“Christianity Isn’t a Religion” Is a Liberal Thing to Say

“Christianity isn’t a religion; it’s a relationship!” How many times have you heard that before? If you’ve moved in many of the same circles that I have, then you’re probably pretty familiar with it. I’ve argued against this line before, pointing out that a religion is simply a set of beliefs in some kind of higher power, and of course Christianity is that (though also far more). But there is another danger of this way of thinking that has come to mind, and I would to point it out briefly.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, there began the rise of German liberal theology. With science exploding, standards of living rising like the tide, and the world all around seeming to swing towards progress, humanity came to think pretty highly of itself. A belief in unaided human reason as the final arbiter of truth and falsehood, combined with a skepticism about the authority of traditions in such an age of novelty, led many people to question the truth of Christianity’s basic claims. Was Jesus real? Was He actually like the Bible says He was? Can we trust the Gospels? Do we really know anything about Jesus?

These problems led certain pastors, theologians, and churches to turn away from traditional beliefs about the truthfulness of Christian doctrine. Instead of a Jesus who really lived, died, and rose, and a real authoritative body of teaching about Him in the Scriptures, the focus became all about the individual experience of faith. Who knew who Jesus really was, what He really did, and whether He is truly God in some way? What mattered was how people felt about Him. Faith was something which happened inside, changing the person and their relationship to the world around them in positive ways, ways which were expressed in religious terms about Jesus. Ultimately, the religious experience of faith was supposed to be the point of Christianity.

Now, all of my evangelical Protestant friends out there who use the slogan “relationship not religion” wouldn’t agree with this. They wouldn’t do like the German liberals and deny Jesus’ deity, the virgin birth, the resurrection, etc. all in favor of a faith experience. But, there is one crucial similarity. The say that Christianity is a relationship instead of a religion betrays the same basic concern: what really matters is the individual experience of faith.

This is a serious problem. The “relationship not religion” attitude often pushes doctrine, the Church, sacrament, and other “religious” things to the side, instead making “experiencing God” in some subjective way the focus. It sounds, and often acts, as though your relationship with Christ doesn’t really need to involve right knowledge of Him, or fellowship and cooperative ministry with His people, or regular, tangible reminders of our union with Him. All it really needs is the right worship music, devotionals, and preaching to make you feel the love of Jesus in your heart. 

Essentially, this is the same goal as theological liberalism. Experience faith and love, which will help make you a better person, too. Good theology, a community of believers, and regular reenactments of what Jesus has done for us in fellowship are all nice things, but what really counts? Faith itself. Believing in something better, something divine, that changes you for the better.

The real danger of all this is taking the focus away from God to self. Instead of focusing on who Jesus is, what He has done for me, and what He is calling me to do in response, the “relationship not religion” line necessarily moves the focus to how I feel about Jesus, how authentic my faith is, and what about my life is being changed by it. These things matter, but not as the focus. My feelings, faith, and transformed life must be the free flowing result of letting Jesus be my all-in-all, not the all-in-all on their own.

Remembering that Christianity is a religion helps guard against this. Christianity as a religion is decidedly not about myself, but about the One whom this religion worships and follows. Being part of a religion with a Church means not doing it alone and for myself, but only as part of a larger community under the same Lord with the same mission. Having religious doctrine says that I can’t just make Jesus into my own image, but instead must allow myself to be corrected by the truth He has revealed. The religious sacraments mean that I am forced as often as I partake to face the reality to which they point, unable to continually put it all on the back burner without condemning myself.

So please, let’s bury the whole “Christianity isn’t a religion” thing. We’re not German liberals, and don’t need to be like them. There is more to Jesus than personal faith. We must recognize the larger picture and live it out.

“Christianity Isn’t a Religion” Is a Liberal Thing to Say

Liberty Doesn’t Automatically Mean Gay Marriage

Does religious freedom equal gay marriage? Some people think so. I didn’t want to say anything else about gay marriage any time soon at this point. I feel that, for the most part, more than enough has been said on each side in the last three days. But watching Facebook (and a few other places), there has been this particular idea which I think deserves a response from a blog like mine (i.e. a blog which mostly reaches a few common folk the author knows).

See, some Christians have been suggesting that, even though they agree that homosexuality is wrong, the SCOTUS decision is still a win for liberty. After all, we have religious freedom here. So if gay marriage is only wrong from a Christian point of view, shouldn’t the government still allow it for people in general? Wouldn’t restricting marriage to a Christian view violate the religious liberty which Christians so enjoy? We don’t want the government forcing people to worship Jesus, so why should we want them forcing people to respect a Christian view of marriage?

