‘Religion’, Christ and the Church

As you probably already know, Jefferson Bethke’s video below has sparked a lot of discussion of late:

‘Religion’, Jeff would have us believe, is hypocritical, bigoted superstition, whereas ‘faith’, a personal relationship with God, not bogged down by authority or ritual, is the essence of true communion with God. Truth be told, Jeff isn’t really saying anything new. ‘Organised religion’ has been a dirty word for years now – ‘personal religion’ is fine and dandy, but when religion becomes an institution, with priests and creeds and rituals, then it becomes a cult-like abomination. To be fair, Jeff (a Christian) obviously doesn’t object to the Church itself, but from his video, one gets the impression that he would prefer a Church completely devoid of rites and rituals and other overtly ‘religious’ things.

But besides that, the brute fact of the matter is that as simple and occasionally powerful as Jeff’s words are, they simply cannot survive an encounter with real evil. The problem isn’t that Jeff goes too far, it’s that he doesn’t go far enough. It goes without saying that religious hypocrisy is a bad thing, and others have already dealt with Jeff’s arguments in this respect (see Fr. Antonios Kaldas and Fr. Andrew Damick). That’s not my concern in this post. My problem is with Jeff’s climax, his ultimate solution, what he calls ‘grace’:

“I no longer have to hide my failures, I don’t have to hide my sin

Because my salvation doesn’t depend on me, it depends on him.

Salvation is freely mine, forgiveness is my own,

Not based on my efforts, but Christ’s obedience alone.

Because when he was dangling on that cross, he was thinking of you

He paid for all your sin, and then buried it in the tomb …”

Everything’s going to be okay, Jeff tells us, because Christ has already paid the penalty for our sins. He did all the hard work on the cross; He’s already paid the price so that we can be forgiven, now all that remains is for us to accept His forgiveness and stroll gaily into Heaven. You don’t need priests or magic rituals; the Church is a cool place to hang out with other Christians, but there’s not much reason beyond that for you to be there. Once you’ve accepted Christ’s sacrifice and been forgiven, that’s all you really need, right? ‘Organised religion’, with it’s magical spells and rigid rules is superfluous.

I’ll explain why I disagree in a moment, but first I need to admit something: I used to agree heartily with Jeff. Surely, I thought, pure Christianity, the Christianity of Spirit and Truth (John 4:24) was all about sincerity, love and forgiveness. The only things that Orthodoxy seemed to add to this ‘pure’ Christianity were blindly observed rituals like the Eucharist and suspiciously paganish ‘unctions’ for the healing of illnesses and blessing of houses. I often used to think quietly to myself, “I’d be much happier in a less ‘superstitious’ church”.

Obviously, I’ve since changed my mind. Orthodoxy has a very different, (and what I believe is a far more scriptually accurate) concept of ‘grace’, and it refers to far more than forgiveness. Yes, of course Christ has forgiven us. And yes, there is a sense (although not necessarily an accurate one) in which Christ has ‘paid the penalty’ for our sins. But that is not the whole story. You see, while I am genuinely grateful that Christ has forgiven me, I would be a fool if I was content with forgiveness alone, and Christ would be cruel if He stopped there. Of course I want to be forgiven, but what I want beyond that, and what Christ really wants for me, is for me to be HEALED. For that to happen, Christ needs to do more than simply tell me, “I forgive you.” The only thing that can heal me (and you and Jeff) is God’s actual presence; intimate, real communion with Him. And for that, we need a Church; a living connection to the physical, historical Christ.

But it goes far, far deeper than mere ‘personal’ redemption. In Orthodoxy, it is not only human beings that need redemption, it is all Creation. When Adam and Eve sinned, they plunged the entire physical world screaming downwards into the dark ‘nothing’ from which Christ had called it – and in that terrible place we sat for thousands of years, ‘in darkness and the shadow of death’, where death instead of Christ became our king. That’s why the world we now inhabit is infused at once with both breathtaking beauty and unfathomable horror. We can admire, for example, the beauty of the world’s oceans when they are glassy and serene; but when their terrible jaws are opened, they swallow cities whole and leave beaches littered with children’s corpses. The whole world is comprised of beauty tinged with terror. When confronted with the wreckage of entire cities laid to waste by a hungry ocean, or bodies torn to pieces by carpet bombs, or the lonely teen who spends lonely, tear-filled nights cutting herself in a locked bathroom, Jeff’s cry that “Christ has paid for your crimes!” rings out surprisingly hollow, not because it’s false, but because it’s incomplete.  Our selfishness and stupidity cry out for forgiveness, but our brokenness, our loneliness, our terror and our pain scream out even louder for health and life and redemption. Our personal sin is only part of a far larger problem, and even personal sin cannot be healed by forgiveness alone. We need not only for God to forgive us, we need Him to draw us up into Himself. As St. Augustine said, “You have made us for Yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” God did not make us so that we might sin and be forgiven; that was an unfortunate extra chapter which we added to what should have been a much shorter book. The reason that you and I and Jeff exist, is to be drawn into God, to live in communion with Him. Only then, when the whole world, including and beginning with our own hearts, is shot through with the brilliant light of God’s presence, will all tears be wiped and every wound be healed. That is what we understand as ‘grace’ – God’s actual, living, healing presence in and among us. The Greek word ‘kharis’ which we translate as ‘grace’ literally means a ‘gift’; God has given us the gift of Himself.

