Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Strange Dichotomy of the Anti-Christian Christian

There's a strange phenomenon going on in our all-about-me culture. It presents as a curious mix of self-loathing and self-adoration both of which prevail simultaneously in the collective conscious. On one hand, the self is idolized; many of us are on a frantic quest to "be who we are," to "self-actualize," and to tap into our "inner truth." But on the other hand, we're guilt-ridden; we're never really good enough no matter how hard we work, no matter how many self-help books we line our shelves with, no matter how many ah-ha moments we rack up. We're always going to be too fat, too disorganized, too busy, too glutenated, too stressed, too you-name-it.

And when you put us all together, our problems only multiply. On a societal level, we don't really like what we see; many of us self-identify as those boisterous, greedy Americans that have caused the world to hate us. And so we condemn ourselves, try to throw off the shameful shackles of the past, and reject the archaic dogmas of yesteryear (aka the Judeo-Christian foundations of our Western culture) to embrace new things like the spiritually enlightened teachings and practices of Eastern religions, for example. Slowly but surely, we're trading in our constitutionally protected freedoms for a politically correct culture in which anything goes (anything other than conservative Christianity, that is). But while the grass certainly looks greener on the other side of the fence, we're not quite ready to give up our white-picketed American dream just yet. After all, we are patriotic and all that. It's all very confusing...

But in actuality, our sense of confusion stems quite simply from the fact that our society is caught up in a love/hate relationship with the self. In other words, for better or for worse, we're suffering from a bad case of self-obsession.

And the same dualistic phenomenon is even emerging within [gasp!] our Christian community. Sure
you've heard of Anti-American Americans, but what about Anti-Christian Christians? Sadly, they do exist, and their numbers are increasing. For, as an unfortunate by-product of our worldly environment, the self-loathing/self-idolizing complex is indeed cropping up more and more among Christians. Like our secular counterparts, we too are guilt-ridden. In a society that's pegged us as bigoted, narrow-minded, judgmental, and unloving, we all-too-often find ourselves hanging our heads in shame. If you hear something bad about yourself enough times, maybe you'll start to actually believe it. 

Admittedly, there's a case to be made. We're aghast at the sinful behavior that so often creeps into our community. We're ashamed of our broken churches filled with broken people. We wince at the hateful behavior of Westboro Baptist Church types (who, despite their tiny numbers, get way more media coverage than the vast majority of compassionate Christians do). We squirm at the problematicsometimes violenthistory of the church. But instead of seeking the answer to the problem of our sinful nature in Christ, we have a habit of looking to ourselves for the solution. In keeping with the New Age mantra de jour, we tend to seek the answers from within...

...If we just strategize a little more, maybe we'll be better at outreach. If we just make ourselves more relevant to the secular world, maybe young people will stop leaving the church. If we just talk more about "love" and set aside the tough (biblical) stuff, maybe we'll stop offending people so much. And i
f we can just disassociate ourselves from "Christianity" maybe people will like us more...

So, it follows that for the last few years, there's been an increasing desire among believers to escape from the label, "Christian," that causes so many negative reactions in people. The term certainly carries with it some baggage. And there is plenty not to like about the Christian church, both past and present. Throughout the centuries, corruption has constantly permeated the church, leading many believers these days to cast off the negative association as a result.

For a quick and informative read, check out
Robert Spencer's book, 
The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam
(and the Crusades
Take the infamous Crusades, for example, the problematic history of which certainly feeds into the Christian guilt-complex. While it should be noted that the Crusades were attempts in the 11th through 13th centuries A.D. to reclaim land in the Middle East that had been violently conquered by Muslims, it is true also that the name of Christ was abused, misused, and blasphemed by the actions of many crusaders. Certainly, the Crusades should not be considered an authentic outworking of the Christian faith. Yet the negative connotation is cemented in the minds of many, including certain Islamic terrorists who have claimed that their terrorist attacks are revenge for what the crusaders in the name of Christianity. No wonder some believers run from the term.

And so it's not surprising that there's been a push of late, to rescue the truth of the gospel from the religion of Christianity—for as the argument usually goes: Jesus didn't come to start a religion, but to save souls. In this vein, there has been a distinctive move away from traditionalism and orthodoxy in the church, to get back to the roots of Christ-centered faith. It has become common, for example, for people to refer to themselves as "Christ-followers" rather than "Christians," in an effort to distinguish themselves from "Chreasters" [those who attend church only on Christmas or Easter] or to express the sincerity of their faith as opposed to a nominal religious affiliation.

It's with this sentiment, that I have heard it said in sermons and elsewhere that the term, Christian, appears nowhere in the Bible. The problem is, this isn't actually true. We know from the book of Acts that the disciples were called Christians first at Antioch (Acts 11:25). Luke used the term again when he described Paul's interaction with Agrippa: "Then Agrippa said to Paul, 'Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?'" (Acts 26:28). This indicates that it was a contemporary term of the early believers in the Apostolic Age.

