Thursday, April 26, 2012

Follow Jesus, Forget the Church?

Forget the Church, Follow Jesus” was the command from Newsweek’s April cover story.  The cover (and article) featured an unscarred urban Jesus, a grand moral teacher that would shun the church in America today.  The church in America has its faults for sure, yet the author, Andrew Sullivan, neglects (perhaps ignores) the genuine good Jesus’ church is doing in the world and disregards Jesus’ intent to bless the world through His church.  Jesus proclaimed to Peter, “upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it” (Matthew 16:18), and the apostle Paul declared that the church of the living God “is the pillar and support of the truth.” (1 Timothy 3:15)  Why does Sullivan neglect such passages in the Bible? The answer may be that he has the wrong Jesus.  We rarely have to deal with polytheism in our southern Californian culture, but we do need to deal with what I call “poly-Jesus”.  There seems to be as many views of Jesus as there are people sometimes.  Many people want to affirm Jesus but not the organized church, yet when they describe Jesus, he comes close to being merely a reflection of themselves or their own cherished philosophical views.  Sullivan’s “Jesus” seems to be a mash-up of both Thomas Jefferson and St. Francis of Assisi’s view of Jesus.  Jefferson saw Jesus as a good moral teacher devoid of a divine nature, whereas Francis’ rule was “To follow the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ and to walk in his footsteps.”  The difference between Jefferson and Francis is, in part, that Jefferson carefully used a razor to cut-out biblical passages that he thought did not reflect the teachings of Jesus the Nazarene. However, Francis worked hard to follow the whole of Jesus’ teachings in the Bible while emphasizing his call to a life of poverty and preaching.

While there are things to learn from Sullivan’s article, there is more to lament.  Sullivan affirms Jefferson’s aim that one should be “a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus.”  But what are those doctrines?  Sullivan proclaims those doctrines are “not the supernatural claims that, fused with politics and power gave successive generations wars, inquisitions, pogroms, reformations, and counterreformations.” Sullivan skillfully uses the same Jeffersonian razor to remove the good that Jesus and his church has done throughout the history of the world.  Historian and sociologist Rodney Stark at Baylor University argues that the Christian church that Jesus started has given the world the Protestant reformation, modern science, freedom, capitalism, and the Western abolition of slavery. 

In his book The Victory of Reason, Stark advances what can be described as “a revolutionary, controversial, and long overdue idea: that Christianity and its related institutions are, in fact, directly responsible for the most significant intellectual, political, scientific, and economic breakthroughs of the past millennium.  On Stark’s view, what has propelled the West is not the tension between secular and nonsecular society, nor the pitting of science and the humanities against religious belief. Christian theology, he argues is the very font of reason: While the world’s other great belief systems emphasized mystery, obedience, or introspection, Christianity alone embraced logic and reason as the path toward enlightenment, freedom, and progress.” This has made all the difference. 

It is true that the institutionalized church has led to witch hunts—Stark’s discussion of this is very interesting—and abuses of power.  And to that end we can agree with Sullivan to “forget the church and follow Jesus”.  But I must add that the reliable, biblical portrait of Jesus still calls out to us today and Jesus says, “Follow Me, and Be My Church.”  I continue to be grateful that NewSong remains a faithful community of Christ-followers that worships the scarred yet risen Lord Jesus who is more than just a good man willing to suffer an unjust execution or merely a good moral teacher.  He is the resurrected Lord, Savior, and King who laid down his life to bring people back into the family of God and who now are calls upon his Church to be his winsome ambassadors of reconciliation to the world (2 Cor. 5)

George Haraksin
Lead pastor
NewSong Church