“The time when men could be told everything by means of words, whether theological or simply pious, is over, and so is the time of…religion as such.…
[W]hat is religionless Christianity?… What is the significance of a Church…
in a religionless world?”
Deitrich Bonhoeffer, Letter From Prison, April 30th, 1944.
The Crisis of a Loveless Church
A recent Letter to the Editor in my local newspaper went as follows:
When I read letters sent in by Bible thumping Christians telling us how sinful we are and how right they are, how God is on their side, not ours, how God hates gays, liberals and other evil people, I close my eyes for a moment and say a quiet prayer. “I thank thee oh Lord that I am not and never will be a Christian.”
I confess that I am entirely sympathetic to this editorial comment. In my own life, and in the lives of multitudes of people I’ve come across, the best and strongest argument against the truth of Christianity has been the Church. There are thankfully marvelous exceptions, but far too often – often enough to give a general (and quite accurate) impression – the demeanor of Christians is justifiable cause for unbelief. Just recently a young man responded to my invitation to faith by telling me, “I admit I feel the need for a savior, but I honestly just can’t stand Christians!” While he has perhaps not had a well-rounded exposure to Christians, I completely understood where this young man was coming from. Indeed, I’ve spend much of my professional life answering objections to the Christian faith from skeptics, and in all the scholarly tomes I’ve studied I’ve never found an argument against the Christian nearly as compelling as this one.
What makes this situation positively catastrophic is that, according to the New Testament, the Church – the community of those who follow Jesus – is supposed to be the main argument for the truth that Jesus is Lord. By God’s design, the radical love of those who follow Christ is supposed to convince the world that Jesus is for real (Jn13:35; 17:23). Instead, the Church has become the main argument for convincing people he’s not for real. I can’t imagine a greater crisis the Church could possibly face than this one.
Where Are The Prostitutes and Tax Collectors of Our Day?
How did this happen? To ask the question more pointedly, how is it that Jesus was a magnet for prostitutes and tax collectors – the two most despised classes of sinners in Jesus’ day – while the Church repels these types of people, just as the Pharisees did? The answer, I submit, is as inescapable as it is challenging. The Church, as a whole, is simply more like the Pharisees than it is like Jesus.
The Pharisees had (at least in their own minds) all the “right” beliefs and “right” behaviors. Indeed, their “rightness” was their distinctive mark. It set them apart from all who held “wrong” beliefs and engaged in “wrong” behaviors. This was their “holiness” (hagio in Greek, which means “set apart”). By contrast, Jesus was “set apart” by his willingness and ability to attract people with “wrong” beliefs and “wrong” behavior. Jesus was set apart by his radical, distinctive, even scandalous, love.
Jesus embraced social outcasts, developed friendships with sinners despised by decent religious folk, placed a concern for people above a concern for observing religious and social taboos, ministered to the poor and oppressed, and treated women, Gentiles and Samaritans – even a Samaritan woman with a scandalous past – with profound respect. Unlike the Pharisees, Jesus never once engaged in a moral inquisition of a person or tried to fix their behavior. He simply loved them by serving them and befriending them as they were. This love was most beautiful expressed when he served them, and all of us, by dying a God-forsaken hellish death on the cross. For good reason the guardians of religious propriety of his day were outraged by Jesus’ “loose” behavior. Jesus entire life, and death, was an assault on their religious distinctiveness. It was an assault on their religious brand of “holiness.” The holiness of Jesus had nothing to do with a set of religious distinctives that set him apart from others. His holiness was about a radically distinct love that united him with others.
Now, let us honestly ask: does the “holiness” of the evangelical Church look more like the holiness of the Pharisee or the holiness of Jesus’? What matters is not how we evangelicals might answer this question, but how the prostitutes and tax collectors of our day answer this question. And they answer it quite clearly with their feet. They are not beating down our doors to hang out with us as they did Jesus. They rather steer clear of us, as they did the Pharisees.
