When I was thirteen, I had a green faux leather Living Bible with illustrations of a very 70s Jesus. For whatever reason, I flipped to the beginning of the New Testament and read the sermon on the mount for the first time. It changed the direction of my life. It also ignited my love for the Bible and theology. To this day, I enjoy reading, studying, learning and discussing the Bible and what it means. At one time I thought these were a sign of spiritual maturity. I even went to seminary to study. I soon found out that the Bible and theology have its place and purpose – to point us to Jesus Christ and to foster our love for people.
Throughout the years, I learned to measure everything I heard – messages from pastors, books, and individuals – with the person of Jesus Christ. I never got the bracelet, but I was a “WWJD” guy. Although I frequently failed, my Christian walk was measured by how I lived, not just what was in my head.
One of the things I liked about Jesus was his fierce adherence to love, even in the face of upsetting the religious status quo.
These religious leaders wanted to protect the system. They believed God wanted them to be gatekeepers of behavior. In the gospels, Jesus was showing them another way.
Today, many Christians worry about compromising with sin, becoming like the world, or going down a slippery slope. They live the Christian life walking through what they see as a minefield of temptation. The warnings are often manifested from a deep dread of becoming like secular culture. Terms like “social justice,” “deconstruction,” “gender issues,” and “liberal theology” spark a christianized fight or flight response.
Sometimes, these Christians feel victimized, because they believe their culture and country have become less “Christian” in the past 60 years. For them, society, and even the church has compromised, given in, or become more like “the world.”
So their focus is to set oneself apart from the world based on behavioral codes and following theological categories. Besides believing in Jesus, one must believe in the “Biblical” definition of marriage, male headship, the role of government, racism (or lack thereof), human sexuality, etc. It’s a long list.
Like Jesus, the apostle Paul got a lot of pushback for following a message of love and dismissing religious trappings. To those that would focus on these, Paul gives a simple, summative statement: “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” Galatians 5:6.
In Galatians, Paul was writing to a group of Jewish followers of Christ that was trying to hold onto a religious practice meant as a symbol for God’s chosen people. Circumcision was instituted during the time of Abraham and reinforced later under Moses. It was repeated in Scripture and was a physical hallmark of faith. Paul was warning them that this observance of circumcision was getting in the way. What had started as a symbol of obeying God had metastasized into a distraction from following Jesus. Adhering to these commands had become central, instead of Jesus of Nazareth.
And that’s what’s happening today.
Instead of centering on the person of Jesus Christ, there is a focus on knowledge of the Bible, finely tuned theology, and an arbitrary moral code. This is where it gets tricky. Every Christian has a set of beliefs. At one time or another, they have to determine which of these beliefs are central to their faith. Call it deconstruction, call it Bible meditation, or just call it thinking – every Christian has to determine which beliefs are essential, and which are not.
Sadly, In the evangelical world, any examination of faith, rethinking of what the Bible says, or asking difficult questions is usually met with correction born of fear.
In reality, Jesus and Paul were the most radical deconstructionists compared to many ex-evangelicals today. Jesus abolished the dietary law in the gospels and in the book of Acts (Mark 7:14-23, Acts 10:9-16). Jesus redefined the Sabbath (Mark 2:23-28). Jesus and the disciples broke down walls between Jews and non-Jews.
But won’t that focus on love devolve into people behaving however they want? That was probably the question posed to Paul. In Romans 13, Paul reassures the believers that “the law” is fulfilled by obeying one command: “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not covet,’ and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore, love is the fulfillment of the law.”
It seems too easy to be believed. It’s certainly simple, but a faith of love is much more demanding than box-checking. It’s a lot easier for me to refrain from murdering my neighbor than to actually love them, care for them, and work for their best.
When we stop living by “Christian rules,” and simply follow Jesus in the way of love, the Christian life becomes less about us and more about God and others. We become more compassionate, more loving, and for all intents and purposes more “Christian.”
And when we let go of the fear or the need to control those around us, we look more and more like Jesus.
At this point, I’m often accused of ignoring God’s judgment and wrath in the Bible – that I’m picking and choosing which parts of the Bible to obey. They have a point. I was taught to take the Bible as a whole and look for overarching themes. It seems that occurrences of God’s wrath were slow, rare and had the purpose of restoration, not retribution. God’s higher purpose was and is redemption, relationship, and yes, love.
The Bible is a complicated and ancient manuscript. In fact, Christians that use the phase, “the Bible clearly says” without explanation is a sure indicator they haven’t read much of it.
When I made my convictions on LGBTQ issues public, an old friend, who happened to be an evangelical pastor, reached out to me. He was kind. He was respectful. He questioned me, and later recommended a book I should read.
I assume his motives were good, but it had been decades – decades – since we had spoken. And this was the issue he wanted to catch up on. I got the feeling he was trying to straighten me out for what he thought was my own good.
I still consider him a brother and a kindhearted fellow, but it made me think that perhaps he’s missing something important in Christianity — something that the church is missing.
I wish that day I had told him to not be afraid. That Jesus was bigger than our theology. That the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.
In the Sermon on the Mount, I read we have to walk through the narrow gate to receive life: “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (Matthew 7:13-14)
As a young Christian, I thought the narrow gate had to do with personal morality, purity, and living a “sin-free life.” As I’ve grown older and hopefully more mature, I’ve learned the wide road has more to do with legalism and religiosity, vs Jesus’s narrow gate of love.
What Christianity needs is not the fearful, careful gatekeeping of behavior, but the robust, courageous, life-giving faith Jesus modeled, and his followers wrote about 2000 years ago.