Sunday, August 5, 2012

The Counterfeit that Is American Christianity

When I talk about American Christianity, I am referring specifically to a brand of Christianity that has wholly adopted the postmodern, hedonistic, individualistic, relativistic, pluralistic mindset that comprises a very magnanimous portion of American philosophy. In other words, American Christianity is not Christianity in any sense of the word. American Christianity is a godless philosophical system immersed in idolatry. It is postmodern in the sense that truth is what the individual decides it is regardless of the facts. It is hedonistic in the sense that it aims to engender as much pleasure as the individual determines is satisfactory. It is individualistic in the sense that believers do not submit to their church leaders or the Christian group in any true sense whatever. The individual decides who their leader will be and as long as that leader operates within the individual’s own self-determined parameters, they are extended the privilege to remain in the position of “leader.” If a church should offend them by its position on any subject, they simply move on to the next one without so much as a flinch. It is relativistic in the sense that absolute truth for everyone does not exist. Anyone who pretends to know something to be absolutely true or false, right or wrong, is charged with “playing God.” It is pluralistic in the sense that no practice or view should result in anyone being excluded from the group. In other words, any and all who want to play, regardless of their beliefs and morals, should be allowed to be part of the group without fear of being excluded. Finally, American Christianity is immersed in idolatry because the god it contends exists does not exist at all. American Christianity has created a god that is like “a modern American daddy,” or how modern Americans think daddies “ought” to be. This god is a soft, gentle, tolerant, non-demanding, non-threatening, entirely understanding being who puts up with just about any behavior and belief Americans expect him to. He does not judge anyone for anything, except maybe judging itself, and, oh yeah, pedophilia. Oh, I almost forgot, he does not like CEOs very much either or the rich. Well, the conservative rich. He is okay with the Hollywood rich types. The American god lets almost everyone into heaven with very few exceptions. He is, after all, at the mercy of the free will of human beings. Every American knows that individual freedom and sovereignty as well as choice are the highest of all virtues. God would never predestine anyone or anything. He certainly would never predestine anything bad to happen, not the American god. He is awesome. He is pure love, but only as Americans define love.

The overwhelming majority of the American Church does not exist for the kingdom, for truth, or even for the gospel. It exists for the sole pleasure and self-interest of the individual. If you don’t believe me, just ask most Americans why they decided upon the church they attend. “The pastor is so dynamic and engaging!” “The Youth group really does a lot with the kids.” “There are so many activities the kids can get involved in.” “The music is awesome.” “This is where all our friends are.” “The people are so friendly.” The reasons are numerous. Notice that every one of these reasons centers on the individual. The Church was not made for the individual but the individual for the church. Not so in America! In American a church is like every other activity we engage is, such as the gym, dining out, buying a home, etc. Meeting God's definition for "Church" does not even enter the decision process. In fact, the overwhelming majority of American Christians, so called, couldn't even provide a biblically accurate definition for church. I would not expect new Christians to be able to do this, but those who have been around for years, one would expect they would be able to do so. The sad fact is that most cannot even articulate the gospel, let alone help someone with what a true or false church is. Sad indeed! This is because most American Christians, so called, are really just detached moralists wearing the Christian label. Nothing more, but maybe something even less. It is a serious issue that the Christian group can no longer afford to ignore.

Biblical Ineptness

Rather than use the Bible as their guide for how they should select a church, they display a very high degree of arrogance when they select one based on their own criteria. Postmodern thinking leads many Christians to believe that even Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation. The Bible, in their mind, was given to us to serve us and show us how to get the most out of life as we determine life’s meaning of course. In other words, God speaks to me this way in that verse while he may speak something entirely different to you in the same verse. The crazy thing is that many people actually point to such a practice and testify to how wondrous and mysterious the Scriptures are because they can have so many different meanings! Yes, we are sometimes that purblind. The single largest problem for the actual Church is that we simply have far too many unbelievers sitting around in the Christian group who are clearly not born again, and we do nothing to purge them from the group. Unbelievers have no say in the life, theology, and praxis of the Christian group. They are blind, without understanding, hostile to the things of God and are uniquely unqualified to participate in Church life. Paul tells the Corinthian Christians to remove the sinning man from their midst because a little leaven will leaven the entire lump. In other words, tolerance for ungodly behavior will result in the spread of ungodly behavior among the Christian group. This seems rather obvious, and the American version of Christianity has borne it out. There are Christians in America who never read the Bible, but they consider themselves to be just as knowledgeable about God, truth, and Christianity as a pastor that has invested thousands of hours studying everything from the languages of Scripture, the systematics of theology, and the history of the church. This is due to postmodern arrogance. For most Americans, interpreting the Bible is a matter of preference, not the recovery of absolute meaning in the text.

