How Can You Be a Christian? (RJS)

In a post last Thursday I referred to a book by Alister McGrath, Doubting: Growing Through the Uncertainties of Faith. At one point in this book he makes the following observation:

It is very common for Christians to find themselves isolated at work or ridiculed for their faith. They are conscious of the fact that their faith marks them out as “€œabnormal”€ in the eyes of their colleagues. It’s almost as though they have to apologize for believing in God. Christian values and presuppositions are gradually being squeezed out of every area of modern Western culture. Many Christians find the new aggressiveness of secular culture deeply disturbing. It seems to call their faith into question.  At best the world seems indifferent to their faith; at worst, it treats it as absurd. p. 118

This paragraph provides a very good description of the world in which I live. This isn’t a new development. It was true in the early 20th century, it was true as I grew up, and it is true today. But there is also little doubt but that the trend is intensifying. The intellectual assault on Christian faith is significant.

But there is a new development, or at least a development that seems new to me. The aggressiveness of the secular culture is magnified in response to the image that Christians have in this culture. Christians, especially conservative Christians (evangelicals and/or fundamentalists) are often viewed as a judgmental and negative people with a conservative political agenda, who feel the poor and alien deserve their fate, justify violence, oppress women, hate gays, fight among themselves, distrust scientists, use deceit, dishonesty, and lies to get their message across, and often do it for personal gain – either money or power. This is a bit of an overstatement – I have not met anyone who gives all of these reasons, most are focused on only one or two. But there is still a real image problem. And frankly, all you have to do is read some Christian blogs to gain ample ammunition for many of these views.

I have been asked how I can be a Christian, and the conflict between science and religion, belief in the supernatural, is part of the question – but it isn’t the biggest issue. The bigger issues are those related to oppression, especially what comes across as oppression of women, and arrogance.

What do you see as the biggest stumbling blocks to the message of the gospel?

What answer would you give to the title question?

How can I be a Christian? The correct answer, I suppose, is by the grace of God through the power of the Spirit. I think this is true – but it isn’t the whole story. The whole story has to be fleshed out by the details – and the details include the the church and the mission of the church.

Consider the instructions given to the people of God (aka “the church”)  in the pages of the New Testament, and bear in mind with it the frequent warning that “by their fruit you will recognize them” – both those who are true and those who are false. None of us will accomplish these with perfection – but they should be the aim and the ideal. The following isn’t the sum total – but it is a good sized chunk of the New Testament teachings:

“But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. …Do to others as you would have them do to you. (Lk 6:27-28, 31)  (See also Mt 5:43-45)

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.  Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mt 20:25-28) (See also Mt 23:8-12, Mk 10:42-45, Lk 22:24-27, Jn 13:14)

“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mk 12:29-31) (See also Mt 22:36-40, Lk 10:25-28)

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (Jn 13:34-35)

Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. (Rm 12:10)

Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. (Rm 12:16)

If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. (Rm 12:18)

Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, … are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. (Rm 13:8-10)

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. (1 Cor 13:4-7)

Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. (Ga 6:2)

Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. (Ep 4:2-3)

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. (Ph 2:3-4)

My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. … If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right.  But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. (Ja 2:1, 8-9)

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. (1 Jn 4:7-8)

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister. (1 Jn 4:16,19-21)

And now, dear lady, I am not writing you a new command but one we have had from the beginning. I ask that we love one another. And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands. As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love. (2 Jn 5-6)

As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” … Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Mk 10:17,21) (See also Mt 19:21, Lk 12:15, Lk 12:33-34, Lk 18:18,22)

This is softened a little later in the New Testament, I think because call isn’t to radical poverty, but to radical love. Love of wealth hinders, even prevents, love for one another.

Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life. (1 Tm 6:17-19)

Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. … Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” (He 13:1-5)

And now a slightly different set of directions – but related to those above.

Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. (Rm 13:13)

So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. …   But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.  Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other. (Ga 5:16, 19-26)

Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body. … Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. … Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. (Ep 4:25-32)

But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. (Ep 5:3-4)

Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. …But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. … Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. (Col 3: 5, 8, 12-14)

Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice. But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.  (Ja 3:13-17)

Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble. Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing. (1 Pt 3:8-9)

For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. (2 Pt 1:5-7)

I’m going to go out on a limb – all of the instructions contained in the New Testament, including those governing the relationships of husbands and wives, parents and children, young and old, slaves and masters, church elders and members, are governed by the directives above to love one another. They are to be read in that light. This isn’t oppression. This isn’t feminine Christianity, and this isn’t masculine Christianity – it is simply Christianity. (Added – I am not claiming that this law of Christ favors egalitarianism or complementarianism – although it certainly places limits on both.)

I will make another observation as well. While outreach and mission are certainly important, the command to love is directed first, but not only, to one another. That is to fellow Christians and to the local body of Christians. The local church should embody love for one another as a family and as the body of Christ. Through that witness I think we would find a much more open field for the message of the gospel.

If we really took the Bible seriously, believed what it says, and acted on it, Christianity would have a much better reputation.  Frankly, I think I am a Christian today because most of the Christians I knew growing up thought these were to be taken seriously. None of them carried through always or with perfection, everyone failed at them more or less often – but as far as I know each and every one of them thought this was the ideal toward which we should aim. It is probably not a coincidence that the vision statement of this church was “a church with a mission to care.” It wasn’t at the expense of theology, or at the expense of evangelism, but as a conviction that without love for one another all our theological precision, our faith, our speaking, and even our giving,  is for nothing (1 Cor 13).

