I have a confession to make.
I get easily distracted in church, especially during the sermon.
Maybe it’s undiagnosed ADHD or maybe it’s just because I’m a theology nerd, but sometimes, ok, a lot of times when we stand up to read whatever scripture the pastor is preaching on that Sunday, I sit down and immediately start reading the surrounding verses because I want to know what else was going on before and after Jesus said those handful of words we just heard.
My pastor does a pretty good job of providing context when he preaches, but I just can’t help searching for more. And then inevitably I stumble upon a passage that never really caught my eye before and it in turn causes me to start seriously rethinking things I’d always assumed about Jesus. So, then I’ve gotta keep reading to see what else I may have missed. And then before I know it the service is over and I’ve unintentionally read the entire gospel of Matthew.
I do feel bad about my ecclesial ADHD (sorry, every pastor I’ve ever had), but the more I go back and actually read what the gospels have to say about Jesus, the more glaring discrepancies begin to appear between that Jesus and the Jesus of our collective popular imagination. And then the more I think abut those discrepancies, the more I’m convinced that the Jesus of the gospels would (probably) be an outcast in today’s Church.
Sure, he would still have some followers, but when I look at what Jesus actually said and taught and believed and did and then compare that to many of the typical characteristics of “successful” churches, celebrity preachers, the mega-popular Christian literature that has come to define our collective theology, and the things we all say are Christian and do in the name of Jesus, that gap between the Jesus of the gospels and our version of Jesus today gets wider and wider.
So, while I’m sure there are many others to add to the list, here are 10 reasons I think Jesus would have a hard time fitting into today’s Church.
1. He wasn’t always clear in his teaching
We love our 3-point sermons and having fancy graphics with everything spelled out for us so we can leave church knowing exactly what it is we’re supposed to believe and not have to bother with any unnecessary thinking later. And that’s to say nothing of our addiction to holy one-liners we can tweet out or turn into Facebook memes. They’re like the Christian version of crack. Real life may be complicated, but we demand a simple faith.
However, as much as we love to reduce Jesus’ teachings down to easy to digest one-liners, his teachings were rarely as clear-cut and singular in meaning as we like to believe. Jesus loved speaking in parables and if there is one thing every one of his parables has in common, it’s a touch of the opaque. Jesus’ teachings require reflection and interpretation, even the seemingly straightforward ones. It’s almost like he intentionally avoided giving us the easy, dogmatic answers we covet so much because he knew that life is too complicated for one-liners. Unfortunately, we’re too addicted to over-simplification and holy one-liners to welcome a teacher like Jesus into the Church today.
2. He denounced violence
You only have to look at the recent controversy over the American Sniper movie to see how divided the Church is over war and the use of violence. For huge swaths of the Church in America, killing the enemy to protect the innocent is nothing short of a holy calling. And yet, not only did Jesus denounce the use of violence time and time and time again, but when the moment arrived to defend the most innocent person in history – himself – he didn’t fight back and even went so far as to prohibit his disciples from coming to his defense. That sort of response to violence today will get you denounced for not being manly enough and/or branded a naive coward for not understanding how the world really works.
3. He didn’t fit neatly into either a conservative or liberal camp
Part of the reason we crave over-simplified one-liners and clear-cut answers is that we want to know who’s with us and who is against us. But Jesus had a tendency to waiver between being what we might label today as “conservative” and “liberal” positions. Sometimes, he would affirm ancient teachings and traditions, but other times he would blaze a new trail saying and doing things that made his conservative peers angry enough to crucify him. Without pandering to one side of the aisle and denouncing the other as godless heretics, Jesus would be a teacher without a following because we don’t seem to have much space in our churches (whether conservative or liberal) for folks who don’t think and act just like us.
4. He was unabashedly religious
We love to talk about Christianity being a relationship not a religion, but we as long as we continue to believe in a God, pray to that God, sing songs to that God, participate in rituals commanded by that God, and attend organized worship services in honor of that God, we’re always going to be religious people. But that’s ok…because Jesus was religious too. Yes, Jesus was critical of the sort of blind obedience to ritual and sanctified legalism that leads to people being ostracized and oppressed, but as a faithful Jew, Jesus was unabashedly religious. Not only did he go out of his way to maintain Jewish religious traditions (like going to the synagogue and celebrating Jewish festivals), he even added a couple of religious rituals of his own: baptism and communion. That sort of warm embrace of organized religion is anathema to much of the American Church today, particularly evangelicalism.