The term, Christian, from the Greek, Christianos, literally means, “belonging to the party of Christ” or a “follower of Christ.” Having been used by the Apostles themselves and having endured for centuries thereafter, the term has certainly stood the test of time. Moreover, the Apostle Peter urged believers, "if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name." (1 Peter 4:16). According to Scripture, then, we are to praise God for being called a Christian—whatever the worldly connotations of the term may be.

Certainly, the gospel message is what really matters and the Body of Christ should not be seen as synonymous with a religious institution. But while I share the desire to redeem the gospel message from the stagnated tenets of institutionalized Christianity, I think we need to be careful not to throw out the baby with the bathwater, however. Jesus didn't come to start a "religion" it is true, but He did come to establish His Church. And as members of His Church, we are responsible for upholding biblical doctrine in order to save both ourselves and others (1 Tim 4:16). Throwing out some of the stuffy vestiges of traditional Christianity shouldn't include letting go of sound biblical doctrine—but in many cases, this is exactly what ends up happening...

While the current shift away from traditionalism can be helpful in refocusing churches back on the basics (the gospel message, the Person of Jesus, etc.), there is a significantly widespread manifestation of this effort that involves a departure not only from the traditional aesthetic (pews and stained glasses windows, for example) but from key doctrinal "constraints" such as biblical inerrancy and salvation in Christ alone, by faith alone. In other words, a sweeping rejection of traditional Christianity has, in some cases, done away with the essentials of the Christian faith, which culminates in an insidious form of anti-Christian Christianity.

For example, consider the emerging churches movement, which generally-speaking embraces a "post-evangelical" approach to the Christian faith. To varying degrees, emergents endeavor to repackage the Christian message to generate mass-appeal in a post-modern context and to put a new spin on Christianity in response to the fact that the traditional model is failing to hold the attention of the younger generations. They endeavor to "do church" in an nontraditional way, which is more appealing to young people. But in the effort to throw off the orthodox constraints that limit the preferred touchy-feely approach to "experiencing" God that many of these churches promote, sound doctrine is all-too-often marginalized. In fact, "Revisionists" within this movement go as far as to question whether evangelical doctrine is appropriate for the postmodern world at all. A worrying number of emerging churches are not only doctrinally lax, therefore, but some go as far as to tout an inclusivistic soteriology (the belief that those outside of the Christian faith may be saved).

In an effort to be relevant in the secular world, therefore, emerging churches often tend to mirror secular culture rather than presenting a counter-cultural worldview. This, however, is to look to the world first, not Scripture first, for the answers on how best to live out the Christian faith. And so, polarizing and inconvenient biblical truths are glossed over in an effort to make everyone more comfortable, and to avoid alienating anyone. The resulting tendency in this type of "seeker-friendly" environment is to downplay the gravity of sin, which sadly detracts from the redemptive power of gospel message. And because this approach places people's needs over God's glory, the Lordship of Christ is deemphasizedand the salvific identity of Jesus is blurred.

A similar pattern has emerged in certain areas of Muslim ministryin which anti-Christian Christianity is perhaps at its most pronounced. In recent years, a growing number of missionaries and evangelists have begun to place more emphasis on the person of Jesus in their messaging, and less emphasis on Christianity as a whole, for the purpose of "building bridges" to Muslims. There is some merit to this approach, considering Muslims already revere Jesus as a prophet of Islam and are open to talking about Him. But outspoken proponents of this method—a number of whom have been gaining significant influence in evangelical missionsattempt to extract Jesus from Christianity completely (the religion that they say lays unfair claim to Him) in order to make Him more "accessible" to Muslims. Thus the push to emphasize Jesus and deemphasize Christianity, has too often involved an unapologetic departure from Christian doctrine, and the unsettlingly widespread adoption of unbiblical practices within Muslim ministry.[1]

In the same way as emerging churches mirror secular culture, evangelistic strategies such as the C5 (or the high-spectrum contextualization) method, Muslims idiom translations of the Bible, and Jesus in the Qur'an trainings (CAMEL), attempt to incorporate Islamic culture into the gospel message. While contextualization of the gospel message is always necessary to a degree, many of these strategies go way too far. In some cases, Jesus is stripped completely of His "Christian" image and repackaged in a Muslim-friendly way that bares little resemblance to the true Son of God. The Jesus of Islam, it should be noted, is an entirely different person from the biblical Jesus. But without His rightful Christian context, there's no longer a clear definition of, or absolute truth about, who Jesus is. In other words, the figure of Jesus, when extractedeven partiallyfrom Christianity, essentially becomes an abstract one.

