Is there a litmus test for being a Christian?
Absolutely. And I think they figured it out around 300 A.D., when a group of bishops got together and wrote the Apostle’s Creed. It’s short, it’s to the point, and it’s everything that should unite us.
Interestingly, though, if you read that creed, you’ll find that it says nothing about tattoos or yoga or spanking or day care or alcohol or modesty or music choices. It concentrates on things like believing that Jesus is the Son of God who died for your sins, was crucified, died and buried; He descended into hell; the third day he rose again from the dead and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. You know, stuff like who God is; what He did for us in the past; what He does for us now; and what He’ll do in the future.
Real Christianity Isn’t About Christian Legalism
I’ve always been of the opinion that you can be a real Christian without having to follow a bunch of man-made rules. Real Christians can get tattoos. Real Christians can drink a beer after work or a glass of wine at dinner. Real Christians can do yoga, can date, can leave their kids in day care, can decide not to spank, can wear shorts, can listen to secular music, can kiss before they’re married, and can even vote Democrat (or Liberal).
Now, there are quite a few of those things that I would never do. I certainly have my opinions about the wisdom of many of those behaviours–as I’ve written about on my blog before. And I do think that most Christians, once they know God better, will start to have opinions on some of them, too.
Nevertheless, I am quite dismayed at the stringency with which many Christians loudly declare that so many of these things are absolute sins and lead to incurring God’s wrath.
It leads me to wonder: are we more concerned about showing people Jesus or about feeling righteous ourselves?
Because sometimes it really looks like the latter. It looks like Christian legalism has made a real comeback.
I wonder if this is more a problem on the internet than in real life.
The internet can be a very polarizing place. I can write a post where I think I take a reasoned approach, and then someone will comment with something so extreme that it seems out of left field. Yet because that comment is there, people tend to assume that opinion is widely held, even if it’s not. Regular people read that comment, and then figure they can’t say anything because they’ll get ridiculed. And thus the comments section of most blogs and websites is dominated by the extremes, giving the impression that that vast middle is underrepresented, when it’s not.
This week alone, I have had comments left on older posts on my blog telling me that it is impossible to do the stretches in yoga without worshiping an Eastern god (even though the yoga exercises I do with my Wii don’t mention anything about emptying your mind, but tons about stretching your hamstrings). I have been told that “courting” is too liberal, because it’s too much like dating, and we should move towards betrothal instead, where a boy “proposes” to the girl’s father before any relationship has started. I have been told that if parents don’t spank their kids their children will go to hell. And I have been told that my daughter is in mortal danger because she read Harry Potter.
Stop it, people, with the Christian legalism. Just stop it.
Paul was not impressed with this kind of behaviour. In fact, he thought it was rather immature. Paul himself ate food that had been sacrificed to idols. He talked to women. He ate food that wasn’t kosher. He did all kinds of things that would have been seen as “breaking the rules”. And then he said this, in Colossians 2:20-23:
Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: 21“Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? 22These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. 23Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.
Are we spending so much emotional energy creating a whole new set of increasingly stringent rules which have no power in and of themselves to change behaviour, while ignoring the fact that we are called to show Jesus to the world? Remember that the more insane and extreme we look, the less likely we’ll have an effective witness.
“Ah,” but some will reply. “Jesus was radically counter-cultural, and so we should be radically counter-cultural, too.”
Yes, but Jesus was radically counter-cultural not to regular people, but to the Pharisees.
It wasn’t the regular people who had issues with Him; it was those who were in the business of writing rules about who would get into the kingdom of God and who would not.
It’s interesting, but in my “real” life (as opposed to my internet life) I don’t seem to have these struggles. In fact, our struggles tend to go in the opposite direction. My daughters had some major conflict at different camps and youth groups because it seemed that all that was ever preached was grace, and not holiness. Yes, God is gracious, and yes, forgiveness is freely offered, but if you love God, you will also live a godly lifestyle. Telling teens that “God accepts you no matter what” isn’t a complete picture of the gospel. Grace without repentance is empty.
And so I often find myself in this strange middle, where I do believe that most Christians need to take their faith far more seriously, and yet I also believe that too many Christians are piling burden upon burden and rule upon rule, making the Christian life almost impossible, if not downright unattractive.
We need to get back to fixing our eyes on Jesus.
When we do that, we won’t have cheap grace, because we’ll be so overwhelmed by His sacrifice that we will repent. But we will also see clearly that Jesus loves people, not rules. And Jesus wants to call people to Himself, not separate His children into internet and cultural enclaves until we become so strange to regular people that Jesus’ message is no longer accessible.
Let’s keep the focus where it belongs: on Jesus. That’s the heart of the gospel far more than Christian legalism with a bunch of “do not touch, do not taste” rules.
UPDATE: Read my follow up post on the difference between a timeless moral edict and culture-bound edicts in Christian legalism: Part 2!