Kevin Vanhoozer writes, “Hermeneutics is both disenchanted and disenfranchised by the suggestion that there are no principles for right and wrong interpretation, only preferences.”[1] I realize that many in the Christian community, and especially in the academy wish to permit those with a low view of Scripture to remain acknowledged viable members of the group, but this practice has a damning and devastating effect on the community. John Webster says, “What Scripture is as sanctified and inspired is a function of divine revelatory activity, and divine revelatory activity is God’s triune being in its external orientation, its gracious and self-bestowing turn to the creation.”[2] The unbeliever is not privy to divine revelation in Scripture. The American Christian demands the right to hold whatever view of Scripture he or she desires. And they demand the right to remain in the Christian group on the basis that this is their desire. What Americans desire, they seem to think they have an inherent right to have. The American dream used to be owning a home and having a secure job by which to care for one’s family. It has morphed into the most extreme and radical forms of hedonism to exist in any culture in any other part of the world. It really comes to this: Americans want to think whatever they want about the Bible to include it’s meaning and significance in the church on the basis that they should be allowed to do so just because that is what they want to do.

Meredith Kline says, “The canonical authority of the Bible is in a class by itself because its covenantal words are the words of God.”[3] The Christian group must insist that everyone in the Christian community share the view of Jesus and the apostles on the nature of Scripture. Any denial or disagreement on this subject must be grounds for discipline and excommunication. For Christians, the ends of reading, interpreting, and embodying Scripture are determined decisively by the ends of God’s self-revelation, which are directed towards drawing humans into ever-deeper communion with the triune God and each other.”[4]  The believer cannot enter into deeper communion with the Divine Trinity without God’s self-revelation in Scripture. While it is true that this revelation came at a point in time in the person of Christ, it is equally true that the very Scriptures that capture the record of that event are themselves also divine self-disclosure.

Essential to transformation into the image of God’s Son is the event of biblical revelation in the holy Scripture. Without this event, without the Bible itself, transformation is impossible. Jens Zimmermann writes, “In other words, the goal of theological hermeneutics was from the beginning practical and existential guidance to a meaningful life. Jesus’s [sic] invitation to his disciples of fulfilling the Torah was not, “as a Hellenized reader might expect, to some pacific state of enlightened self-consciousness, but rather to self-denial, self-sacrificing imitation of his own to starkly mortal praxis: ‘take up your cross and follow me.’”[5] The goal of Scripture is a transformed life. It is not to provide the academy with debate material. Scripture is God’s self-disclosure to the end the bride of Christ, the Church would be transformed into the image of His Son. Hence, it should come as no surprise that counterfeit Christians, while they liter the pews all over this country, reject not only the nature of Scripture itself, but exhibit little regard for its content on such issues as abortion, sexual behavior, gay marriage, and whatever other pet sins they wish to retain in their worldview. The Christian group must come to terms with how she will relate to those who clearly want to wear the title “Christian” without submitting to the values of Christ, the values that make a Christian what they are to begin with. These values demonstrate that regeneration and conversion have been wrought in the heart of the believer. One of those values is a hatred for sin. No true Christian remains in love with sin. When confronted with their sin, genuine believers will repent. It may take a little time, but repentance is inevitable. Unbelievers make excuses, defend their actions, and refuse to surrender to the values of Christianity. They retort the old American idea: we will just have to agree to disagree. That may hold for some views, but it does not hold for core Christian values and it absolutely does not hold for sinful practice.
The Immorality of Inaction

I am hopeful that the current state of affairs that has obtained in American culture will result in the Christian group having to take action. For so long now, the group has been somewhat docile in how it interacted with those who held to fundamentally different values than the group has historically. Issues like homosexuality and gay marriage may be just what the group needs to tighten her reigns and repent of her tolerance for things she had not right to tolerate from the start.

