There is a version of the Christian faith that in effect says this: ‘Do whatever you like. If you believe in Jesus and that he died for you, then all your sins are taken away.’ In essence there are Christians who believe that all we have to do is to believe and receive. The content of what we are expected to believe is carefully set out in a few sentences. It will always include a version of the typical conservative understanding of the death of Jesus alongside a belief that he is the Son of God. There will also be a statement to the effect that the Bible contains all the truth we need. The particular teaching on the meaning of Jesus’ death is, for evangelicals, non-negotiable. It is a teaching which is commonly described as the substitutionary understanding of the atonement. I have, in a previous post, discussed the content of this belief which is one that sets out how Christ’s death is one that releases us from the punishment that we have deserved.
I have in a few words set out the faith statement of countless conservative Christians across the world. I call this version of Christianity, a ‘lite’ one, insofar as it focuses on the believing side of faith while partially or sometimes completely ignoring the behaviour and ethical teachings of the Bible. Many conservative Christians would immediately defend themselves by saying that there is a great deal about ethics in their versions of the faith. In practice, however, there is a disproportionate amount of attention on issues around sex. Conservative teaching seems to focus extensively on particular aspects of sexual behaviour. We hear from conservative preachers a great deal about homosexuality but very little about divorce. Jesus actually spoke about the latter but said nothing about the former. One is begins to see how the ‘doing’ part of Jesus’ teaching is taking second place to a stress on believing in this presentation of the Christian faith.
From a book I am reading, I can mention a scandal that took place in 1993 at the Mississippi Bible College to illustrate the point I make about the relative unimportance of doing as opposed to believing. The president of the College, one Lewis Nobles, embezzled $3 million from his college and compounded his offence by spending $400,000 on the services of prostitutes. The reaction of many people around the community was to say, ‘But Dr Nobles is a good Christian man.’ They could not accept that his behaviour was thoroughly bad, un-Christian and was undermining the integrity of the faith he was supposed to confess. Somehow the fact that Dr Nobles had said he was a Christian, that he had accepted Jesus as his Lord and Saviour, trumped the disgust that many must have felt. Making allowances for other people, who are signed-up Christians, also appeared in the trial of Eric Rudolph who was involved in a fatal bombing of an abortion clinic. One woman said of him, ‘He is a Christian and I am a Christian. He dedicated his life to fighting abortion. Those are our values.’
In thinking about the implications of this bizarre statement, we may note that such a stand is supposedly based on an adherence to ‘Biblical values’ The anti-abortion position would no doubt appeal to the commandment not to kill. But there is a grotesque irony in the fact that not only that Rudolph himself killed someone, but he seems to have completely bypassed other moral teachings of Jesus. It would be tedious to list all the ways in which the gospel moral commands are being totally ignored by Rudolph but it is hard to see how the command to ‘love your enemies’ is being followed. No doubt Rudolph was receiving support from his fellow Christians for his behaviour and, in particular, the leaders of his church. They were in effect teaching that it was not important to follow the teaching of Jesus but more important to surrender to their highly politicised version of the faith. We might summarise their message ‘Do as we say; don’t do as Jesus says.’
The emphasis of being a ‘correct’ Christian rather than actually doing what Christians are called to be and to do in the New Testament reminds one of the game of Monopoly. Sometimes the player picks up a card which says ‘Get out of jail free’. This can be played whenever you happen to fall on the ‘go to jail’ square. This ‘believe and receive’ version of Christianity is a bit like having a permanent ability to escape the consequences of immorality and evil, regardless of what you do. The kind of Christianity, that emphasises belief along with little sense of responsibility for one’s actions, will also have other unfortunate results. It will do little to encourage the Christian believer to feel any responsibility for those beyond the congregation, the poor, the hungry or the unemployed. On other occasions I have mentioned how these attitudes translate into a political world view that defends low taxes for the rich and a rejection of public funding for healthcare. I am course here speaking about the situation in the United States.
Some of my readers may feel that I am presenting a version of Christianity, which does not really exist except in my imagination. I would ask such people why it is that some Christians have failed to applaud the work and vision of fellow Christians who have laboured to transform the lot of humanity through compassionate service in countries overseas. The readiness with which some Christian groups go to proselytise in areas of the world where the Church has been long established, on the grounds that the people of the area do not have the truth of Biblical Christianity is, to my mind, a disgrace. Surely the work of decades, even centuries to transform a culture and civilisation through Christian teaching and service is something that all should applaud. I am of course thinking of the work of Roman Catholics in South America in particular. Even if we do not agree with everything that this original group taught (and I don’t), can we not perhaps recognise God at work in this mammoth effort of service to humanity?