Monday, April 12, 2010

Religion and the Kingdom of God

I've mentioned before that I'm a fan of It is a blog that I would recommend to anyone seeking a deeper understanding of the gospel and the Christian faith. Sadly, this past Easter the author, Michael Spencer, passed away. I'm not going to write a tribute to him. Many other people have already written wonderful tributes to him. Still, today I'm going to be referring to a topic he wrote quite a lot about: the coming evangelical collapse. If you're interested in what I write about it here you might want to check out his posts on the subject.

A while back I wrote about the Kingdom of God. I explained that Christians have many different ideas about what the Kingdom of God actually is. One of the more common ideas is that the Kingdom of God is a specific religious group. Today I would like to talk about religion and how it relates to the Kingdom of God.

My thoughts in this area are strongly influenced by the Internet Monk, Michael Spencer. In his blog, which is subtitled, journeys through the post evangelical wilderness, he wrote about the coming evangelical collapse. He believed that American Evangelical Christianity was headed into a period of decline, and that it wouldn't be recovering anytime soon.

What is Evangelical Christianity? The best definition I can give is that an Evangelical Christian is someone who believes that the only thing that a person needs to enter God's Kingdom is to believe that Jesus Christ died to pay for their sins and that he rose again three days later. As a whole, I see the Evangelical movement as a poster-child for the idea that the Kingdom of God is purely a matter of having the correct religious beliefs.

I also believe that the movement is headed towards collapse. Even though I'm an Evangelical myself (as is Michael Spencer) I don't have much hope for the movement.

Why is that? I think there's a lesson from church history that will help us to understand.

In the middle of the first Century, Jesus' followers faced a crisis related to religion. All of Jesus' early followers were Jewish. Jesus himself was Jewish and during his life he preached almost exclusively to Jews. However, after Jesus ascended into heaven a funny thing began to happen. Through the work of the Holy Spirit a large number of gentiles (i.e. non Jews) began to believe that Jesus was the Messiah. By about 55 A.D. the gentile believers began to outnumber the Jewish believers.

Early on people asked the question, do these gentiles need to convert to Judaism? At first the answer seemed obvious, of course they do. Jesus was the Jewish Messiah. His first followers were all Jewish. Obviously anyone else who wanted to follow Jesus would have to be Jewish as well. Specifically, the would have to be circumcised, keep the sabbath and eat kosher foods.

However, as the movement expanded, and more and more gentiles joined in, the answer started to change. People began to notice that God's Spirit was at work among the gentiles just as it was among the Jews. Many people clung to the idea that the gentile believers should convert to Judaism, but others noticed that God didn't seem to care. They thought to themselves, if God doesn't discriminate between Jews and gentiles, why should we? If God accepts these people as they are, who are we to push them away?

In the end it was decided that gentiles didn't have to convert to Judaism in order to follow Jesus. This decision blew open the doors of the church. For the first time, God's Kingdom was available to anybody.

It's easy to say that that was a different time. One could claim that the first century was a unique period in Christian history, but I disagree. In fact, I think that twenty-first century Evangelicals could learn a lesson from these first century followers of Jesus. I think we need to learn a lesson about how to accept people who are different: people from different cultures and backgrounds, people of different ethnicities, people who speak different languages, and even people with different religious beliefs. None of these things can prevent people from entering the Kingdom of God.

Does this mean I'm abandoning the gospel? Am I saying that it doesn't matter that Jesus died for us, or that he was resurrected? Of course not. In fact, it is because of Jesus' death and resurrection that I can say, with confidence, that no one is excluded.

When Paul was explaining the gospel to the Ephesians he told them that when Jesus was crucified he put to death the wall of hostility between Jews and gentiles. Did Jesus give his life to put an end to the barrier between Jews and gentiles, only to create a new barrier between Christians and non-Christians? Did Jesus' death on the cross bring reconciliation for all humanity, or did it merely move the goal posts?

The problem with the Evangelical church isn't that they focus on the gospel. The problem is in how they preach the gospel. The Evangelical gospel is somewhat limited. Most Evangelicals only talk about how Jesus forgave our sins. They don't talk about how Jesus reconciled us with God and with each other. They don't talk about how Jesus frees us from oppression. They don't talk about how Jesus heals our disease and gives us victory over death. If they do talk about those things, it is always secondary to the forgiveness of sins.

This focus on sin creates a barrier. Since the focus is on the forgiveness of sins, they usually start out by telling people that they're sinners. Most of the time, this drives people away.

Some Evangelicals realize that this is poor salesmanship, so they try to spin the message so that it doesn't sound so bad, but the problem is more fundamental than that. The problem is that they're preaching a message of exclusion and the gospel is a message of inclusion. The gospel is an invitation, not a threat. If the Evangelical church can wrap its head around that idea, then it will realize that the coming collapse isn't such a bad thing after all. If it takes this idea to heart, the collapse might be avoided altogether.

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