The Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage has lit up the blogosphere with each side getting in as many shots as it can. As a multi-decade participant in Christian religious circles, I carry credentials and battle ribbons from many campaigns.
For the past hundred or hundred and fifty years or so, there has been, in most religious contexts in the US at least, a fixation on orthodoxy. Indeed, I was at one time a major proponent and loud voice for the imperative to be Biblically faithful.
But I have given up. Orthodoxy is both a myth and a device.
It is a myth because there is no such thing. I challenge anyone to simply read the Bible and make any effort to apply what they read to the life they live today. Go ahead…I’ll wait……….All done? Got it all put together?
No, you haven’t. It cannot be done. There is the severity of the law in the first five books of the Bible, the confounding predictions of the Prophets whose words are now applied willy nilly to whatever event strikes the reader’s fancy to the point it has become silly, and the obvious to anyone with an honest mind that the enemy most often confronted by Jesus Himself was religious people and their sanctimony. He often found Himself standing between stone throwers and those the righteous orthodoxy were throwing them at.
This brings up the second fallacy about orthodoxy – its use as a device. In one rather unfortunate encounter a few months ago, I engaged in a fruitless conversation on Facebook with one such orthodox Pharisee who was adamant that it is his job to point out sin wherever he finds it. I suggested that he needs to buy a mirror and use it. The Pharisee (you understand he wasn’t a card-carrying Pharisee, right? That he was a Christian who considered himself morally and spiritually superior because he was faithful to his own list of righteous acts), had a code that he insisted others live by. Phariseeism is by no means limited to the first century or to Jewish tradition. It is alive, well, and actively promoted in just about every church on the planet. It is the obvious and most prevalent symptom of religion, even non-Christian ones.
Which leads me to my discourse today. The church has lost its voice, it has almost no power to influence anyone (often even those who occupy pews) and it has done it to itself. It is not the fault of liberals, politicians, or the Devil. It has become precisely what Jesus warned against.
Now, before you click away from this page, I challenge you to read the rest of this post. And before you try to ascribe motive to my words, let me state that I am not coming down on the side of gay marriage and I am not coming down on the side against gay marriage. What I am writing today is not about that subject…but it is provoked by the reaction to the Court’s ruling.
Here are 7 reasons why the Church has lost its voice, has lost its power of influence:
- It would rather condemn than co-opt. Judgement is not a valid evangelism strategy. It might make the one doing the judging feel better but it simply does not work. Never has. The church today has lost its voice because it prefers to judge rather than to love. I’ve started with this point because it is a point I’ve voiced for more than four decades. Jesus was the friend of sinners and that does not mean friendly towards them. The current vitriol making its way around cyberspace is remarkably short-sighted and strategically foolish. You don’t get someone to come closer by screaming at them. And proclamations of “truth” and impending judgment upon America might make the speaker or writer feel better but it does nothing to fix anything. Nothing at all. It is supposed to be a gospel of peace but it surely doesn’t sound like it to me and I doubt most outside observers do either.
- It would rather fight than friend. There is combativeness inherent in religion that seeks to confront and rebuke. Yet another symptom of self-righteousness, this pugilistic attitude has closed the door on any meaningful conversation. See number 1.
- It would rather point out than participate in. Life is complex and challenging. Any fool can point out failures, deficiencies, and error (or perceived error), but it takes someone exceptional to participate in life and find solutions. The church has become quite good at pointing out. It is terrible at joining together to work out issues and resolve them. It is not now nor has it ever been the Christian’s duty to point out sin wherever he or she finds it. If you still doubt this, read the gospels again…and again.