5. He didn’t believe in biblical inerrancy
Biblical inerrancy (or the belief that the Bible is perfect in every way) might seem like a secondary issue for some folks, but for many people in the Church today it’s a non-starter. If you don’t believe the Bible is perfect, not only do you not stand a chance of being the pastor, you’re probably not gonna be welcomed in the pews either. But Jesus didn’t share this modern view of scripture. We know this because you can’t go around saying things like “you have heard it said….but I say….” (i.e. correcting the Bible, in this case the Old Testament) if you believe the Bible was perfect to begin with. Even if you’re God and have the authority to make those sorts of changes to scripture, it’s still an acknowledgement of textual imperfection that needs to be corrected. But if Jesus were around today and had the audacity to continue preaching “you have heard it said….but I say….” the Church would brand him a heretic.
6. He’s wasn’t always a nice guy
Being a nice guy or at least being perceived as a nice guy is almost a prerequisite for success in the Church today. That really shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. After all, as the old saying goes, people don’t buy stuff from folks they don’t like. And given that we live in an incredibly sensitive society where we being offended is a national pastime, if you’re not smiling at least 70% as much as Joel Osteen and constantly being heard telling folks how wonderful they are and how awesome their lives are going to be, it’s going to be incredibly difficult to find much of a following in the church today.
But as much as we like painting pictures of Jesus with a warm smile on his face, he could sometimes be kind of abrasive. Not cruel, mind you, but not always warm and fuzzy either. In fact, he could be very critical of others, particularly other people of faith. Case in point: his relationship with the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Teachers of the Law (and even at times, his own disciples). Yet, without fail, whenever one Christian criticizes another Christian (or the Church in general) in public, folks come out of the woodwork (especially on the Internet) to condemn the one doing the criticizing for creating bad PR and destroying the unity of the Church. Just imagine the thrashing Jesus would get online if he proclaimed his famous woes against pastors and churches today.
7. He was anti-materialistic
Paul said that we all have different spiritual gifts, but one gift we all seem to share in common today is the ability to bend over backward to justify our materialism in the face of a savior who said things like “do not store up treasures for yourself on earth” and “sell everything you have and give it to the poor.” Some of the most “successful” preachers in the church today are those that either explicitly or implicitly sanctify our love for stuff. But it’s hard to fill arenas or build a megachurch when you’re telling folks that not only does God not want them to be rich, but following God will actually make their lives more difficult and decidedly less filled with stuff.
8. He was homeless
I know this might sound odd, but think of the way we treat the homeless folks living among us today. They’re essentially second-class citizens we go out of our way to ignore, look down on with pity when we’re forced to think about them, and give no place of leadership to in the church. After all, how can you be trusted with the responsibility of leading a church if you’re not responsible enough to hold on to your own house, right? Plus, aren’t most homeless people at least a little crazy? And yet the one to whom we entrust our eternal destiny was a homeless guy. It’s a tragic irony that only really sinks in when you try to think of the last time you remember a homeless person having any role in your church other than just being another charity case. In other words, Jesus would have no place in today’s Church because we’d just pass him off to a homeless shelter.
9. He cared less about what people believed and more about how they lived
We’re a Church obsessed with converts both because we think numbers indicate success and because we’re convinced that believing the right things is the key to eternal life. Which is strange, when you think about it, because as James said, even the demons believe and shudder, buy would any of us consider Satan to be a faithful Christian? However, since the time of Martin Luther, we’ve becoming increasingly convinced that our beliefs alone will save our souls. And yet, while Jesus certainly called people to faith, he was equally clear that “not everyone who says ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven” because how we treat the least of these is ultimately more important to him than our confession of faith. But that sounds way too much like salvation by works for Jesus to be accepted in the Church today, at least among Protestants.
10. He loved the wrong people
There is probably nothing Jesus is more well-known and beloved for than his embrace of outcasts. He didn’t just say he loved people, he actually loved them through his actions. But as famous as Jesus was for embracing people, we in the Church today have become just as infamous for those whom we refuse to embrace. It’s a reputation we hate, but unfortunately is all too often deserved because whether we realize it our not, we spend far more time arguing about who’s in and who’s out than we do embodying the boundless love and grace we claim to cherish so much. With his affinity for embracing people his faith community had deemed sinners and commending the faith of people his community wanted nothing to do with, we would quickly and passionately bid Jesus farewell today.
Those are my reasons why I think Jesus would (probably) be an outcast in today’s church. What would you add to the list? Let me know in the comments section below.