What should be the mission statement of the church?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net

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  • Bev Mitchell

    RJS,
    Excellent summary. This is where it’s at. Your last paragraph is my testimony too. Watching a good number of the adults around me as a child and teenager putting first things first and claiming they were able to do so because of the work of Christ and his Spirit convinced me there was something very important in their theology. I later came to question a good bit of their approach to the Bible and some of their theology, but the faithful and practical demonstration of Christian living convinced me of the validity of what they had discovered. Putting Jesus as Son of God and his Spirit as our comfortor and guide at the centre allowed all kinds of exploration out from that centre without any fear of ever being outside the love of God.

  • http://www.nateweatherly.com Nate W.

    “I’m going to go out on a limb – all of the instructions contained in the New Testament, including those governing the relationships of husbands and wives, parents and children, young and old, slaves and masters, church elders and members, are governed by the directives above to love one another.”

    And all the directives to love one another are governed by the kind of love incarnated by Christ’s sacrifice of all, subsequent forsakeness by God, and forgiveness of those who nailed Him there even in the midst of it all.

    Awesome post RJS. I’ve been wanting to put together a list of these verses. Thanks for saving me the time! ; )

    It pains my heart so much (sometimes almost literally) every time I see “Truth!” take the place of Love, as if the two were not the exact same thing. Everything else is metaphor and “thought dreams,” but Love in the steps of Christ, that is Truth.

    Thanks again for sharing these thoughts.

  • http://www.nateweatherly.com Nate W.

    I know this isn’t going to come out right, but in some ways I wish MORE Christians would humbly listen to our culture’s critiques of Christianity and ALLOW their faith to be brought into question.

    How sad would it be to find out in the end that what we thought was persecution for our faith was actually the natural wrath of God in the world against our sins of pride and hate?

    The day as a Christian that I stop doubting is the day that I demand Christ be crucified again.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Nate,

    Too true, and well said. Those who are ready to hear what you are saying will understand.

    Our agonizing over the horrible shootings in Ontario and Colorado is a case in point. These acts are symptoms. Many things that we might point to as the cause, such as violent movies and video games, attitudes to personal weapons etc. are also symptoms. Even if we point to the state’s propensity to deal with its problems (real and imagined) by shooting and bombing people, we are still dealing only with symptoms. The causes are deep and largely unrecognized. Recognizing our emphasis on power over love, of control over cooperation, of superiority over respect of differences, of certainty over doubt, would be getting closer to the cause, but even these are symptoms – perhaps the first and foundational symptoms of our basic problem. And, God’s solution to this basic problem is so very well described in the verses RJS has brought together here.

    Our theology  can be an attempt to convince ourselves that God is really just like us. When we do this, the symptoms outlined above, and many more, emerge. God, amazingly, still loves us, but he very much wants us to get this the right way around. Hence, his written word to humankind is full of verses like these.

  • MatthewS

    great post!

    I’ve been meandering through all the passages that use the word for “walk” (περιπατέω, https://net.bible.org/#!search/strong:4043 [if you click "order by Book in the lower right it will sort the verses in order]).

    Some passages are negative: don’t walk according to the flesh (Rom 8:4), it’s not profitable to walk in (be preoccupied with) issues of ceremonial food over and above grace (Heb 13:9).

    We are to walk worthy of our calling (Eph 4:1), walk in love, walk in the light, walk in wisdom.

    I see a lot of overlap between passages that use the walk metaphor and ones that speak to taking off and putting on, and ones that use the image of fruit, as well as the “one another” passages.

    Also in line with your thoughts about relationships, RJS, Paul instructed both Timothy and Titus that church leaders are not to be overbearing, and not violent but gentle. I don’t see this as the end-all-be-all argument that settles the comp-egal issue but at the very least a man who “lords it over” his wife in a rough way is out of line and should not be in church leadership.

  • RJS

    Nate W.,

    I had a somewhat longer list of passages, and I am sure I missed some altogether – but this was enough to make my point.

    MatthewS,

    I don’t think this is an end-all-be-all argument that settles, or even really addresses, the complementarian-egalitarian issue. I know many who are complementarian and who live according to the law of Christ outlined in the post. Frankly, I don’t have much disagreement with them. And I know egalitarians who fail to live by this law of Christ.

    We can disagree and discuss many issues as Christians, both theological and cultural, but the law of love should govern the entire interaction.

  • Karl

    This was terrific RJS. Thank you.

  • http://rising4air.wordpress.com MikeK

    You drilled it. If the above selections were taken merely at face value, far more people could openly express their doubts and failures and sins on a Sunday AM- and beyond- and know that they would be loved by God and the people of God.

    Great post.

  • Jerry

    I was attacked by another Christian who seemed concerned that the gov’t wanted to control his guns. I wasn’t suggesting a solution merely pointing out a problem with too many guns. He went on to talk about he then went on to talk about how God used “deadly force” for Israel and how we should arm ourselves to do the same. Jesus and guns wow!

  • Larry Barber

    I can add one more thing to your list: insisting the Bible is something that it manifestly is not. The Bible did not float down from heaven resting gently on a golden pillow. It is a very human book, and it shows in places. Insisting that the Bible is inerrant merely makes Christians look like they’re detached from reality, there are errors and contradictions in the Bible. The men (and it was all men) who compiled the Biblical canon had an agenda and this is reflected in the content of the Bible. Don’t get me started on how some people read Genesis. This is not to say that the Bible is not important, it is the text that more than anything else defines the Christian community, it is useful for instruction, meditation, studying, training in righteousness, and all that, but it is not perfect.

