” So the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers.” Acts 16:5 (NIV)
Please understand that I love and respect most of the people I know who are labeled as “Christians” – as a whole a generous and caring crowd. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that my distaste for the label is directed towards the institution of Christianity. The church community has developed to be only a faint resemblance to that first group of believers who were bonded by common vision and unswerving commitment. Most of the epistles in the New Testament were a response to the introduction of incorrect practice or perspective that threatened to complicate the simplicity of their faith – simplicity that needed protection. But perhaps time and human inclination made the shift inevitable.
Jesus Christ had called them to be Christ – ians (Christ followers), but immediately religion reared its ugly head. There were those who tried to gain prominence or financial gain from their preaching, desiring to draw followers after themselves. Some wanted to reshape Christianity to fit their own cultural spiritual system. Still others desired control, establishing themselves as the only valid representatives of God on earth. I myself am encouraged that the twelve most influential men in church history were a rag tag bunch of common uneducated people whose only credentials were their connection to Jesus. “When they (the religious leaders of the day) saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.“ (Acts 4:13niv) This fact was evidenced not only by their speech but by their lives. Even Jesus Himself faced credential objections from the religious men of the day: “The Jews there were amazed and asked, “How did this man get such learning without having been taught?” (Jn 7:15niv) Nevertheless, what began as a bold group of adherents to a Man and His Message has morphed into a regimen of rules and rites with the notable few making rules for the rest. What has, in many ways, deteriorated into a moralistic movement began with a beautiful comradeship of spiritual pursuit. And that pursuit was indeed for holiness of heart and life from the desire to emulate and honor their Savior. Convictions emanating from that pursuit sometimes overflowed into reform movements with some profound societal effects. Were those forerunners of the present day “moral majority’ also labeled as bigots because they opposed slavery or alcoholism or other societal ills of their day?
Christianity has deteriorated from its reputation for the pursuit of an infectious personal devotion to Christ into the present day perception as being a narrow-minded political movement. How did we get here? It would be easy to point the accusing finger at others and throw out terms like “intolerant”, “legalistic”, “judgmental”, or “hypocritical”. But I see the reason for such a departure from relationship with God to religion no further away than my own heart. I think I am as committed as they come, and my intentions have always been to serve God and “make disciples” as Jesus commanded His followers to do. The transformative experience I had with Jesus would be comparable to finding a money pit. Of course I wanted to share that!! I have always sought to persuade my family and friends and others of the merits of believing as well as the peril of not (“Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them.” Jn 3:35niv). Jesus provides quite an incentive to motivate others to come to Him. But to “walk in wisdom towards those who are without” (Colossians 3:5) is a learned behavior. I said and did things before that I would never do now! If we are convinced of what Jesus said, we all have the capacity to be overzealous in our concern for others. This can easily come off as an attempt to convert others to our belief system rather than to the Savior, although that is not our intention. But also true is that ‘darkness hates the light’, and it is easier to reject the messenger on the grounds of his failings rather than to honestly reject the Message itself. The Message is offensive – that we are hopelessly mired in sin without any chance of recovery except we trust in a Man Who we don’t see and Whose representatives have obscured.
However, religion isn’t just something “out there” that we detest – it is something inside of us that wants to make God more accessible and predictable and even marketable. It is easier to make rules – especially for others- than to live in the awkward uncharted place of dependence on the Holy Spirit. I made rules (even unspoken ones) for others for their own good (or so I thought because if it was what God wanted for me then He must have wanted it for them). Some of them were good and something God wanted for all His children. They were hedges, and in many instances it was my authorized place to make them for others – like for my children. But there comes the time when everyone must choose on their own – and we must embrace that in matters of conscience and conviction my way is not for all. We all make mistakes however good intentioned. Collectively (as the church) the mistakes are louder and more abrasive, thus we see the history of the Church developing from simple faith to complex rules. I think that every believer passes through this religious phase on their journey with God. The danger of getting stuck there is tremendous! Doesn’t man always complicate things? Maybe we should get back to the simple business of strengthening each others’ faith rather than trying to regulate their behavior. Allow the Holy Spirit to challenge and change our own hearts and attitudes – then allow Him to do the same with others instead of usurping His role with our own rules. Isn’t that where the first church began??