I think there are a few problems with such an argument. The first is that it assumes something about marriage which should not be assumed, namely that it is something which can apply to both homosexual and heterosexual couples. It assumes that it means something for a male to “marry” another male, for example. Yet this cannot be a given. Someone must first question what marriage actually is and is about before we can assume that it makes sense to speak of two men or two women as married. An an analogy, we know we cannot speak of men as pregnant. Nothing a man can experience counts as pregnancy. If the government wished to pass a law which allowed some kind of male circumstance to be legally recognized as pregnancy, it would be absurd and everyone would know it. I suggest we should think twice before assuming that marriage does not work in a similar way when it comes to different or same-sex relationships.

Secondly, we have to ask, “Why does the government recognize marriage?” After all, most people still would think you can be in some way married even if there is no government. Marriage has a legal side and another side. So why is there a legal side? Once we ask that question, we can compare the answers to see if it even makes sense for government to recognize “marriage” in same-sex relationships. These days, people tend to assume that marriage is about nothing more than twue wuv and personal fulfillment. There is no significant reason for a government to care about such a union whether gay or straight. Legal marriage, if love is all marriage is about, has no purpose. But if there are other important matters which it makes sense for the government to support by recognizing marriage and giving it legal benefits, then we have to ask whether they apply equally to gay and straight couples.

As well, from a specifically Christian point of view, the original argument I’m countering smacks of Gnosticism. To say that marriage only needs to be heterosexual for religious reasons, but not in the rest of the world, is basically to say that what is right and designed by God has no important impact on the real world after all. We would be promoting a theology which separates God’s moral law from the way the real world works. Can we really say that homosexuality is only wrong for an arbitrary spiritual reason and has no tangible consequences? But if a Gnostic moral worldview is false, and homosexual unions are wrong, then we must admit that they do cause tangible problems. And if homosexual unions do cause tangible problems, then for the government to legally recognize and privilege them is for the government to promote what damages human society, which of course should not be done.

In fact, this all ties in to the silly idea that legally recognized marriages are a right. That’s simply wrong. To marry is a right, and the government must protect it, but the government is not obligated to legally recognize marriages and give them benefits. They have reasons to do so, but ultimately legal marriage constitutes a government privilege, not a right. If the government is to have legal marriages, they should do so because they have some vested interest in promoting marriage. And in that case, it is not a right they are dealing with. They are choosing to promote certain relationships for the benefit of society. This means that some form of discrimination is necessary, as not all relationships can serve that goal (certainly, for example, pedophilic, incestuous, or polygamous relationships we all agree do not serve that goal, and thus can be justly barred from government recognition). If we moved legal marriage from the category of “right” to “privilege,” where it belongs, then all of this nonsense about equality would be less powerful.

I may have rambled some, but I hope one point remains. As Christians, we do not need to agree that legalizing gay marriage is a good idea for the sake of religious liberty. There are various reasons that, religion aside, the definition of legal marriage can still in principle reasonably be restricted to heterosexual unions without violating any principles of religious freedom. The separation of church and state can still exist without gay marriage, and I daresay it should.

Liberty Doesn’t Automatically Mean Gay Marriage

Jesus Is Lord, the U.S. Government Is Not

“Jesus is Lord, and Caesar is not.” This quote from N. T. Wright (among others) reflects what he sees as a major subversive political message throughout the Gospels and the New Testament in its entirety. The fact that Jesus Christ rose from the dead despite the agreement of Jewish and Roman political leaders to kill Him means that the authorities of this world have no real power. The greatest power of tyrants is death, and Jesus undid death. This reality of resurrection is a threat to all world powers. Christ’s people are therefore free to live as citizens of the kingdom to come and not the kingdoms of this world.

Of course, this sounds rather irrelevant to modern life for the most part, at least in the Western world and America. We don’t live in a dictatorship, or an absolute monarchy, or a police state, or any recognizable kind of political tyranny. Instead we pride ourselves on being a free country. So the significance of “Jesus is Lord, [insert political power here] is not” can be lost on us. 

But at the same time, there is something slightly subversive even now in saying, “My allegiance is to Jesus Christ, not the United States of America. My country is from above, and in this nation I live as a foreigner. The President, Congress, and the courts can say what they like, but if I obey them it is to better serve Christ, and not for their sake.” After all, we look to the government to affirm right and wrong, do something about our national problems, and maintain order among the people. So a statement like this grounded in Jesus risen Lordship can’t help but strike lots of people as at least a bit rebellious and dangerous.

