Christianity in Crisis

Someone I respect asked me on Twitter to comment on Andrew Sullivan’s recent article entitled, “Christianity in Crisis.” Sullivan’s article recently made the cover of Newsweek.

The cover title reads, “Forget the Church: Follow Jesus.”

Christianity in Crisis by Andrew Sullivan

Since I want to keep this blog post relatively short, I am limiting my commentary to four points.

1. The cover title represents the unparalleled confusion that the word “church” engenders. The title reads, “Forget the Church.” But what “church” are we talking about?

Is Sullivan saying . . .

Forget the Roman Catholic Church?

Forget the Anglican Church?

Forget the Church of Latter Day Saints?

Forget assembling with other Christians in any way, shape, or form?

Forget all other Christians in the world?

Forget the Evangelicals, their movement, and the churches that contain them?

Forget attending two hours on Sunday morning (in other words, forget attending “church” services)?

Forget that building with a steeple on it that many fondly call “church.”

Forget the body of Christ?

So the title breeds massive confusion, first rattle out of the box. In our day “church” has become a clay word, molded and shaped to mean drastically different things. Sullivan isn’t alone in using “church” in this nebulous way.

I’ve seen several blog posts titled, “Why I Left the Church.” Upon reading each post, the various authors were using the word “church” to mean different things.

One author was talking about the fundamentalist denominations of which he was a part. So he was really saying, “Why I Left the Fundamentalist Denominations” (or words to that effect).

Another author was speaking about the institutional church as we know it, regardless of the denomination or denominational non-denomination (yes, you read that right).

In the article at hand, Sullivan appears to be speaking chiefly about the Roman Catholic Church. I’ll explain more about that shortly.

Point: If you ever write on “the church,” be sure to define what you mean first. If not, many of your readers will ascribe their own meaning to what you say.

2. In “Christianity in Crisis,” Andrew Sullivan reminds us that Christians aren’t perfect people. This is true. Every follower of Jesus, including every “leader,” makes mistakes.

Sullivan goes on to point out that some Christian leaders are so disingenuous that they emptily profess Christ and use their faith to “advance their own power” and commit unspeakable criminal acts.

Throughout the years, I’ve met many non-Christians who gave the excuse that every Christian they’ve ever met was guilty of sinning in some way. In addition, they would point to certain pastors or priests who were complicit in criminal acts. To their minds, this was enough to discredit Jesus Christ and choose to not follow Him.

The truth is that you’ll never meet a Christian who hasn’t made mistakes, messed up, done things they regret, and has flaws. That creature doesn’t exist, no matter what anyone tells you. And there will always be people who profess to love Christ, but who have despicable characters. But that doesn’t discredit Jesus Christ or His claims.

So yes, we can “forget” those who use the Savior’s name to gain power or commit crimes. Meaning, it’s illogical to point to such cases as an excuse to not surrender our own lives to this world’s true Lord—Jesus of Nazareth, who was and is without sin.

Regarding the church, however, Christians need other Christians, for Christianity is corporate by nature. The Christian life simply doesn’t work if we try to wing it by ourselves. I’ve talked a great deal about how Christ and His body are distinct but not separate and how the ekklesia is the native habitat of every believer. (I’ve made these arguments elsewhere.)

So in that respect, we cannot “forget the church and follow Jesus.” Because following Jesus includes having close relationships with other believers and giving and receiving spiritual help, encouragement, and instruction from them. Not to mention (again) that Christ and His church are united, just as the head and the body, the bride and bridegroom, the building and the cornerstone, and the firstborn son and his brothers and sisters are united.

3. In “Christianity in Crisis,” Andrew Sullivan champions one side of the political spectrum against the other side. At the same time, Sullivan claims that Christianity should be apolitical most of the time.

I agree that Christianity has been over-politicized. However, when reading the article, I got the feeling that the subtext of what Sullivan was saying can be juiced down to this sentence: “Just follow Jesus in your own private life and forget about speaking prophetically into the world.”

Yet Sullivan comes back and says that the church should speak prophetically sometimes. He then gives his opinion on what specific issues the church should and shouldn’t speak about.

Sullivan is a Catholic who is also gay. Thus his complaint seems to be that the Roman Catholic Church should not take the conservative political position on sexuality, but rather, give its full attention to the liberal political position on broader social issues.

Interestingly, the Roman Catholic Church (past and present) has strongly supported helping the poor and the oppressed. It has also taken an almost pacifist stance on war. It seems, then, that Sullivan believes that taking a conservative political position on human sexuality somehow drains energy from these other issues.