But it’s not just the prostitutes and tax collectors of our day who think this about the Church. Go to any city street corner and randomly ask ten pagans what first comes to their mind when they hear the words “evangelical” or “born again” Christian, and no one dreams any of them would immediately reply, “Incredible sacrificial love – those born again people will sacrifice themselves for anyone at any time.” Ask them to give the first ten things that come to their mind, and its unlikely anything like “incredible sacrificial love” would be on any of their lists.
We are, like the Pharisees of old, known for the fact that we are convinced we have the “right” beliefs and engage in the “right” behavior. We are, like the Pharisees of old, known for the fact that we set ourselves apart from, and sometimes even adamantly against, those we think have “wrong” beliefs and ‘wrong” behavior. We are, like the Pharisees of old, known for our attempts to posture ourselves as the moral guardians and promotes of righteousness in the nation – those who know what is best for people. We are generally known for our angry public stances against certain types of sins and support for certain political right-wing causes. We are, in other words, known for all the things the Pharisees of old were known for. We are known for our Pharisaical religious brand of “holiness.” This is what sets us apart in the minds of most. But tragically, we are not known for our Christ-like holiness. We are not known for our Calvary-like love.
Of course, despite our reputation, we evangelical Christians often convince ourselves that we are in fact loving. We sometimes try to convince ourselves that people just can’t see our love because they are sinners who don’t understand what “true” love is. Such an attitude is tragically comical, especially in light of Christ’s teaching that we are to regard our own sin as tree trunks and other peoples’ sin, whatever it may be, as dust particles (Mt 7:1-3). It’s a bit like a husband convincing himself he’s a loving husband even though his wife, kids, and acquaintances all insist he’s an unloving, self-righteous, jerk. His refusal to take their perspective seriously simply confirms the truth of their perspective. A more humble, wiser and more biblical approach is to accept that if no one other than yourself thinks you are not loving, maybe its you, not they, who don’t understand what true love is.
The Biblical Definition of Love
What is it that Christ had and that we all-to-often lack? It is the central thing we are commanded and empowered to have: namely, God’s love. The Bible gives us as clear a definition of God’s love as could possibly be given when it points us to Jesus Christ. “We know love by this,” John says, “that [Christ] laid down his life for us.” Hence, he continues, “we ought to lay down our lives for another” (I Jn 3:16). This is love. Jesus ascribes worth to us by dying for us. Though we are sinners, he proclaims we have unsurpassable worth, just as we are, by paying an unsurpassable price for us, just as we are. Though our culture may define love in many sentimental, sensual and self-serving ways, in Christ we learn that true love is most fundamentally about ascribing worth to another, regardless of their worthiness, by engaging in self-sacrificial action on their behalf.
This is why, immediately after defining love by pointing us to Calvary, John goes on to say, “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action” (1 Jn 3:18). The only love that is true, he is saying, is one that acts. Loving speech without sacrificial action is simply self-serving pretense.
To give a practical illustration, John asks, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help” (I Jn 3:17)? God’s love is defined by sacrificial action. When it finds someone in need, it ascribes worth to that person by sacrificing to meet that need. When sacrificial action is present, God’s love is present. When sacrificial action is not present, God’s love is not present, regardless of whether one claims to be loving or not. The love that defines Christ’s life and death, and the love that is to be manifested among his followers, is a love that communicates worth to others, as they are, by bleeding for them. Only to the extent that it costs us something is our love Christ-like.
Everything hangs on our willingness and ability to love like this. Everything! This is what it means to be “the body of Christ.” We corporately do what Jesus did in his earthly body. We ascribe worth to others by bleeding for them without any regard for whether they deserve it or not. This is also what it means to be a participant in the kingdom of God. The incarnate Jesus was the mustard seed of the “dome” in which God is King – the Kingdom of God — and the Church, as the corporate body of Christ, is to be an extension of this dome.
By definition, therefore, the Church is to look like Jesus. By definition, the Church is to love like Jesus. By definition, the Church is to be a corporate Jesus. Insofar as any individual or group looks like Jesus, dying on Calvary for those who crucified him, they participate in the kingdom. Insofar as they don’t, they are not participating in the kingdom, regardless of how religious they might think themselves to be.
