(click HERE for the sermon about homosexuality Pastor Joe referenced on Sunday)
The Trouble with Christianity
Part 2: Christians
“I like Jesus, it’s His followers I can’t stand”
Thanks to Rhea for her courageous and very honest interview! Here’s the deal: whether you agree with Rhea or not, she is expressing what a lot of people feel about Christianity. The trouble with Christianity is Christians! The biggest objection many people have to the Christian faith is not what Christians believe but the way Christians behave. And many of their objections have merit; I think a lot of Christians embarrass Jesus…starting with me at times!
This is part two of our series, The Trouble with Christianity; we’re taking a look at some of the most common objections to the Christian faith. Last week, Brad talked about suffering; lots of people wonder how a good God could allow so much suffering. This week, I’m talking about Christians; lots of people reject the Christian faith because Jesus’ followers are so unlike Jesus! And like last week, we’ll take a few moments at the end to answer questions.
The stuff Rhea said about Christians—you hear that a lot, don’t you?
“I like Jesus; it’s his followers I can’t stand.”
“Jesus: Yes. Church: no.”
“I believe in God; I just don’t believe in organized religion.”
“There are so many hypocrites in the church.”
“Why should I believe in Christianity when the Christians can’t even agree with each other.”
“Christians are homophobic, backwards and judgmental.”
“Look at all the wars fought in the name of God. The church has hurt a lot of people.”
“The church just wants my money.”
The list goes on and on…you get the idea. Christians get a lot of bad press, and let’s admit it: lots of it deserved.
ILL: Rhea mentioned a clear example of this that happened two weeks when the Westboro Baptist Church brought their message of hate to Spokane. Lest you think calling it a message of hate is too extreme, let me point out that their websites are “God hates fags” and “God hates America”. One of their leaders, Shirley Phelps-Roper is quoted as saying that they spend $200,000 a year traveling all over America to protest and “spread the message of God’s hate.”
This is so totally like Jesus, who came with the good news: “God hates you and has a horrible plan for your life!” Obviously, their message is the opposite of the good news of Jesus that God loves us and has come to save us!
But let’s be honest: Westboro Baptist is not our biggest problem. This group is so extreme that almost everyone, Christian or not, recognizes that they are kooks who do not represent mainstream Christianity. Christians and non-Christians alike consider them a cult. Pretty much everyone dismisses them as nut cases.
So Westboro Baptist is not our biggest problem; we are. Ordinary Christians are.
1. The problem: Christians often misrepresent Jesus.
Here’s the problem. Many of the criticisms leveled against churches and Christians are valid criticisms. We often misrepresent Jesus. We who follow Jesus are often so unlike Jesus. It’s true and we need to acknowledge and own our shortcomings. So let’s look at a few of the most common complaints about Christians, starting with the most common.
“There are so many hypocrites in the church.” Is this true? Yes, Christians are often hypocrites; that is, we say one thing and do another. We claim to believe one way and behave another. Our words and actions don’t match.
The word “hypocrite” comes from the Greek word hypocrites, which was used of actors on stage that wore a mask and played a role. It came to mean anyone who pretended to be something he was not, a hypocrite.
Here’s an interesting thing: Jesus was hard on hypocrisy. The word shows up 18 times in the NT, 17 times in the mouth of Jesus. A few examples:
Matthew 6:2 So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full.
Matthew 6:5 And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full.
Matthew 6:16 When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full.
Matthew 7:5 You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.
Matthew 23:13 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!” This is the first of six “woes” Jesus pronounces on the hypocrites in Matthew 23
Jesus was hard on hypocrisy. Who received His most stinging criticisms? Self-righteous religious hypocrites. Jesus was hard on hypocrisy, and He still is; so you think His followers would be too, starting with themselves. Unfortunately, we are often guilty as charged, and we need to take this seriously. If we’re going to talk the talk, we better walk the walk.
When someone makes this objection, I agree with him. There are too many hypocrites in the church, and I apologize for that, starting with me. My words and deeds don’t always match. I need to humbly own my inconsistencies. And as Rhea said, we need to be real, not fake. So, guilty as charged.
Then I gently remind them of two perspectives that help.