  • Tim

    RJS,

    I think the calls to always “do better” are of course a good thing, and should be welcomed. However, I just don’t think the broader public cares so much about Christians always acknowledging they need to do better but somehow seeming to be the source for a lot in this world that is not “better.” The broader world is told repeatedly about the love of Christ and how the Church is to exemplify this. However, after numerous incidents that seem to cut the other way, the Church doesn’t seem any city on the hill to many in the public sphere, but rather just another community on a level plain more or less with everybody else. Perhaps a little more charitable, but a little less tolerant. Perhaps a little more outreach, but a little more judgement. Perhaps a little more enthusiasm, but a little more credulous. For every positive there seems to be a negative, and balanced out no better or worse than most other communities. And that would not make Christianity special, from that vantage point anyway, and so would cause many in the public to roll their eyes and shake their heads when the Church talks about how much everyone else needs the light they carry. Again, this would most likely be met by further calls to “do better.” But like I said, after a while calls to do better without meaningful change tend to not matter, well, to most anyone really. If Christians can do better, do better. When this happens, the rest of the world may notice.

  • Taylor G

    Great post. This is also what brings me back to faith and motivates me to stay in the church and raise my children in faith. Thanks.

  • Jon G

    RJS,
    As usual you provide thoughtful, inciteful, informative, and, most importantly, elegant words that cut to the very heart of the matter. Beyond your analysis, you also provide a way forward. Thank you so much for this post!

    Jon G

  • dopderbeck

    Excellent.

    The “reason” I’m a Christian is the image of Jesus with his arms stretched out on the cross bearing the loss and sin and pain of the whole world. It is the embrace of the world, including me, in the call of love.

  • phil_style

    @Tim, #11 “…. the Church doesn’t seem any city on the hill to many in the public sphere, but rather just another community on a level plain more or less with everybody else. Perhaps a little more charitable, but a little less tolerant. Perhaps a little more outreach, but a little more judgement. Perhaps a little more enthusiasm, but a little more credulous. For every positive there seems to be a negative, and balanced out no better or worse than most other communities. ”

    Excellent observation. This, I would say, is the indictment that is the corollary of Jesus’ words to Peter: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another AND which is also underpins James 1:27.

  • D

    Hi Scot – Tried to find your email but couldn’t. I was hoping you could do a series of posts on the virtues/use/accuracy of the NIV 2011 vs NRSV. I noticed that N.T. Wright likes the NRSV as well as alot of people. I also know that world-class scholars worked on the NIV 2011 and it still seems to be the standard. I personally use the NIV 2011. Plus I have heard rumor that there is consideration of updating the NRSV. Could you do a discussion on the merits of the 2 translations? Thanks D

  • Taylor G

    @dopderbeck RE: “It is the embrace of the world, including me, in the call of love.”

    Is it fair to write that Calvinism, by definition, is that God *did not* embrace the whole world? I think it is and I am thankful for orthodox avenues beyond reformed (and we may as well lump conservative evangelical) systems.

  • JamesB

    Might I suggest that one thing the “secular culture” finds “absurd” is a need to be commanded or directed to love in the first place? I, for one, would rather someone love me because they choose to than because they feel mandated or obligated to do so.

  • Bev Mitchell

    JamesB

    Not surprisingly Jesus covered this. We Christians often fail on this one, so this cannot be an excuse but Luke 6: 32-38 does, I think, address your concern. I’ll use the older wording of the ASV just for fun.

    And if ye love them that love you, what thank have ye? for even sinners love those that love them. And if ye do good to them that do good to you, what thank have ye? for even sinners do the same. And if ye lend to them of whom ye hope to receive, what thank have ye? even sinners lend to sinners, to receive again as much. But love your enemies, and do them good, and lend, never despairing; and your reward shall be great, and ye shall be sons of the Most High: for he is kind toward the unthankful and evil. Be ye merciful, even as your Father is merciful. And judge not, and ye shall not be judged: and condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned: release, and ye shall be released: give, and it shall be given unto you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, shall they give into your bosom. For with what measure ye mete it shall be measured to you again.

  • Marg Miller

    Excellent! Here’s another important and challenging verse from Peter I try to keep in mind when speaking to those who ridicule or attack us: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect … ” (1 Peter 3:15).

  • RJS

    JamesB,

    I rather doubt that the secular culture will find absurd the need to direct an ethic of love. In fact the ethic of love in the passages above is way out side of the norm. I am not saying that one doesn’t find people who act in love in the secular world – of course we do.

    The point, though, is not to love because one is commanded but to live a life so focused that love is genuine and natural. I think the places where we fall down on this as a church most seriously are in favoritism (elitism and Christian heros) and self focused ambition and pride.

  • JamesB

    @Bev

    Some of those verses contain decent principles, but can you see how some of them sound like commands? Not only that, most of them sound like a give-to-get scenario, which is just as bad.

    We could debate the “real” meaning of those (and other) verses, but I’m talking about perception here; people not understanding why someone would choose to be a Christian. Many non-Christians would say that Christians only “love” others because they 1) are commanded to do so, 2) think they will receive a reward and/or 3) want to get them to convert,none of which seem like genuine love. I realize this isn’t true in many cases, but when I was a Christian I can remember using each one of those at one time or another.

    Here’s what I’m getting at: when I first deconverted last year I remember wondering how it would be possible to love my wife and kids without feeling as if God was giving me the ability to do so or without Jesus’ instruction. What I discovered was that I didn’t need those things; I already loved my family, and it came from somewhere within me. In fact, realizing I have to figure out on my own how best to love them (by asking them, for starters), I have grown closer to each of them than ever before.