The Kingdom Expands By Replicating Calvary
By God’s design, the mustard seed of the kingdom is to grow by the Church being the kingdom of God – loving like Jesus loves. By our love, Jesus says, the world is to know that we are his disciples and that he is Lord (I Jn 13:35). John says that, though no one has ever seen God, when we love others the way he loves us, “God lives in us, and his love is perfected (or attains its ultimate purpose) in us” (I Jn 4:11-12). In seeing the Calvary-quality love of God manifested in his corporate body, people are led to place their trust in the God who is revealed on Calvary. In experiencing the kingdom of God, people are won over to the kingdom of God.
Along these same lines, toward the end of his ministry Jesus prayed,
Father, I pray that they [his disciples] may be completely one… as we are one…. so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me (Jn 17:21-23).
Jesus’ prayer is for the body of Christ to manifest nothing less than the eternal loving oneness of the triune God. Indeed, Jesus’ prayer shows that God leverages the advancement of his kingdom on the willingness of his disciples to love like this. The world is to believe in the love of God because they see it embodied in the community of his disciples. I don’t see that God even expects people to come to trust in his love without seeing it embodied in his corporate body, the Church.
Jesus’ prayer was for the loving unity of his disciples, but this love isn’t supposed to be contained within the community of disciples. Precisely because the love we are given is a Christ-like love, it’s to be expressed to all people at all times. We are to love others as we’ve been loved; freely, without any regard to the “worthiness” of those we’re called to love. “You have received without payment,” Jesus says, “give without payment” (Mt 10:8).
For this reason Jesus also teaches,
Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. … love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back…. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful (Luke 6:27-28, 35-36.)
This is what Calvary-quality love looks like. It’s being merciful to others just as the Father has been merciful to us – unconditionally and indiscriminately. It is love without judgment, without qualifications, without self-interest. This kind of love is as rare in the world as it is obvious when it occurs. It’s a distinctive, set apart, holy love. And this is why it alone reveals the holy God.
When people love those who love them and harm those who harm them, this is (in our fallen world) normal. This sort of tit-for-tat “love” says much about fallen human nature, but nothing about God. But when someone turns the other cheek rather than striking back, when someone doesn’t return evil with evil but returns evil with good, when someone allows themselves to be crucified out of love rather than call on legions of angels to fight for them, this is anything but normal. When someone engages in sacrificial service and ascribes unsurpassable worth to those who (say) bomb our country, who threaten our religious rights, whose lifestyle is perhaps revolting to us, this is anything but normal. This is supernatural. This is distinctive. This is holy. This is beautiful. This is kingdom. This is being merciful as God is merciful. This is what it means to be godly (meaning God-like). This is simpy what it means to be Christian (meaning Christ-like).
Only this kind of love reveals God, for the exact same reason that Jesus’ death on Calvary reveals God. Indeed, our sacrificial love simply replicates, participates in, and expands the love revealed on Calvary. And when people who are hungry for unconditional worth, love and acceptance see it, they are unavoidably attracted to it. The prostitutes and tax collectors come beating down the doors, for nowhere else can they experience this kind of worth, love and acceptance.
All of this is to say that the one thing the Church is called to be is to look like Jesus. The essence of what it means to be Christian, to walk in the Spirit, to be godly, the be holy, is to be conformed to the image of Jesus, to have one’s thoughts, emotions and actions patterned after Christ instead of the world (Rom 12:2). Paul teaches that we are to be nothing less than “imitators of God.” The word “imitate” in Greek means to mimic or shadow. Paul is saying that we are to mimic Jesus’ life and death, nothing more, nothing less. He immediately shows out what this will look like when he adds, “live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us…” (Eph 5:1-2). Note that Paul says we are to live in this Christ-like love, which means we are not just to do this occasionally, when convenient, when we’re in the mood, towards people we like. Rather, with every heart beat, with every breath, with every brain wave, we are to mimic Jesus. We are to love, “as Christ loved us and God himself up for us.”