And that is why Christ came – the Incarnation was the epicentre of a sort of ‘creative (or re-creative) explosion’, whereby God began the process of remaking the broken world by becoming ever more present within it. He didn’t just order it to be made right, He personally invaded it. By taking flesh, by binding Himself to physical atoms and cells, He began to inject Himself into the world, almost like a virus or an infection (in fact, CS Lewis often the phrase ‘good infection’.) And here’s the point of the entire post; this is why I think Jeff has only half the truth: the Church IS that infection, and a lot of the things it uses to achieve its purpose (symbols, sacraments, community, a ‘priesthood’) are fairly clearly properties of ‘organised religion’.

St. Paul didn’t pull any punches when he described the Church as Christ’s ‘body’:

For we are members of His body, of His flesh and of His bones. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the church.

(Eph 5:30-32)

The marital imagery of Christ and the Church deserves far more attention than can be given to it here, but Orthodox writers often go stunningly far describing how the Church’s members become assumed into Christ’s life. St. Athanasius said “God became man so that men might become gods.”  The Church is far more than a place to hold Bible studies, it is Christ’s invasion force. He is literally turning us into little Christ’s; so that He can use us to set the world right, to do His re-creative work by tending the afflicted, (Matt 25:34-36) healing the sick (James 5:14-15) and forgiving the sinful (John 20:22-23, James 5:16). Christ has given the Church Himself, and bestowed upon it His own powers of healing and restoration (even, to an extent, His miraculous powers), so that those powers can be exercised over the physical world. The Church enacts and exercises those powers through its sacramentality (especially its Eucharist), things which Jeff might dismiss as empty and ‘religious’. The ritual, ‘religious’ element of Church life is not blind, paganish superstition – it is what the Orthodox often call ‘sacramental grace‘ – the divine invasion of the Creator into the Creation; God’s gift of Himself.

Historically speaking, it is almost undeniably certain that the historical Jesus uttered something like the words, ‘Take, eat, this is My Body,’ and ‘This is My Blood of the New Covenant’. An honest reading of John 6 would seem to demand that He did not mean this metaphorically. He is saying to the Church: “I promised to heal your broken world, and here’s the proof. Whenever you gather together and call upon Me, I will become atoms and molecules before your eyes; I will become matter.  Not just any matter, but Bread and Wine. That’s because I want you to eat Me. Yes, that’s right. Don’t just admire Me. Don’t just pray to Me. Don’t just thank Me for forgiving you. I have forgiven you, but that’s only the beginning. I am not only your Forgiver but your Redeemer, your SAVIOUR. So EAT ME! ABSORB ME! Take My flesh into yours! Let Me HEAL you! Let Me CHANGE you from the INSIDE! Let your flesh become MY Flesh, let your blood become MY Blood. Then, My dear son/daughter, You will see what real flesh, real blood and real LIFE really mean.”

Let me finish by summing up, as shortly and sweetly as possible, the essence of my objection to Jeff’s video. Jeff would have us believe that:

 “Religion says ‘do’, [but] Jesus says ‘done’”

But no. Jesus does not say ‘done’. Jesus says, “There is much to be done. While your body still groans with illness, while My children still weep and die, while you are still poisoned by foul desires to dominate and destroy, there is more to be done. Your world is broken, you are broken, and you need ME. You need not only My forgiveness, not only My love, You need My presence. You need ME.” Jesus didn’t come to abolish religion, He came to abolish death. And the ‘organised’ Church, complete with sacraments and what we call a ‘priesthood’ (although the early Christians never used that term), is where death goes to die. I can’t speak for other ‘organised religions’, but the organised Christian Church (as tragically dogmatic, unthinking and corrupt) as it sometimes is, is one body which I don’t think humanity can do without.