    If someone gains insight, guidance or inspiration to love others from the words of Jesus or some other ancient prophet, that’s fine. But if someone feels it’s difficult or impossible to love another without feeling as if God is somehow requiring it? That’s what seems odd to people in the secular world.

  • MatthewS

    That’s an interesting perspective, JamesB. I would look at Jesus’ command to abide (“apart from me you can do nothing”) and Paul’s teaching that it is necessary and sufficient to walk in the Spirit (the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace…) and say that it’s more than being told to love because otherwise Christians would prefer not to. It’s setting up love as an important ethic against what naturally tends to happen.

    Jesus acknowledged in the sermon on the mount that it is normal and proper to “love those who love you.” Nothing remarkably out of the ordinary when someone loves their family. He said “love your enemies” and showed the way by loving those who crucified him. Paul wrote in Romans, “Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

    I read that 3 of the people who died in Aurora were guys protecting girlfriends/wives. But here’s the kicker – I can’t imagine someone jumping in front of the shooter, giving their live to save *his*. I wouldn’t. But Jesus already did. For the most part, we wouldn’t consider his life worth saving. I’ve seen no calls in the secular media that it is important that we love our “enemy” in this case. I can say that my heart did not burst with love for this man. Did yours? Jesus’ imperative was not simply that you love your family; it was that you love your neighbor as yourself, AND that you love your enemy. I believe it’s not possible to do so on our own – we depend on the Spirit doing a work in us to make it possible.

  • JamesB

    @RJS,

    But who gets to direct that ethic and why? As I mentioned to Bev, the perception of many is that Christians love because they are commanded to. That’s what I was addressing. And if the point is not to love because one is commanded, then why would Jesus make it a command?

    I don’t think the ethic of love in many of those passages is in any way out of the norm. But maybe we have different ideas of what the norm is.

    I’m not trying to be flippant. I’m actually rooting for the church to find ways show more “genuine and natural” love. That’s why I still visit sites such as this and why I read authors such as Pete Rollins. Just because I personally chose not to be part of it anymore doesn’t mean I don’t still have a soft spot for those who do. I’m just trying to provide an outsider’s perspective from one who was once inside.

  • JamesB

    @MatthewS,

    The more I divorce myself from Christian theology, the less I understand the command to love my enemies. I don’t see any practical reason to love someone who hates me or wants to hurt me. Does this make me a hateful or spiteful person? I don’t think so. Does this make me less loving towards my family and friends? Again, I don’t think so. But you would have to ask them, I suppose.

  • RJS

    JamesB – “Who gets to direct that ethic and why?” That is the big question, isn’t it?

    Were the men who saved their girlfriends heros, controlled by a natural reflex to ensure survival of the species, fools? Who gets to say? That is a loaded one, and I don’t really expect an answer. But consider a lower impact example.

    I work in a fairly competitve environment where ego and ambition are celebrated. If I champion equal and “fair” access to resource it will hinder my ability to compete and win. If I perform a time-consuming service task it will cut into the time available for activities more directly related to enhancing my reputation and salary. Is taking a broader view and thinking about the impact on others foolish or virtuous? Why?

  • JamesB

    @RJS,

    From my narrow, limited perspective, thinking about the impact on others is virtuous. I think society (in the broadest of definitions) works best when there is a sense of mutual trust and respect. This is but one of many reasons I teach my children that trust is amongst the most important of virtues. Without it, relationships don’t function well, and the world in general is worse off. Do we have countless examples of people breaking this trust for a temporary “win”? Absolutely. Do I always do the “virtuous” thing? Of course not. Heck, even when I do, my seemingly virtuous acts are not at all as altruistic as I would like to believe.

    I can’t say if I would take a bullet for someone. I would like to believe I could. But I don’t think “survival of the species” would be my first thought as I did it. Then again, our motives and reasons for doing things

  • JamesB

    …(silly phone)…

    To continue, our motives and reasons for doing things are rarely clear cut

  • MatthewS

    Might I suggest that one thing the “secular culture” finds “absurd” is a need to be commanded or directed to love in the first place?

    The more I divorce myself from Christian theology, the less I understand the command to love my enemies. I don’t see any practical reason to love someone who hates me or wants to hurt me.

  • RJS

    JamesB,

    I used the work argument because this is something that I struggle with constantly within myself. There is an attitude of entitlement and privilege among many. I have a hard time with that – not because I look down on them but because I struggle with my own attitudes and priorities.

    I have a much harder time with it in the church because of the passages I quote above. When a famous person has a reserved parking spot …or the pastor feels entitled to some kinds of perks (not because they enable the job but because they come with status) … this just bothers me because it seems hypocritical.

    I am not saying that you, or anyone else outside of the church, has to agree that this ethic in the NT is right. But I do think that the church and those in the church should live up to it or try to live up to it.

    I didn’t write this post as an apologetic for doubters or those outside the church. I don’t think anyone should believe because this is the Christian ethic. I wrote it as a goad to those who claim to be the church of Christ and because I think we’ll be a far better witness if we actually live up to this or at least make it the sincere goal. The church is an apologetic for the faith when we live up to our calling.

    When I struggle with doubts these days, and I do at times, it is not generally intellectual. When I struggle it is more often because I wonder if I have been played for a sucker in the name of the ethic of Christ.

  • Bev Mitchell

    James, (22)

    Thanks for the clarification with  “If someone gains insight, guidance or inspiration to love others from the words of Jesus or some other ancient prophet, that’s fine. But if someone feels it’s difficult or impossible to love another without feeling as if God is somehow requiring it? That’s what seems odd to people in the secular world.”

