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Leaving Christianity for Christ

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Why it’s hard to be a Christ follower in a country full of Christians

I feel somewhat guilty confessing that I don’t like to call myself a Christian. All my Sunday school training warns me against rejecting this title and simultaneously, betraying Christ. Yet, as I study the message of Christ in the gospels and look at what the word Christian has come to mean in present day America, my desire to disassociate from this term only grows stronger.

In a country where some 75 percent of the population claims to be Christian, the word has become ambiguous at best. Many individuals proudly flaunt the title, using it to back their cause, advance their political agenda, vouch for their personal character, or ease their conscious. But originally, the term—which literally means “little Christ” or “Christ follower”—was not an adjective that one would claim for himself, as if he were adding another badge to his identity sash. Rather, it was a noun bestowed upon a group of counter-cultural radicals who followed the teachings of Jesus. In other words, it was actions, and not self-professed labels, that made individuals Christians. When outsiders looked at those who were following Christ, they recognized that these “Jesus people” responded to the world differently than others around them did. Christian, then, was a noun referring to a person or group of people who sought to shape their lives after Jesus Christ. But, as Rob Bell points out in his book Velvet Elvis, we have made this word an adjective—a term we can attach to almost anything in order to feel as if that thing—or person—has God’s approval. Doing so has cheapened the term and only contributed to the confusion that is Christianity.

Originally, Christianity wasn’t a religion. It wasn’t about rules or legalism. It wasn’t really even about a ticket to heaven. It was about loving people the way that Christ loved them. After all, it was Jesus who condemned the piety of religious leaders and said that true religion is caring for orphans and widows. But as the church spread, there are places in which Christianity became twisted into a religion of rules and judgment—many of the things Jesus condemned his contemporary religious leaders for. I say this not to sound cynical or dismiss the Church altogether–there are places in which the Church is thriving and truly living out the call of Christ. But there are also places in which the Church has misused the Christian label, and unfortunately, marred the name of Christ.

Consider the experience of author Erik Reece. Erik’s grandfather and father were both Baptist preachers, and Erik was raised under the umbrella of strict fundamentalist Christianity.
Erik’s experience of what it means to be a Christian was shaped by his grandfather’s dualistic rejection of earthy pleasures and countless “hellfire” sermons, designed to inflict guilt. Today, Erik is still jaded toward Christianity. In a NPR interview discussing his book, An American Gospel, which chronicles his rejection of the church and quest for spiritual guidance, Erik recalls asking the question, “what is left of Christianity when you remove the fear?” In the interview, Erik simply lets the question hang. His silence says it all. Erik experienced Christianity as a religion of fear, rather than a relationship of love.

Eric’s experience showcases one reason that I’m reluctant to call myself a Christian. When someone asks me if I wear this title, I don’t know what Christian means to him. I don’t know if he’s experienced the Jesus of the gospels—whom I hope is shaping me to be like himself—or a Jesus who has been shaped by the ideals and desires of men and institutions, who are always bound to fail.

The other reason that I hesitate to call myself a Christian has to do with the way in which Christianity has been watered-down by American ideals. Don’t get me wrong, I’m thankful to live in a country where I am free to worship as I please, but I often wonder if America’s obsession with God has simply made it easy for us to call ourselves Christians without really understanding what it means to follow Christ. There are circles in which being a Christian is just about as American as apple pie and baseball. Anyone who doubts this need only to listen to his local country music station for an hour or so. To many, love of God and love of America are practically synonymous. Take for example a new and frightening book known as The American Patriot’s Bible. The book, “intersects the teachings of the Bible with the history of the United States,” as if somehow, the founding of our country were ordained enough to now be included in the sacred texts. This is disturbing on many levels. Greg Boyd does an excellent job of fleshing them out in his review.

The words God bless America roll off our tongues so quickly that we rarely stop to question if the things America is doing are worthy of God’s blessing. And when the blessing of God is so imbedded in the rhetoric of our country, it becomes easy to buy into a belief that America is somehow God’s chosen land—his ally and beacon of light to the world. But this type of thinking isn’t only wrong; it’s dangerous.

For one thing, it makes it easier to dismiss, forget about, or even begin to hate our brothers and sisters around the world, be they those who live in other countries or those who simply don’t “fit” with our idea of American. This dismissal of the other not only compromises our witness, but it blatantly disregards the teachings of Christ. One current example of this is the way in which many have approached our nation’s recent wars. As our country waged these “holy wars” in the name of God, many Christians seemed to forget that the leader we claim to follow instructed us to love our enemies and lay down our swords. The teachings of Christ were conveniently forgotten so that we could claim he backs our cause. As war shatters and destroys the lives of innocent people, do we take time to pray for them in our churches, or are we too busy asking God to protect America and preserve our way of life?