Jesus spoke to the Church at Ephesus in Rev. 2:2 concerning behaviors that pleased Him and those that did not please Him. What is interesting is one behavior that pleased Christ was the Ephesians intolerant behavior toward men who claimed to be ambassadors and messengers of the gospel but they were not. These men made claims to be apostles. America’s version of Christianity would teach us to love them, accept them, and by all means that we should not judge them. However, when we examine Scripture, we find the complete opposite. Jesus was pleased that the Ephesian Church refused to tolerate these false Christians. The Ephesian church had ἐπείρασας τοὺς λέγοντας ἑαυτοὺς ἀποστόλους and discovered them to be liars. The Greek word ἐπείρασας literally means to try to learn the nature or character of something or someone by submitting such to thorough and extensive testing. It means to examine the character of the person. The American church would be appalled if we made such judgments about people. Yet, according to Christ, this kind of behavior is honorable in His sight and one that garners praise and recognition from our Master.

On the flip side of this, just a few verses later, Christ had a stern rebuke for a church that actually did just the opposite of the Ephesian Church. The church at Thyatira was a very tolerant church. She did not want to rock the boat, upset folks, or be accused of judging and being critical and mean-spirited. Rather than testing the character of her group and taking action as the Ephesians did, she just let everyone do as they pleased. She was very much like the American version of Christianity. Jesus said to the Church at Thyatira, ἀλλὰ ἔχω κατὰ σοῦ ὅτι ἀφεῖς τὴν γυναῖκα Ἰεζάβελ. I have this against you, that you tolerate the woman Jezebel. In other words, you put up with and forgive what you should not! The sin of Jezebel concerned immoral sexual behavior and idolatry. Whether or not this refers to polytheistic cult fornication is a matter of debate. The mention of idols within the same context could indicate it does. The point is that the church at Thyatira had closed lips and no action when they should have been outspoken and taking action toward those in her group who were being deceived by this teaching.

The American version of Christianity is hedonistic, pluralistic, and radically individualistic. It does not come close to even resembling biblical Christianity. It is a detached moralism that wears the name of Christ mostly because it was Christians who founded the nation and most of these moralists have grown up in some form of what we call “church.” They have added Christian terms to their worldview and at first glance may give the appearance of Christianity, but after a short examination they reveal their true nature. They hate the God revealed in Scripture. They despise His holy commands and consider His narrow ways to be hateful, judgmental, intolerant, and bigoted.

The Christian group must come to terms with the state of American culture and recognize it is as godless as any other culture in the world. We can no longer afford to kid ourselves by thinking that there is something fundamentally good and virtuous in America’s version of Christianity and the gospel. Moreover, we must call those who deny God’s word and who clearly despise God’s nature what they rightfully are: wicked men. We must do as the Ephesian Church did and refuse to tolerate fundamentally wicked ideas and strategic thinking that is antithetical to Christian praxis and doctrine. We must do so with love and respect. We cannot continue to treat these God-haters as if they are just misguided believers. They are not. If they were, they would pass the examination the Ephesian Church put them through. If we have not or are not examining them, then we must start that process today. If they are genuine, the truth will be revealed. If they are unregenerate, they do not belong in the group. Remove the leaven. God has not issued the Church the authority to overturn His pronouncement on the unbeliever. Whatever the church binds upon men or loosens must already have been bound or loosened in heaven. In other words, the choice of action is not ours. As slaves of Christ, we are duty-bound to act.

[1] Kevin Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in the Text? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998), 20.
[2] John Webster, Holy Scripture (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 9.
[3] Meredith G. Kline, The Structure of Biblical Authority (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Pub., 1997), 75.
[4] Stephen E. Fowl, Theological Interpretation of Scripture (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2009), 6-7.
[5] Jens Zimmermann, Recovering Theological Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), 28.

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