even what I think they “need to do.”

    The truth is that people already know in their depths that something is wrong which requires action, but they haven’t gotten to the point where they are ready to acknowledge what’s there. They still lack the willingness to give up control and step into it (and whatever else God in his timing is bringing together so they can make a change). Despite having the opportunity to choose life at it’s best, most of us hang back, and many will never step into that reality. I believe God loves them as they are. I sad that so many will miss out on the best. I hope I won’t be one of them, and I’m counting on mercy.

    When it comes to my role in influencing others, I think demonstrations are more powerful than words to convince people stuck in this situation. I will also speak the truth from my heart when I sense it’s right (probably without using “should” or “have to”).

    However, I no longer feel obligated to speak words or provide a demonstration. My responsibility is to heard from God and respond in trust. Then I’ll act in love and faith, without imposing any obligations on others to respond in kind, and leave the results up to God.

    Just to be clear (I hope), I don’t think I’m better or more right than you. I would have have simply agreed with you at one point, and maybe we actually agree completely but I’m just not seeing it. Don’t worry about my opinion, please. Even my current response comes out of where I’m at now feeling my way forward on this journey.

  • garooob

    It’s cool; we’re just having a discussion.
    We may be thinking the same thing or after the same result, just going about it in a different way. I don’t think forcing anyone to do anything is going to get anything productive done. I’ve assumed that as Christians we already have the beliefs and faith (else we wouldn’t BE Christians, right?), we just need to have action. Because the view of Christians from outside is that either we’re telling everyone they’re going to Hell or we sit around feeling good about ourselves. We’re only concerned with ourselves and each other. I know I’m the only one responsible for my faith, so yeah, I have to make myself into a good person, but I’m also a representative of Christianity. It’s not just between me and God, I have to show that Christians are good people. Maybe I’m going around in circles now…