Time and space will not permit me to delve deeper into the Christian left vs. the Christian right debates, but I’ve addressed them in other posts on this blog.

“The body of Christ is at a crossroads right now. The two common alternatives are to move either to the left or the right. It’s our observation, however, that we are living in a unique time, when people are frozen as they look in either of those directions. When they look to the left, they decide that they cannot venture there. When they look to the right, they feel the same. Whether they realize it or not, people are looking for a fresh alternative—a third way. The crossroads today, we believe, is one of moving forward or backward. What we will present in this book, therefore, is razor-sharp, cut-glass clarity of the Lord Jesus Christ as the Alpha and the Omega. We will show that He is that third way—and the only way—that we can forge a secure path into the future. If the church does not reorient and become Christological at its core, any steps taken will be backwards” (Jesus Manifesto, Introduction).

4. Finally, Andrew Sullivan’s “Christianity in Crisis” takes a perspective that is common, but which I believe is grossly flawed. Sullivan reduces following Jesus to following His teachings rather than following, embracing, loving, and giving one’s allegiance to the Person who gave those teachings.

In this connection, one of the main points that Sweet and I make in Jesus Manifesto is that you cannot separate Jesus Christ from His teachings. And you can’t properly follow His teachings without knowing the Man who gave those teachings. More specifically,

“Jesus cannot be separated from His teachings. Aristotle said to his disciples, “Follow my teachings.” Socrates likewise said to his disciples, “Follow my teachings.” Buddha said to his disciples, “Follow my meditations.” Confucius said to his disciples, “Follow my sayings.” And Muhammad said to his disciples, “Follow my noble pillars.” But Jesus says to His disciples, “Follow Me.” In all the religions and philosophies of the world, a follower can follow the teachings of its founder without having a relationship with that founder. But not so with Jesus Christ. The teachings of Jesus cannot be separated from Jesus Himself. Christ is still alive, and He embodies His teachings. This is what separates Him from every great teacher and moral philosopher in history.” (Jesus Manifesto, Chapter 5).

I agree with Andrew Sullivan that “Christianity is in Crisis.” And I agree that the way forward is to follow Jesus.

But what “following Jesus” means precisely for our day is the thorny issue that we Christians must face squarely. To my mind, the answer to that question is found in the face of Jesus Himself, who is still alive and who seeks to unveil His mind to all who are willing to hear His voice now.

“Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion” (Hebrews 3:15).

“My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27).

And that voice often sounds very different from the voices that we hear all around us, be they those of the left or the right. It is also a voice that is most accurately heard in concert with other sheep.

Sullivan closes his “Christianity in Crisis” with the following words:

“I have no concrete idea how Christianity will wrestle free of its current crisis, of its distractions and temptations, and above all its enmeshment with the things of this world . . . Something inside is telling us we need radical spiritual change.”

I couldn’t have put it better myself.

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Frank Viola is a best-selling author, A-list blogger, speaker, and consultant to authors and writers. His mission is to help serious followers of Jesus know their Lord more deeply so they can experience real transformation and make a lasting impact. See his About page for more information.

  • Fernando Villegas

    I know this thread is long forgotten, but I feel compelled to clarify the point I believe Frank is trying to make. Mark, you ask the question: “Can you be a follower of Jesus and not follow his teaching?” Of course the answer is No, but that’s not what Frank is saying. HOWEVER, one CAN attempt to follow Jesus’ teachings without being a follower, and that is the issue Frank is speaking about. I think you and Rebecca have misunderstood. Frank is not saying that we should focus only on following Jesus and not worry about following his teachings, which is the premise of the question you asked. Frank is demonstrating the folly of trying to follow his teachings independent of the prerequisite relationship with Christ. If you happen to read this comment, I hope this clarifies things. I really think you and Rebecca are reading into Frank’s comments things he has no intention of saying.

  • Frank Viola

    Your comment reads way too much into what I’m saying and it misses my point by a considerable distance. My work has turned the sod on the evangelical view which makes Jesus all about “going to heaven” and shows that this view misses the mark. “From Eternity to Here” and “Jesus: A Theography” are landmark books on that score, along with “Jesus Manifesto.” I’m not at all suggesting the traditional evangelical view which knows little to nothing about God’s Eternal Purpose or living by Jesus Christ as our Life. A person can try to follow Jesus’ teaching without knowing Him and following HIM. A person can try to be “good” without encountering God, who IS Goodness. Our only righteousness is Jesus Christ, not our own. A person who follows Jesus WILL find that His teachings are being fleshed out in their lives because HE IS the teaching and He lives it out in and through the believer. This gets into living by the tree of the knowledge of good and evil or living by the tree of life, which is embodied in Jesus Christ.