The Abstract Jesus can certainly hold alluring appeal. He can be accommodating and flexible. He can blend more seamlessly into your preexisting worldview, political leaning, or religious background. The Abstract Jesus, then, might seem more "accessible" to a Muslim who fears losing his or her Islamic identity, just as he is more accessible to anyone who wants to cling to their former way of life. He won't ask you to drop your nets and leave everything for him, negating the need for rebirth and dying to self. In fact, he'll let you remain as you are, and it is he who will fit in with you.

While Jesus said, "For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it" (Mark 8:35), these words are irrelevant when you're following an Abstract Jesus. For, without doctrinal absolutes (like that of biblical inerrancy, for example), Jesus becomes, in effect, anyone you want him to beand says anything you want him to say. Removing Jesus from Christianity, then, is essentially tantamount to creating your own counterfeit Christ.

Despite recent attempts by those from within the interfaith movement to amputate Jesus from His Body
—the Christian Churchand recreate Him as a bridge for all peoples, a peacemaker, a uniter of faiths,[2] it cannot be denied that the biblical Jesus is, in contrast, polarizing. Jesus was open about this Himself when He said, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matt. 10:34). Jesus said He would even pit family members against each other. Indeed, the very Person of Christwho He Himself claimed to beoffends and divides people. It is true that the Prince of Peace will one day bring about eternal justice and peace with GodHis name is an everlasting source of hope! But for now, in this already-but-not-yet age we live in, the name of Jesus causes division and unsettles the fallen human heart precisely because of who He is

And it is biblical doctrine that defines who Jesus is

To cast off biblical doctrine as a bygone relic of outmoded evangelicalismas is increasingly the case in today's emerging and liberalizing churchesis merely to replace one set of beliefs with another [less theologically sound] one. For the fact is, anyone who holds an opinion on who Jesus is, is subscribing to some sort of doctrine about Him, whether biblical or not. The delusion of the anti-Christian Christian is that they are freeing Jesus from the doctrinal constraints of Christianity. But in actual fact, it is they who are confining the figure of Jesus to an egocentric set of self-generated notions. They misunderstand that it is actually the transcendental truth about Jesus that sets us free as presented in His Word—or in other words, as defined by biblical doctrine.

The importance of this cannot be overstated. The early church recognized that “an understanding of Jesus’ identity is essential to genuine Christianity and a prerequisite for experiencing salvation and enjoying a relationship with God.”[2] And indeed Jesus made this clear when he said to Thomas, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well.” (John 16:6-7, emphasis added). 

But the fact is, many who use His name do not actually know the true Christ. Jesus said:
Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ (Matt 7:21-23).
To know Him and to do His will involves understanding the truth about who He is, what He did for us on the cross, and what His Word teaches.

Anti-Christian Christians might stop for a second and consider who they are really fighting against. Hopefully, prayerful, honest, and humble introspection with reveal to their hearts and minds that they are actually attacking the Body of Christthe very Body of the Jesus to whom they purport to belong. It's a true case of cutting off one's nose to spite one's face.

The tragic dichotomy of the anti-Christian Christian is a sad reflection of the perverse worldly culture around us. It is merely another manifestation of self-obsession: obsession with one's own guilt and obsession with one's own efforts to compensate for that guilt.

But ultimately, "Man must completely despair of himself in order to become fit to receive the gift of Christ,” as Martin Luther so aptly put it. When we position ourselves as the solution to our self-generated woes, we fail to receive the gift of redemption in Christ. We make it all about us, and less about God. Despairing of ourselves does not mean we should remain steeped in guilt—for those who are in Christ, there is no condemnation. And when we get so caught up in our failures or in the problems of our broken churches, we fail to glorify God. But despairing of ourselves is to realize that Christnot any of us or any of our self-help strategiesis the only solution to the sin of the world, for He truly is the only way, the truth, and the life. And we can do all things through Him who strengthens us.

Christians must stand firm in our identity as members of the Body of Christ. This is not to be confused with clinging to the pews, stained glass windows, or other such hallmarks of the Westernized churchas certain anti-Christian Christian leaders like to claim.[3] It's about clinging to Jesus Christ, who is the Head of our Church. It is in His name we reject any perceived shame associated with the Christian faith. And we should humbly praise God that we bear the Christian name (1 Peter 4:16). 

It is a great honor to be called Christians—ones who by His grace, belong to the "party of Christ." Let's not squander the eternal gift we have in being members of His Body.

[1] For more information on unbiblical missiology within Muslim ministry, please refer to blog post: The Abstract Jesus.

[2] Andreas Kostenberger, Scott Kellum, Charles Quarles, The Cradle, the Cross and the Crown, Part II, chapter 3

[3] Carl Medearis, Tim Timmons, Mark Siljander, et al.

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