    I see where you are coming from. It seems related to dutiful Christianity vs. Spirit filled walking in Christ. We are to follow him, not ask him to bless our plans. Some theologies seem try to have the Holy Spirit penned up in the Bible or the Church when, in reality, he is active everywhere. A more scriptural approach is to see the Spirit’s work in the world as something we need to discern and follow – in our own lives, in our relationships and in our attempts to support/influence/help choose those with secular authority over us etc.

    Back in the old days we used to hear a lot about being “prayed up” as a way of saying our relationship with Christ, through prayer, Scripture reading and even fasting, should be such that we are in a position to discern what the Spirit wants to do with us and through us. In many ways we have lost that good advice in a lot of our churches, it seems. This follows closely to what Paul and other writers in the NT tell us and to how they lived their lives.

    I’ll not presume to know what you left behind, but, sometimes, we have to leave some things behind before we can find a better thing. You can be sure that the Holy Spirit has not given up on you and your family despite your deconversion as you put it. I think that God is also a big fan of honesty. Thank you for sharing.

    Blessings,
    Bev

    P.S. 

    RJS,

    As an older academic hand now retired I hear you. It’s hard. There are so many ways to serve others in that environment, many of the best ones all costly to the career and sometimes thankless. However, the Spirit is not only our guide in such decisions, he is also our comforter and advocate with the Father, who is the final judge. You know this of course, but we always have to keep reminding ourselves of who we are and who is in our corner. 

    May all your decisions be led by the Spirit,

    Bev

  • Dianne P

    Did anyone else see the irony between RJS’s wonderful (as usual) writing and today’s NYTimes “most emailed” by Frank Bruni?

    The Times has been weird about links lately, but I’ll give it a try…
    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/24/opinion/bruni-the-divine-miss-m.html

  • JamesB

    @MatthewS,

    Is that meant to be a QED? I’m left to speculate since you made no actual reply, but let me try to clear up where I think you misunderstand. I don’t see a practical purpose to loving someone who hates me (“my enemy”). Does it then follow that I don’t know how to love at all? Is that what you are implying?

    I am enjoying this conversation so far. If you misunderstand me I would be happy to clarify. But please don’t just throw my own words back at me out of context as if it means something. Thank you.

  • RJS

    JamesB,

    I was also confused by MatthewS’s comment #29 – I think it must be incomplete, either submitted prematurely or unintentionally or something got cut.

  • RJS

    Dianne P,

    Wow – that is exactly the image problem I am talking about. It is pervasive.

  • JamesB

    @RJS,

    Thanks for the clarification. My initial post was simply meant to offer another perspective. In order to be a better witness, as you say, I think it’s helpful to know what those who disagree with you actually think in order to better analyze where the changes need to take place.

    I may not “love” my enemy (or who I perceive as my enemy), per se, but I find that if I can at least understand how he sees me and why, then perhaps I can grow and change as a result. All too often we insulate ourselves and feed into our own confirmation biases, never allowing our lives to be informed by others. This is just as true of me now as it was when I was still a Christian. I fight it every day.

    However, for most of my Christian walk, I refused to step outside my comfort zone, preferring to adopt the us vs. them mentality. It was safer. More comfortable. Easier. I’m not saying you or anyone here is doing that, per se, but of all the problems in the church, I found that this was one of the biggest, at least in my experience.

    Like you, my doubts were rarely intellectual. It was only after I deconverted that I began to explore intellectual arguments against Christianity, and even then only out of curiosity. One of the main reasons I left the faith was because I began to realize that my views of those outside the faith were ill informed. I couldn’t make my Christian stereotypes of the secular world fit with reality. When I met atheists who loved their family just as much or more than I did as a Christian, I began to ask questions. Lots of questions.

    Anyway, sorry for rambling. Here’s the bottom line: If I can help people be better Christians, atheists, Muslims or whatever they happen to be, then I am happy. If my comments seem to be having the opposite effect, I will be happy to cease and desist, as I am a guest here.

    I admire what you are attempting to do and wish you the best in your efforts.

  • JamesB

    @Bev,

    Thanks for the kind words. If God is a big fan of honesty then I truly am better off today than I ever was before.

    In the words of Polonius:

    “This above all: to thine own self be true,
    And it must follow, as the night the day,
    Thou canst not then be false to any man.”

  • Dana Ames

    JamesB,

    I didn’t deconvert, but I backed way out of Evangelicalism and found shelter in a mainline church for 9 years before I found the door that opened to me, to a very unexpected place. One of the big issues I had was the whole “whose morality is better” thing. Really left a bad taste in my mouth. I also think God values honesty very highly.

    On loving one’s enemies:

    First of all, Jesus does it. He loves and forgives those who crucify him, and we are told in Colossians that Jesus is the exact representation of who God is. So that is one aspect of it. Also, loving one’s enemies is what Jesus says shows that we are truly children of God – “perfect”/complete/mature/whole, the same way as God is perfect/complete/whole. Matt 5.43-48. There’s another passage, I think in Luke, where the same idea is presented – God makes the rain fall (very important in a dry land like Palestine, enabling people to basically live) on the righteous and unrighteous alike. God gives in love even to those who want nothing to do with him, and he does it most of the time in very “ordinary” ways, without drawing attention to himself. It is part of his hidden work in his humility.

