When I first meet people and they find out that I am a preacher, the statement I get more than any other is “I like Jesus but not the Church.” It is such a common-sense idea that it is hardly challenged these days.
Instead, what we do is try to defend the church. As in “Sure, we are a community of sinners, imperfect people who have done a lot of bad in human history, but we have also done a lot of good things too.”
Or what about this line of argument: “I like Jesus, but I don’t like Paul, he turned Jesus into Christianity, something totally foreign to what Jesus was about.”
Yep. Again, I get the sentiment and what people are trying to say, and I somewhat agree, but not in the way I used to.
Because have you ever really read the Gospels? Not read just the stories that give us goose bumps, like the stories where Jesus forgives the woman caught in adultery, or when he throws the parties with the tax collectors. But have you really read through the Gospels?
Even if you just read the red-letters of the Bible, you are going to be offended, no matter what your background or status.
To be sure, Jesus will offend different people in different ways. The wealthy of the world will take offense at the teachings on wealth, or the command to the Rich Young Ruler. For the conservative people Jesus’ radical redefinition of family and family values is offensive. Or for the progressives, Jesus’ hard line stance on things like marriage and divorce, or the protection of children, are really bothersome. Jesus will offend everyone!
Just when the pacifists think they have understood Jesus, he makes friends with soldiers, and tells the good religious people that the Roman centurion has more faith than all of them. For the nationalist, or those in the just-war camp, Jesus tells them to love their enemies, and for Peter to put away his sword, and then ultimately dies at the hand of warriors.
I like Jesus, too, most of the time. But have you ever noticed how many offensive, confrontational things Jesus says that we never talk about in Church?
Jesus says that it is impossible for a man and a woman, after they have been married, to get a divorce. He says that what God has joined together no one can (not no one should) tear apart. But Paul, the church planter of Corinth, working with real people with real lives, gives them an exception. He says that if you cannot make it work out, and your spouse is not a believer, it is okay to divorce.
Jesus says things like “After you have [obeyed God and] done everything you were told to do, you should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty’.” When was the last time you heard your narrow, intolerant preacher talk about that verse?
The truth is, that Jesus was loving, but He wasn’t just loving, and certainly not just loving as the way we define it today. If the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, was to really become a man, He would have plenty to say that offends different cultures at different pressure points. If God, the God of the Bible, was to enter human history, he would confront the idols that each person was worshiping, not just to confront them, but because their idols were robbing them of God-given dignity and God-given calling.
To some he would be too offensive, ask too much, and be too dangerous to their status quo. They might even try to kill Him. To some, of course, the good would outweigh the bad. The bits about love and compassion might make worth accepting the radical assessment this God makes about the nature of every human heart. Those bits might even ring true even as they bite, but you certainly wouldn’t just leave a day with Jesus thinking ‘I’m okay and you’re okay’.
Jesus tells the world what our deepest intuitions tell us. But often the church doesn’t.
I like the way that Chesterton makes this point in his wonderful book The Everlasting Man
We have all heard people say a hundred times over, for they seem never to tire of saying it, that the Jesus of the New Testament is indeed a most merciful and humane lover of humanity, but that the Church has hidden this human character in repellent dogmas and stiffened it with ecclesiastical terrors till it has taken on an inhuman character. This is, I venture to repeat, very nearly the reverse of the truth. The truth is that it is the image of Christ in the churches that is almost entirely mild and merciful. It is the image of Christ in the Gospels that is a good many other things as well.
The figure in the Gospels does indeed utter in words of almost heart-breaking beauty his pity for our broken hearts. But they are very far from being the only sort of words that he utters. Nevertheless they are almost the only kind of words that the Church in its popular imagery ever represents him as uttering. That popular imagery is inspired by a perfectly sound popular instinct. The mass of the poor are broken, and the mass of the people are poor, and for the mass of mankind the main thing is to carry the conviction of the incredible compassion of God. But nobody with his eyes open can doubt that it is chiefly this idea of compassion that the popular machinery of the Church does seek to carry.
I know that all of us have caricatures of churches that come to mind, maybe the church that picketed that funeral and held up those hateful signs. Or maybe of the preacher that made the news because he said that thing about Muslims, or against abortion, or single moms, or whatever. But I run in circles with lots of preachers and church leaders from lots of different backgrounds, and that is not anywhere near an accurate representation of 99% of churches in America. I wish that someone would start taxing the news every time they mentioned the Westboro Baptist Church, as if that church was in any way indicative of the rest of us.
We like Jesus, but not Paul, but Paul is trying to take the way of Jesus to the street. He is taking it from the ideal to the real, so he will constantly make concessions, even as he raises the bar on the culture’s pagan norms and Jewish regulations.
If you read through all of Paul’s letters, you will find a man who writes tear-stained letters, encouraging his people wherever he can find something to encourage, and calling them to love and forgive each other.
We like Jesus and not the church, because we don’t know Jesus. We like Jesus and not Paul because we don’t know the very things that Jesus is really calling us out to be. But Paul does. The Church does.
Love them too.