(Edit: According to his Facebook page, Jeff apparently acknowledges the importance of the Church as the Bride of Christ (although it’s not clear what he understands that to mean). Perhaps whenever he said ‘religion’ he merely meant ‘hypocrisy’, although if the organised body of Christians is not a ‘religious’ body then I don’t know what is.)

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7 thoughts on “‘Religion’, Christ and the Church

  1. […] went back to ‘Mere Christianity’ after writing the last post about ‘Religion’, Christ and the Church, to remind myself of exactly what he had said about God’s invasion of reality, His […]

  2. Sam, you have some interesting sentiments to share here. The idea of healing and restoration is an essential part of Christianity, and I think this is carried over into Wesleyan theology. If you read John Wesley for example he talks about the transformational power of the grace of sanctification in the Christian life, whereby God provides healing and purification to the life of the believer. Wesley called this “entire sanctification” or “Christian perfection”* whereby God himself, coming to dwell within you by the Holy Spirit, restores you gradually each day as you trust in Him and persevere in faith.

    Perhaps one of the distinctive protestant insights (or emphases) into Christianity therefore is the priesthood of all believers, whereby it follows that since all individuals are the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19), the fellowship of the whole Church persevering together in the unity of holiness is essential for the perseverance of the saints and thus for the transformational cleansing and healing of God to take place. Church on Sunday, therefore, is Christians’ coming together corporately into God’s presence for the learning of the scriptures, the mutual encouragement of perseverance in the holiness of faith, the commemoration of the atoning body and blood of the Lord through communion**, the praying to God for communion with Him, and the seeking after good works holiness in order to glorify God (cf. Acts 2:42-47). In the protestant (and Wesleyan by extension) view, such actions are the fruit which comes by the grace of the Holy Spirit through faith, which in inspires in our hearts such love for God as to adore Him and serve Him as our Good Master.

    Given this, the Church as a body is the channel through which God’s transformation and healing of our lives takes place through our connection with Christ via the Holy Spirit, not so much in the physical expression and nature of the Church’s ordinances and sacraments etc., but through the spiritual transformation which comes through sanctification, which is the inner work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer. Church is essential for the Christian life in this regard, as all believers press on together through all those Acts. 2:42-47 means mentioned above.

    Anyway, sorry for the long thought! It was a good piece of writing you put up Sam–quite interesting to me.

    Your Wesleyan brother in Christ.
    _________________

    * By “perfection” Wesley did not mean “perfectionism,” whereby one must necessarily be completely perfect of themselves and their works to enter into God’s presence. He simply mean the entirety of the extent of God’s transformational healing power through the Holy Spirit’s indwelling.

    ** The communion of bread and wine as a memorial of Christ’s sacrifice is explicit in the New Testament (Matt. 26:26; Lk. 22:19; 1 Cor 11:23-26). But as to the nature of what the bread and wine are is obviously disputed. I have a hard time exegetically thinking that Jesus taught in John 6 and elsewhere that the wine and bread would transubstantiate into his essence following the consecration, but what is without doubt in my mind is that it is the ACT of partaking in this communion through which the Holy Spirit sanctifies the soul. I am not confident that it is the bread and wine per se which achieve this end, but the act of faith.

    • Thanks for the comment Brendan! I really enjoyed it. You’ve really piqued my interest in Wesleyanism! Wesley’s idea of ‘entire sanctification’ sounds very similar in some ways to the Orthodox idea of ‘divinisation’, where the Holy Spirit similarly works to bring the believer into healing communion with God. Then again that’s probably not surprising given the strength of Scriptural (and experiential!) case for the Holy Spirit’s ‘saving work’ in all of our lives. Orthodox, Catholic and various schools Protestant thought all seem to approach this process differently, from different angles and with different emphases, but it seems undeniable that this is a universal Christian doctrine which binds Christians of all denominations together. I like to think that our submission to the Holy Spirit is something that unites all mainline Christians very powerfully, despite the unfortunate disagreements and divisions that currently afflict the Church.