    Jesus said, “As the Father has sent me and I LIVE BY THE FATHER, so he who consumes me SHALL LIVE BY ME.” That’s what it means to follow Jesus in our day. To live by His indwelling life. If a person doesn’t have the Spirit of God, Paul said in Romans, he doesn’t belong to Christ. There are many people who try to follow the teachings of Jesus externally as they would other great teachers. But Jesus points to HIMSELF and bids us to know HIM and take HIM as our life. He was quite clear about this and so was Paul of Tarsus and the other apostles.

  • Mark

    Rebecca, I couldn’t agree more. Frank, I don’t think the problem with the church is a lack of agreement about the Lordship of Jesus Christ. The problem is in defining what that means. Can you be a follower of Jesus and not follow his teaching? I think that idea would have been logically incoherent to his earliest followers, especially the Jewish ones. Inviting Jesus to come live in my heart is a way of saying “I invite the teachings of the “Master” into my life by following in his footsteps, literally. This meant that the student followed after the master, walking daily behind him as he taught, absorbing his words and their meaning. That is what he meant by “Follow me”! I would then be expected to take his teaching out, into the world and convert others to follow his way of thinking—making new students as I went—that is why it was called it “The Way”. Not the way to heaven, but, the way of the master, or as Jesus expressed it; the way to the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. As these ideas were rapidly translated into Greek from a colloquial Aramaic they took on a somewhat different meaning that reflected an increasingly gentile (Greek) view, and was expressed as such.

    It is my belief that the church has systematically spiritualized Jesus’ teaching, the result of reading the Bible anachronistically. Without some reasonable historical context we’re forced to replace reality with symbolism in order for it to be understandable. This leaves us with a Gospel that is no longer relevant except as a quick ticket into heaven, “defer this life for the next one and all will be well”!

    Frank, it isn’t that I don’t understand the traditional evangelical position; I was one for most of my life. Evangelicalism has, unfortunately, become as rife with rigid legalism and symbolism as anything our 1st century Jewish ancestors ever believed—and that is the problem for me—It was, I’m increasingly convinced, the problem for Jesus as well.

  • Jim

    well done article. Guess we just figured out why Newsweek is going out of business. First of all, does Andrew Sullivan and his editors really think this is a headline story? What a joke……well done analysis… how you discerned from all the “fog” —seperating the Church from Christ? Huh? — labeling Christ as an ethics professor? —to the writers biased and real agenda —namely the Church should stop talking about sex, marriage, and would assume love— which is pretty funny because God IS love, Mr. Sullivan….DOH! Just a horribly inept, and amateurish article… low Newsweek has fallen…this magazine can’t close down fast enough and lucky for us Christians who believe in one primary thing…Jesus Christ is the Son of God, not a great rabbi, or teacher, or ethics instructor….the Son of God……but how luckty we are that Newsweek has just a lousy reporter that this magazine’s shutdown can only pick up speed!

  • Frank Viola

    I don’t think I’m connecting here at all. There are two trees. The tree of LIFE and the tree of the knowledge of GOOD and evil. Living by the tree of the knowledge of GOOD and evil is not the same as living by the tree of LIFE. Merely accepting that Jesus was a great moral teacher worthy of emulation and bowing the knee to His lordship and receiving and living by His indwelling life are two very different things. “Living by the Indwelling Life of Christ” –

  • Rebecca Trotter

    I would say that your example illustrates my point. Following jesus’ teachings takes us into hard places. They will strip us bare to see the reality about ourselves and our own limitations far better than simply aquiescing to theology which is what most people do when they “invite Jesus to come and live in their heart.” As you say, you cannot strip the Christ from his teachings. Ideally a person would both invite Jesus as Lord and follow his teachings, but a quick glance around makes it abundantly clear that this is rarely what happens. So if it’s going to be one or the other, I’d 100% say start with his teachings. In time, the Christ and your need for him will become clear. But as for your friend, I’m not sure what was motivating him to help the poor. If he thought he was earning brownie points, then sure – dead works although even still dead for him but not for those who he served in the least and that is enormously important in the sceme of things. But if he was motivated by love, a desire to serve and humility then he is DEAD wrong to call those dead works. I’m sure really meeting Christ brought a fullness he didn’t know before to his life, but no act of love is wasted in the Kingdom. It all belongs to God and is to his glory whether the person motivated by love knows it or not. Love does not exist apart from God regardless of a person’s standing in Christ. After all, our God “reaps where he does not sow and gathers where he did not scatter seed.”

