Phyllis I’m always pleased to find and read a fellow writer who shares my desire to know and obey the sovereign God of the universe. I believe you and I see eye-to-eye on many things. For example, I share your concerns about churches in America. Across denominations, I see theological issues showing up as practical errors and dangers. And because I hold a high view of God, his Word in scripture, and his expectations for the church who is governed by his Word, these trouble me.
That being said, I’m curious about how you’ve arrived at some of your conclusions, particularly those that diverge quite deeply from the classical (read: biblical) Christian worldview. Would it be ok if we talked through some of them? If so, read on!
First, you said “I had that belief that God wasn’t as complex as people made him out to be.” (You also reiterate later your stance that we overcomplicate God and his plan for salvation.) Perhaps your point was something else, but I’m not sure how the eternal Person who created the whole universe from nothing except his own self and character.. isn’t going to be infinitely complex. He is surely is the source and author of love, as you say, but love is much more complex than affable feelings and friendly relationships. There is justice in love, consequence in love, and incredible pain when perfect love is betrayed and unrequited. Anyways, this was just the first comment I read that struck me as sort of odd. If God is big enough to easily comprehend, he probably isn’t big enough to worship and bow down to.
This next thing stopped me in my tracks: “Some of the Baptist churches I attended had an overarching theme — condemnation of sin and many times, the sinner. And, while I knew sin was bad, I felt as though people could go overboard about it… God knows we sin. It’s human nature. So He sent His son to stop all of those manmade rules and showed His love for us anyway… we are just likely to do so because it’s how we are.”
I agree that rules like banning drinking and dancing outright are manmade and not found in scripture. Just the opposite: Jesus drank wine and Paul encouraged one of his disciples to take a little wine for some stomach ailment he suffered; and we’re told in Psalms 149 and 150 to praise God with dance! Now, some manmade rules can have a salient impact; for example, the Bible doesn’t condemn reckless driving, but we can surmise this is a helpful manmade rule. Other manmade rules are harshly imposed for impure motives and reasons, and Jesus certainly came to abolish these (because to harshly imposing manmade rules on others for impure reasons is sin, and Jesus hates sin, as we’ll get into below.)
In a way, Jesus did come to stop manmade rules. The Jews had taken the commandments given by God to Israel and stretched them to an impossible, ungodly standard; and Jesus fulfilled the requirements of the God-given laws themselves, which would naturally take care of any additional parts tacked on by man.
But your claim that stopping manmade rules is central to why Jesus came, or that it’s going overboard to condemn sin or for a Baptist pastor to frequently give dire warnings to sinners about their sin? Oy; where to begin.. Phyllis, we have to be able to back up our commentary on God with scripture, which is “useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the person dedicated to God may be capable and equipped for every good work.” And I’m afraid I’m having a hard time finding your view in scripture.
Instead, I think if you look, you’ll find that God’s focus on sin and the consequences and seriousness of disobeying Him is central to the Biblical narrative. After all, there can be no “good news” gospel if it’s not in response to bad news, and the bad news is that we’re all absolutely diseased with sin. There isn’t a moment of the day where we are loving God with our whole hearts, whole minds, whole soul, and complete strength; nor where we’re loving our neighbor as (much as) ourselves. You quoted Romans; step back just a few chapters and you read Paul saying: “There is no one righteous, not even one, there is no one who understands, there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away, together they have become worthless; there is no one who shows kindness, not even one.” Jesus himself says, “No one is good but God.” King David cries out in the Psalms, “My sin is ever before me.” In fact, read all of David’s words there in Psalm 51. It’s a beautiful depiction of what sin does to the soul, and the rescue made available to wicked sinners through God’s grace. It is true that Christ died for us while we were still sinners, because (thanks be to God) his love is greater than our sin. But this is no way nullifies or lessens the badness of our sins, even the sins of saved people.
Progressive pastors love sharing the passage that puts Jesus’ love on full display, in the recounting of the woman about to be stoned for adultery, where he famously tells those ready to stone her, “He without sin cast the first stone.” Once the mob disperses, Jesus tells the woman that she is not condemned. But his final words are, “Go, and sin no more.” In the book of John, Jesus warns a man he’d just healed: “Stop sinning, or something worse may happen to you.” Sin is serious. Jesus says so. God says so. The Bible says so. We don’t consider it going overboard when we tell our toddlers to stop hurting themselves, stop playing with the stove, stop running with scissors; that’s called being good parents. And in this case, we’re only guilty of going overboard if we focus on the sinfulness of human sinners without offering the good news of rescue as well.
Next: “Why would God create people to have all of this diversity and save just one group of people? He wouldn’t.” If you read the scriptures, you find two things: A) God truly did start his rescue plan for mankind via just one group of people, his chosen people, the Jews. B) The scriptures say that salvation comes through the Jews, but no Christian would ever claim it comes to just one group of people — if by group you mean class, race, nationality, creed, family history, location, etc. All have sinned and fallen short, but the gift of God to all who believe is eternal life. So, in a way, God does save just one group of people: the group of those who actually ask to be saved, and then trust him and his plan for redemption. Jesus invited “all you who are weary” to come to him, so anyone who presently identifies as Muslim or Jew or Atheist or culturally-catholic American who bends a knee to Jesus in trust, and repents of his/her sin, can be saved. What any one of us, including you, believes about God’s love for these people is irrelevant; it’s about what we can back up with evidence, with scripture; and scripture does not support the conclusion that any human of any religious upbringing can be saved apart from Jesus. As you know, he himself said, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but through me.”