    So if we’re looking for the “acid test” of someone who is really being the person God wants them to be, it is people who – in addition to that “natural” love you describe – also love and give themselves up for those who would be seen as “enemies,” when such conditions arise in their lives. Another way that could be described is to come to a place where one has no “enemies” at all. That’s what God is like.

    This is a very important distinctive of Christianity. AFAIK, it is the only faith that teaches its adherents to love and give themselves up for the well-being of those who are not part of their “tribe” – for that love alone, with no other reward. Recently I read an interview with Amy-Jill Levine, Jewish scholar who has studied the NT and is friendly toward Christians, who said that was the major difference between Judaism and Christianity.

    Many people find this ridiculous, and ridicule it. It can be very hard to fathom, even for some Christians.

    Dana

  • JamesB

    @Dana #38,

    Maybe we’re getting stuck on a definition of “enemies”. To me an enemy is someone who harms me or my loved ones. I don’t want to love that person, I want to get away from them. If you broaden the definition to include those who simply hate me without bothering to get to know me, then I would say I would give them an opportunity to get to know me, unless or until the relationship begins to result in more harm than good, at which point we are back to the first definition. Do you have a different definition?

    Also, are you saying God has no enemies? I didn’t quite understand that. And if that is what you are saying, then what do you do with verses like Romans 5:10 “For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life.” (KJV)

    If by “enemies” you simply mean those who are different from us, then I do indeed love my enemies. I have no reason to hate them. One does not have to be a Christian to love people who are not like them. And as far as doing it for “that love alone, with no other reward,” I’m wondering what Jesus means in Luke 6:35 (as Bev quoted above (#19)) “But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.”

    That being said, I’ll need a better understanding of what you mean by enemies before I can give further opinions on it.

  • MatthewS

    sorry, I didn’t mean to be unclear or rude. I was trying to be minimal. It’s not intended to be a QED or throwing your words back, I apologize for creating that impression. I just felt those quotes, copy-pasted from your comments, are an interesting juxtaposition. It seems to me as if you are saying that Jesus insults your integrity when he asks you to love people you want to love and insults your intelligence when he asks you to love people you don’t. If this is what you were saying, I would point out that this effectively makes you your own yardstick for whom to love.

    I don’t for a minute think you fail to love your family. I think I recall that you had expressed that some people imply that if you leave Christianity you might cease to love the people close to you. I don’t think that at all. I think this fits under what Jesus acknowledged as normal, that we love those close to us.

    In reading back over, it could be that I’m misunderstanding what you meant by your comment about what the world finds absurd (working with the quote in the OP). I had the impression that you find the command “absurd” for two competing reasons: one, because it commands you to do what you would do anyway (love your family), but two, because it commands you to do something you are unwilling to do (love your enemies).

    Anyway, I wasn’t trying to be argumentative. It seemed inconsistent to me but I don’t want to beat it into the ground.

    I love the quote by Polonius, btw. Did you see the recent version with David Tennant?

  • JamesB

    @MatthewS,

    Huge Tennant fan (and Dr Who fan, of course). I’ll have to look that up. Sounds awesome.

    Oh, the joys of comment threads, huh? So easy to misunderstand when tone and facial expression are absent. Sorry if I read too much into what you were implying.

    I don’t have a problem with someone saying we ought to love others, be it Jesus or anyone else. I was speaking specifically to being *commanded* to love others. I don’t think it’s love if you have to be commanded to do it, regardless of who is doing the commanding. I realize that “command” could probably be translated differently, as I’m not a scholar, but in all of my posts I was trying to get at the *impression* that people have about Christianity, not necessarily what my personal opinions are. I was simply adding my two cents to the McGrath quote, suggesting one specific thing that non-Christians may find absurd.

    As I mentioned in my reply to Dana #39, I would need to know one’s definition of “enemies” in order to say whether or not I agree with the sentiment. If it just means those different than us, then I don’t see anything special in saying we ought to love them. I could easily site dozens of examples of people who are not Christians who do this all the time. If it means those who hurt or abuse us, then I have a real problem with it as many countless numbers of people stay in abusive relationships because of some misguided idea that they ought to stay and love the person that is abusing them. I’ll ask you what I asked Dana: what is your definition of enemy?

    I have more than just myself as a yardstick for whom to love. I have my family and friends who can show me what love is and inspire me to love more. I also have complete strangers who show great examples of love.

    You and others seem to be implying that loving one’s enemies is either something to aspire to or somehow makes Christianity unique or special (and therefore true? Better than other religions?). If I am again inferring too much, I apologize.

  • Bev Mitchell

    James, 

    I see your point and it is a good one. In fact, if we are speaking only in human terms, it’s a deal breaker. But Scripture holds that we are dealing with divine inspiration here, not only human ethics. Jesus really was showing a new way of being human – the way we are meant to be. 

    A way to see the passage that concerns you is suggested by David Lyle Jeffrey in the new “Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible ” who reviews numerous commentators throughout the centuries….”the basis for all of this……is not merely another order of social reciprocity, not merely interpersonal but self-transcending gratitude for the mercy of God” “Therefor be merciful just as you Father also is merciful” Lk 6:36. 

    The transcendence referred to could easily be seen as our dependence on the Holy Spirit to even take the first step down this road of loving real enemies. Jesus was teaching the way of life he followed. There is no hint that he did this all on his own, but in the power of the Spirit. Thus, we are certainly not asked to accomplish any of this on our own. It is held out as what is possible if we fully yield ourselves to the leading and empowerment of the Spirit. Fortunately, we have modern examples of Christians who do move some distance down this road (Mother Teresa, Nelson  Mandela, MLK etc.).  We shouldn’t even try to explain their best accomplishments in human terms. But their examples are real and the power available to them is available to us. 