But what brings me to this topic? I know this will get me a facepalm from my more liberal friends (both politically and theologically), but it’s of course about a certain Supreme Court case. Unless you’ve been living under a rock lately, you probably know that Obergefell v. Hodges is set to determine the future of gay marriage in all 50 states. And unless you’ve been living under a rock for 50 years, you can probably guess how this will turn out. Given the status of public opinion on gay marriage, and the spirit of the age, it seems likely enough that this case will result in the determination of a “Constitutional right” to gay marriage in the entire nation.

Obviously, the mere existence of gay marriage won’t hurt me or others who oppose it, but the real issue comes in the affect unanimous government approval of gay marriage would have on churches and Christian schools. As it stands, most churches can choose to only hire straight pastors and other staff members and to only marry straight couples. Generally, Christian schools are not obligated to hire gay teachers or enroll students in gay marriages. We have moral standards based on traditionally solid readings of the Holy Scriptures, and we can for the most part honor those beliefs in how we run schools and churches.

This may very well not continue following the Supreme Court’s ruling. If you’ve paid attention to the news lately, you may have seen the comment by Solicitor General Donald Verrili in the case arguments. Chief Justice John G. Roberts asked him about the tax exempt status of religious schools who oppose gay marriage. Bob Jones University was previously stripped of their tax exempt status for banning interracial relationships, and the Chief Justice asked if the same would happen to places with policies against homosexuality. The response:

You know, I—I don’t think I can answer that question without knowing more specifics, but it’s certainly going to be an issue. I—I don’t deny that. I don’t deny that, Justice Alito. It is—it is going to be an issue.

So we have from the mouth of an important political official that there will be some kind of problem with the ability of Christian colleges to oppose gay marriage if the ruling enforces its recognition. That is dangerous to Christians, since here we have the legitimate possibility of the government wielding taxation as a weapon to make believers conform to the mindset of the world at large. If this happens, it will be the declaration, “We are Lord, your Jesus is not.”

This problem can also be seen in the statements of various politicians around the nation. Most recently Hillary Clinton comes to mind. Here’s what she said about abortion “rights”:

Far too many women are still denied critical access to reproductive health care and safe childbirth. All the laws we’ve passed don’t count for much if they’re not enforced…Rights have to exist in practice — not just on paper…Laws have to be backed up with resources and political will. And deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs and structural biases have to be changed.

There’s no trick or quote mining here. Hillary’s record on these matters speaks for itself. For Hillary Clinton, one of the foremost representatives of the Democratic Party and half the country, religious convictions are an obstacle to be overcome so that people can have abortions. Disagreement cannot be tolerated. The law must spite religious belief and move the people towards liberalism’s goals. 

Unfortunately, beliefs like these are all to common and seem to be the trajectory of the government. Soon Christian schools and churches are likely to be faced with a choice: obey Christ or country. Let your judge be God or government. And of course if you choose to believe that Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not, there will be consequences. They’ll likely start out purely within the economic sphere (taxes and fines), but do not be surprised if they move on from there. Christian schools could potentially lose accreditation. Churches could lose their buildings. And there’s always the possibility of more “hate speech” laws leading to jail time for Christian pastors, professors, and bloggers.

Of course, I’m not here simply to scare anyone or complain about the victories of some conspiratorial liberal elite. I’m simply making the point that our government is reaching a point where it considers itself the “father” of church. Religions are like rambunctious children who must be corrected and disciplined so that they will do what their parents want. The state is to keep the church in line, not the other way around. This is dangerous and points ever so subtly towards an innocent-looking, nearly accepted totalitarianism. 

We know, however, that Jesus is Lord and the U.S. government is not. Whatever they say, we must continue to follow Christ. For we don’t obey the laws of this world for their own sake, as though they had any real authority. We obey them for the Gospel, so that by submitting to the institutions God has given power for the sake of maintaining order we may live quiet, respectful, and peaceful lives which witness to God’s amazing grace in Jesus Christ.

This means that when it comes down to it on issues like abortion and gay marriage, or anything else which comes up, we will not waver but follow the faith we have received. We trust that whatever the fallout, we will be vindicated and restored by our Father, if not in this life then in the resurrection. But this also means that we should not go out of our way to cause trouble. While we should stand our ground, we should avoid being feisty, aggressive, or rebellious. These are not Christian virtues and will only unnecessarily hinder our respectable witness. 

I suppose I’ve rambled a bit, so here’s my main point: the U.S. government is coming to a place where it thinks it can control the Christian religion. But it cannot. Whatever authority it presumes to have is undermined by the victory of Jesus. So if they try to oppose us in whatever ways, we are already on the winning side. Because of Christ, we need not fear or get feisty, but can be bold, brave, and also respectably self-controlled. For Jesus is Lord, and the U.S. government is not.

Jesus Is Lord, the U.S. Government Is Not