Someone I respect asked me on Twitter to comment on Andrew Sullivan’s recent article entitled, “Christianity in Crisis.” Sullivan’s article recently made the cover of Newsweek.
The cover title reads, “Forget the Church: Follow Jesus.”
Since I want to keep this blog post relatively short, I am limiting my commentary to four points.
1. The cover title represents the unparalleled confusion that the word “church” engenders. The title reads, “Forget the Church.” But what “church” are we talking about?
Is Sullivan saying . . .
Forget the Roman Catholic Church?
Forget the Anglican Church?
Forget the Church of Latter Day Saints?
Forget assembling with other Christians in any way, shape, or form?
Forget all other Christians in the world?
Forget the Evangelicals, their movement, and the churches that contain them?
Forget attending two hours on Sunday morning (in other words, forget attending “church” services)?
Forget that building with a steeple on it that many fondly call “church.”
Forget the body of Christ?
So the title breeds massive confusion, first rattle out of the box. In our day “church” has become a clay word, molded and shaped to mean drastically different things. Sullivan isn’t alone in using “church” in this nebulous way.
I’ve seen several blog posts titled, “Why I Left the Church.” Upon reading each post, the various authors were using the word “church” to mean different things.
One author was talking about the fundamentalist denominations of which he was a part. So he was really saying, “Why I Left the Fundamentalist Denominations” (or words to that effect).
Another author was speaking about the institutional church as we know it, regardless of the denomination or denominational non-denomination (yes, you read that right).
In the article at hand, Sullivan appears to be speaking chiefly about the Roman Catholic Church. I’ll explain more about that shortly.
Point: If you ever write on “the church,” be sure to define what you mean first. If not, many of your readers will ascribe their own meaning to what you say.
2. In “Christianity in Crisis,” Andrew Sullivan reminds us that Christians aren’t perfect people. This is true. Every follower of Jesus, including every “leader,” makes mistakes.
Sullivan goes on to point out that some Christian leaders are so disingenuous that they emptily profess Christ and use their faith to “advance their own power” and commit unspeakable criminal acts.
Throughout the years, I’ve met many non-Christians who gave the excuse that every Christian they’ve ever met was guilty of sinning in some way. In addition, they would point to certain pastors or priests who were complicit in criminal acts. To their minds, this was enough to discredit Jesus Christ and choose to not follow Him.
The truth is that you’ll never meet a Christian who hasn’t made mistakes, messed up, done things they regret, and has flaws. That creature doesn’t exist, no matter what anyone tells you. And there will always be people who profess to love Christ, but who have despicable characters. But that doesn’t discredit Jesus Christ or His claims.
So yes, we can “forget” those who use the Savior’s name to gain power or commit crimes. Meaning, it’s illogical to point to such cases as an excuse to not surrender our own lives to this world’s true Lord—Jesus of Nazareth, who was and is without sin.
Regarding the church, however, Christians need other Christians, for Christianity is corporate by nature. The Christian life simply doesn’t work if we try to wing it by ourselves. I’ve talked a great deal about how Christ and His body are distinct but not separate and how the ekklesia is the native habitat of every believer. (I’ve made these arguments in detail in Reimagining Church and From Eternity to Here.)
So in that respect, we cannot “forget the church and follow Jesus.” Because following Jesus includes having close relationships with other believers and giving and receiving spiritual help, encouragement, and instruction from them. Not to mention (again) that Christ and His church are united, just as the head and the body, the bride and bridegroom, the building and the cornerstone, and the firstborn son and his brothers and sisters are united.
3. In “Christianity in Crisis,” Andrew Sullivan champions one side of the political spectrum against the other side. At the same time, Sullivan claims that Christianity should be apolitical most of the time.
I agree that Christianity has been over-politicized. However, when reading the article, I got the feeling that the subtext of what Sullivan was saying can be juiced down to this sentence: “Just follow Jesus in your own private life and forget about speaking prophetically into the world.”
Yet Sullivan comes back and says that the church should speak prophetically sometimes. He then gives his opinion on what specific issues the church should and shouldn’t speak about.
Sullivan is a Catholic who is also gay. Thus his complaint seems to be that the Roman Catholic Church should not take the conservative political position on sexuality, but rather, give its full attention to the liberal political position on broader social issues.
Interestingly, the Roman Catholic Church (past and present) has strongly supported helping the poor and the oppressed. It has also taken an almost pacifist stance on war. It seems, then, that Sullivan believes that taking a conservative political position on human sexuality somehow drains energy from these other issues.
Time and space will not permit me to delve deeper into the Christian left vs. the Christian right debates, but I’ve written seven posts on the issue called Beyond Evangelical. Leonard Sweet and I sum up the issue in our book, Jesus Manifesto, saying,
“The body of Christ is at a crossroads right now. The two common alternatives are to move either to the left or the right. It’s our observation, however, that we are living in a unique time, when people are frozen as they look in either of those directions. When they look to the left, they decide that they cannot venture there. When they look to the right, they feel the same. Whether they realize it or not, people are looking for a fresh alternative—a third way. The crossroads today, we believe, is one of moving forward or backward. What we will present in this book, therefore, is razor-sharp, cut-glass clarity of the Lord Jesus Christ as the Alpha and the Omega. We will show that He is that third way—and the only way—that we can forge a secure path into the future. If the church does not reorient and become Christological at its core, any steps taken will be backwards” (Jesus Manifesto, Introduction).
4. Finally, Andrew Sullivan’s “Christianity in Crisis” takes a perspective that is common, but which I believe is grossly flawed. Sullivan reduces following Jesus to following His teachings rather than following, embracing, loving, and giving one’s allegiance to the Person who gave those teachings.
In this connection, one of the main points that Sweet and I make in Jesus Manifesto is that you cannot separate Jesus Christ from His teachings. And you can’t properly follow His teachings without knowing the Man who gave those teachings. More specifically,
“Jesus cannot be separated from His teachings. Aristotle said to his disciples, “Follow my teachings.” Socrates likewise said to his disciples, “Follow my teachings.” Buddha said to his disciples, “Follow my meditations.” Confucius said to his disciples, “Follow my sayings.” And Muhammad said to his disciples, “Follow my noble pillars.” But Jesus says to His disciples, “Follow Me.” In all the religions and philosophies of the world, a follower can follow the teachings of its founder without having a relationship with that founder. But not so with Jesus Christ. The teachings of Jesus cannot be separated from Jesus Himself. Christ is still alive, and He embodies His teachings. This is what separates Him from every great teacher and moral philosopher in history.” (Jesus Manifesto, Chapter 5).
I agree with Andrew Sullivan that “Christianity is in Crisis.” And I agree that the way forward is to follow Jesus.
But what “following Jesus” means precisely for our day is the thorny issue that we Christians must face squarely. To my mind, the answer to that question is found in the face of Jesus Himself, who is still alive and who seeks to unveil His mind to all who are willing to hear His voice now.
“Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion” (Hebrews 3:15).
“My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27).
And that voice often sounds very different from the voices that we hear all around us, be they those of the left or the right. It is also a voice that is most accurately heard in concert with other sheep.
Sullivan closes his “Christianity in Crisis” with the following words:
“I have no concrete idea how Christianity will wrestle free of its current crisis, of its distractions and temptations, and above all its enmeshment with the things of this world . . . Something inside is telling us we need radical spiritual change.”
I couldn’t have put it better myself.