I saw a big church building up for sale over the weekend and it got me thinking again about why churches seem to be emptying. I think one of the ways church has lost it today is by getting entangled in an obsession with morality. No one wants to go near the church because they often have such strange rules.
Some churches will frown on you if you drink alcohol. It doesn’t say you can’t in scripture; it just says don’t get drunk because it leads to bad decisions and problems. But who wants to hang around in a church that deals in guilt over things like that.
Some churches will reel in horror if you use ‘colourful language’, but did you know that when Paul says that he ‘considers all things rubbish when compared with the greatness of knowing Christ’, he uses the Greek word ‘Skubula’, which is a far cruder word than ‘rubbish’? It actually closer approximates the word ‘shit’ in our day and age, which, lets be honest, good Christians just don’t say.
Some churches get really weird about romantic relationships. You have to ‘declare your intentions’ to the Elders of the Church before you are approved to ‘court’. Then you have to share everything you’re doing with each other in an open and ‘accountable’ relationship. All this because we don’t trust people to act like adults in relationships and make their own choices, so we want to control out the possibility of someone making what we think we would be a mistake.
I was once part of a church where I was told it was a sin to have my hair as long as it was! Did they think Jesus’ walked sporting a military buzz cut?
It’s no wonder people aren’t lining up at the doors. Now that makes some Christians feel proud and exclusive but it leaves me feeling ashamed that we’re keeping so many from God because of our strange moral standards. Where do we get them?
It’s funny that other ‘sins’, churches don’t seem as fussed with, like gossip and malicious talk, and not caring for the needy (which Jesus suggests in Matthew is worthy of hell!) Those we don’t worry about so much. But drinking, smoking, swearing, and ‘sexy stuff’ are very, very important to God, if you believe the church. They are the really bad ones. You think the rest of the world can’t feel this weird bias? So why do we choose these over others to target and get anal about?
I have a theory that over the last 200 years or so the church has become more interested in protecting Edwardian Morality than it has in what Scripture says. Over time we mixed up being ‘Western’ with being ‘Christian’. I think a lot of what we nag people about in church is ‘good old English morals’. In the Western Church we’re trying to support our antiquated ideas of what it means to be a good citizen, and we’re twisting or adding to Scripture to do it.
For example, find me the place in scripture where it says people can’t smoke. “Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 6)? Nice try. Then why don’t we come down on people who over eat? Why the emphasis on smoking?
Find me where in scripture it speaks about how physical you can get with your romantic partner. Its just not there. I don’t mind that you think its a good idea to set boundaries for yourself, but can we just acknowledge that these are western cultural issues, not biblical ones.
We seem to think that being a Christian means having good manners and behaving in a demure way. I’m afraid thats not very compelling. It sounds boring, and thats how most of our churches look to anyone watching; like a list of things we shouldn’t do.
And that’s a big problem: that instead of pushing people towards the positive, we seem desperate to keep them away from a narrow list of negatives. Churches preach more about what they stand against, than showing the world what they stand for. Paul spoke over and over again about the freedom there is in following Jesus and about how antithetical the legalistic approach of the Jews was. But lets be honest; the vast majority of churches today feel more like the latter than the former. To someone looking in from the outside this isn’t something they would want to subject themselves to voluntarily. We must feel like a cult with a set of very strange lifestyle choices which few members can actually back up, other than saying, “Well my Pastor says we shouldn’t do that.” It has always frustrated me how few Christians read the scriptures for themselves to find out what they really say about how to live well.
The way we carry on, we wouldn’t even have accepted Jesus, because He wasn’t well behaved enough. Hanging out at ‘shady’ parties over the weekend. Arguing with religious authority. Bringing His prostitute and beggar friends to church. Forgiving the people we want to stone as a group. Throwing stuff around because He didn’t like the way we ran our church. (which is why when people ask me to be more Christ-like in my criticism of institutional church, I tell them to check their bibles to find out just what they’re asking.) Jesus didn’t have good Victorian Morals at all! I’m not sure many churches would have Him, but its only because He doesn’t fit our stupid little list.
So I, for one, vote the list gets looked at again. This very narrow list of naughty things is the worst possible working definition of ‘sin’. The best theory I heard about ‘sin’ was that ‘sin’, in its essence, is ‘selfishness’. ‘Sin’ is really those times when we make things about ourselves! We’re called to live from a different place. Paul says that ‘he (Paul) no longer lives, but its Christ who lives in him’. He also says that we’re to ‘die to self’. Now
I can see loads of ways every day where I live out of selfishness, and need a kick in the ass. All of a sudden ‘the list’ seems really trivial.
I think it got going when western missionaries went into African villages, telling them all about Jesus, and then telling them to give up their second and third wives because its a sin! Before you knew it, indigenous cultures had been wrecked, and tribes people where attending the hastily erected little missionary church in three piece suits, because ‘to be Christian, is to be a good westerner’.
My opinion: I don’t think it matters how many wives they had. The only thing that matters is connecting others with God. If He wants to change things after that, as they live out of Christ rather than their own selfishness, He can communicate it them on His own. He did with me.
Unfortunately, we haven’t moved very far. For example; how many people feel welcome in church if they live with their girlfriend? They don’t, because they know that to get to know anyone, they will have to have that awkward conversation where they are told how ‘evil’ they are for ‘living in sin’. No one will volunteer for that kind of treatment.
What about instead, having a church that just thinks that connecting people with God is the important thing, and trusting Him to take care of the rest, even if it doesn’t look like your western ideal, or agree with your churches list on every point?
Now some of you will be panicking that I’m just saying, ‘Anything goes. Its all relative.’ I’m not at all. I am getting more stuck into the Bible more than ever. But what is standing out for me is not how restrictive it is, but how much legalism we’ve added to it to support our weird modern church culture.
It makes me mad.
This isn’t an easy road; to live from this place without ‘the list’. It will actually be a far more spiritually disciplined life because it will mean being aware 24/7, living out Christ, rather than our own selfish desire. Constantly point our lives at the positive, instead of just away from our small list of negatives. We’ll treat others well. We’ll meet others needs. We’ll share God with others in ways that make sense, and we’ll bring the Kingdom to earth in a hundred different ways every day. It will no longer be good enough to carry a figurative reminder card around, telling us not to drink, smoke, swear or kiss anyone!