As humans we seem to have an in-built tendency to religiosity and rule-keeping, often leading to a false notion re God, if not idolatry. Paul gives a good example of this in speaking of the religiosity of the Athenians in Acts 17:16ff. Contrast this with his magnificent introduction to the ‘good news of grace’ in Rom. 1:1-7, and his ‘pride’ (litotes) in v. 16-17, viz. the ‘gospel’ that declares man’s salvation arising from a revealed and alien righteousness, reckoned to believers by God, “a righteousness that is by faith from first to last…” This is why in his Galatian Letter he argues so cogently against Pharisaism (rife in the contemporary Church); we began by faith in Jesus, we continue by faith in Jesus, and we finish by faith in Jesus!
Just think of the emphasis on ‘performance’ and ‘excellence’ promoted directly or indirectly in so many churches today, all to the neglect of gracious relationship with God through Christ.
Here in South Africa, with its nominal Christian heritage, people will often say to me, “But I’m trying to be a Christian…”
There is such a thing as ‘a Christ-Less Christianity.’ So many ‘Christians’ are still trying to satisfy God by what they do. When will they fully ‘please’ God? When is ‘enough’ enough? (Rom. 3:23).
This kind of Christianity is joy-less and severe. It produces insecure and defensive Christians, because they look to themselves rather than to Christ. The ‘good news’ is that Christ has dealt with our past, present and future! (Rom. 5-8).
Does this mean irresponsible living? Of course not, for the simple reason that we live from relationship and gratitude, certainly not from religious performance. Think of the parent who parents by rules rather than relationship, and of the child who obeys parental rules but fails to love his/her parents…
Further good news is that as we live for God and others out of relationship, we are empowered by the Holy Spirit Who indwells us – again by grace. We are able to obey because we have been given the Spirit! (Rom. 8:1-4 especially).
Therefore we do not focus on ‘rules,’ church activities, sheer discipline, ‘not sinning,’ etc. but on the risen Jesus and His ‘good news.’ We bring ‘good news’ to a sad world, we live out of a love-relationship with Jesus. How do you and I come across to non-Christians, or even fellow-believers? Religious, pedantic, judgmental or gracious, generous and accepting?
Prof. Jack Deere, in his ‘Surprised by the Power of the Spirit,’ tells his story of an encounter with God amid a professorship at a renowned evangelical seminary in the USA. In his book he makes some strong points about Pharisaism in the Church:
- As threatening as occultism and the New Age movement are to the Church, there is a greater threat from within the Body: legalism, pharisaism and enslavement to tradition. (my own comment – whom did Jesus hit the hardest in the Gospels? The Pharisees!)
- Even knowing the Bible is not the same as knowing God, loving the Bible is not the same as loving God, and reading the Bible is not the same as hearing God. The Pharisees did all the former things, but they did not know, love, or hear God.
- Some have even put the Christian life over Jesus. Deere cites seminary students who were converted to a way of life, but not to Jesus. They loved Christian ‘fellowship,’ ‘going to to church,’ giving to worthy causes, etc. However, Bible study, witnessing, caring for the poor, caring for the sick, and spiritual gifts must never replace Jesus. “Jesus is not a doctrine, a theology, an abstract principle, a ministry, a church, a denomination, an activity, or even a way of life. Jesus is a person, a real person. And he demands that we put him above all these good things. None of these things died for us; the Son of God did.”
When we operate in smaller organic house churches, it is important to realise that we form part of the wider Body of Christ in our village/town/city/nation, and in fact across the globe.
Hence I share a summarised snippet from Wolfgang Simson’s last newsletter. He writes how at a recent church leaders’ summit (involving himself and Dr. Victor Choudrie) in Hyderabad India, representing some 30 nations, it was concluded that ‘the gospel of the Kingdom’ and a return to ‘house churches’ is seeing very different and far more positive returns amongst Muslims than traditional Christian approaches. Among delegates were several leaders who had, single-handedly, baptised more than 100,000 people – as Wolfgang puts it, “a very good reason for ‘tennis elbow!'” May the day soon come, in the favour of God, when many of us will also suffer from ‘tennis elbow!’ It would be worth the hazard, not so?