- Its anomalies and contradictions are ignored, suppressed, or rationalized rather than received, acknowledged, and understood. The Bible has plenty of anomalies and contradictions and those outside the church can see them better than those inside. When the Bible is held to be an inviolable revelation of God and what God wants, any honest student has to admit that God is pretty inept at maintaining consistency. The Old Testament is filled with violence, rigid rules, and harsh judgments. The New Testament starts off better when it records Jesus almost incessant conflict with religious people, their practices, and their institutions. Then it gets all confused again when leaders start writing about it in attempts to explain, clarify, and apply. But if the Bible is seen as an honest and sincere effort by spiritual seekers to understand what is, in the end, unfathomable, and that they wrote as they saw it, it becomes more palatable and manageable. Take it from one who finally gave up on trying to make it sound coherent. Written as it was over many centuries and from inside many cultures, the Bible should never be used to proof-text anyone. Neither should it be used as a rule book for living. Never. Instead, is must be understood as the account of seekers like ourselves who often misapply what we believe to be the truth. Thus the myth of orthodoxy. You can make the Bible teach just about anything and preachers have done it for thousands of years. The focus of Christianity has landed in the wrong place.
- It mistakes culture for Christ and Christianity. Battles have raged and still do over music styles, appropriate dress, tattoos, jewelry, drinking coffee, smoking tobacco, drinking alcohol, and so much more. But there are only two laws – #1 = love God, and #2 = love each other. Five simple words that nullified everything said before and every effort to interpret and apply since. Anything and everything else is an interpretation, a preference, and/or a cultural more’. Nothing is higher than the two laws clearly defined by Jesus. They cannot and must not be modified in any way simply because He was challenging Pharisees. They represent the perspective and attitudes of religion and religious people. Their interpretations and applications do not have, well, the force of law. Jesus’ words do. Much of the applications of Christianity through the millenia have been attempts by well-meaning but misguided leaders to interpret and apply what they call God’s law. Indeed, much of the New Testament clearly illumines the all-to-human tendency to enforce compliance by using religious “laws”. It is the prevalence of self-righteousness and the rise of sanctimony which gets in the way. It is not now nor has it ever been the role of Christians to rebuke or reprove the societies in which they exist as tempting and psychologically satisfying as it can be. When Jesus did issue rebukes, it was not to the rank and file sinner. It was to the religious right. Religion insists on compliance with other lists and laws that stand in opposition to what Jesus is, has done, and is doing. I tried to fight the battles for many years and had to accept the fact that it won over no one, portrayed the wrong message, and did nothing but promote the rise of sanctimony and Phariseeism, both of which are alive and well. Jesus stood apart from the religious establishment of his day because He represents something entirely different and permanently juxtaposed to religion.
- It would rather preach about following Christ that practice it. Face it. The people who sit in pews every Sunday live lives remarkably similar to everyone else. Granted, they usually live by slightly better standards, but not by much. It is the glass house syndrome. Christians lost their voice in these days because they handled poorly the hypocrisy and contradictions. Jim and Tammy Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, the almost weekly reports of pastors having affairs, and more have hurt the cause, not so much because they happened but by the way the institutions of Christianity handled them. Even as the voices of objection and proclamation coming from within the ranks of the church become louder, they have become only so much noise. Like static on the radio, the message has been blotted out by self-inflicted failure.
- The gospel of peace has become a message of rancor, rejection, and rebuke. I referred to this higher up the page but it bears more attention. Most of us have read many of the Facebook posts regarding the Supreme Court’s decision. What should have been heard was a message of love and acceptance, of welcome and understanding. Instead, what has been proclaimed is judgement, defiance, anger, and sanctimony. It has been a bad week for the laws of God, not because of the Court’s decision but because His people have simply failed to live up to them. What are they again? Don’t quote from Leviticus or the Epistles. Go straight to Jesus himself who said “Love God, love each other.”
By pursuing a confrontational stance based on self-importance, a self-importance derived from its opinion of itself as guardian of the truth, the church now finds itself in a position of increasing irrelevance. To make so much noise about so many things for so long pushes one inevitably to a place where they are not taken seriously. The church is almost there. This past week did not help their cause nor did it solidify their footing in society and western culture. And it was not the Court that did it. The church has done it to itself.