When I post about my disappointments with many versions of Christianity I often get comments that say “I am also turned off by..”. I spent five years studying the various forms of Christianity and wrote extensively about it at my now archive blog at RedLetterLiving.net. There are several hundred post in that blog that cover a wide variety of religious issues.
In 2012 I also did a series of posts about the book “If God Is Love” by Philip Gulley. Mr. Gulley is a Quaker minister with a different point of view from Evangelicals. I decided to put those posts together here as an integrated report.
The theology of love begins with the assumption that all people are God’s cherished children and deserving of love. “We love because he first loved us. Those who say ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers and sisters, are liars, for they do not love a brother or sister who they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen” (1 John 4:19-20). Jesus demonstrated his lover for outcasts, those many considered unlovable. Regrettably, many Christians have been unwilling to adopt the ethic of Jesus — a theology of inclusion, acceptance, and love, We’ve been unwilling to love and accept our enemies. We haven’t even be excited about loving our neighbors.When Jesus redefined kinship, he was challenging their exclusive circle by declaring that anyone in any place who did the will of God regardless of social standing or religious affiliation, was his brother or sister. Kinship is not a matter of racial, religious, or cultural conformity. It was the by-product of a commitment of the will of God — to love and care for all.
We should all be getting out of our church pews and into the community to reaffirm that we do indeed love our neighbor. We must show the Lord’s love in our lives if we are true followers of Jesus Christ. To hunker down in our church building against the big bad world and wait for the second coming is not what Jesus preached. Jesus was a lover of the unlovable and we should at least attempt to do the same. If we are only willing to allocate those two hours a week on Sunday mornings to God then maybe we should occasionally skip the pews and get out in the community and get our hands dirty!
I must admit that I feel closer to God when I do community service than when I am sitting in a church pew. And according to Jesus that is how it should be.
The Psalmists boats, “Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you? I hate them with perfect hate. I count them my enemies” (Psalm 139:21-22). Hatred, when directed at those we have judged wicked, becomes a sign of religious devotion rather than a grievous sin. The enemy is not loved, but destroyed, not prayed for, but preyed upon.
We can protest religious hatred and violence are sins of the past, but to do so we must ignore current Christian visions of the future. How do we explain the tremendous popularity of the “Left Behind” series of books? These books, which have sold millions of copies have spawned two movies, portray a future in which Evangelical Christians are saved while everyone else is destroyed. They proclaim a Jesus with a sword in hand atop a charging steed, initiating a violent end. Our violent religious past and expectations of a wrathful future impinge on Christian behavior today. David Beneke, a leader in the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, discovered this reality shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks. He was suspended for eighteen months from his duties and required to defend himself before a variety of denominational panels.
His sin was not something as radical as believing in the salvation of all people. His crime was joining with Muslim, Roman Catholic, Jewish, Hindu, and Sikh religious leaders in a prayer service at Yankee Stadium. He was accused of praying with “heathens”. He said “This ordeal reveals the hard side of Christianity”. In fairness, similar stories abound in other religious traditions. This arrogant exclusivity plagues all the great religions. Adherents of each faith hate the “other” — Christians hate heathens; Muslims hate infidels; Jews hate Gentiles. For many, religion is how we decide who to love and who to hate.
As I have said many times Jesus melted down the Old Testament laws into just two: Love God and Love your fellow man. Hate was not in this mix. Why do so many current day religious institutions base so much of their practices on hate? Maybe hate is too strong a word for the practices of current Christian denomination but then again maybe it is not. One thing I love about reading Philip Gulley is that he doesn’t pull any punches. Mr. Gulley certainly didn’t pull any punches in this example.
Dualistic theologies reduce the questions of life to one: Are you saved? Nothing else matters. The purpose of life it to answer that single question. Of course, simply saying “yes” is not enough. You confirm your salvation by accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior, getting baptized, and receiving the Holy Spirit. Until you have done these things, your life has no meaning.
When salvation is defined so narrowly, it too easily becomes a status rather than a process. It becomes a contractual agreement between an individual and God…. Too often, God’s desire to transform us into mature, responsible, and gracious people was obscured. When religion factored in the fragility of life and the threat of eternal damnation, the product (a spot in heaven) rather than the process (becoming an authentic person) became the priority.
Growing up, I was asked repeatedly, “If you were to die tonight, where would you spend eternity?” I was never asked, “If you live tomorrow, what kind of life will it be?”
Some call this supposed contract between you and God fire insurance. We sign the papers and then put it on the shelf until it is needed. That is NOT what being a follower of Jesus Christ means to me nor should it to anyone else. This is another instance where I believe men have fashioned a god who pleases them; not the other way around. Yes it is nice to I know where I will be spending eternity but equally important, if not more so for our times, is how I will live my life tomorrow and all the tomorrows I have left. If they do not reflect God’s love then is the fire insurance policy still valid? I have deep reservations about the answer to that one.
Working to make the world a more gracious place wasn’t a priority in the churches of my childhood. Some of this negligence was a result of apolcalyptic interpretations in which the world was doomed and damned anyway. One man insisted we shouldn’t work for peace in the Middle East because we were simply postponing Armageddon and the return of Christ. However, the primary reason the church didn’t have time to change the world was because we expended so much energy trying to save souls. We’d work for weeks on revivals, evangelism programs, mission support, and the like. We didn’t have time for soup kitchens, visiting prisoners, or working with the homeless — unless of course, we could figure out a way to work in an altar call.
When I became convinced of God’s intention to save every person, my perspective on the purpose of life changed. Salvation became a lifelong adventure in which God is gently and patiently drawing us away from self-absorption and toward authentic relationship with God and one another. The point of life was no longer to get saved or to save others. The purpose of life was to live graciously. Freed of personal anxiety about God’s acceptance and no longer obsessed with creating others in my own image, I was able to focus on what it means to be rather than do.
Working to make the world a more gracious place is still not much of a priority in today’s church. While I am yet to be fully in the camp that God will in his own way bring all souls to him, I am fully on board that much of the current church approach to those outside the faith is misguided. When we quit looking at others as projects to be converted and instead as fellow human being to be loved our whole approach to them changes. They become fellow children of God and not heathens to be saved. The way we point others to Christ is through our actions and not our words or even necessarily those words found in our ancient books.
Lets finish up with a follow up quote on this subject.
Saving souls isn’t about altar calls, but about responding graciously to those we encounter in our daily lives. Being gracious is not about inviting others to our church, but about living an inviting life — one both attractive and winsome. The purpose of life isn’t to create more Christians , but “to let our lights shine before others, so they will see our good works and give glory to our Father in heaven” Matthew 5:16
Several other times on this blog, I have stated that we all at some time, and often many times, question what is our purpose in life. Why did God create us. I think Mr. Gulley and Mr. Mulholland have got it right in that regard. We are to be like the Son and let our lights shine in order to point others to Christ. Altar calls and such just don’t hack it. They never have and they never will.