Pausing here, for a point of agreement: you’re right that God’s church is not a building or a network of buildings. The Bible clearly teaches that the Church (capital C) is the collection of believers, the bride of Christ. Where they worship, how many are gathered when they worship, etc., doesn’t matter; who they worship and what they believe matters. Similar to what you said, the church is made up of people from across the spectrum of humanity — but we must be clear, it’s specifically and only the segments of humanity who declare and adhere to His lordship.
In that same moment where you make this point, you stop short of Jesus’ full message — yes, he offers love, mercy, forgiveness, but Jesus himself says in John 5 that the Father has given him the authority to Judge. Jesus judges sin! Jesus hates sin! Jesus told us in his own words that on judgment day, he will turn away many who have filled their lives with good deeds and have thought they were doing fine by his standards, but did not truly make him their sovereign. He will say to them, “I never knew you! Go away, you lawbreakers.”
Later, you say: “I can only give my thoughts about the Christian bible. Most of us who are Jesus-lovers follow Him because of His approach. When Jesus came into the world, He was very different than the God presented in the Old Testament.”
I’m glad you strive to present the Bible to your readers; it’s the reason I’m so concerned with how you’ve handled it here.
And I would suggest treading carefully in how we compare Jesus’ character and behavior in the New Testament and God’s character and behavior in the Old Testament, particularly if we hold the biblical and historically held view of the Trinity — that Jesus is God, incarnate — and particularly if we’re making this comparison while seeking to educate those who want to understand the Christian Bible. There are obvious differences, surely, in how Jesus interacts with his fellow men (and women) in the final 27 books of the Bible vs. how God the Father deals with mankind in the first 39 books of scripture, because the Triune God was achieving different goals at different stages of the story of reality. But God’s character and ultimate desires are the same yesterday, today and forever. He is holy, he loves his creation, he desires his best for them, and he hates the sin that separate us from him; so he has always had his perfect redemption plan in view.
“Our faith should never rest with man. It should only be placed in God.” Amen! I published a Medium story last fall on the importance of evaluating the thing or person (or God) in whom we place our trust.
Optimism? Or Hope?
I wrote the following piece in the wake of the 2016 POTUS election, to offer to my listeners perhaps a new view on why…
I agree with the sentiment I’ve heard from many Christian thinkers that the Body of Christ should approach this world and its problems “with a velvet-covered brick,” which is a poetic way of saying we should be filled with grace and truth. We must bring the truth and the whole truth; but we should always be ready to share it with compassion, empathy, and love.
Because churches are filled with hypocrites just like any other gathering of broken humans, we all need to work on both the grace and the truth aspect of this approach; but to compromise one in favor of the other is worse than not saying anything at all. I say this in reply to your claim that, “There’s not enough love, acceptance, and tolerance in the Christian world right now. And if something makes me angry or upset, it’s that.” Surely there are other things that should anger/upset God’s people more, such as the flagrant mockery of God’s holiness, and the regular use of his name as a cuss word, permeating every corner of our world… or the general slippery slope on which we find our culture drifting — nay, plummeting — further and further away from moral responsibility, and then worse, churchmembers’ collective apathy, cowardice and non-commitment (my own included, God help me) in challenging these evils wherever we find them, whatever the cost.
If there are particular things you believe the church should tolerate more, accept more, and love more, please point them out so that we can discuss them. I suspect I know what you might think them to be, and I believe — though exceptions exist — that Christians generally will have biblical grounding for the things they do not tolerate, accept or love. So let’s see if we can find common ground on where the church needs to show more tolerance.
You might notice that I highlighted a lot leading up to this next item I question, because you were on a trajectory with which I fully agree — and it goes along with the fact that God is infinitely complex, exceeding anything we can understand. (“The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts within them? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God.”)
You said, “And it’s okay that we’re not perfect and God never expected us to be,” and with that, I take issue. Do you agree we were made perfect in the beginning? Do you agree that perfect is what we were designed to be, and that mankind is responsible for breaking that perfection by our own prideful actions? Do you agree this is not “ok”? It is what it is, sure, and it’s “ok” insofar as God having a plan to fix it; but I think you’ll agree that it is inherently bad, not inherently ok, that we’re imperfect. And it is important to know and proclaim that God made us perfect, that our imperfection, pain and brokenness — while allowed by God — is not authored by God. He did expect us to be perfect or else he’d not have made us that way. And we’re still called to be perfect, several times, throughout scripture. The fact that we’re not, that sin is in our nature, does not minimize the fact that God called us to perfection from the start. He knew we’d fail, yes, and he made a plan to account for it; but our goal is to walk with him, striving toward his perfection all our lives on earth.
There is so much you’ve written here that is biblical, and with which I agree, and I hope my highlights help to, well, highlight our common ground. I understand from what I perceive about your character and desire to be kind to those around you, that you may not want to insult or hurt anyone’s feelings by condemning them for not believing in God. And good news: you don’t have to! We’re not responsible for condemnation of persons. However, it is loving, it is kind, it is good and God-honoring, to warn those who don’t believe. If our conclusions about God are true, their house is on fire and they don’t know it. The loving thing to do for those family and friends who don’t believe as we do is to pray for them and share the truth with them. We can’t make them drink, but we sure can strive to lead them to (the living) water, all the while making sure that we ourselves are filled with grace and truth.
Thanks for reading, Phyllis!