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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Perfection and the Church

Recently, it seems I've heard a good bit about Christian fiction and how so much of it paints a "Beaver Cleaver" perfect picture of Christians. The CBA publishers and readers have been especially labeled with this accusation, of not portraying "real" people. Though that has and is changing to a large degree, there is no doubt that especially in Christian romance's history, such portrayals have been the rule more than the exception.

And this is not to suggest that we shouldn't show people who are doing the right thing as well. Indeed, there are such people in the world and the only reason some people consider them unrealistic is because they hang out with the wrong crowd and so have never met them. Or they tend to project their own sins upon everyone else in hopes of not feeling so bad about themselves.

But the truth is, no one is perfect, save one. And none of us are Him. And even those that are portrayed as doing the right thing will have their faults and failings, whether we show them or not. Because we live in a fallen world, even the most spiritual among us will fall at points, be hypocritical at points, and flat out sin, and be in need of God's grace and forgiveness. It is why Jesus told Peter when Peter didn't want Him to wash his feet, that if He didn't wash Peter's feet, Peter would have no part with Him. Feet get dirty even among the cleanest of us.

But I would suggest that these perfect Christians that are so often portrayed in Christian literature in times past, are a symptom of our current Christian culture that is fueling a movement more and more away from the Christian ideal that started with Jesus' disciples. If you go back into early Christian literature, one of the most important aspects of the Church was to preserve its unity, to preserve the union of the Body of Christ in all ways, including physically meeting together as one church. But in the last few hundred years, it has instead become more and more splintered until now there are so many groups labeled as Christian who don't associate with each other that it has grown into the thousands.

And while this movement started some time ago, it is now gaining steam as Mike Duran talks about in his blog post, Is the Church Really to Blame for the “Nones”? That was actually the first time I'd heard of the term, but it describes all those who under religious affiliation select "None of the above." They believe in God, but for whatever reason have given up on any kind of organized religion in favor of a denomination of one.

I was wondering why this might be the case. After all, we are commanded not to forsake the gathering of ourselves together. Why has the move to go back to the early church's paradigms fractured Christianity instead of uniting it? If Jesus prayed that we all be one as He and the Father were one, and I would find it hard to think of the two existing in separate churches, was His prayer a pipe dream or a reality to attain?

We could talk about secularism here as a reason. And there would be some reality to that charge. We all grow up with a secular philosophy, a secular view of how the world works, even many Christians see it that way. So it is no wonder that we tend to think everyone just getting along, being relativistic in their beliefs and such is what is really important. What I think is what is important, not what some theologian said hundreds of years ago. Because I'm more modern and have a better understanding of things. Which may be true in a scientific sense, but maybe not so true in a revelational sense. The closer one is in time to the revelation, the more you understand its cultural and worldview underpinnings, meanings that to them were obvious, but to us are a mystery because we are so far removed from that language and culture and its idioms. We tend to overlay our own cultural assumptions on it and come up with different interpretations of the revelations, which is a large part of why as time moved on from the revelation, that interpretations have tended to fracture when not checked by the whole.

But really I think this goes back to two things. One is pride that refuses to submit to authority, to acknowledge that if my interpretation disagrees with the bulk of understanding throughout Church history, guess who is likely to be wrong? Humility, so praised in the Scriptures, comes about through obedience and submission. Both things we see as slavery, being taken advantage of, of trampling upon my rights. And the last thing we want to do is to submit to a church authority that could be just as sinful as we are. So pride tells the individual that they have it right, and everyone else has it wrong, or is okay for them, but not for me. And we like to believe, have often put on the front at church that we are perfect in our Christian walk. And we only want to associate with Christians we see as perfect. And when someone says something we disagree with, who isn't living as they should by our definition, we shun them.

I actually have a couple of scenes in my next book that plays upon that reality, in a town called "Paradise" where everyone believes they are perfect and kills anyone who they don't perceive is. It is contrasted with the real Paradise. It will come out this summer, in the final book of The Reality Chronicles, Reality's Glory.

But this ideal we have set up in our Christian literature of the perfect Christian not only reflects the above pride we have, but sets us up for what we are experiencing. We should, like Christ, expect to find sinners and adulterers and hypocrites in any group of people. Jesus' answer to the hypocrisy of the Pharisees wasn't to dump Judaism. He claimed to fulfill the Old Testament "official" religion, not get rid of it. He obeyed the rituals, said to obey the Pharisees, just don't do what they do, only what they say. All the while He was bringing religion back to its roots and where God had intended for it to go, it was the religious leaders who left Jesus because they didn't recognize him as the Son of God. The few that did, like Nicodemus, followed Christ.

But He never said, "My Father had a good idea with all these ritual things and the temple. But it just didn't turn out like we thought it would. So let's ditch that and start over." Yet, nearly every "reformation" of religion has sought to reform by leaving rather than working within to unite. Because when they didn't agree with our interpretation, which they knew had to be right, they ditched their authorities and started their own group. And that has continued until finally, disillusioned at finding a group that believes exactly as I do, they go it alone, refusing to associate, like Jesus did with sinners, with those hypocrites.

But here's the reality. No one person will have the whole truth. That is a given in relativistic thinking. Because my truth is not your truth, so they say, not believing in any absolute truths, even if they believe in a God, often of their own making. But no matter who you are, how much you have studied, what degrees you have behind your name, no one but Jesus Christ would ever have it all right. I'm sure I hold beliefs and underlying views that are wrong. I'm sure there are actions I've committed which go against my beliefs and morals. Why? Because I'm finite, human, and unlike God, I'm not infallible. All of us are hypocrites because none of us have followed perfectly our own moral code and beliefs.

And because of that reality, no one in any church group will be either. And that is why Jesus said He was called to the sick, not the healthy. If you think you have it all together, are correct in all you believe, and that everyone else is in error, Jesus did not come for you. You're on your own. No, God's prescription for those who are called by His name are that they are humbled before God and man, seek His face, and admit they are sinners. Even, as St. Paul said, the chief of sinners. Then will He hear you, forgiven you, heal you, and call you one of His.

Now, what's more important? To feed your pride and think you have it all nailed down so well that you can ditch all the other Christians in the world and not associate with them or submit to anyone? Or to be called by God as one of His chosen people? Are we willing to accept the position of door keeper for the joy of being in God's house over the exalted position of our own making? Are we ready to admit that we too are sick and need Christ as much as that hypocrite over there? And if so, are we called to minister to them, or not associate with them? Read the Scriptures, see what Jesus did, and if you have an open mind, the answer will be obvious.

When we give up on us being right all the time, and accept that the Church, the Body of Christ, is full of flawed sinners and morally corrupted people who desperately need Christ, the very people He commanded to go into the highways and byways to find, but that our salvation is inherent in submitting to it, then we can start to get back to the early Church's reality and life as a body of Christ living on this Earth. The perfection our literature tends to idolize should not become the measure of our own Christianity, or we will have none of the above, including Christ.

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