Paul teaches the same thing a slightly different way when he says, “let all that you do be done in love” (I Cor 16:14, emphasis added). Never are we to do anything, however true and righteous it may be, if we cannot do it in love. Both Paul and Peter teach that the commandment to love is to be placed above all other concerns. “Above all,” they say, “cloth yourselves with love” (Col 3:14; 1 Pet 4:8, emphasis added). We are to wear Calvary-quality love each waking moment like the clothes on our back. And our concern to be continually clothed like this must be placed above everything else – the rightness of our doctrine, our ethical stances, our political agendas – above all.
The All Or Nothing of the Christian Life
Paul goes so far as to say that if we aren’t expressing Calvary-quality love in what we do, we are not doing anything of any kingdom value. This is the message of I Corinthians 13. Because this passage has too often been read at weddings, it has to many become little more than sentimental poetry. In truth, however, no passage of Scripture could be more radical and hard hitting. Rarely has it been taken seriously. Even more rarely has it been lived out. Paul writes:
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. 1Cor. 13:1 –3.
He then spells out what love looks like when he says, among other things, that “love is patient,” “kind,” “not envious, boastful or arrogant,” never “rude,” doesn’t “insist on its own way” and is never “irritable” or “resentful” (I Cor 13:4-6).
Think seriously about this. Who could help but be impressed by hearing the most eloquent, beautiful glossolalia imaginable – the “tongues of angels.” Yet, if this gift isn’t carried out in love, Paul says it’s nothing more than irritating, obnoxious, religious noise! Who could help but be impressed by someone with prophetic powers or someone who understood every mystery? They speak the word of God with unprecedented clarity and boldness and can explain the mystery of the Trinity to a ten year old! Yet, if these noble abilities don’t begin and end in Calvary-quality love, they are altogether worthless. And imagine the sort of religious fervor that could be stirred up over a person who possessed all knowledge or who had mountain-moving faith. They have the Bible memorized in the original languages while their faith raises the dead. Yet even these exceptional abilities mean absolutely nothing except insofar as they begin in love and result in love – love defined as treating others as Christ has treated us on Calvary. Even a persons willingness to sacrifice everything, including their own life, is altogether devoid of significance except insofar as these acts are motivated by Christ-like love and communicate Christ-like love.
To sum it up: Subtract love from any ability, any charismatic gift, any accomplishment, any belief, any issue, any fast growing mega-church, any acclaimed book, and firely revival – subtract love from any of these and what you are left with is worthless religious noise!
Could any teaching be more radical? It means that the only thing that matters in assessing whether an activity, a church or a revival has any kingdom value is love. “The only thing that counts,” Paul elsewhere says, “is faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6). The only thing!
Our churches may be growing by leaps and bounds, our sermons may dazzle crowds, our worship services may move them to tears, but if they don’t result in people having a greater capacity to notice, care about and sacrifice for the needs of people they come across every day, all this is worthless. A revival may result in people being healed, seeing visions, experiencing holy laughter and many other such things. But if it doesn’t result in people having a greater capacity and willingness to engage in sacrificial action on behalf of others, without any consideration of their ethnicity, social status, life style choices, nationality, religious beliefs or even whether their friend or foe, the revival was nothing more than a religious carnival. We may in our personal lives accomplish many great things, but if our character is rude, arrogant, unkind, irritable, it means we gain nothing by our accomplishments.
Only insofar as the beauty of Calvary is being replicated in our lives and through our lives are we doing what we think we’re doing, and what we’re supposed to be doing, in building churches , holding conferences, hosting revivals, writing books or anything else. For only insofar as the beauty of Calvary is being replicated and expanded are we participating in the kingdom of God. If this isn’t happening, nothing of kingdom value is happening. Conversely, if this is happening, the New Testament teaches, everything else that needs to happen will happen. For love fulfills the entire law. (Rom. 13:8, 10; Gal 5:14).
Nothing is more elementary to the spiritual life than this. Yet nothing is more profound to the spiritual life than this. For this is the beginning, middle and end of the spiritual life. And yet, this all-or-nothing thing has been largely absent from the religion of Christian, historically and yet today. None of our ecumenical creeds mention this all-or-nothing command. And while the church has burned millions of people to death for heresy, never have the executioners had so much as their hand slapped for committing the worst heresy of all: lacking Christ-like love.
