Have you ever noticed that evil never creates or initiates, but only reacts? Recently there was a report of atheists un-blessing a highway with “unholy water”; the Christians do something and the anti-Christians try to undo it. The name “atheism” itself is a reaction, an anti-stance, a mirror image. Criminals destroy what others build up; murderers take life that others create; shadow is simply the absence of light. Satan always tries to subvert what God decrees.
This phenomenon is at the heart of what seems to be a veritable deluge of evil being done in the name of good today. I’ve read many testimonies of churches of all kinds doing great evil and harm against their members, and what makes it worse is that this has been going on for most of church history. We like to fool ourselves into thinking that “in this day and age” certain things no longer happen, as if the sins of the past weren’t so much actual sins but misunderstandings or mistakes or ignorance. Yet as I’ve written before, there has not been a valid “product of their time” excuse since Jesus came; Paul himself said this explicitly to the Greek philosophers on Mars Hill (Acts 17:30).
And just when we think we’ve moved past those alleged periods of spiritual immaturity or poor behavior (calling it anything but sin or evil), it crops up again. I just walked away from a surrealistic informal debate with a professing Christian (Baptist pastor!) who, believe it or not, is convinced that America’s moral decline can be traced to the freeing of slaves; I kid you not. And of course you know from my writings here that we still battle another kind of sanctified slavery, the subjugation of women, so modern-day advocation of ethnic slavery really shouldn’t surprise us. Yet the most pervasive subversion is the enslavement of millions through devious and subtle teachings that sound so righteous and benevolent on the surface. Though the overt enslavement of fellow believers has been suppressed, it was never eradicated. Why?
Because we, as a group, have failed to grasp the extent of what Jesus came to do. I’ve written extensively about that, but it boils down to this: the entire Bible is the account of God creating us with a free will so we could genuinely love him, people’s exercise of that freedom to great self-harm, and God’s patient but relentless leading of people to the point where Jesus could come to redeem us and offer reconciliation to all. So by our free acceptance of this great Gift we can choose to reconcile to God and thus be guaranteed eventual release from this evil world. And as Jesus Himself stated (John 4:21-26), the old ways of sacred buildings, sacrifices, laws etched in stone, and rituals have come to an end. The entire book of Hebrews details the ways in which Jesus did away with the old Jewish laws by fulfilling them, such that anyone who belongs to him has fulfilled them as well. So to continue performing them is an insulting display of ignorance about what he accomplished in his death and resurrection. For Gentiles who were never under that law, Jesus’ accomplishments tell us about “the unknown God” Paul mentioned, so that we are no longer “without hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12).
People seem to know much of this, yet they don’t see how it stands in direct conflict with how “church” has been conducted since the apostles died--- a “falling away” they predicted in no uncertain terms (Acts 20:29-30, 2 Peter 2:1, Jude 1:4). There was no effort to make a comprehensive list of all that these false teachings would entail (short example at 1 Tim. 4:1-3), but instead the focus was on the truth, so that by studying what is right we should be able to quickly identify what is wrong. Yet in spite of lifetimes of Sunday School, somehow the radical freedom Jesus bought for us has been hidden and suppressed, and we have accepted as normal and Godly the institutionalize, hierarchical, religious “church”.
And why is that? Control. Power. Lording over. Conformity rather than true, voluntary unity.
One subtle example of this is the popular but misapplied passage referred to simply as “Matthew 18”, though it’s actually only Mt. 18:15-17 (some say it’s only about personal rather than church-wide issues, but this is disputable since not all manuscripts add “against you”). But look at the context and details: the “church” Jesus mentions had not yet been established, so what ekklesia was he talking about? This word was not used exclusively for the Body of Christ but referred to any group gathered for a common purpose (one source)*. Now while no one would dispute the universality of the moral principles Jesus taught, the passage lacks any specific orders or ordinances for a not-yet established entity. Neither is this “Matthew 18” protocol repeated in any of the Letters or the Acts. In fact, Paul himself did not follow this procedure for the incident he discusses in 1 Cor. 5. Curiously (rather, hypocritically), many who invoke “Matthew 18” today don’t follow it either; they turn an intent to restore and reconcile into a threat to punish and condemn and destroy (one example).
There is the other extreme to beware of as well, where churches allow any and all kinds of sin to live freely and proudly among them, justified by the counterpart to Mt. 18: “do not judge” (Mt. 7:1), which of course is as ripped from context and twisted into oblivion as its opposite. Yet even these professing “tolerant” people are most intolerant (judging!) of anyone who calls for holiness and purity in the Body of Christ. Like their opposites, they distort and subvert the meaning of “love”; they turn what was meant to be care for repentant sinners into the celebration of sin, ignoring Paul’s incredulous objection in Rom. 6:1-2: “What?? Should we keep sinning so we get more of God’s grace? Absolutely not! How can we who died to sin still wallow in it?”
So while one side lacks love and the other holiness, we should also note that often the leaders of each side maintain a double standard; what is imposed on others is not applied to themselves. There are too many horror stories that bear this out: priests/pastors who rape, church councils that shame or mock, slander and stalking of former church members who carry emotional/spiritual scars for life and are often ruined financially as well, etc. We could hope and wish that such things were rare, but any quick internet search on terms like “spiritual abuse” shows that this is a huge and growing problem.
But what about the “middle”, neither the hard-nosed imposition of “Matthew 18” nor the sin-loving “do not judge”? We often find in this area a sea of contradictions and inconsistencies, a sort of buffet or gerrymandering where each person decides the lines are to be drawn. In one respect this is fine; there really are some gray areas left to personal conviction (ex. Rom. 7). But many people either don’t know or don’t care when their personal convictions violate or conflict with clear, indisputable principles of the faith. Many who recoil in horror at both the extremes nonetheless will happily violate basic teachings such as “not so among you” and put one half the Body of Christ under the “lordship” of the other. Or some will sincerely follow the Ten Commandments while excusing the misuse (sometimes even embezzlement) of church “tithes and offerings” (“the pastor deserves a nice house/cruise/Lexus” etc.), or their own adultery, or misusing the name of God. Still others will say, as I’ve mentioned before, that “this is a relationship, not a religion”--- while standing in a sanctuary, near an altar, next to a stage for people in robes performing rituals.
Clearly, just about every facet of the simple faith-centered relationship Jesus established has been subverted in one way or another. Of course Satan is behind anything that would weaken or destroy the Body of Christ, but as sentient beings made in the image of God, we cannot escape our own culpability in all this. We may think that spiritual laziness only affects us, but there is too much evidence to the contrary. By “going along to get along” we perpetuate a religion we can scarcely define or identify. Yet the exclusive and narrow claims of Jesus concerning himself and the warnings of eventual judgment cannot be abandoned without making a farce of the term “Christian”.
Do we who call ourselves Christians really know the Christ we claim to follow? Do we care? And how would anyone tell?
* Of course, just a few verses later Jesus defines ekklesia as “where two or three gather in my name”--- not “where there is a head pastor, sub-pastors, deacons, elders, priests, bishops, and the unwashed masses”. But it’s disputable whether this goes with the preceding discussion, so we cannot say for sure whether he had the Body of Christ in mind anyway.