I’m concerned about the message that is sent by things like the American Patriots Bible because it seems to suggest that God is strongly united with the beliefs of this country. Yet when I look at America, I see an economy based on greed, a cultural mentality of individualism, and a dangerous national pride. Historically speaking, it’s nothing new for nations to grow corrupt and proud. Just look at Rome. But when this happens, it is the place of the Christian Church to live in a countercultural manner—to be in the country but not of the established order. And again, I don’t want to generalize the Church, but plenty of congregations and individuals wear the Christian label while also pledging allegiance to man and the gods of America. I’m not trying to point the finger but rather, to share something that God has and is convicting me of. It’s an easy trap to fall into, because in this nation, Christianity has been defined by American culture and politics. And many go astray because they fail to realize or don’t want to believe that American culture and politics were not defined by Christ. If this were the case, we would see a country more welcoming to foreigners, less hasty to go to war, and more willing to share our resources.

Recognizing that western or American “Christianity” actually does more to hurt than uplift the name of Christ puts true Jesus followers in a difficult place. Because if we are going to truly follow Jesus, we are going to have to reject the Christian title and what it has come to stand for. Donald Miller—an brilliant man whose books I highly recommend—said in a recent post on his blog, “I’ve actually had people come up to me [after speaking events] and say they thought I was about to renounce my faith, which in ways, I actually do. At least my faith in whatever has become of Christianity.” I don’t know about you, but I’d like to join Miller. I’d like to reject fundamentalist Christianity experienced by individuals like Erik Reece. And I’d like to reject the Christianity that wreaks of American ideals. Turning Christianity into a dualistic religion of regulations and rules only puts God in a box and stifles the gift of freedom Christ came to offer. And marrying God and country leads to an extreme conflict of loyalties—especially when the values of our country clash with the teachings of Christ. And believe me, they do and will.

So what are we to do as true Christ followers when we come to the place where we can no longer call ourselves Christians? When we realize that the religious order around us has strayed from the teachings of the one they set out to follow? The answer is simple to understand but hard to execute. Live differently. Live like Christ. Become less concerned with titles, labels, and rules, and begin to focus on actions and the motivation behind them, which should always be love. The term Christian arose because of a group of people who lived radically differently. Their actions necessitated the term. If we begin to truly follow the call of Christ—which is more radical than many mainstream Christians want to believe—it may just happen that people won’t know what to call us because we won’t look like any Christians they have ever known. And this will be a good thing, because it will give us the opportunity to point back to Christ, who has been hidden behind dualism, legalism, and national pride.

How do we do this? It’s a process of submitting our hearts to Christ, and it’s something I for one am still learning to do. But if we want to know what Christ expects of his followers, a perfect starting place is the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew five, where Jesus clearly lays out what it means to be part of his kingdom. From there, the Gospels give us a good idea of how to fashion our lives after Christ. And the epistles show us what this looked like for the early Christians—those I talked about earlier whose actions birthed the title. And when it comes down to it, “they will know we are Christians (individuals who follow Christ) by our love”—not by the rules we follow or the nation we live in.

I write this as a confession of my own imperfection. I write it to be honest about the things God has convicted me of and as a challenge to myself to live up to his call. At times I’ve fallen into the trap of focusing on rules—of thinking of Christianity as a religion rather than a relationship. And I’ve been guilty of misguided allegiances. Though I’m ashamed to admit it, I’ve found myself buying into mainstream American Christianity. But admitting these failures is the perfect starting place, for following Christ begins with acknowledging our need for forgiveness and grace. And for me, it feels like getting saved all over again. It feels like getting saved from a watered-down Westernized version of Christianity to discover that all the while, Christ had something bigger and more freeing than I could ever have imagined.

Moving from the place of accepting God’s grace to actually taking up his call is not easy. We will be misunderstood. We may feel or be treated as if we are rebelling. It’s frightening to let go of the framework through which you have always viewed life. And it’s scary to tell an institution that they seem to be failing to follow the leader they claim to serve. But when others point the finger at us and accuse us of rejecting our faith, we can rest assured that we are in good company. Early Christians faced this exact same type of persecution. The established religious order did not understand them. I’m not suggesting rejecting the Church or rebelling whenever we don’t like what they are teaching, but I am suggesting that we put the framework we’ve been given from the Church up next to the framework of Christ. If the two don’t match, then it is our responsibility to live lives that show the Church, and the world, what it looks like to serve Christ, even if it means that we can no longer call ourselves Christians.


Written by liferenewed

October 19, 2009 at 8:47 pm

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