Last night at work I had one coherent thought (the Dayquil must have kicked in, however briefly): that Christianity has long been mistaken for a belief. It was one of those things that suddenly seem so embarrassingly obvious.
It is not a revolutionary thought. We’ve all heard the cliche “it’s not a religion, it’s a relationship” stuff, and that seemed revolutionary at first too, but that message didn’t seem to penetrate. These days, I usually hear that line from people who feel comfortable not bothering to engage with a church, or even any other form of Christian community, much less with the much harder work of actually following Jesus. The revolutionary, iconoclastic, non-religious nature of actually being a disciple of Christ, the call to dig down to the difficult and core notion of what it means to relate to the God of the universe, has become a cliche way to justify shedding the outward trappings of religion in favour of a similar level of complacency – now guilt-free!
So that wasn’t what I was thinking when I had my moment of clarity on the factory floor. What I was thinking is that Christianity is not a system of belief; that’s Christian theology. Christianity, or being a disciple of Christ, is an activity of sorts: specifically, an ethical system or approach that presupposes or assumes the content of Christian theology. Simply put, believing Jesus is God does not make me a Christian; acting like Jesus does.
This also is not new or revolutionary. It’s straight from the epistle of James. I think the profundity of the thought, and what makes it worth sharing here, is how easily and repeatedly we miss this. We have to keep giving it new terminology to keep the message fresh. When “faith without works is dead” (from James) failed to prevent hundreds of years of empty piety and emphasis on orthodoxy (right belief) without orthopraxis (right actions) in the name of God’s grace, we went to “it’s not a religion, it’s a relationship,” which itself lasted about ten minutes before it lost any power to actually change our behaviour. How many other warnings, commands, and cliches have there been to tell us that Christianity is something we do more than something we believe or ascribe to?
This brings me back to another question that’s been rattling in my head for the past week: what really makes someone a Christian? Despite James’ insistence that faith without works is dead, when Pastor Tim Keller was asked this question by the New York Times last week he spent the whole interview talking about the things someone must believe. On the other hand, when Jesus talked to his disciples about who his real followers were, it was all about actions:
34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” – Matthew 25:34-46
Serious stuff. After years of study and familiarity with the Bible, this passage still always chills me, fills me with the “fear of the Lord,” erodes my complacency. Because it gets to the heart of the matter, and I don’t know how I measure up.
Nowhere here does Jesus say that people had to acknowledge his divinity in order to be saved. Nowhere does it say that they must “invite him into their hearts”, that they must attend church and tithe, that they must believe theological statements or hold certain moral values or views. In fact, the people he acknowledges as truly belonging to him are mostly ignorant of having served him at all.
Which is not to say that we should not believe the right things; rather, behaving this way, embodying the Kingdom of God through ethical engagement with our communities and society, is only really possible and makes sense if we have a vision of that otherwise invisible Kingdom. Theology gives us that. Worship is not what defines us, but rather what forms us into people who, in our actions and orientation to God, resemble Jesus. Maintaining Christian community is not the goal of discipleship, it is the context of discipleship – it’s where we serve one another, and it is from where we go out to serve other communities. And holding moral codes is not the content of the gospel, it is our defence from the things that can distract us from our service to God and others. None of these things make us a Christian, but they can all help; but separated from actually following Christ, these things can just as easily be stumbling blocks, giving us a false sense of piety and complacency that keeps us from actually becoming Christians. The “goats” in the passage above (and other similar passages – e.g., Matthew 22:1-14) thought they were on team Jesus, but had missed the most important part.
By putting beliefs, morality, church attendance, etc., ahead of ethics we have developed a religion that is “a form of godliness but denying its power” (see 2 Timothy 3).