PS. I will never forget the joy, in the 1990’s, of sharing in the baptism of 400+ baptismal candidates in Pr. Dion Robert’s congregation, in Abidjan, Coite de Voir. And they had been discipled in the matter of baptism for some 6 months…
A fellow ‘organic church’ leader, in his farewell message four years ago to his large congregation, said “This is the last time I will be calling myself a ‘Christian'”… When I left the institutional Church five years ago, I determined to do the same. Not all will agree with us, but consider the following:
- Critics and atheists will, quite rightly, remind us of the Crusades (1095-1291 AD), blessed by Pope and Church, when hundreds of thousands of Crusaders and Turkish Muslims were killed in the pursuit of the ‘holy city.’
- During World War 2, much of the traditional Church in Germany, directly or indirectly, supported Adolf Hitler in his Nationalist Socialist policies, thus sharing (however indirectly) in the genocide of six million Jews. The Pope at the time became known as Hitler’s Pope, his silence deafening as he saw people march past the Vatican on the way to the notorious camps. Few Protestant leaders challenged Naziism, exceptions being Pr. Martin Niemoller and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (who paid with his life).
- I was moved, a few years ago, as a respected church leader from Rwanda recounted the infamous 1994 genocide, during which close on one million (20% of the population) were murdered (did you see Hotel Rwanda?). Many of the church bishops failed to speak out against, and in some cases condoned, what was happening – some are still serving prison sentences.
- In my native land, South Africa, the leaders of a major Protestant denomination (and others) justified ‘Apartheid’ from the Scriptures (!). Eighteen years later we still struggle with the hurts and the divisions.
- Think of the contemporary Church, world-wide: the ‘cover up’ of priests and paedophilia; pastors guilty of adultery and rape; mega-churches (and others) propagating ‘prosperity teaching’ and stealing from rich and poor (the Church in poverty-ridden Africa has in many places bought into this heresy); the Christian divorce rate in the USA equals that among non-Christians; many fundamentalists continue to love to hate and hate to love; the colossal curse of nominalism in the Western Church continues to cripple her witness (see George Barna studies)…
What do the Scriptures say about the title ‘Christian’? (very little)
- In Acts 11:25-26 Luke describes the fruitful ministry of the scattered believers, Barnabas, and Paul, in Syrian Antioch: v. 26c, “The disciples were first called Christians at Antioch” (presumably by Antiochians?).
- In Acts 26, where Paul relates his conversion story before King Agrippa, the latter sarcastically responds in v. 28, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?”
- When Peter, in his First Letter, addresses suffering for being a Christian, he says in 4:16, “However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name…” (at that point the term ‘Christian’ was not negatively loaded as it often is today).
In short, Jesus’ (and the Bible’s focus) seems to be on ‘disciple.’
- Follow the Gospel accounts of Jesus and His relationship with/mentoring of the ‘Twelve’ (Mk. 1:14-20, etc). He spent more time with the twelve than with the masses, despite the overwhelming needs of the latter…
- Notice the relationality of the Great Commandment (Mt. 22:34-40)…
- Notice the Great Commission (Mt. 28:16-20). In our going we are to make disciples (matheteusate, i.e. learners/apprentices) of all ‘ethne’…
- Think of the Epistles’ call to lifestyle transformation (Eph. 4:17ff, etc)…
- In evangelicalism we have related to Jesus mainly as ‘Saviour,’ less so as ‘Lord,’ and hardly ever as ‘Rabbi’ or ‘Teacher’ or ‘Mentor.’ In NT times each rabbi had his ‘disciples,’ who were encouraged to follow their rabbi so closely that the dust from his feet would cover them…
It’s probably a matter of personal conviction!
Those who have opted to drop the name ‘Christian’ face a new dilemma… What do you say when someone asks you if you are a Christian? My colleague (mentioned earlier) usually responds, “Do you want the short or the long answer?”