We live in interesting times. We have taken for granted for a long time in the United States that we are a Christian nation. Christians are fighting through political means and on social media to convince this country of those origins and to hold on to them. In my opinion, we has moved past those Christian origins, and I am not sure we will ever go back short of a revival of orchestrated by the Holy Spirit.
Current attitudes in popular culture and among the intellectual elite in the US view the Christian heritage negatively, to the extent that people admit we have a Christian heritage. People view Christians as privileged, wielding power, and oppressive. The positive connotation that went with the word, Christian, in our past has been replaced with a negative. This has largely happened in my lifetime.
Christians have not always deserved the positive connotation that unquestioningly followed the reference, Christian, in the past. Neither do Christians deserve the negative assumption that is evident today. While people may have previously distinguished the errors and failures as departures from the actual message of Christianity, that “nuance” (not that it is very nuanced) is being lost today. Moderns increasingly equate Christians with those errors and failures. The exceptions have swallowed the rule.
We (Christians) need to be mindful in this realization that we can be guilty of the same failure to recognize the distinctions and nuances in “others” as well. Most Muslims, for instance, are not terrorists. Most feminists, gays, transgender people and other people who do not see the world as we do are just trying to find meaning and purpose, healing from their pain and happiness in life. They aren’t the enemy. They are the people Jesus died for.
But, I digress.
Christians are the most oppressed religious group in the world today, but you wouldn’t know it in the United States. It isn’t the kind of news that gets published or that anyone wants to hear. It doesn’t fit the current narrative on Christianity that has developed in the west.
It may be that people don’t want to hear it because Christians have had it pretty easy. Christians in the US are viewed as the reigning social oligarchy. The consensus that is building is that Christianity needs to be toppled from it superior position.
Indeed, Christianity has enjoyed a long and enduring influence in the west, unlike most other areas of the world. Christians are considered the “privileged” who are now on the defensive as the “others” renounce that privilege and demand recompense. It seems to defy common understanding in the United States to consider Christians an oppressed group.
That privilege doesn’t exist in most other parts of the world where, ironically, Christianity is growing fastest. While the Church in the United States is losing ground rapidly to “the nones”, Christianity is growing fastest and gaining ground in countries most in which the environment is harshest and most hostile to the message of Jesus.
Maybe this is a reflection of the difference between the Gospel of Jesus and the institution of the church – the difference between the simple message of the Gospel and the burdensome structure of religious Pharisees. Just as “others” no longer understand the difference between the Gospel message and the errors and failures of the Church, equating and conflating the two, the Church in the US has largely lost its way, no longer shining like a bright light on the hill as Jesus intended.
The vestiges of Christian power and influence are evident everywhere, but it is a blighted and obsolescent infrastructure that is crumbling and washing away. The cultural momentum that is gaining steam threatens to displace it altogether from its place of position in the social commonwealth. The current oligarchs in that marketplace of ideas threaten to oust the Christian voice and banish it from the public square.
As I survey the voices I hear, what I see that is being opposed is the voice of Christian power and influence. It isn’t so much the Gospel, but all the infrastructure that has been built up around it, that people are opposing. People don’t (very often) object to the simple message of the Gospel, They don’t even know or appreciate what it is! The message of the Gospel is effectively hidden behind the more public scaffolding of the Church.
People think the central message of the Church is opposition to homosexuality, defense of the 2nd Amendment, school vouchers, upholding sexual norms and a conservative interpretation and application of the Constitution. I am not saying that some of these things are “wrong”, but none of them are the Gospel.
When Paul said, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes….” (Romans 1:16), he was not taking a political stance. He was not trying to wield the influence of political and social power. He was standing up for the simple message of the Gospel – Christ and him crucified.
Standing up against homosexuality is not the Gospel. Defending the 2nd Amendment is not defending the faith. School vouchers do not save anyone from sin. Sexual norms do not earn salvation, and a conservative reading and interpretation of the Constitution is not a substitute for understanding and following the words of Jesus.
