This is the fifth post in a 14-week study. More information and resources can be found here.
A quick note to those of y’all who are not participants:
– Please read along as we go through the study chapter by chapter, and contemplate the questions we’ll be tackling. It’s gonna be good!
– We will be utilizing the comment section as a forum for discussion for the participants only. I respectfully ask – if you are not participating – that you refrain from commenting on the Reason for God posts, simply to help keep things well… simple.
– We have an incredible group of women representing various ages, faith backgrounds and life experiences – I hope you’ll check out all they have to say.
It is my prayer that the participants, as well as those of y’all who will be reading along, will contemplate your own faith and understanding of God in a new, and more purposeful way.
“Many people who take an intellectual stand against Christianity do so against a background of personal disappointment with Christians and churches.” (p.53). According to Keller, your opinion of Christianity is largely influenced by your experiences – positive or negative – with the church and/or Christians.
Keller lays out three issues that undermine people’s belief in Christianity: “First, there is the issue of Christians’ glaring character flaws… Second, there is the issue of war and violence… Third, there is the issue of fanaticism.”
Keller does not dance around the obvious – the average Christian has many flaws and so do their leaders. In fact, he shares a belief similar to the average non-religious person: “Church officials seem to at least (if not more) corrupt than leaders in the world at large.”
Keller goes on to explain that the Bible teaches the exact same thing. God is the Giver of “every good and perfect gift” (James 1:17) and those gifts are spread over all humanity – whether Christian or not. “A central message of the Bible is that we can only have a relationship with God by sheer grace. Our moral efforts are too feeble and falsely motivated to ever merit salvation.” (p.54) Christianity is a perfect religion for the broken not a broken religion for the perfect.
“The church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.” (p.55)
Those who are broken physically, morally, spiritually or mentally are more likely to be at the end of themselves – and therefore more likely to recognize their deep need for a Savior. And so, we should not be surprised when the average church congregation is made up of broken people.
Religion and Violence
Keller begins by asking the question, “Doesn’t orthodox religion lead inevitably to violence?” (p.56) He then proceeds to give examples of religious movements and societies that seem to prove the point: the Inquisition, African slave trade, Japanese influence by Shintoism and Buddhism, Hindu nationalism and Radical Islam. “All this evidence seems to indicate that religion aggravates human differences until they boil over into war, violence, and the oppression of minorities.” (p.56)
Keller gives examples of why that argument against religion flies in the face of reality. From Stalin to Mao to Pol Pot, a forced lack of religion has also caused innumerable acts of violence, murder and subjugation of fellow humans.
“We can only conclude that there is some violent impulse so deeply rooted in the human heart that it expresses itself regardless of what the beliefs of a particular society might be — whether socialist or capitalist, whether religion or irreligious, whether individualistic or hierarchical.” (p.57)
“Perhaps the biggest deterrent to Christianity for the average person today is not so much violence and warfare but the shadow of fanaticisim.” (p. 57) Many have witnesses the transformation of a former nonbeliever into a believer and watched as they seemed to go from ‘normal’ to the deep end of belief. “When arguing for the truth of their faith they [believer] often appear intolerant and self-righteous.” (p. 58)
Keller argues that what people want is a moral equivalent of a self-help program — neither too hot (fanatical) or too cold (nominal Christian). He says that by insisting on the lukewarm center, you instead get the fanaticism you are trying to avoid. When someone is completely surrendered to Christ they realize that they are saved only by the grace of God, and are brought to their knees in humility by that fact. “What strikes us as overly fanatical is actually a failure to be fully committed to Christ and his gospel.” (p.59)
The Biblical Critique of Religion
The Old Testament prophets, and Jesus himself, were overtly critical of the religious fanatics. They knew, based on the sinful nature of man, that even the God-given law could and would be corrupted. “He [Jesus] condemned in white-hot language their [fanatics] legalism, self-righteousness, bigotry, and love of wealth and power.” (p.60)
In fact, Jesus would inevitably be turned over to Pilate for crucifixion by the very religious leaders He had chastised repeatedly for fanaticism. “The tendency of religious people, however, is to use spiritual and ethical observance as a lever to gain power over others and over God…” (p.61)
Our Savior and the prophets speak of true faith as concern for those less fortunate, not ignoring social justice or gaining power. Though the church has indeed been responsible for power grabs and self-righteous behavior, Keller tells us that the standards by which society is gauging the church actually come from the church – the very same institution they are criticizing. “The shortcomings of the church can be understood historically as the imperfect adoption and practice of the principles oft the Christian gospel.” (p. 63)
So, what should be done in light of the church’s failure? Should there be an abandonment of the Christian faith? Absolutely not. Keller says, “Instead we should move to a fuller and deeper grasp of what Christianity is.” (p. 63)
Justice in Jesus’ Name
While Christianity must bear responsibility for the African slave trade, it was the awakening of Christians to the absolute horror of lifelong, race-based slavery and its direct conflict with God’s Word that brought slavery to an end. In fact, historians, using a moral relativism of today’s intellectual communities, find it difficult to explain why the Abolitionists were willing to chance economic ruin to free the slaves. The answer was that, “Slavery was abolished because it was wrong, and Christians were the leaders in saying so. Christianity’s self-correcting apparatus, it’s critique of religiously supported acts of injustice, had asserted itself.” (p. 65)
The martyrs who have died to place themselves at odds with the dominant political thought of the day, from Nazi Germany to the American Civil Rights movement died as a result of realizing their higher calling from Christianity not apart from it. “When people have done injustice in the name of Christ they are not being true to the spirit of the one who himself died as a victim of injustice and who called for the forgiveness of his enemies. When people give their lives to liberate others as Jesus did, they are realizing the true Christianity…” (p. 69)
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” — John 13:34-35
Question: What does your church look like? A hospital for the sick? Or a museum for the saints? What do you imagine a church that is truly pleasing to Jesus would look like?
My response: Ouch. I’d never considered the “church” on these terms – as a hospital for sinners. If I really inspect my actions, I’d have to admit a tendency to be attracted to churches that are filled with people that *look* like me, both physically and spiritually. Upon reflection I recognize now how this must grieve the heart of God. He calls us to “Go and make disciples of all the earth…” and our churches should look more like this. But often we fail by choosing to stay in our nice little comfy place, surrounded by those who look like us, act like us and worship like us… and we try to serve and “go” from there. He wants the church to represent a cross-section of humanity: the hurting, the broken, the suffering, being loved on and supported by more mature, humble, servant-hearted Christians. All for His glory.
This resonates even more with me as we have just moved and so been on the dreaded church hunt, just trying to find a place where we feel the Lord wants to use us and grow us. Being in a huge metropolitan area – smack-dab in the middle of the Bible belt – has given us a ridiculous amount of options, from the super-mega to the teeny tiny. Before moving here were listened to sermons on podcast from two greatly-respected and highly-attended churches in the area. We sort of assumed we’d try them both, and choose the one we felt led to. But God had other plans. We went to both and felt like neither was the one. By a series of events that only God could orchestrate – Asher’s new orthodontist mentioning a church that I later looked up online and realized I’d listened to this pastor speak as a guest (at one of my favorite podcast pastor’s church) who had such an incredible testimony that I later recounted it to Chris – we believe we have found our new church home. We attended for the first time on Mother’s Day and we get more excited each time we visit. It’s a little church led by an Iranian-born, American-raised pastor with a passion for Jesus like I’ve rarely witnessed. And just about every walk of life is represented in the congregation. And we can’t wait to see what God has for us there. His plans are so much better than ours.
Here is the button for the participants who will be linking up to the study. Grab the code, paste it into your Reason for God post and link up below.