The Demise of the Christian Religion
Now, you may be asking, what has all this got to do with the future Church? In my opinion, it’s got absolutely everything to do with the future church. For, as I shall now argue, the world we live in is forcing us, and freeing us, to recover the centrality of love in the Church – and it is long overdue.
The only form of faith that will survive and thrive in the future, I submit, is the faith that understands that receiving and expressing Calvary-quality love is ultimately the only thing that matters. If the Bible’s teaching wasn’t enough to motivate us to “do church” like this — which it obviously has not been, for the Church today and throughout history has generally lacked this love – then the world is thankfully in the process of giving us further motivation. In our post-modern context, the only thing that will not fail is Calvary-quality love (I Cor. 13). Our post-modern world thus forces us to become more biblical, and for this we should be thankful.
As Bonhoeffer ingeniously saw over sixty years ago, this future church will be a religionless Church. The historic Christianity that was defined by a set of distinctive religious beliefs and religious behaviors lost it’s credibility and relevance in much of the world long ago. It’s diabolically bloody history and unfortunate association with western culture and nationalistic interests secured this. But Bonhoeffer saw that even in his own time it was losing its credibility and relevance even in the west where it once reigned. In our post-modern context, I think its safe to say that this credibility and relevance has now largely disappeared.
Those who are heavily invested in the religion of Christianity understandably view its demise as threatening and depressing. With Bonhoeffer, however, I submit that the loss of the credibility and relevance of the Christian religion is actually something to be embraced and even celebrated. For in dying to our religion we are able to live in Christ.
The fact of the matter is that Christianity was never supposed to be defined primarily as a distinctive set of religious beliefs and religious behaviors. Jesus didn’t come into the world to establish a club of people who are defined by their right theological and ethical opinions over and against all those with wrong beliefs and wrong ethical opinions. He didn’t come to give us the right way to be Pharisees! He came into the world to establish a new reality. He came into the world to establish the kingdom of God. And as we’ve seen, the essence of this new and radically different kingdom is Calvary-quality love.
As often as not, the “religion” of Christianity lacked this radical love – as much as it yet lacks it today. The death of this religion is not a thing to be mourned. Even a cursory look at Church history reveals that, as often as not, the church lacked the beauty of Calvary. Indeed, it has to a large extent engaged in the sort of carnal activity that is typical of all the tit-for-tat kingdoms of the world. It to a large extent has looked as ugly as thekingdoms of the world typically look.
Consider that from the fourth century on – as soon as Christian seized secular power – the Church routinely defended and promoted its distinctive religious beliefs and behaviors – its religious “holiness” — by coercion, war, torture and murder. We expect this from the kingdoms of the world, but by definition it can never characterize the kingdom of God. The irony is diabolical! In the name of the one who taught us to turn the other cheek, the religion of Christianity cut off people’s heads. In the name of the one who taught us to love our enemies, the religion burned its enemies alive. In the name of the one who taught us to bless those who persecute us, the religion persecuted others!
This sort of behavior is thankful no longer legal in most parts of the world, but the attitude behind it is alive and well.. Much of the modern day Church – especially the evangelical Church — yet strives to protect and advance its distinctive “holiness” by exercising power over others, trusting the power of coercion more than the power of the cross, trusting the power of a lobbying for votes more than the power of sacrificial service. Instead of dying for sinners, they seek to pass laws against sinners and laws that protect themselves from sinners.
With Bonhoeffer, I see the death of this religious mindset as a positive thing. It has hindered the kingdom more than it has helped. When the beauty of the kingdom of God gets associated with this sort of religious and nationalistic ugliness, it clouds the kingdoms beauty. It justifies unbelief. It sets people against the kingdom rather than winning them over through love. The fact that fewer and fewer post-modern people are finding this form of religion plausible or attractive is a good thing, for it graciously forces us to say out loud that the kingdom has never been about religion. If we are bold enough to seize the opportunity, it gives us the privilege of communicating in action, and with words whem necessary, the truth that the kingdom is as beautiful as Jesus Christ. The religion is dying, but for just this reason the kingdom is positioned to flourish.
