I just had another one of those conversations. The conversation I seem to have a lot these days with my Christian friends. Gay and straight. About what it means to be a Christian.
Am I still a “good Christian” if I don’t go to church? Am I a good Christian if I cuss, if I have sex with my girlfriend or boyfriend? And of course, that one question that seems to preoccupy the evangelical world right now: Can I be a good Christian if I’m gay?
Franklin Graham, the hostile son of that epitome of Christian kindness Billy Graham, thinks not. And he’s spouting his morality-driven view of Christianity in all the media. For him, and for many in the church world, Christianity is defined in terms of do’s and don’ts. Rules. Outward behavior.
And ya know, to some extent, I would agree with that. But only to the extent that “behavior” is defined as how we treat other people.
Christianity, at least for most Protestants, is defined by our faith in Jesus, and then how that faith translates into real life. More than just simple head-knowledge or believing something to be true, it is the transformational power of relationship with the Living God that defines us – proves us – to be true followers of Jesus. In a word, what makes us “good Christians.”
And that’s what I’ve come to conclude, after living my entire life in the church, growing up in a conservative evangelical home, going to an evangelical, charismatic seminary, and wrestling with God to sort out my own relationship with him.
Any so-called religion that does not result in a growing relationship with the Living God is a fake.
And any religion that does not transform you to treat other people around you in a better, more loving way is garbage.
If your religion – even if you can pull up all kinds of Scripture to justify your actions – results in alienating or hurting people, guess what? You don’t know God, and you are not practicing God’s ways. You are not walking in the way of Jesus. Period.
Because, at the core of it all, Jesus did not come to give us another book of holy rules to live by.
God is love, and the one who walks in love, lives in God, and God lives in him. … The one who claims to love God but treats his neighbor badly is a liar. – 1 John 4
A friend messaged me today on Facebook, in dismay over the cruel and cutting comments he received in one Facebook Christian group. They were targeted against “the gays,” of course, and our so-called delusion that we were saved. My friend was puzzled how they could be so mean yet claim to have the truth. For me, it was the same old, tired, story. Stupid religion. Words, Bible-knowledge in the head that never transformed the heart.
And this isn’t just a Christian thing. Americans in general love to pick on Muslims and claim the actions of the radical fundamentalists are obviously not the actions of a Loving God – it’s a fake religion. I’d have to agree – not about Islam in general, but about the hateful actions of radical fundamentalists. And Jews, I’ve seen the reality of throwing stones and cold-hearted shunnings of the ultra-conservative against those who do not dress appropriately or honor the Sabbath as they believe it needs to be. Even Buddhism, that religion known for its peaceful focus, has militant sects. And my New Age/New Spirituality friends who have helped me see God in new and expanded ways … I see hearts seeking contact with the Universe, but sometimes in manipulative ways, trying to re-establish links with our own divinity in order to get what we want out of life. And we Christians are no different. We have our militant sects, our KKKs, our Westboro Baptist Churches, our Franklin Grahams, even our seemingly Biblical messages coming from Assembly of God pulpits promoting a cultural agenda instead of offering the life-giving words of a Loving God.
Where is the personal transformation that comes from the faith? Where is the reflection of the God who sacrificed himself so that he could establish a better connection with humanity?
I saw just a few days ago another post on Facebook by well-meaning Christians, trying to encourage holiness and morality in our “easy-believism” faith. They quoted Jesus, “If you love me, keep my commandments.” And their emphasis was on keeping the laws of morality and purity, of “cleaning-up” the life of the Christian. And my first thought was, “and what were Jesus’s commandments?” “This is my commandment: that you love one another, as I have loved you. By this the world will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35; 15:12,17)
Funny, Jesus didn’t say the world would know us by our clean-cut looks, our short hair, our modest clothes, or our sexual abstinence. He didn’t say our church attendance was the fulfillment of the law. He said it was Love. Period.
“But we do love you,” many Christians say. “That’s why we are trying to get you to stop living your sinful lifestyle.” Or, in other words, “we love you, sinner, but we hate your sin.” Haven’t we debunked that view enough already? You cannot truly love someone while you are throwing stones at them. That’s not the life Jesus demonstrated for us.
If your religion is not transforming you to love your neighbor – to treat your neighbor as you want to be treated – then you are deceiving yourself. The truth is not in you. And you do not know the God you claim.
It’s really that simple. “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and yet do not do the things I say?” Jesus asked.
My friend today did not know how to respond to those harsh words wielded by “good Christians.” Honestly, he didn’t need to respond. Sometimes battling words accomplishes nothing. No one listens. No one is changed. But for his own reassurance, I suggested this.
It really is that simple.
Love God. Love your neighbor.
And that “love neighbor” stuff isn’t just some vague, undefined feeling: “oh, yes, we love those sinners.” It’s your heart transformed by the power of God into loving action. It’s how you treat them. It’s what you say to them.
All the rest, all the verses from the Bible you can quote and hurl at people to prove your point that what they’re doing or how they’re living is wrong – all that is just religious technicalities. It is law. It is death. There is no life in it.
Without real love, all you have is a stupid religion.
STEVE SCHMIDT serves on the pastoral staff of Expressions Church in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.