I recently began writing an essay on the standards of belief that Christians set as criteria for salvation, church membership, and ministry. The focus was on the disunity that this breeds and the harm that it causes. I believe that this is an important concept, but before I discuss it, I think it’s important to first set the scene—to state the fundamental problem, and then show how we create distractors that pull our attention away from the solution.
The fundamental problem is that humans have made a mess of this world. We all contribute to the mess. Virtually everyone recognizes this mess. Sometimes the mess is revealed in the frustration that results when our selfishness causes an inconvenience to others. Sometimes the mess results in heartbreaking tragedy as the cruelty that humans inflict on each other (frequently in the name of God or ostensibly for some other justified cause) results in broken bodies, broken hearts, and broken relationships, with the victims almost always continuing to perpetrate the cruelty on others, resulting in a downward spiral of destruction.
Jesus told his followers to spread the message that everything that needed to be done to reconcile man and God had been done. He entrusted this message to all of those that follow Him. The majority of Christians over the last 2,000 years have elected to execute this mission, but only so long as it enabled them to arrogate power for themselves. In twenty-first century America, they almost always mandate that unbelievers assent to an artificial religious construct as the primary criteria for obtaining eternal life. They have taken a simple message of hope and freedom and programized it and corporatized it and turned it into an enterprise solution that requires rituals and programs and administration and rules and fences. They essentially tell people, “I want you to go to heaven, but only if you agree to abide by the rules of my fraternity.”
Most Protestants and Baptists will quickly and glibly point out that only the Catholics, the Mormons, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses do that! This is a case of the pot calling another pot a pot. Each and every Christian denomination (or congregation for those congregationalists that disagree with the criteria that the denominationalists have set) sets standards of understanding for acceptance, without which, they say, there can be no salvation. As I’ve written before, most Christians that do this are well-intentioned. They are genuinely concerned with “saving souls.” Yet an honest and objective critique of their message shows that it is fraught with human-imposed restrictions.
When attempting to answer the ultimate question of “How can we be reconciled with God?” we must approach the issue with humility and complete honesty. Religious traditions and opinions all differ on this matter, and our emphasis on the differences has led to the fractured collection of loosely associated (at best) splinter groups that comprise American Christianity. American Christianity can be compared to a constellation. It is a disparate group of individual entities that, from a single, distant perspective, vaguely resemble a picture of something. Yet when viewed up close or even from another perspective, the constellation dissolves, revealing the individual entities to be exactly what they are: solitary entities that have no real connection to each other. This state of disunity does incalculable harm to the world. It puts Christians at odds with each other, and it repulses those who are seeking God—and rightly so!
An in-depth study of just the words of Jesus (not His disciples) on how to enter the kingdom of God and obtain eternal life reveals some extraordinary complexities. He spoke of the necessity of good works about as much as he spoke of belief. He said that people can’t come to Him unless God allows them to come. He once said that to be saved you must believe the good news and be baptized. He said that to enter the kingdom of God, you must simply receive it as a little child receives a gift. He said He gives life to whomever he desires. He also said that he will accept everyone that the Father gives Him. It makes me wonder why God didn’t make it easy to understand. Then it makes me think that He probably did make it easy to understand—at least to a point. In this lifetime, we will never grasp all the spiritual ramifications of the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We won’t have a complete understanding of all the nuances of His message. But when we read the eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ life and look at the big picture rather than isolating bits and pieces of His teaching to be separately parsed and evaluated, I think that the simplicity of His message shines through. I don’t have enough of an understanding of the nuances of Jesus’ teaching to articulate precisely how in a physical or spiritual or legal or relational sense Jesus reconciles humans with God. But I do want to encourage those that want to be reconciled to God to take a fresh look at Jesus’ life and teaching. He is the clearest and most accurate portrayal of God, and as such, we should view Him directly, not through the distorting lens of religion. Christians spend an inordinate amount of time debating the nuances. What does it mean to “eat the body of Christ”? Does God provide the faith to believe in Jesus to only a set number of people or is it an act of free will available to all? What does it really mean to repent? Can one’s deeds negate eternal life? Can one’s particular beliefs about Jesus or God doom one to eternal conscious torment? Arguing about these questions is unproductive and detrimental to the mission that Jesus assigned us.
For what it’s worth, I think that reconciliation can be as simple as “if you want it you can have it.” If one desires reconciliation and doesn’t have a full understanding of the nuances, I think God meets that person where they are. I suspect that this notion is likely to make many religious folks come completely unglued. “Don’t you acknowledge God’s sovereignty? Don’t you realize that if you trust your works, then you aren’t trusting Jesus? Don’t you know that your deeds must reflect your faith or it isn’t genuine? Don’t you know that there is no salvation outside the church? Don’t you know that you must confess every sin you commit? Don’t you know that you must partake in holy communion? Don’t you, don’t you, don’t you?”
God understands that we don’t understand everything. He sees the mess we’ve gotten ourselves into and went to great lengths to rescue us—to patiently draw us back to Him. Jesus came from a place outside of time where He was omnipotent. He chose to enter the space-time continuum in a physical body in order to place Himself in a position where He had to struggle. He endured an ordeal that we can’t even comprehend. Would He willingly subject Himself to that because He loves us, and then nonchalantly torture us for eternity because our soteriological understanding is slightly off? I don’t see Him ever exhibiting that attitude.
I think that there are several very important things to remember:
1. The method of reconciliation is not ours. It is God’s. He owns it. If facets of it are not crystal clear, we should not attempt to impose our understanding of it on others.
2. We absolutely must stop establishing our own criteria on others for salvation, fellowship, and ministry. That privilege is reserved for God.
3. We do not get to say who is reconciled to God and who is not. At times, it is quite obvious that a particular person has no desire to be reconciled to God. Other times, it is not so obvious. The ability to read another person’s mind is completely beyond us. The ability and authority to determine another’s standing before God is in many cases, completely beyond us. It remains the purview of God.
4. We must stop treating those that don’t share our same understanding as outcasts.
Collectively, we will never be an effective force for good in this world if we spend more effort circling our religious wagons to defend our pet doctrines than offering hope and love to a world that desperately needs it.