I’d like to conclude by briefly discussing more specifically two closely related ways that the religionless church of the future will differ from the religious church of the past. Each suggests – or at least expresses the hope — that the Church that will survive into the future is simply the Church that Christ always intended to establish.
A Christ-Centered Church
First, in contrast to most people in the past, post-modern people have difficulty being confident about very much and thus have little interest in joining a club on the basis of its distinct religious beliefs and ethical requirements – especially when these beliefs and ethical mandates are based on the credibility of a written or ecclesial authority. The Church that will continue to define itself by a set of authority-based theological and ethical beliefs, all of which are held to be equally important, is and will continue to be increasingly unbelievable, irrelevant, and unattractive to non-believers. It is dying.
Now, it would be unconscionable for the Church to alter the content of her faith for the sake of becoming more marketable to the post-modern world. But as we’ve argued, Christianity was never supposed to be defined by a distinctive set of religious beliefs and ethical requirements in the first place. Of course there are distinctive beliefs and behaviorial ideals the church has always held to and should continue to hold to. But these were never supposed to define us over and against the world. The only thing that is supposed to define is does so in service to the world, not over and aganst the world, and that is the love of God revealed on Calvary. To insist that core definition is more important than all other beliefs and ethical ideals we might hold is not a concession to post-modernism: it’s foundationally biblical. We are to live in love, not our doctrine. We are to place our commitment to love above all other commitments. Everything, including our true beliefs, are devoid of kingdom value without love.
The demise of the Christian religion presents us with a marvelous opportunity to recover this center as the core center, a center the religion has usually lacked. And while post-modern people are resistant to authority-based truth claims, they are as hungry for and thus attracted by genuine kingdom love as people have ever been. The religion of Christianity will die, as Bonhoeffer foresaw. But the love revealed on Calvary can never fail (xxx).
This isn’t to suggest that the Church should abandon all its doctrine except its Christology. But it is to suggest that the future Church will hold all other doctrines in a way that is different from the past. When people get their worth, significance and security from Christ alone, as we all should, they don’t need to get their worth, significance and security from the rightness of their beliefs and behaviors – their religion. And this lessens the urgency to be absolutely certain of the rightness of one’s beliefs and behaviors and of convincing others of this certainty.
I believe the Christ-centered religionless church of the future will thus be a tribe that is more inclusive of and attractive to people who have not fully “arrived” yet. It will see faith as much as a journey as it is a place to have arrived at. With its identity found exclusively on Christ, the future Church will embrace all who simply are attracted by the beauty of Christ and will allow for more flexibility and diversity on particular beliefs than the religious church allows for. It will be a community where doubts are expressed more honestly, questions are wrestled with more authentically and less defensively, and people are given space to grow at their own pace.
An Incarnational Church
Second, and closely related to this, I believe the Church that will survive and thrive in the future will be a Church that is centrally committed to living out a theology of the Incarnation. It will define its mission as a call to imitate God and follow the example of Jesus Christ in all things. The religion of Christianity has been largely characterized by verbal demands for compliance motivated with threats of eternal punishment, and often immediate threats of physical punishment, if not death. Sadly, the concept that people need to be won over to faith by sacrificing for them has been, and continues to be, all-to-often absent in the religion of Christianity.
But the religion is dying. The agree-or-suffer approach to evangelism has less and less influence in the post-modern world. And this fact wonderfully forces us to become more biblical in our evangelism. For as we noted above, it was always God’s intent for the world to be won over by our Christ-like, sacrificial love.
When Jesus sent out the 70 disciples in Luke 10, he told them to first use their kingdom authority to bless people. They were then to enter into fellowship with people and spend time serving them by meeting their needs. Only after they had done all this were they to announce that the Kingdom of come had come – their words now explaining their loving deeds (Lk 10xxx). By God’s design, the lives of Jesus-followers are to be so distinctively loving that they raise a question that only accepting the reality of Jesus Christ can answer. Our lives should force the question, Why do you care about me the way you do? And now we have a platform to name the name of Jesus with credibility. This is how evangelism was always supposed to be carried out. And this is how evangelism will have to be carried out in the future if it is to be successful.
