America has an identity crisis. She doesn’t know who she is, where she came from, or what she will become. Once liberals infiltrated education a great sanitization ensued. Narrative replaced facts. Instead of a solid rock foundation, history became a clay tablet in the hands of progressives who omitted what didn’t fit the narrative or rewrote it to suit their agenda. And it continues before our eyes as we see the war against the statues from sea to shining sea. We have an entire generation of people (like former President Obama) whose education taught them that there never was anything great about America. As a matter of fact, they believe the American republic is a blight on the entire world. America’s future is uncertain and up for grabs to whoever screams the loudest and threatens the most.
The American church has an identity crisis too. Many have tied their religious identity to the national identity and since it is out of sync so too are they. It is a classic case of culture shaping the church’s persona rather than the church transforming culture. Once education fell to the liberals their next target was religion in general and Christianity in particular. Creeds were replaced with cute but vacuous little ditties that resemble eastern mysticism mantras more than vital Christian worship. Sermons are preached to gain approval rather than convict a sinner. Seminaries have become bastions of progressivism and pluralism, and the Bible (much like the American Constitution) is treated as an evolving document.
While many are individually faithful followers of Christ, generally speaking the American church as a corporate entity is not really Christian anymore. You simply cannot have churches promoting sexual immorality, theological pluralism, and equating social justice to evangelism and have it all reside under the umbrella of Christianity.
I like what author Hans Küng says in his book Why I am Still a Christian. First, he acknowledges all of the hate and injustices done by people and groups calling themselves Christians:
I have no intention of whitewashing the history of Christianity, or glossing over its defects; not only the persecutions of our Jewish brothers and sisters, the crusades, the heretic trials, the witch burnings and the religious wars…the slavery question, the war question, and the race question; and the manifold complicity of the churches with the rulers of various countries in their neglect of the despised, downtrodden, oppressed, and exploited peoples…
We’ve all heard the sins of the church dragged out to justify why the world would be a better place without Christianity. But then Küng makes a powerful point when he writes,
But I ask you: is all this even “Christian”? Believers and unbelievers must affirm that it is “Christian” only in a traditional, superficial, and untrue sense…none of this is Christian in the deeper, pure, original sense; none of it is truly Christian. It has nothing to do with the Christ to whose name it appeals. In many ways it is part of what brought him to the cross. It is in fact pseudo-Christian or anti-Christian (pp. 29-30).
So, no, this isn’t about bashing the church again. It’s pointing out that much of what is being passed off as the church is a cheap substitute; a farce.
Let me suggest five things that reveal authentic Christianity over and against what is calling itself Christian today. Five characteristics of a truly Christian identity. This isn’t meant to be exhaustive or even definitive. However, if you have read your Bible you will know that these five things are universally recognized as authentically “Christian.”
One: Jesus Christ
You would think this would be obvious. There are more churches than you would like to think who have no real need for Jesus any longer. A delegate to a denominational conference once said after someone appealed to Jesus for His guidance, “We’ve gone beyond Jesus.” For many who call themselves Christians, Jesus is nothing more than a love guru. He is not real, authoritative, or even relevant to contemporary issues. Their “worship” services reflect that. You can go through an entire service in many churches without ever hearing His name in song, prayer, or sermon. The same can be said for far too many individuals who think they are Christians. They never speak the name of Christ. They are embarrassed by it and afraid they will offend if they speak it.
For the apostles there was no generic version of Christianity which spoke only of God and made salvation a state of mind or being. “This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders…And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:11-12). Christ Himself made it perfectly clear: “I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins” (John 8:24). There is no such thing as a Christianity devoid of Jesus. To be authentically Christian you must be what this world (and many who go to church) disdainfully call a “Jesus freak.”
Two: the Bible
Reading a couple of verses a day from a devotional magazine or book that includes an application and a prayer is not reading the Bible. It (he/she) is not Christian that is not immersed in God’s word. Jesus Himself relied on it, quoted frequently from it, and equated His own words to it when He said, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Matt. 24:35). Listen carefully to much of the music in many churches today (particularly the megachurches). There is a lot about feelings and almost nothing derived from Scripture. Hymnals that actually taught the Bible in song have been shelved for electronic media that puts pretty pictures in the background of meaningless oft repeated phrases.
In a study conducted by the Barna Group in 2010 the first of six “Megathemes” identified by the research was “The Christian Church is becoming less theologically literate.” Barna says, “What used to be basic, universally-known truths about Christianity are now unknown mysteries to a large and growing share of Americans…” A couple of examples the study cites are, “only a minority of adults associate Easter with the resurrection of Jesus Christ,” and “a growing majority believe the Holy Spirit is a symbol of God’s presence or power, but not a living entity.” Unfortunately, we have far too many preachers who know more about what Thomas Merton, Richard Foster, and Rick Warren have said and written than what Jesus and the Bible say. According to 2 Tim. 3:16-17 Scripture alone contains what is needed to make human beings complete. There is no true Christianity without the Bible.
Christians in name only give lip service to the word of God (Matt. 15:8). Authentic Christians obey it (John 15:14). They obey it when it’s convenient and they obey it when it is difficult to do so. Yes, authentic Christians sin. But if they are the real deal, they heed the relentless conviction of the Holy Spirit and repent. What they don’t do is change the clear meaning of Scripture in order to justify their lusts and misbehavior. John says, “Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil” and “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning…” (1 John 3:8; 9).
You are not a true Christian if your greatest interest is in how much you can get away with and still go to heaven. Churches are full of folk who wonder how little they can give and still be accounted a good steward. How many times they can forsake corporate worship and still be considered a faithful follower of God. How antiquated the Bible is concerning human sexuality and how proud God must be of their new found sexual freedom. There is no true Christianity that seeks to avert faithful and joyful obedience to God and His word.
It’s not Christian if the world accepts it. The last beatitude in the Sermon on the Mount is “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you…” (Matt. 5:11). James affirms this when he writes, “friendship with the world is enmity with God” (James 4:4). Peter says, “do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Peter 4:12).
People despise the truth. Remember, Jesus said, “people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil” (John 3:19). There is simply no getting through this life faithfully as a Christian without paying an uncomfortable price. Never forget…they killed Jesus and savaged His apostles.
True Christian love neither accommodates nor accepts sin. It weeps over it. It stands in front of it trying to block its path and nullify its influence. When Jesus talked about love He framed it in terms of self-sacrifice; not self-indulgence: “Greater love has no one than this, that somebody lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Christian love is willing to pay the price for being faithful and staying true. God so loved the world that He gave it His only Son…to forever defeat sin. Love doesn’t accept sin. It conquers it (1 John 3:8).
Not everything that passes itself off as Christian is authentic. While there is more to being a Christian than the five things I’ve listed above, every true Christian reflects these characteristics. What we say of ourselves is far less relevant that what He says of us.
Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven…And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness” (Matt. 7:21; 23).
Jesus Christ is Lord and the unashamedly faithful are His church. Amen.