I ran across some notes I made once after hearing a good message from Dr. Charles Stanley. I don’t agree with all his dogma by any means, so I won’t recommend him in toto, but his message on a particular Sunday morning was a pretty sound one and it got me thinking, as I sometimes do.
His point, with which I agree: there is a difference between intellectually acknowledging the theory of Jesus Christ as the son of God, and actually having a relationship with him. Let’s face it, there are millions of people out there who will say without a moment’s hesitation, “Oh yeah, I believe in God and Jesus” and so they consider themselves Christians. And they do believe he exists, because they were raised that way, that’s what they were taught, that’s what everybody believes, in the same way you believe what your mom tells you she heard about your cousin’s neighbor’s son, whom you also never met. Those people implicitly accept his existence, but don’t actively seek the kingdom of God. But there’s this: Just because you hear about a really good dentist doesn’t mean you’re never going to get a cavity. You have to check it out online, make some inquiries, or ask your friends what they think and then go see him. So these people who know about the dentist and never see him are going to someday find themselves with some ugly teeth. You know what I’m saying?
So Dr. Stanley bemoaned those who believe yet go about their sinning ways, blithely ignorant of grace. And he went on to mention that there are even those in church (gasp!) who have made a practice of piety and heard many times – many many times! – the message of the gospel, who also have failed to do more than hear and will also ultimately be left with ugly teeth.
And then Dr. Stanley rejoiced that there are those who have heard, have believed, have gotten their behinds to church and have repented, turned their backs on SIN and have run the other way. This bunch will surely have smiles to shame the Osmonds, praise God, hallelujah, amen!
And that’s when the thinking started. Because there’s a large faction of this bunch, who may be in many ways extremely lovely people, who have generally caused the greatest division in God’s children. Because so many in this bunch have also learned how to be judgmental, disapproving, armed with a list of bad behaviors to watch for, self-satisfied, fearful, and blind to their own sinful ways. These are the Church conformists who will be cold or deny fellowship to those people who hear God singing a different tune than what has become recognized as traditional theology over the years. Why is it so important for these Church people to conform? Because it’s easier to be told what is acceptable than to live by faith. Live by the same current rulebook, don’t rock the boat, and nobody will get hurt. These people may do more than believe in Jesus, they know and love him, but are sadly lulled into believing that it is not only their right, but their responsibility as Christians to draw lines and point fingers. Here’s the secret about so many of the smiling church people. They live in fear of rejection and are afraid of ostracism from their community. They haven’t yet accepted with utter surety that God created them to be individual works of art, made beautiful by his hand and polished with his blessings. Safety in numbers, their assurance comes from their fellows and they will en masse be wearing the latest styles, watching the latest shows, living moderate lives of mimicry, and not looking too closely at how their lives are not genuinely jubilant.
Whether it’s under the unintentional guise of careful stewardship or consciously nurtured, there are sadly many pastors and church leaders who encourage this mob thinking. They urge their people to read the Bible, but not to question their teaching. They claim to rejoice if their congregation knows Jesus, but insist on intrusively chaperoning the relationship, and they will condemn it as false if they don’t recognize the relationship as exactly the same as theirs. They are very often the pastors who will endlessly remind the people that they are worthless rags of sinners, reinforcing false guilt and shame, and skim lightly over the part that says in accepting God’s love, followers have been made perfect and clean. According to these who are more concerned with administrating than ministering, God only speaks through ancient texts which require years of careful study to interpret and so even as they encourage their flock to have a personal relationship with the lord, they will indoctrinate the need for them to impart to the people who God is and what he means.
Yes, God is the same always, but you are not, and along with common major points, he will speak to you of different things meant for your heart. You have relationships with your mom, your friend, yes, your dentist that no one feels compelled to define and limit for you, but you can’t have one with your Maker that is different from everybody else and belongs to you alone. That would be heresy, Joan of Arc!
Somewhere along the line it became accepted that God has said in his book all he has to say and that’s all you’re going to get. I feel bad for those who live with that limitation. It’s exactly like saying, “Here’s a pamphlet from your dentist. It has all the answers to your dental problems, so when you see Dr. Bloodbath, you can talk to him but he won’t answer you, except to shove the pamphlet back in your face. Your hygienist will explain it all, so probably you can just listen to what she has to say and ignore the doctor anyway, except for when he actually has his hands in your mouth.”
Jesus said there are two commandments: “Love God with all you’ve got to give, and love your neighbor.” That’s it! And those words encompass everything ever written on stone tablets. Love him because he already loves you, and you will never know a greater love than his. Love your neighbor enough to help them live the way you want to live, without fear or harm. That’s truth, and all those other times God spoke to one people or another about circumstances particular to them, or to specific churches facing problems, those are history and good lessons but not commandments. Yes, honey, there are lots of rules he gave the Hebrews, most of which are not followed today and are the subject of “pick and choose” doctrines. At one time he also ordered his Hebrews to slaughter the babies of enemies, but being as that was a different time and place, we defer to the Geneva Convention on that point now, right? In recent years I’ve been told that the Bible says men with long hair can’t sing in church choir, men teaching Sunday School must wear ties, women who don’t have membership can’t hold babies in the nursery. Just because Paul wrote, “While I was visiting a church I noticed some people there had really bad breath” doesn’t mean everyone everywhere for all time needs to take extreme measures to prevent halitosis. The book is not a list of rules that give guides for drawing lines between “US” and “THEM.”
The church was the creation of God, but religion is always man drawing lines to decide who is right and who is wrong. And in the midst of all that, the Author gets ignored. It’s easy to let someone else do the thinking for you, because the thinking is the hard part. It’s hard to examine the literal meanings of the original texts and decide what God is saying to YOU when someone else will gladly use a translation that has been culturally and politically motivated to be biased. And relationships are always hard work! But some really good scriptural advice is “Make it your first priority to seek God.” Don’t ask someone else to tell you what he means, do the work and ask him yourself. I guarantee, he’ll mention unconditional love.