The death of the religion helps us recover biblical evangelism, for biblical evangelism is incarnational. As Bonhoeffer saw, only when followers of Jesus get freed from getting life from their religious distinctness can they be free to be as scandalously loving as Christ was. This, infact, was a central reason why he believed the demise of the Christian religion was a positive thing. When a peoples’ identity is found in their distinctive “right” opinions, their identity is necessarily also found by contrasting themselves with “wrong” opinions. The religion becomes the club of all those who believe the right things over and against those who believe the wrong things and the club of those who behave right over and against those who behave wrong.
Such a community is by necessity rooted in judgment which, as I’ve elsewhere argued, is the “original” sin of Genesis 3. We eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, judging ourselves good and others evil. We devise a self-serving sin-list that minimizes our own sin while maximizing the sin of others. While we may not be perfect, we think to ourselves, “at least we aren’t like those sinners.” Yes,, we may struggle with heterosexual lust, for example, but at least we aren’t gay! We judge our sins to be “religiously acceptable” while judging “outsiders” sins to be unacceptable – which is why we classify them as “outsiders.” When we take public stances to “crack down on sin,” its always their sin we’re going after, not our own. (Ironically, the sins religious Christians tend to accept are those most frequently and most forcefully mentioned in the Bible: greed, gluttony, gossip, self-righteousness, etc.)
Judgment always blocks love, which is why the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was placed in the middle of the garden. Life as God intends it to be lived revolves around our honoring God’s loving “No trespassing” sign. We are to love like God loves, Genesis 3 is teaching us, not judge like only the omniscient God can judge. When we play God and judge others, we separate ourselves from them and place ourselves over them. And this is the antithesis of love.
Recall, once again, that love is defined by Calvary. Far from separating himself from us, the all-holy God entered into solidarity with us by becoming our sin and taking on our punishment on the cross. Our central task in life as kingdom people is to replicate this. We are to mimic God! Instead of separating ourselves from others and standing over others, we are to come under others, enter into solidarity with others, serve others, ascribe worth to others at cost to ourselves, without any regard for whether they deserve it or not. For this is what God has done for us – while we were yet sinners.
To help us love like this, Jesus teaches us to do the exact opposite of what religion invariably does. Far from maximizing others sins while minimizing our own, we are to maximize our own sin and minimize the sins of others. We are to assume that our sins are tree trunks while theirs are little dust particles (Mt 7:1-3). Whatever you find in another, consider your sin to be much worse! If Christians began to take this teaching seriously, we would be known for our outrageous, nonjudgmental humility rather than for our self-righteous and self-serving tendency to publically “crack down” on other people’s sins.
When we die to getting life from our religious distinctiveness and seek all our worth, purpose and security in Christ alone, we are freed from the need to judge others. We can love them as Christ loved us, just as they are. And now our words may begin to have meaning to them. The claim that God loves them with a Calvary-quality love takes on plausibility as they see this love incarnated in our life. It should never have been otherwise, but our religion has significantly blinded us. Now that the religion is dying, we have the forced opportunity to be freed to be more biblical, more incarnational, more Christ-like, more loving in our evangelism.
The only church that will remain credible and relevant in the future is the church that God designed to be credible and relevant for all time.
It will be a church that gets no life from its distinctive beliefs and practices but rather finds all its life in Christ’s unconditional love. It will be a church that defines itself not over and against the world, but in loving relationship to the world. It will not be a religion that stands over the world as the moral guardian and judge of the world, but will be a tribe of highly unusual people who stand under the world as the servant of the world.
It will be a Church that is exclusively centered on Christ and that therefore holds its distinctive beliefs as addendums to this central conviction. It will thus be a gathering of people on a journey more than a community of people who think they have arrived. Because it is defined exclusively by the love it receives and is called to give, it will be a community where questions and doubts do not generate fear, but loving exploration. It will be a tribe that looks a bit like Jesus’ followers looked, with inquisitive and hungry tax collectors and prostitutes comfortably in their midst.
The Church of the future will have to be what the Church always should have been: a Church that looks like Jesus, ascribing worth to others at cost to itself. Being freed from ugly religion, it will be beautiful, as Christ is beautiful. For this is simply what the kingdom of God is.