  • Frank Viola

    Let me try to give you an example of what I’m talking about. I knew a man once who was dedicated to helping the poor. He said he was doing it because he was “following Jesus’ teachings.” He also tried to be a “good person.” However, he didn’t know Christ. Nor did he submit His life to Him . . . nor receive Him as Savior. Until years later. When he finally met the Lord, he discovered the secret of having Jesus live His life through him. He looked back on how he tried to live before and said that what he was doing was “dead works” (to quote Hebrews). And it was him doing it and not the Lord. I hope that helps you to see the difference. It’s huge. If not, you may want to read “Jesus Manifesto” as we go in depth on this. It’s an important book in that it takes dead aim at a real problem today that we’re discussing right now. I think you will find it to be challenging and a help.

    No time for more, unfortunately. Thanks for your comment.

  • Rebecca Trotter

    But since the man and his teachings are so inextricably entwined, is it really possible to follow his teachings without growing in relationship, attachment and devotion to the Christ? It seems to me that starting with a supposed devotion to the Christ while never really embracing his teachings is easy and common enough. However, I’m not sure that you could start with his teachings and not be lead into devotion to the Christ as his teachings demand more and more from you. When you are suffering for having followed Jesus’ teachings, won’t it be almost impossible not to look at the cross and resurrection as you do so. There’s a reason, it seems to me, that the early Christians called their religion “The Way”. The emphasis really was on living, walking and being in relationship according to Christ’ teachings. Living according to Jesus’ teachings will change a person in a way that simply believing just doesn’t, imo. If someone came to me and said they liked Jesus’ teachings but weren’t so sure about all the theological stuff, I would strongly encourage them to simply start following his teachings. I may or may not tell them, but my full expectation woulod be that the truth of all the theological stuff would reveal itself in the process.

  • Frank Viola

    We cannot properly following His teachings without knowing Him and having Him live in us. Jesus said this clearly, “without me you can do nothing” and so did Paul “not I but Christ lives in me.” Jesus lives the teachings out in His followers.

    Many take Jesus as a moral teacher and try to follow His teachings on their own without submitting to His lordship and trusting Him as Savior. That’s what I’m speaking of on that point. I trust you see the difference. In “Jesus Manifesto,” Len and I go into great detail on this point.

  • Rebecca Trotter

    If following Jesus the man/savior/God-made-flesh means following his teachings and that the teachings cannot be seperated from the one who gave them, then why do you say that following his teachings is inadequate? If a person says “I’m going to follow his teachings”, won’t they come away more devoted to and with a deeper understanding of the Christ than the person who has checked off all the right boxes on the theology quiz and may or may not actually act out his teachings? I think that starting with the teachings is a good deal better than the way it’s usually done. Do you really think that Jesus is more pleased by radical, sacrificial love or by the mental assent to his status as God made man? In my estimation, crediting the name of Jesus is simply a declaration of whose teachings one will follow. But for many people crediting the name of Jesus has become the whole point. I can’t help but think that Jesus would rather we act on his teachings – a behavior which marks us as true believers – than do what most Christians do.

  • Stephen J. Higgins

    How would you expect to find community while you intentionally withdraw from it at some point? The disobedient cannot believe; only the obedient believe. Two Kingdoms is his problem it is fatal to obedience/faith it seems popular to fall into that trap with those that say: “Did God really say…” oh and by the way keep your faith personal (on th inside of your porch) not in public – or you should be ashamed to think that way in public.
    Maybe it is time for us here in the US to join with the U.K. church with a “Not Ashamed” reminder about our faith in this world. Action Steps: Ancient faith…costly faith…real relationship (one-another and Father)…take a cleansing breath and ponder… Not Ashamed anymore… Not hero worship, but intimacy (in-to-me-see) with Father… investing in “time …the most valuable thing that we have, because it is the most irrevocable.”(D.B.)…busyness is not faithfulness…largeness or smallness is not success to Father – but being a faithful disciple is who understands living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In so doing, “we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God.”

    So, when the Son of Man comes He will find faith… I don’t know about you but that is the real question for us, will He find faith? It is up to us to answer it and the Church – in its various forms is the voice into the world and always has been till He comes again and ask us all the question.