{Many Questions and Few Answers Along the Never-Finished Journey of Faith}

It’s Not About You, It’s About Jesus AND the Church

It seems it’s becoming passe to hate the Church and claim to love Jesus.

“The Church is an institution that Jesus never intended.”

“Following Jesus is about more than the Church”

“Being Christian can lead us to leave the Church”

These are just a few of the responses I’ve heard to the recent Newsweek article by Andrew Sullivan called Christianity is Crisis. Sullivan touches on a similar chord that Jeff Bethke struck a few months back with his YouTube viral hit Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus. It’s becoming more and more popular for people to construct this sort of false dichotomy where we reject the Church but still follow Jesus. But why is this so popular?

A Bad Case of MTD

In her book, Almost Christian, Kenda Creasy Dean argues that American Christianity has in large part evolved into what she calls MTD (Moralistic Therapeutic Deism). My friend, John Meunier, has an excellent introduction to MTD in his latest blog post. But let’s encapsulate it by looking at the 3 terms that make up the concept:

  1. Moralistic: The object of Christian faith is to be nice to others in accordance with moral lessons in the Bible as well as natural law observed through reason.
  2. Therapeutic: The main purpose of life is to find happiness.
  3. Deism: God created the world and holds ultimate power, but is very uninterested in human life and will not intervene except when someone needs an answer to a problem.

We’re taught that Christians are at least supposed to be decent people who pay their taxes and try to follow the laws. Getting along with one another is among the highest ideals of our MTD.

All of this makes me wonder whether we create this idea of following Jesus without the Church out of a self-centered, individualistic approach to faith. Does personal faith trump the community of faith? Can we be followers of Jesus without the Body of Christ? To these questions and others like them, I say absolutely not. 

Faith is a personal idea that is absolutely dependent on a communal experience. One cannot hold one’s faith as a private possession and still call it Christian. To be Christian means we must have a community through which we learn how to live out our faith in the world. A common misconception is that we can read the gospel accounts of Jesus only to gain personal insight on what it means to be a follower. While that’s partially true, it’s not the whole story. The gospels were, in fact, written for communities struggling to figure out what it meant to be people of The Way (and then later Christians). They were a people formed by a communal narrative much like the Jewish people. Greek words like “oikos” (family), “soma” (body), and “ekklesia” (gathering) are the focal points of the New Testament. You see, there’s no “I” in the Body of Christ that doesn’t form a “we” — you simply cannot separate the two.

Institutionalized Cynicism

We’ve seen a growing distrust of institutions throughout modern life. The government can’t be trusted. Politicians are only looking out for their own self-interests. The Church is an institution that would rather offend, exclude, and hoard wealth than be the representation of Jesus Christ in the world. We’ve all heard these critiques before. I won’t dare try to claim that these accusations are entirely false–there’s a lot of truth in them. But I’m beginning to wonder whether criticizing institutions is in turn becoming institutionalized. Think about how many politicians rail against the institution of Washington only to conform once they get elected. The Church is no different. But what if criticizing our institutions is only masking an underlying desire to fight against authority because we honor individuals over institutional power?

In the Church, we call criticism prophetic–speaking truth to power. But we also have to remember that “truth” and “power” are relative and subject to our own personal twisting. My truth against your power sometimes might be nothing more than my wanting to disagree with your ideas on things. Sure, we get locked into the minutia of our individualistic “needs,” but if we’re honest with ourselves, we just don’t like following rules set forth by someone else. Speaking truth to power very quickly becomes an exercise of exerting power.

Are There Any Answers? 

Sullivan rightly diagnoses a Church that has too often lost its way in following Jesus. We’ve become distracted by protecting national interests because we think no American means no Church even though the Church is universal and for all time. We’ve become distracted by social and moral issues because it’s easier to talk about other people’s sins than to really examine our own sinfulness that exists no matter how “saved” we claim to be.

But Sullivan (and others who jumped all over this article) missed a major pothole in the road. In the article he claims that the witness of St. Francis (charity and good works) linked with the reputation of Thomas Jefferson (faith rooted in reason) make for a more palatable Christianity. This is precisely what we mean by a bad case of MTD–being nice and exercising a certain amount of reason doesn’t make you a Christian. 

It’s About Jesus AND the Church

As much as we love the idea of a renagade Jesus who thumbed his nose at organized religion, it’s simply not supported by biblical evidence. Jesus did critique the Law and Temple life, but he didn’t leave the organized community. He was a faithful Jew who observed the rituals and knew the Law inside and out. It’s an American phenomenon to think one can be faithful by leaving the organized Church to launch out on an individual journey of faith. MTD tells us that in those instances, Jesus just becomes the moral exemplar we choose to ascribe to. That’s very different than the Jesus who came, lived, and died to be the image of the unseen God that sin and death might be eternally defeated.

I want the Church in America reformed. I’m a United Methodist and I believe we need a reform within our denomination. But I’m very skeptical of those who would advocate the Church is dead and so it’s time to jump ship. Folks like Andrew Sullivan obviously speak from an MTD perspective where the individual has the ultimate power in setting the rules for faith. But those of us in the Church should know better. Baptism is literally (at least we say it is) a death to an old life and a rebirth into a new one. It’s something that God does for us. So part of that death is the giving up of the notion that I am the ultimate captain of my life. And if the Church is worth our salt, we should do our dead level best to form individuals into the communal life of a people called to a different way of living in the world. Distractions are not acceptable anymore.

Claiming to follow Jesus means we’re always in a place to be critiqued for falling short. But it also means we’re in a place to choose whether we really want to follow Jesus or simply put a Jesus stamp on our own self-centered journeys. Either way, following Jesus always means it’s about our life together in community.