Future of Evangelicalism
On the Dire Need for the Imitation of Christ
Some wish to take the Anne Rice option and reject "Christianity" for the love of "Christ." It may be tempting to separate oneself from all the faults of the Church in one shining moment of righteous defiance, but this cannot be right. Scorning other Christians does not mean that you are a better follower of Christ. It means that you suffer from spiritual pride, a desire to curry favor with the world, and theological incoherence. There are no sins in American Christendom that are unique to American Christendom. The Church is the body of Christ in the world -- a broken body, not a congregation of the sanctified but a fellowship of sinners seeking to follow Christ together. Christ loves and guides and edifies the Church not in spite of its faults, but in and through them. It is in our sinfulness that God teaches us His grace, in our weakness that we see His strength, in our foolishness that we learn His wisdom. We cannot become who we are meant to be apart from the community of believers. And the Church is not merely for us. Its teaching authority, its sacraments, and its ministries, are sorely needed in a hurting world. Christ does not abandon his Bride -- and neither should we.
What truly ails the Church, I am convinced, is that it has rejected the call to the imitation of Christ. Christ did not die upon the cross so that we should never bear crosses of our own -- indeed he calls his disciples to take up their crosses daily and follow. The way of Christ is the way of the cross, and the way of the cross is diametrically opposed to the way of the world. Yet we do not bear crosses anymore; we bear the sweet burdens of worldly idols and ambitions. The Church fell in love with the extravagant comfort and consumerism of American society, its sumptuous materialism and endless distraction -- and became unwilling to follow Christ into sacrifice and suffering, into the life of the disciple that is fiercely focused on walking in the Savior's footsteps. If the Church today lives at peace with the world, it is because it has become so like the world, so harmless to it, that it no longer presents a substantial threat to the ways of worldly sin.
To be clear, living our lives in the imitation of Christ is not required in order to be saved, but it is required of the saved, as it is essential to the true life of faith in the world. In imitating Christ we are shaped into his likeness -- in becoming more like him we come to know him -- and in coming to know Christ we come to know God. Apart from imitation, faith is a matter of cheap grace or therapeutic sentimentalism. For all the ways in which it is mocked, and all the ways it was co-opted for commercial purposes, "WWJD" is the essential question of Christian sanctification.
It was not coincidental that God the Son became incarnate at a moment in history when He would be put to death, as though Jesus simply happened to live in a particular time and place that was especially averse to what he taught. No, the world of the flesh will always despise Christ, for Christ reveals the truth that we are dead in sin and will only find true life when we trust in God's grace and die to ourselves.
Since the Church can never so radically transform the culture of the world that the world of the flesh (which will remain until the consummation) will cease to hate the truth that Christ makes visible before it, Christ will be persecuted wherever and whenever he lives, whether that is in 1st-century Palestine or in the lives and communities of those who imitate him today. Christ calls us to "remain in me," but Christ is not a static object. It is only in imitation that we remain in Christ: in expounding the scriptures in the synagogues and cleansing the temples of our society, in meeting seekers at the wells and pools and porticos, in preaching the truth when the crowds are deserting us, in reaching out to those whose faith is faltering and whose feet are sinking beneath the sea, in bearing the love of God into the slums of the needy and the corners of the outcast, and in walking the long and blistering path to the cross where we sacrifice ourselves for others.
Dr. Timothy Dalrymple is the Associate Director of Content at Patheos, and writes weekly on faith, politics, and culture for Patheos' Evangelical Portal. Follow him at his blog, Philosophical Fragments, on Facebook or on Twitter.