    This brings up the example of Ghandi, a non- Christian. Did he accomplish his best work in the power of the same Spirit? Examples like this caution humility. From a Christian point of view, obvious examples of behaviours that easily transcend the normal and agree with the highest values of Christian teaching surely must have something to do with the Spirit of God. If not, then we must conclude that such behaviour is humanly possible. For this human, at least, it surely is not possible.

  • MatthewS

    JamesB, yeah, text can really affect how a conversation would otherwise go for sure, eh?

    I think “enemies” is consistent with the prima facie impression – people who are unsafe to you, abusers. King Saul to David, the Pharisees to Jesus.

    Loving does not mean enabling –
    Jesus points the way for dealing with this (and Paul follows in 1 and 2 Corinthians). On one hand, forgive, forgive, forgive, 70×7. At the same time, while forgiving and loving, if someone persists in doing wrong, the road map for addressing that is to speak to them face to face (how many problems would be solved if we all just did this instead of triangulating and talking to person A about person B?), if they refuse to hear you, take 1 or 2 friends and try again, if they still refuse, it escalates to church leadership and eventually putting them out of fellowship with the goal of them being restored. (“shunning” is a sad misuse of this) This means that you love the people who abuse you, covertly or overtly, and yet it does not mean you enable or play a codependent or naive role as an ongoing victim. I highly recommend the book “The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse” as one good text that pushes back from within the Christian perspective against the unfortunate misunderstanding that love = enabling.

    To clarify, I wasn’t raising the issue of love as something that makes Christianity superior, although the further in life I go the wiser it seems, rather I was starting from your comment about the command to love being another possible factor that might make Christianity seem absurd. I was working from there.

    The David Tennant Hamlet – I loved it. I watched the commentary about it and they chose the set carefully. It’s a huge building they restored just for the film with some black and some mirrored backgrounds to help support the mood. From the opening speech, I was enthralled with Tennant’s gloomy Hamlet.

  • http://Likeachildscience.blogspot.com Lac

    “However, for most of my Christian walk, I refused to step outside my comfort zone, preferring to adopt the us vs. them mentality. It was safer. More comfortable. Easier. I’m not saying you or anyone here is doing that, per se, but of all the problems in the church, I found that this was one of the biggest, at least in my experience.
    … When I met atheists who loved their family just as much or more than I did as a Christian, I began to ask questions. Lots of questions.”

    James…I resonate with some of what you say here. i was raised very conservative S. Baptist, so growing up, I very much lived the “in the world but not of the world” ideal. As a S. Baptist, it was very easy to see how different we were. As I transitioned to a PCA church, things gut more fuzzy, since I tended to be the only non-drinker. Now a days I am profoundly agonistic, but have dabbled in emerging, progressive and mainline Christianity. I am much more conservative, as an agnostic than most of the Christians in these denominations, by standards of living. I’m not really sure what the difference between secular and Christian morality is anymore”. And yes, while some professors might ridicule Christianity, there is alot of tolerance, and many scientists are mainliners or Catholics who just don’t verbalize the Evangelical Christian language (Christianese), but still believe in God. Of my peers in grad school, I was likely the only evangelical. At the time, I thought I was the only Christian. But now I realize I wasn’t the sole Christian….and others still identifty as Christian while I’ve lost my faith.

    What does it mean to be Christian anymore? What is the evidence of God’s transforming work? Is it just purely a form of self-help? Does it make you love more? Then how do you explain Ghandi and Anne Frank?

  • JamesB

    @MatthewS,

    In hindsight I can see how my comment may have seemed polemical (I know you aren’t accusing me of that–just my own judgement). I will admit I phrased it in such a way as to sound controversial, but it was said in sincerity. I try to ask the sorts of questions that would have challenged me if I had heard them a few years back.

    Stepping back a bit here…I really enjoy these sorts of conversations. I don’t pretend to have everything figured out. I’m just in a place where, although I don’t believe many of the things I used to, I still have a soft spot for the topics themselves, as I told RJS. So thanks for joining in with your views.

    Believe it or not, I read “Subtle Power” many moons ago. (Did you know the author is one of the interventionists on the TV show “Intervention”?) I went through a really bad experience in a semi-cult over twenty years ago and that book helped immensely in my recovery. (Story for another day.)

    Thanks for clarifying your definition of loving one’s enemies. I can agree with enough of that to not make another big issue out of it.

    Ok. I feel like I’m hijacking the original thread, so I’m going to beg out of this conversation. Thanks to everyone for the great feedback. It was fun. I’ll keep coming back and posting as things grab me.

    P.S. My wife reminded me that she told me about Tennant’s Hamlet awhile back…oops!

  • JamesB

    @Lac #44,

    Thanks for sharing your story. Good questions, all. I won’t attempt to answer them but I will visit your blog and take a look around!

  • Dana Ames

    JamesB,

    My definition of “enemies” would range from those actively seeking to do harm to those who are simply oblivious to the harm they do. It is not at all that they simply are people who are different. Loving one’s enemies does not necessarily mean sticking around to be hurt, but it could include actually laying down one’s life. Much depends on the situation. But I do see the command as something very distinctive about Christianity.

    On being God’s enemies, I think that we are such from our standpoint more than from God’s standpoint. I believe in Jesus Christ the fullness of the Godhead was pleased to dwell. How Jesus acted toward his enemies is the heart of God the Father toward *his* enemies. God is always acting to reconcile.