I fear that these words of Jesus might apply as pointedly to the Church today as they did to the Jewish Pharisees and religious leaders in Jesus’s day: “What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are careful to tithe even the tiniest income from your herb gardens, but you ignore the more important aspects of the law—justice, mercy, and faith.” (Matthew 23:23)
We have majored in the minors. We have gotten away from the pure and simple message of the cross, that Jesus came to die for sinners and give them salvation. It isn’t a moral code or a political platform that saves and transforms a person’s heart; it is the Gospel. We push the cart before the horse.
Yes, people need to appreciate and understand their sin and depravity, but we are not the agents who convict people of sin. The Holy Spirit does that. People need to get close enough and be open enough to the reach of the Holy Spirit, and I fear we have largely blocked their way. When the disciples kept the children from coming to Jesus, Jesus said, “Let the children come to me.” I think he might say the same thing to today.
I am afraid that part of the problem is that we have gotten too comfortable with our power and position in this life. While I mourn the direction modern culture and society in the United States is going, my consolation is that the Church might wake up and focus back again on the simple message of the Gospel. As we lose our position in politics, culture and society (in spite of clinging desperately to the hope of Donald Trump), perhaps we will learn to stop swallowing the camels while trying to strain the gnats.
Perhaps, we will dismantle the scaffolding that blocks the light from shining out. Perhaps, we will come back to the centrality of the Gospel.
Jesus “endured the cross, despising the shame”, for “joy set before him”. (Hebrews 12:1-2) The joy set before Jesus was the salvation of people who turn to him and are saved. Once saved, God does promise that we will reign with him, but in this present world. We will reign in the new heavens and the new earth. Jesus is “seated at the right hand of the throne of God”, to be sure, waiting for that day when this present world will have run its course and God will say, “Enough is enough”. At that time, the heavens will “disappear with a roar”and the elements will “be destroyed by fire”, and “the earth and everything done in it [will] be laid bare”. (2nd Peter 3:10)
But, until then, the field is ripe for harvest. (John 4:35) Our job is not to reign and judge the world, but to go out into the world and work in the fields: to go into all the world, preaching the Gospel, making disciples and teaching them (the disciples) all that Jesus commanded. (Matthew 28:18-20) Our job is not to stake out the world for the kingdom of God. This world and everything in it is passing away.
It seems that the Church in the Unites States interprets what Jesus said differently. It seems that we want to turn the United States into the kingdom of God, making everyone subjects to God’s moral code and the power of the Church. The power of the Church was displayed in the Middle Ages and Medieval times, and it did not go well. That’s because Christ came to die for sinners, and he calls us to follow him and do the same.
Jesus came to bring the kingdom of God to sinners like a physician is trained to heal the sick. Jesus didn’t come to judge the world, but to save the world. (John 3:16) The time for judgment and reigning will come. In the meantime, we need to be about the harvest.
“Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.” (Hebrews 12:3) We are going to face hostility as we go about the business of spreading the Gospel in the fields. God didn’t tell us to set up power structures to protect us from that hostility. Rather, he gave us the example of enduring it. Jesus endured that shame for the joy set before him, and so should we.
We tend to think of these words as a call to power: “If anyone is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when He comes in His Father’s glory with the holy angels.” (Luke 9:26) We tend to think of standing up in a political way to defend the nation against the assault of the unrighteous and to be victorious in that fight. But we don’t see that example in the life of Jesus.
Paul said, “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” (Romans 1:16) The Gospel isn’t the power of God for protecting conservative, Christian values. The Gospel isn’t the power of God for getting prayer back in schools. The Gospel isn’t even the power of God for ending abortion. It’s the power of God for salvation.
We don’t endure shame for political and social capital. We endure the shame of the Gospel for the salvation of the sick, the needy and the lost – the very people we may be blocking and pushing away in our attempts to hang on to political and social power.