Repenting of Religion: Turning from Judgement to the Love of God
More and more frequently I am encountering believers who are no longer inclined to call themselves Christians when attempting to share their faith in Christ with others. It seems on the surface to be a strange development but one that, upon closer examination, actually seems to have great merit. The term 'Christian' has become a muddied and an emotionally charged word that has all kinds of unintended associations for non-believers that can actually make communicating the love of God with them even more difficult than it should be.
I was once advised to avoid the use of the word 'Christian' while travelling in the Middle East, but to consider using the word 'believer' or 'follower of Jesus' instead. It was very good advice. As I met and related to Muslim people I was able to visibly see the positively changed perceptions towards me when I informed them that I was a believer and follower of Jesus. The Qur'an actually teaches Muslims to treat followers of Jesus with great respect.
You see, in the Muslim world, the term 'Christian' is often equated with historical memories of the Crusades or American foreign policy or perhaps more surprisingly, the kind of immoral lifestyles that are promoted by Hollywood. To many Muslims today the term 'Christian' does not mean 'follower of Jesus' at all. To them everything western is 'Christian' in the same way that many people in the West see everything from the Middle East as having it's foundation in Muslim faith. So if we want to speak about Christ and actually be understood, we need to adapt our language to fit the understanding of the people we are talking to.
But these kinds of miscommunications don't just happen abroad, they also happen right here at home as well. A new neighbour recently called in to introduce himself to me a couple of months ago and I was surprised to learn that he already knew that I was a Christian and had visited the Worldview Interactive website. Apart from being a little surprised that he would have actually found it and made the connection with me, I was also surprised to hear him say, "I guess you've been watching a lot of TV lately". I had no idea what he was talking about but it soon became apparent that he was talking about the election of the new Pope. As a self-confessed unbeliever this guy was obviously not that very aware of the subtle and not-so-subtle theological and historical distinctions between churches. Apparently he assumed that I was a Catholic! The thought that anyone could make that assumption about me came as a surprising revelation, but it made me think more deeply about how often we can be misunderstood without even knowing it. You can never be sure what people are thinking of us because their perceptions of Christianity may have been formed by factors that we know nothing about. We should not assume that just because people seem hostile to religion that they are hostile to Christ. Maybe there is a history of negative associations in their minds that we need to explore and try to build some bridges for them to come to see the gospel in a more favourable light.
For us who believe, in our minds our faith in Christ identifies us with the most remarkable and wonderful figure of human history. We admire the great strength of character of Jesus, His unconditional love, His boundless compassion, His profound wisdom and the amazing grace of God revealed in Jesus Christ. We admire the One who walked on water, rebuked the Pharisees, healed the sick, lived a sinless life, forgave the sins of others and even overcame death. Unfortunately many of these wonderful attributes of Christ are hidden from people in the world who live out their lives under a veil of spiritual darkness and confusion, more often hearing bad news about Christians through the media rather than the good news of God's saving grace. It is no wonder that people's perceptions of Christians are not all that positive when all they hear about are paedophile priests, greedy televangelists and anti-gay crusading moralists.
I was told recently about a guy who makes it a regular practice of asking the people he sits next to on aeroplanes a series of questions. One of the questions he asks is "What do you think of when you hear the term 'Evangelical Christian'?". Sadly the usual response he gets is "Anti-gay, anti-abortion". How is it that the good news of God's amazing grace has been reduced to two moral issues that some Christians emphasise to the exclusion of all other moral issues? How is it that we think we can legislate for personal morality and then think we have fulfilled our divine mandate? How is it that some Christians continually place their faith in conservative governments to legislate on these issues when having been in power for years, in both Australia in the USA, they have done nothing to practically reduce the slaughter of the unborn. Don't they know that the root problem with both abortion and homosexuality is that the individuals who do these things need to know the saving power of Jesus Christ?
But it is not only the bad press of paedophile priests, greedy televangelists and crusading moralists that is damaging the reputation of the name of Christ. It is also everyday Christians who do not take care to actually obey the commands of Christ. When I say 'obey the commands of Christ' I am not talking about a moral code of behaviour. True Christianity is not a moral code, nor is holiness sinless perfection either. It is following Jesus and actually doing the things that asks and commands us to do. ie: Loving our enemies, leaving our gift at the altar and going to be reconciled to our brother, etc, etc. Many Christians today are becoming discouraged and leaving the Church in disillusionment because of things that they have suffered at the hands of their fellow believers. I am currently writing an article called, "Why I no longer call myself a Christian". Last year I lost six of my closest Christian friends and ministry associates in one of the most painful events of my life. Despite my best efforts to get the bottom of the issues and seek truth and reconciliation, three of these men remain irreconcilable behind a veil of untruths, and the other three finally said to me what amounted to, "Nothing that you do or say could convince me to renew my friendship with you". But how can anyone really call themselves a follower of Christ and do that? How can anyone presume to continue in ministry and yet ignore invitations for conciliatory discussion? If that is what being a Christian is, then truthfully, I want no part of it. Nor can I really blame unbelievers for not wanting to be part of that either.
Sadly, this seems to reflect the state of the Church today where many people are more interested in their positions and their status than they are in actually obeying Jesus. How is it that Christians who have been 'saved by grace' can so quickly become judgmental Pharisees that lack mercy when a brother falls? Why is it that one of the largest movements in the Church today is Christians actually leaving the Church? Sadly I think it's because people are not finding the grace that they may reasonably expect to find among people who call themselves followers of Christ.
"See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no "root of bitterness" springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled..." Hebrews 12:15 (ESV)
What we need is a new movement where people understand that their profession of faith must go hand in hand with their obedience to Christ and a proper understanding of the grace of God. Jesus does not demand unachievably high standards of sinless perfection. But he does require that we 'walk in the light' of truth. Perhaps that is why early believers were known as followers of 'the Way'. The Christian faith was clearly understood as a distinct 'way' rather than merely a label of convenience.
James 1:22-25 (ESV): But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.  For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror.  For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like.  But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.
The truth is that we cannot extend to others the grace when we have never truly known that grace ourselves. If we always see ourselves as 'righteous' and occupying the 'high moral ground' then we will always stand in judgement of those who we think are below us. We become like the man that James talked about... who after looking at himself in a mirror went away only to forget what he looked like. But if we see ourselves as we truly are - desperate sinners saved by grace - and in humility remember that image of ourselves, then extending grace to our fellow sinners will not be all that difficult to do. Afterall, our own relationship with God depends upon it.
Publisher, Worldview Interactive magazine
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