The 21st century is an interesting time to be alive, particularly for Christians who have long enjoyed holding the reigns of power in the West. While the last two decades have seen a shift of power in the U.S. away from the church and toward non-religious institutions, we are far from being persecuted even though it may feel that way sometimes. With our hands on the throne of grace, Christians have an amazing opportunity, right now, to share the love of God and the show the power of Jesus Christ to the surrounding culture. But are we?
Below are 5 ways Christians are selling Jesus short through misrepresentation, mischaracterization, and theological evisceration.
By making him all about "going to church"
It's common to hear people in our culture ask, "Where do you go to church?" Every Sunday, moms and dads all across the country dress up their little ones, feed them breakfast, and "go to church." What's the problem? Church is not a place to be gone to. It's a place to carry with you.
I've even heard people say, "I'm going to meet Jesus." As if a building on the other side of town is the best place to encounter the risen savior. It isn't.
This language derives from an improper understanding of what the church is and who Jesus is. The Greek word often translated as "church" in the New Testament is ekklesia. Literally, it means "assembly." Specifically, it refers to the assembly of the Lord's people called out of the world for a special purpose. What is that purpose?
The Apostle Paul tells us in Ephesians 3: 2-11. In this passage, Paul calls the gospel a mystery, made known by revelation, we who believe in Jesus Christ are "fellow heirs", members of his body, and partakers in his promise. In verse 10, Paul gets to the nitty gritty.
His purpose was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms,
In other words, the purpose of the church is to put on display God's wisdom before the watching rulers an authorities in heavenly realms. And what is that wisdom? It is simply this: That God's assembly of people from divergent backgrounds, experiences, and cultures can love one another enough to put aside their differences and worship the Lord God in the manner of which He has prescribed. That is, through the work that He accomplished through Jesus Christ.
Bottom line: An assembly is not a building. It is not a particular place where worship takes place. It is the people of God meeting wherever they can gather to accomplish His purpose.
By Turning the Bible Into Something It Isn't
Another misnomer we often hear in Christian circles is referring to the Bible as "the word of God." Funny, the Bible never refers to itself that way.
Jesus is referred to as the Word of God (Logos), but the Bible is not. The passages of scripture often used to make the Bible claim that about itself include:
And there are other verses in the Bible often used to "back up" these claims and used as cross references to these, but do they say that the Bible is the "word of God." No. None of them do that.
Let's take 2 Timothy 3:16, for instance. Here's what it says:
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for instruction, for conviction, for correction, and for training in righteousness,
This verse says scripture is useful for instruction, conviction, correction, and training in righteousness. In other words, it's pretty useful. But the interpretation that it is the "word of God" comes from two specific words in this verse, namely, "scripture" and "God-breathed." What do these words mean?
Paul wrote this letter to his young disciple Timothy, who was serving the church of Ephesus at the time of its writing. Some scholars claim Timothy was the pastor of the church. Others say he simply represented Paul's authority in the latter's absence. Either way, he was a worker in the church at Ephesus and Paul was mentoring him. The scripture Paul referred to in this verse was primarily the Old Testament. The New Testament had yet to be written in compiled. In fact, it was being written at that very time in the apostles' lives. Many Bible scholars, however, include the New Testament in that category of scripture, but it's not clear that either Paul or Timothy would have been thinking along those lines.
The other word that is often used to promote the Bible as the word of God is "God-breathed." Now, what is meant by that?
It is often taught that all scripture is God-breathed in the sense that God himself wrote it through human vessels. The mere thought of that is absurd. The Greek word theopneustos merely means inspired by God. But in what sense is scripture, both Old and New Testament, inspired?
That's a difficult thing to measure. Is this word meant to convey that scripture is inspired in the same sense that Taylor Swift inspires her fans, or does it mean something more than that? In my opinion, I think it means more than that. But I don't think it means that God himself wrote the text using human vessels. If that were the case, the entirely of scripture would sound as if it had only one author, but it doesn't. Each letter, each gospel, each Old Testament prophecy bears the mark, voice, tone, and personality of its human author. What, then, is meant by "inspired?"
1 Thessalonians 2:13 gives us a clue:
And we continually thank God because, when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as the true word of God—the word which is now at work in you who believe.
In this verse, Paul uses the word "word" four times. In the first three cases, he uses the Greek word logos. It's the same word John uses to name Jesus Christ as the creator of all things in John 1. In this case, however, the logos is not referring to Jesus Christ. Literally, the word means an uttered word or statement, or it could mean a spoken idea. Theologians call it, when used in scripture, a "divine utterance."
That's important to understand. When used to refer to Jesus, it means he himself is the very embodiment of God, the divine utterance of God's very essence. What Paul is doing in 1 Thessalonians 2:13 is using the word to refer to the teachings he delivered to the Thessalonians when he was present with them. He refers to those teachings, spoken speech as opposed to written word, he calls them a "divine utterance," and adds that the Thessalonians themselves took it that way as opposed to words of men. Finally, Paul says that very word is "now at work in you who believe."
