Why This Matters to Me
So much of my life has been doctrine-oriented. I wanted to make sure that all of the t’s were crossed and all of the i’s were dotted. I spent hours studying, reading, and talking with other Christians with the purpose of gaining more knowledge.
Much of my time is still spent in the same way but with a different focus. You see, when you confuse “false teaching” with “teaching that is factually incorrect” then any questions, doubts, or uncertainties mean that your eternal soul is at stake.
One misinterpretation, one incorrect practice, one false statement and you have added to the gospel of Jesus (Galatians 1:6-10). You have added to the book (Revelation 22:18-19). And since the word of God is true and is that which sanctifies, you no longer teach the word of God if you do not teach truth (John 17:17).
In this paradigm, it is almost as if it is correct beliefs that save, not Jesus.
So one’s salvation is dependent upon their ability to read, study, debate, and defend their faith. After all, 1 Peter 3:15 says that we should “be ready always to give an answer,” and Paul says that we are to “study to show ourselves approved” (2 Timothy 2:15).
These texts, none of which I believe accurately reflect the original intention of the author, forced me into a never ending loop of spiritual depression. The more I studied, the more I learned, and the more I learned, the more I realized I didn’t know. The more I realized I didn’t know, the more afraid I became for my soul, so I had to study more and more and more and more.
The worst part of this was that, if the things I was learning were true, then everyone else has to know them as well, so I was compelled to teach truth. I mean, Jesus does say that he brings divisions between family, right (Matthew 10:34-39, another proof text)?
This type of life led to a kind of spiritual supremacy: “Now I have the Truth.” It was also quickly followed by fear: fear for myself who would soon question other beliefs, fear for those who didn’t agree with me, and fear of what life would look like in the future if I did question other beliefs.
Two Passages that Changed my Life
Here are two passages transformed how I view my walk with God. One came quickly, but another showed itself a few years later.
My good friend Dr. Dallas Burdette shared this passage with me, and when he did, I couldn’t even believe that something like this was in the Bible.
Now concerning things sacrificed to idols, we know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge makes arrogant, but love edifies. If anyone supposes that he knows anything, he has not yet known as he ought to know; but if anyone loves God, he is known by Him.1 Corinthians 8:1–3
This hit my right between the eyes. So much of my life was geared towards gaining more and more knowledge. When Pilate asked, “What is truth?” my answer would have been something about a list of doctrines, beliefs, and interpretations of the Bible. This meant a relentless pursuit of knowledge in search of that truth.
Knowledge, the very thing I was after, makes someone arrogant. Wow. And if I claimed to be absolutely certain about my opinions, then I haven’t yet learned as I ought to. Whew.
Okay, onto another one.
For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.Galatians 5:6
I first came across this passage thanks to my friend Brian McLaren. Like the passage from Dallas, this is one I had read many times but never took in the meaning. The only thing that counts is faith working through love. Talk about a game changer!
So what does this have to do with a vision for what the church could be?
What the Church Could Be
These passages challenged my doctrine-oriented Christianity. For example, what does John 17:17 mean? “Sanctify them through your truth; your word is truth.” If this passage is not talking about certainty of knowledge, then what is it about? It’s about love. Jesus is truth (John 14:6). Jesus is the word of God (John 1:1). This passage isn’t about the Bible; it is about Jesus.
“What sanctifies us?” is the wrong question. The question is “who sanctifies us?” and the answer is “Jesus.” But how? Through memorizing and debating his teachings? Through following his religious practices like baptism, communion, and singing hymns? No, none of that can be it. Anyone can profess faith in Jesus. Anyone can take communion. Anyone can memorize verses and even debate their meaning.
What sanctifies us or causes us to stand apart from the world is related to what Paul said in two other passages:
Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.1 Corinthians 11:1
and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.Galatians 2:20
Being a Christian is about imitating, or following, Jesus. Does this mean learning his teachings? Yes. Does this mean following his practices? Yes. But ultimately this is about imitating his life. Feeding the hungry, healing the sick, sitting at the table with those ostracized by the religious elite, and standing up to systems of oppression. The teachings and the practices empower this kind of life; they are not what it means to be Christian by themselves.
As James said, “Faith without works is dead.” Ironically, I used this passage to condemn those who didn’t follow the practices or rituals in the specified way I did, but what this passage is actually doing is calling us beyond religious practices and ceremonies to what James calls “pure religion.”
If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.James 1:26–27
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.James 2:14–17
This passage isn’t about the necessity of works like baptism as I erroneously taught. It’s not about some debate surrounding “once saved always saved.” It’s about the fact that faith in Jesus transforms someone into an imitator of Jesus. When you meet Jesus on the road to Damascus, there is no other choice but to follow him.
This means “becoming all things to all people” as Paul did (1 Corinthians 9:19-23). This means to regard all of our religious achievements “as loss” for Christ (Philippians 3:4-7). This means clothing the naked and feeding the poor.
This isn’t about works-based salvation. It’s about what we should naturally be doing because of salvation.
Knowledge makes arrogant, but love edifies. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.
Not faith expressing itself through the right kind of worship service. Not faith expressing itself in baptism or communion. Not faith expressing itself in winning religious debates on social media.
Faith expressing itself in love. The other things may have their place, but that is what truly counts.
Imagine what this would do to the church and, by extension, the world, our neighbors, and our enemies.
The Potential of Pure Religion
Do you see why I write about some of the deconstructing topics I do? It’s not to bash my heritage. It’s not to claim a new kind of religious supremacy. It’s not to set myself up as some kind of progressive scholar.
It’s because our neighbors are hurting while we isolate ourselves in a building for one hour a week and wonder why the world is in the shape it is in.
What we should be asking is why the church is in the shape it is in and failing in its task to be a light to the world, the salt of the earth, and a place of healing for the nations.
I think it’s because we don’t practice pure religion.
Deconstructing the paradigm I grew up in is not about finding an excuse to leave faith behind; it’s about a last ditch effort to salvage my faith by proposing a kind of Christianity that is very ancient while also being very new. It is about proposing a kind of Christianity that practices pure religion with the goal of joining God in the desire for “all to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4).
I don’t believe this vision can be realized through my old paradigm of emphasis on doctrine and methods over everything else, so, since I don’t want to leave my brothers and sisters behind, I choose to stay, as my friend Brian says, “on the inside edge of the outside” as long as I’m allowed with the hope of bringing as many people as I can with me into the practice of this “pure religion.”
Let us imitate Christ by letting him work through us as a people of love.
If we do that, then there would be no debates about abortion as we typically think of it because no woman would ever find herself in a situation where she has to ask that question.
If we do that, then nobody would go hungry because we would all rush to bring our loaves and fishes so that all can be filled.
If we do that, then there will still be those “outside the gate,” but they would know that healing is available and the gates are never closed (Revelation 21-22).
If we do that, then Christians everywhere would lay down their spiritual swords they use to slice up each other and instead use them to attack the strongholds of oppression, injustice, and even religious supremacy in hopes of rescuing their neighbors, Christian or not, from those systems.
This is my vision for what the church could be. I hope you’ll join me.