Sunday, November 8, 2015

Americanized Christianity: What is Love?

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person – though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die – but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation (Romans 5:1-11).

While the author claims to provide a beginning point for people to dissect their Americanized Christianity, so that they might “return home to the life and message of Jesus,” reading the list of ten signs he presents might lead one to suspect that Benjamin Corey has a political agenda, rather than a religious one. I don’t want to address each point of contention I have with this article, 10 Ways To Determine If Your Christianity Has Been “Americanized,” as to do so would call for something much longer and more tedious than I have the time or inclination to undertake currently. Instead, I have chosen several sections from the article which, I believe, sum up the main ideas and where it is off-track. You can find the original piece here. Read it, it’s not that long, and is interesting, even if written in a disdainful tone. He starts right off with the whole “the early Christians were Communistic pacifists” argument:

If your primary identity is legitimately that of a Christian, you’ll be open to learning about Christianity as it was taught and lived by the earliest Christians. However, from an American mindset, original Christianity and the first Christians appear nuts: they were universally nonviolent (against capital punishment, abortion, military service and killing in self-defense), rejected individual ownership of property in order to redistribute their wealth (Acts 2:44-45, Acts 4:35), and rejected any involvement with the government. When reading about them they seem rather un-American, and this will cause frustration or disbelief among those in Americanized Christianity (Corey 2015).

While Christianity is certainly non-violent, it is not “against” such things as capital punishment, military service, and killing in self-defense. The Fifth Commandment says, “You shall not murder.” Luther’s explanation of the Fifth Commandment sums up the meaning of this commandment, in light of Christ’s words, particularly in the Sermon on the Mount:

We should fear and love God so that we do not hurt or harm our neighbor in his body, but help and support him in every bodily need (Concordia Publishing House 1991).

This, however, does not mean that no one has authority to take another person’s life. Romans 13 commands us to submit to the governing authorities:

…for he [government] is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer (Romans 13:4).

Paul acknowledges here that governments, some of which carry out capital punishment, are authorities instituted by God. As such, we are to submit to them, at least until they command and act contrary to God’s Word. This would hardly constitute Paul – an early Christian – being “against” capital punishment. Furthermore, Paul continues to write contrary to Corey’s statement that the early Christians rejected any involvement with the government.

Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed (Romans 13:5-7).

The early Christians certainly may not have been in positions of authority within the government of the Roman Empire, but that does not mean they viewed governmental authority and submission to such authority and law as evil. To the contrary, we are commanded to serve the authorities instituted by God by gladly providing what they need or require (Concordia Publishing House 1991). Regarding their possessions, Acts 4:32 tells us that they (the believers) “had everything in common.” Rather than being an endorsement of communism, this scene gives us a glimpse of a restored creation.

God gives us property and resources for our neighbor’s benefit. The early Christians fully shared with one another, but not in the same way as the failed communist experiments of the twentieth century. Here there is no compulsion or involvement of the State – only believers are affected, and only goods are shared, not their production (Engelbrecht 2009).

This illustrates what is meant by a phrase popular among Confessional Lutherans, “God doesn’t need your good works. Your neighbor does.” I would also note that the believers are helping each other, not selling their property and goods to do charity work in the pagan slums.

Corey, in his second point, begins talking about love, and it is with this subject that we get to the real heart of the issue:

The chief calling of a Christ-follower is to love others. Whether a neighbor across the street, or an enemy across the world, Christ’s command is abundantly clear: we are to love one another. If your initial posture toward Muslims is that of viewing them as a threat instead of viewing them as people Jesus has commanded we radically and self-sacrificially love, then your Christianity might be Americanized (Corey 2015).

Is the chief calling of a “Christ-follower” really just to love others without condition? The chief calling of a Christian is to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that Jesus has commanded (Matthew 28:19). Love comes as a by-product of making Christians. Christians are commanded by Jesus to imitate the self-sacrificial love Christ showed by going to the cross, so that the world would recognize them as his disciples.

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).

Paul presents this teaching again in Ephesians:

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God (Ephesians 5:1-2).

What, to borrow a question from Haddaway, is love? Reading Corey’s piece one would get the impression that real love consists of serving real people around you, unconditional tolerance and acceptance of illegal aliens, homosexuality, and support for the welfare state.

Jesus calls us to get busy serving the least of these– to get our hands dirty, to embrace the position of “servant of everyone,” and to pour ourselves out as we endeavor to change the world right where we are. America on the other hand, invites us to view political power and force of government as the solution to the world’s problems, and that’s a tempting offer for both liberals and conservatives. If you’re more focused on what they could do than what you can do, your Christianity might be Americanized…If you advocate cutting government programs for the poor but don’t actually tithe yourself…If you say “we’re a nation of laws” in reference to immigrants faster than you quote what the Bible says about immigrants…If you think Paul’s prohibition on female teachers is straightforward, but Jesus’ teaching on enemy love is somehow open to a thousand degrees of nuance…Somewhere along the line, the Americanized version of Christianity taught us that defeating gay marriage was perhaps the most pressing issue of our time. Sadly, as Americans we’re taught to be self-centered and this is an incredibly self-centered view that completely ignores the global issues of our time. It is the mistaken identity that our issues are the issues. The most pressing issues of our time? Let’s start with the fact that 750 million people around the world don’t even have access to clean water or that 805 million people are chronically malnourished (Corey 2015).