      The priesthood of all believers is a BEAUTIFUL idea. Orthodox authors often speak of it as well … 1 Peter 2:9 describes the entire a church as a ‘royal priesthood’, and Orthodoxy distinguishes between this ROYAL priesthood which is the power and calling of all Christians, and the MINISTERIAL priesthood which is an ordinance for the running of the Church. The ROYAL priesthood is one of ‘sanctity’ – all Christians are supposed to ‘offer themselves and the world to God’; they do this by treating each other with love and respect, and loving and caring for the natural world. By doing this, they make a ‘priestly offering’ back to God of all the things which God originally gave them. The MINISTERIAL priesthood is not a priesthood of ‘sanctity’ but of ‘order’ – it is an organisational part of Church structure. The priest communicates the presence of the real, physical Christ to the assembled Church – He heals using Christ’s power, He forgives sins using Christ’s authority, He gives Christ’s Body and Blood to the communicants as Christ did at the Last Supper, He prays for them, washes their feet etc. Fr. Thomas Hopko puts it this way: “The sacrament of holy orders in the Christian Church is the objective guarantee of the perpetual presence of Christ with his people. The bishops, priests and deacons have no other function or service than to manifest the presence and action of Christ to his people … the clergy do not act on behalf of Christ or instead of Christ as though he himself were absent. They are neither vicars nor substitutes nor representatives of Christ. … they receive the gift of the Holy Spirit to MANIFEST Christ in the Spirit to men.” So the ministerial and royal priesthoods are two very different things.

      As regards the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the Orthodox don’t hold to transubstantiation. The best way I’ve heard it put is that as much as God the Son was present in the physical body of Jesus of Nazareth, He is present in the physical bread and wine of the Eucharist. I think the best arguments come from analysing the original Greek of John 6 – the words Jesus uses to describe the eating of His Flesh and Blood are fairly unambiguous. I’ll have to chase up some resources for you on that one day and see what you think.

      Anyhow, thanks again! God bless – hope to see you soon.

      In Christ,
      Sam

  3. […] younger person’s take on the subject: Glory and Rubbish VN:F [1.7.4_987]please wait…Rating: 7.5/10 (4 votes cast)VN:F [1.7.4_987]Rating: +5 (from 5 […]

  4. Dancykiddo says:

    Hi Sam,
    I’m a born-again disciple of Christ, and I was really moved by Jefferson’s video and I found this blog. I’m non-denominational, because I think that no current denomination perfectly mirrors the Bible’s (sorry if I sound arrogant). But I’ll just say that I’m Protestant because Protestantism most effectively depicts my beliefs.

    Enough about me! I wanted to address the topic of your final paragraph.
    I do think Jefferson uses the term “religion” to refer to false religions–Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Jainism, etc.
    Of course, Christianity is also technically a religion (James 1:27), but it’s markedly different from others in that it proclaims that the worshipers already have the love of the object/person of worship. You probably love this uniqueness too? 🙂

    Religions usually tend to make worshipers EARN love from their respective gods by working their way up/heaping up good deeds. But Christianity promises a God who loves unconditionally (1 John 4:10). So Jefferson comforts these love-earners and says that they can stop exhausting themselves to earn love from God.

    Since a lot of people view Christianity as a regular religion, Jefferson tries to shatter this mundane image. Why? In an effort to convey the truth–that Christianity is more than just a religion. So Jefferson says that Christianity is not a religion.
    It’s very similar to how Jesus employs dramatic contrast to wake up his crowd to His sermons.

    Examples:
    “I no longer call you my servants, but friends”–John 15:15
    “Go away, for the girl is not dead, but asleep”–Matthew 9:24
    “For the heart of this people has become dull, with their ears they scarcely hear, and they have closed their eyes, otherwise they would see with their eyes, hear with their ears, and understand with their heart and return, and I would heal them.”–Matthew 13:15

    We all know that we are His servants. We all know that the girl is dead. We all know that those people weren’t dead or blind. Was Jesus LYING?
    Of course not. He was using exaggeration, poetry, and contrast to help us remember His teachings. Similarly, Jefferson isn’t saying that Christianity isn’t a religion, or not its religious rites aren’t important.

    What do you think? Are you angry, overjoyed? Lemme know! Hopefully not angry… 😉

    God bless you!

    With Christ’s love,
    Dancykid

    • Dancykiddo says:

      deaf* or blind.
      Sorry. Typo.

    • Sam says:

      Hey Dancykid! I’m sorry I didn’t reply earlier; thank you so much for your comment though. I’m certainly not angry 😀

      With two years retrospect, I may have been a bit harsh on Jeff. But I take your point – Jeff isn’t denying that Christianity is in some senses a religion. And I agree, Christianity is unique among world religions in the respects you outlined. But in modern parlance, ‘religion’ doesn’t just refer to FALSE religion. I suspect Jefferson also wants to suggest that sacraments and priests and religious rituals are also empty, meaningless things. That’s a position which I can’t sympathise with, because it assumes that ritual is incapable of being an expression of true religion. That’s my main point; a religion which lacks any ritual element also lacks an ontological element: it saves the ‘mind’ but not the whole person (mind, body, spirit, emotions etc.), which only ritual can properly do.

      Happy to elaborate if you’re interested. Do you have a blog somewhere?

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