In that fourth instance, the word translated as "word" is the Greek kai, which means "also" or "even." To paraphrase Paul's idea in modern English, he's essentially saying, "We spoke a divine utterance to you and that's the way you accepted it, but that same divine utterance is at work in you right now by virtue of believing in Jesus Christ."
What is this divine utterance? In a word, it's the Holy Spirit, which has been given to all believers as a seal and earnest payment for a future inheritance. It's the same advocate Jesus promised to his disciples and who will teach us all things. Essentially, if you have the Holy Spirit living in you--and you do if you believe in Jesus Christ--then you have the divine utterance working inside you perpetually. Right now.
When Christians elevate the Bible above the status to which it was intended, it creates all sorts of problems within the assembly. Believers begin to see every verse as a divine injunction, a law that must be followed at all costs, and when that happens, they begin to use those verses as a measuring stick for others. Legalism creeps in and, soon, you have a whole body of self-righteous hypocrites looking for flaws in each other, going against the very spirit of the scriptures.
Well then, if the Bible isn't the word of God, what is?
Bottom line: The Bible is an incomplete written record of divine utterances from the beginning to the time when the Lord returns to establish the consummation of his ever-penetrating kingdom.
By Promoting Sectarianism Through Pet Doctrines
If we could summarize the New Testament into a single theme it would be this: Those who believe in Jesus Christ as the sacrificial lamb given by God to bridge the gap between God and man should prove that belief by living in peace with others, but especially with other believers with whom we must strive for unity in the mindful worship of Jesus Christ.
Every word of the New Testament works toward this end. 1 Corinthians 12: 12-13 captures this truth perfectly. As the Body of Christ, we are diverse yet unified in Christ. Sadly, theologians, seminaries, pastors, and teachers have divided the Body of Christ into sects based on doctrinal differences. This truth is so self-evident that I feel no need to state it any further.
By Working For Their Salvation
As mentioned above, viewing the Bible as more than what it was intended to be leads to all sorts of misunderstandings, misrepresentations, mischaracterizations, and theological eviscerations, one of which is the idea that Christians must strive for salvation, work to please God, or put forth some effort to keep their salvation once it has been obtained. All of these understandings are misguided.
For it is by grace you have been saved through faith, and this not from yourselves; it is the gift of God, (Ephesians 2:8)
Here's a divine utterance: If you must do something to get it, keep it, maintain it, secure it, hold onto it, or receive it, then it isn't by grace. The only thing required for salvation is belief in Jesus Christ as the pure Lamb of God. Nothing more. To add to that, Ephesians 2:9 goes on to say, "not by works, so that no one can boast."
Despite this clear teaching of scripture, many Christians continue to strive to earn God's favor. But there is nothing we can do to impress God. All that needs to be done to secure salvation for God's people has already been done by Jesus Christ. That's the message of the gospel and we cheapen that message when expect ourselves or others to do something more than what Jesus Christ has already done.
By Attempting to Make America A Christian Nation
This is a big one, and it's perhaps the biggest idol in among Christians today.
The idea that the United States of America was founded as a Christian nation is largely due to the writings of one man. David Barton.
I'm not going to try to refute Barton's idea that America was founded as a Christian nation. I'm simply going to say that no Christian theologian before the United States came into being would have suggested that the Bible promotes the idea of establishing a nation founded on Christian principles. That isn't the purpose of the Bible and the only geographical nation our God has ever endorsed is the Old Testament nation of Israel.
Those are bold statements, I know. But let's examine what it means to be a Christian in any century from the first to the last. I offer the following three evidences that seeking to make America, or any nation, a Christian nation is completely off script:
Jesus' kingdom is not of this world - John 18:36 records Jesus saying these words, "My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world." While God's kingdom is not of this world or from this world, it is for this world. That does not mean, however, that believers should spend their time attempting to turn their nation into a "Christian" nation. If that were the case, based on Jesus' own words, he'd have given the order to his disciples to prevent his persecution and would likely have led an armed revolt against Rome. That didn't happen. Why? Because God's purpose has never been to turn any nation into a Christian nation.
No apostle ever taught that Christians should politicize the gospel - There is not a single reference in all of the New Testament where any of the apostles teaches, encourages, or exhorts believers to turn the gospel into a political agenda. Not one.
Seek first the kingdom of God - Jesus was clear in Matthew 6:33 when he told his disciples to seek first the kingdom of God and God would give them everything they need. The same is true for us today. In the very next verse, Jesus says, "Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Today has enough trouble of its own." When Christians spend their time trying to turn their nation into a Christian nation, with laws that reflect "Christian values," they demonstrate that Jesus didn't know what he was talking about. They are borrowing trouble. In the early church, Christians were persecuted for their belief that Jesus Christ was the king of all creation. Today, Christians are hated, ridiculed, and mocked more for their political leanings than for their commitment to the gospel. We have turned Jesus Christ into a political action committee. We may as well as have crucified him.
I could go on, but I won't. Suffice it to say that the gospel of the kingdom of God is not, was not, and never will be a political message. It is, always has been, and always will be a spiritual reality that we must put above all else. Trying to make America a Christian nation is not only futile but is an exercise of disobedience.
Next week, due to Thanksgiving, I will not send out a newsletter. Thank you for reading!
Image is from Unsplash.