    That Luke 6 passage was the other one I was trying to think of, the parallel to the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew. The word for reward is used as a synonym for thanks/credit in the verses preceding, which is the word charis (gift). I think that Jesus is saying that what is given/rewarded/gifted is that a person becomes kind and merciful *in the same way* the Heavenly Father is – which is ultimately Christ on the Cross. Where I have landed, all interpretation of scripture begins with the Cross and the Resurrection.

    I am EOrthodox, and we don’t believe the Father was punishing the Son on the cross, rather that he was displaying the forgiveness he has given, already appearing in the OT prophets – Ps 32.5, Is 43.25. There is a stream of Christianity that understands all this differently…

    Including that the transforming work of God is ontologic rather than forensic. It’s quite true that we don’t need Christ to be moral; the “leg up” we have as Christians doesn’t have anything to do with morality as such, but rather with the union of the Created with the Uncreated. Too much to go into in a blog comment, but if this intrigues you, hop over to Fr Stephen Freeman’s blog and read around there.
    http://www.fatherstephen.wordpress.com
    He explains this stuff very well, much better than I could, though I’ll keep talking with you if you wish.

    Hope that’s reasonably clear.

    Dana

  • JamesB

    @Dana,

    Good explanation of where you are coming from. Thanks. My dad was EO for awhile so I am somewhat familiar with the teachings.

    Hopefully we can pick the conversation back up in future threads. I enjoyed it.

  • http://communityofjesus.wordpress.com/ Ted M. Gossard

    This post certainly resonates with me, RJS. Well said, and good scripture passages to consider here. I for one am quite concerned about what we believe as well as the manner we hold to it. Actually we might be mild mannered indeed, but if what we hold to is not according to the truth as it is in Jesus, then it will be damaging indeed.

    I find myself so much at odd with much of the Christian world I know, that I don’t find myself at home at all in that world, except for God’s grace in and through Jesus. And so I find that a major part of my dying and living in Jesus is through living in a context that seems often to me to be Christian in name only. Although I certainly find that in such places, God’s grace becomes evident.

    I find it a complete waste of time to discuss these matters with Christians. They are in the know. I have more questions all the way around, but I have been made fun of because of that. Ha. Though I’ve learned over time to stay low, and be quite selective in what challenge I put forth.

  • Merv Olsen

    Your best post ever RJS!! Spot on!!!

  • RJS

    A few commenters have noted that this reputation of Christians represents, in part at least, a distortion of the media sources. This is true. Those with extreme positions and those who make outlandish comments get most of the press and this colors public perception. One of the things I appreciated about Half The Sky, a book I posted on a while back, is that the authors noted the positive things Christians have done in missions helping the poor, the sick, the enslaved, and the orphans. I wish there was more press like this.

    Unfortunately, both of the commenters who made this point most strongly did so with a passion that fell into some of the negatives warned against in some of the passages quoted above. As a results the comments are not actually visible on the post. I fully acknowledge that they had a valid point in the mix, but wish they could have made it a bit more gently.

    The other point I wished to make in the post, that I have been mulling over, however, had little to do with this outside perception. It had more to do with the shape of Christian community and the impression this makes on both Christians and “seekers.” Do we actually embody and act on love for one another, or are our gatherings and communities marked by other goals?

  • Marcus C

    Great post RJS.

    Case in point: Monday’s ‘Daily Show’ where Jon Stewart actually reads a bunch of verses from the Bible.

    http://www.hulu.com/watch/383588?c=Comedy#x-4,vclip,1,0

  • JEA

    “How can I be a Christian?”

    How about acting with humility instead of arrogance? How about turning the other cheek? How about showing love for all instead of a select few?

    You picture of Christianity in your early paragraph isn’t an exaggeration; it’s accurate. Perhaps Christians need to concentrate more on removing the mote in their own eyes.

  • jerry lynch

    There is no place for duty or restraint
    in the freedom we receive through, by, and in Christ.
    Duty is counterfeit obedience.
    Duty is costumed vanity.

    Traditions, like ideals, have no role
    in the understanding or profession of Truth.

    The two statements above may appear as heretical, a clear-cut call to antinomianism. It may seem as if only chaos could result from such a stance. Yet I find any compromise in this area as being outside God’s order, an excuse for worldliness or a case of simple immaturity. The process of sanctification, if we fully open to it, will slowly reveal our one need: total faith in and reliance upon Christ.
    The New Covenant, as I read it, insists on a complete abandonment to divine providence. We are to place ourselves wholly in the hands of the Holy Spirit and grace in all things. What we do is only at the in-the-moment direction of God out of love. We live by inspiration and not motivation, we are drawn to God, not driven.
    The use of self-control is solely dedicated to maintaining a conscious contact with God; it is not for maintaining temperance or for resisting temptation or for adhering to standards. The love of God has all that is necessary for perfect righteousness, and for that end we give ALL, every last ounce, of our heart, mind, soul, and strength to Christ. A direct Relationship, not duty or tradition, is the one guide.

    We are separated out of the world (removed from its customs, values, borders, and wisdom) so that we may be single-minded in helping others in need and in coming to know Christ. We are not divided against the world (or any group of the world), we are not fighting it as evil; to believe that we are is part of gnosticism. Yes, we are to submit to the just laws of any country, yet this is out of devotion to God, His rule of love, and not allegiance to a nation.
    Dying to self allows us to completely abandon ourselves to divine providence and live the New Covenant Christ established. Without dying to self, such a way of life as I have described will appear to be utter foolishness.

    FAITH IN CHRIST EXPRESSED THROUGH LOVE IS ALL THAT COUNTS!


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