Sectarian Christianity doesn’t help us
A favorite writer of mine, Christopher Stroop, wrote a column a few weeks ago that convicted me quite a bit. I shared it with some friends as a result. Chris has made a big point about the rotten parts of Christianity and how they are still part of Christianity, at large: that it’s too simplistic to say that evil Christians that do evil things “aren’t” Christians. Chris might argue that Christianity is rotten to the core and can’t be fixed. I’m on a different mind, but he got me thinking about how exclusive I can be, how sectarian I can be, and why that’s a problem.
This is a complex subject for me. I’ve made my opinion clear about the President and the Christians that follow him. And I do think Jesus had a particular vision for how Christians ought to live and while I do think there is a lot of room for discussion, especially when it comes to partisan politics, I do often wonder how much Christians should disagree about major issues. Furthermore, I wonder how much our thoughts and ideas affect how we relate to Jesus.
At the same time, I think our actions do matter, but along with that, who we claim we are matters too. I think that there are decidedly Christian actions, ones that align us with Jesus, but I wonder what we do with a misaligned Christian. That is to say what do we do with someone who professes faith in Jesus, but lives a hypocritical life, or bears minimal fruit despite their profession of faith.
I think it is elemental that we tread lightly, graciously, while also speaking prophetically. God saves us because of God’s character not our own virtue. God’s grace transforms us, though, and moves us to act. Sometimes our actions lead us back to Jesus, too. But I do think that our ability to do good is because God is sharing God’s goodness with the whole world.
We’re all hypocrites
We are all misaligned in one way or the other and I think that we need to name that misalignment and listen to one another as we discern the way of Jesus together. I think the Bible writers are fairly plain about what that is, so I don’t think we should read too much into the text to justify political proclivities in this day-in-age. I’m not postmodern enough to say that all actions are up-for-debate, and that we shouldn’t name evil, or else be judgmental. But I don’t need to remind you that we’re all hypocritical, and even though we might claim allegiance to Christ, we probably fall short.
The point of Christianity is that despite falling short Jesus remakes us, immediately and over time. God is making us better, but we don’t earn the right to be made better because of how good we are. That means we have a lot of room for people who fall short among us, because Jesus is going to redeem all things and reconcile all things to himself.
It is too convenient then to just expel people from the entire faith that we think contaminate it. Jesus reserves his harshest words for people who claim to follow him but cause others to stumble. In Matthew 18, he says it would be better if someone hung a millstone around their neck and was sent swimming. He says to cut off your limbs or gouge out your eyes if they cause you to sin.
But I think in the same passage, Jesus makes it clear that he will go after every single lost sheep. I think that permits us not to, but he himself is not ready to expel someone from the flock because they’ve strayed. I think when we see people that harm the movement, or harm us, or act in heinous evil ways, we’re fairly quick to expel them. And I understand the impulse, because I am not fond of the damage that Trump-supporting Evangelicals are doing to the church.
At the same time, though, I want to be careful that my allegiances are aligned with Jesus, as much as I am sure theirs aren’t. I don’t think this prevents me from naming their actions are evil, because mine might be too, but I think I should be careful to cast them out.
People in the wrong need to be won over, not kicked out
It’s too easy to try to sanitize your church by just saying its messiest parts shouldn’t be a part of it. And quite frankly, people who aren’t Christians are less likely to be convinced that the worst parts of our faith aren’t. It’s not much a motivator to join the cause, so it is a strategic problem.
Some of you will insist on false prophets lurking among us and danger as well. I think we do well to listen to you. I’m not saying that anyone who names themselves a Christian is faithful; we will, of course, measure your faithfulness by your fruit. But what I am saying is that the soteriological distinction you are making is a small point in the grand scheme of things.
It is true that the fabric of our faith and the meaning of the name “Christian” is at stake. In fact, it’s always been from when Christians were imperialists, colonists, and slaveholders. It does little good to sanitize our faith by naming those evildoers as not Christian, and in fact, it is better and preferable to win them over to follow Jesus faithfully.
Jesus was slow to shun someone, and I think Christians these days are too fast to. In fact, one of my main complaints about Trump supporters is how blindly ideological they are, rarely interrogating the truth of the matter, and ready to cast out people that don’t believe to one group or another. Christianity cannot be driven by ideology. It must be driven by the love of Christ and the truth of the Gospel. That combination gives us plenty of power to correct and call our brothers and sisters to repentance, but if we cast them out, we might lose the chance at repentance, and they might continue to harm others.
It also needs to be said that the people you name as not being Christians might readily name you as such (as I have personally by many Christians, for example). That is not only a frustrating reality, it shows you the futility in casting out people.
Soft hearts, tough talks
Keeping those we vehemently disagree within the fold is not because Jesus doesn’t offer incisive ways to live (of course, they are often matters of interpretation), but rather because it creates an environment for reconciliation and repentance to occur. I’m of the mind, as I’ve said before, Christians need to agree on almost every matter. Short of a Magisterium, we need to discern and dialogue together, and I’m still moved to change the whole church.
We can’t simply sweep our problems under the rug. The worst of us may fail to stand the test of time and may fade out. If we don’t lead the effort in that sort of house-cleaning, other forces will, and I’m unsure the chief agents of change can guide this process. The myth of progress coupled with the infestation of neoliberalism in our minds makes a lack of leadership from Christians regarding the church’s shortcomings a dangerous prospect. Dangerous because it may misshape Christianity, but also because it may cause those out-of-step to follow much more heinous beliefs.
In summary, Jesus reserved some of his strongest language to religious leaders who led people astray. His tirade in Matthew 23 is one example, and his fierce warning in Matthew 18 another. We can’t take those Christians whose actions lead people away from the church lightly. We can’t include them and chalk up our differences to a matter of perspective. We need to have soft hearts as we have tough conversations. We can’t simply exclude people who are acting in ways contrary to Jesus and expect that solve our problems. That doesn’t clean up the church, and it doesn’t help the world for which Jesus died, and the one we are to serve.