Corey raises some interesting issues. This isn’t love, though. This is an enumeration of a political platform. Our primary concern shouldn’t be about “what I can do” to “change the world.” Both Christians and non-Christians can, and do, hold positions on all of these issues. And while love does manifest itself in good works for our neighbor, focusing on these works first is to put the emphasis in the wrong place. We should hate what is evil, Paul says, and cling to what is good. As Christians, speaking in terms of our relationship with the secular world, we should live at peace with everyone, insofar as it depends on us, and serve our neighbor in our vocation.

Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality (Romans 12:9-13).

Well-meaning Christians who look around and see all sorts of social problems chastise their fellow believers for not loving their neighbor. You must love your neighbor! You must be loving and tolerant of homosexuals. You must care for the needy! You must show compassion to immigrants, both legal and illegal! And, if you don't do these things precisely the way I deem acceptable, I will - lovingly, tolerantly, acceptingly - call you all kinds of names like Pharisee, insult you, and say you aren't a good Christian.

The thing which people who think like this don't get, however, is from where the love to which they exhort us comes. They think it comes from us. You're a Christian? Great! Get busy loving your neighbor. The more love you exhibit (Corey calls this “getting your hands dirty…”read do good works) the more evidence that you're really a proper Christian. Except, the love Jesus describes doesn't come from us, it comes from him. He commands us to be perfect, as our Heavenly Father is perfect. That's something we cannot do. 

They also forget that Paul told us to abhor what is evil.

Rather than being intentional acts which we perform to be better Christians, our good works flow from us organically; they are products of our New Man, the new creation God has made us into. Moreover, the good works which we do don't originate with us, even though we perform them. God has prepared them for us to do (Ephesians 2:10).

It's irritating to me to hear someone admonish The Church for not being loving enough, or Christ-like enough, or "whatever" enough. I already know I'm not a good Christian. But you aren't either. The Christian church is made up of sinners. We all need to repent, and believe the Gospel, and be forgiven.

Being tolerant and accepting of homosexual behavior, or people who disregard the laws of the nation, is not loving, it's easy. It certainly isn’t Biblical. When Christians unconditionally accept unrepentant homosexuals into their fellowships, and advocate politically for illegal aliens without condition, it may seem loving to the secular world, and it may feel good to those who are doing it, but it's not love. It is simply a way of avoiding a negative reaction from the secular and politically correct society in which we live. In fact, if we treat sinners – any sinner – this way and simply tell them that we love and accept them without delivering to them Law and Gospel, we do them the worst disservice. Paul continues expounding Jesus’ command to love in Ephesians chapter five, with an important, “but…”

But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God (Ephesians 5:3-5).

And, Paul doesn’t speak only of homosexuality (sexual immorality) as though it is some special, more grievous sin which is unforgivable. He includes all sin when he talks about what should not be named among us, and abhorred, and will disqualify us from our inheritance:

Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God (Galatians 5:19-21).

Homosexuals, illegal aliens, adulterers, murders, liars, thieves, the self-righteous, gluttons – all people – need to hear that, though they are by nature sinful and unclean, and have sinned against God by their thoughts, word, and deeds, we have forgiveness through the holy, innocent, bitter suffering and death of God's beloved son Jesus Christ. The most loving thing in the world is for The Church to call sinners to repentance, and to believe the gospel. This is the Church's job, rather than being simply a social welfare agency, or leftist political activist group. We must be faithful to this mission and also compassionate in meeting needs. The good thing is though, when the first one happens, the second will follow.

What good is it for The Church to meet the physical needs of a suffering immigrant, if they will spend eternity in Hell because they are an unrepentant sinner? What have we done for the homosexual, if we have simply, oh so tolerantly, invited them to practice their behavior openly, but not called them to repentance? We have not done what Christ has commanded us to, that is certain. I’m not saying that we should forsake the physical needs of people who are suffering, far from it! I am saying that penitent sinners who have faith in Christ will perform good works – They can't help it. If they have a faith that is alive, good works will follow (James 2:22-23). I am also saying that a Christ-less Christianity, devoid of repentance and the forgiveness of sins as described in Corey’s article, which is really nothing more than a social welfare agency or leftist political activist group is no Christianity at all.



Works Cited

Concordia Publishing House. Luther's Small Catechism. Translated by Concordia Publishing House. Saint Louis, Missouri: Concordia Publishing House, 1991.

Corey, Benjamin L. 10 Ways to Determine If Your Christianity Has Been Americanized. Web Article. July 21, 2015.

Engelbrecht, Rev. Edward A., ed. The Lutheran Study Bible. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2009.