First, the church is not a rest home for saints; it’s a rescue mission for sinners. The church isn’t full of perfect people who have arrived; it’s full of sinners who are in various stages of spiritual and personal growth.
ILL: Last year, Blake, our administrator, invited a friend to church, and the guy said, “I can’t come; I’d feel like a turd in a fishbowl.” I told Blake to tell the guy that our fishbowl is full of turds; he’ll fit right in!
Here’s the point: if you think the church is made up of polished saints who always get it right, you’ll always be disappointed. If you understand that it’s full of turds, sinners in various stages of transformation, then it’s not so surprising that they don’t always live up to what they believe. I’m not saying this to excuse hypocritical behavior; it’s still wrong. It’s just not surprising when you realize that you’re dealing with imperfect sinful people like me. Why do people think the church is full of polished saints? Partly because they expect us to live up to what we believe, and partly because we like to give the impression that we have it all together. But let’s get real. I’m a turd who is trying to follow Jesus. Sometimes I get it right; often I don’t. The church is rescue mission for sinners.
Which leads me to the second thing: Christians don’t have a corner on hypocrisy. If hypocrisy is saying one thing and doing another, well, pretty much everyone does that fairly regularly. For example, everyone I know considers himself to be an honest person, and yet lies or shades the truth with some regularity. If hypocrisy were a reason to reject a group of people and their beliefs, I could excuse myself from virtually every group on the basis that its members are hypocrites. There are too many hypocrites in education, but I still send my kids to school. There are too many hypocrites in medicine, but I still go to the doctor. There are too many hypocrites in government, but I still vote for someone and pay the ticket. Try telling a cop, “I’ll bet you’ve driven over the speed limit, so I’m not paying this ticket because you’re a hypocrite to ticket me.”
Hypocrisy is pretty universal; it doesn’t make it right, but it does mean that you can’t use it as an excuse to dismiss Christianity, unless you want to dismiss everything human. We all fall short. Could Christians could be hypocrites and the Christian faith still be true? Yes.
Does hypocrisy keep people from believing? Yes. So please, let’s do our best to be real.
“Why should I believe in Christianity when the Christians can’t even agree with each other.” It is true that Christians differ on many points of faith, and have often been cruel and hateful to those with whom they disagree, both inside and outside the church. Guilty as charged. During the Reformation, not only did Catholics and Protestants persecute and kill each other, but the various Protestant groups persecuted and killed each other! Closer to home, American Christians haven’t killed each other, but have often bickered and fought and competed as though we were enemies. If we can’t even love each other, why would anyone want to join us?
Jesus told us to love each other and prayed that we would be one; notice why:
John 13:34-35 A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.
What is the identifying mark of a Christian? By what will men know that we are Christ’s disciples? Our love for one another.
John 17:20–21 My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.
How will the world believe that the Father sent the Son? When we are one. Is our lack of love and unity a problem? Absolutely.
When someone makes this objection, I agree with them. It’s true. We have failed to love each other and be one as Christ commanded, and I apologize for that, starting with me. I can get proud and self-righteous and cutting and snide; I can be unloving.
Here’s another perspective:
I remind them that Christians are in remarkable agreement about the core of our faith across all denominational lines. Roman Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants (the three major streams of Christian faith) all agree with and hold to the great creeds of the early church, such as the Apostles Creed (see sermon series The Essentials for more on the Apostles Creed) and the Nicene Creed. We agree on the core of the faith; we disagree on secondary issues. And this can be part of the beauty of the Christian faith. We can disagree in love, because we realize there is room for diversity in unity.
ILL: Let me use an example. Part of the beauty of America is that we have diversity in unity. We are all Americans, but it doesn’t mean we agree about everything or are all the same. We may be Cougars or Huskies or Ducks—but we’re all Americans! We may be white or black or Asian or Latino, but we’re all Americans.
The same is true of Christians: we may be Catholic or Protestant or Orthodox; we may sing hymns, say chants or light candles; we may wear robes, crowns or jeans; but we’re all Christians. We agree about the big stuff.
But we have to learn to love each other when we disagree about the other stuff. Oneness isn’t sameness. We don’t all have to be same; there is beauty in diversity. But we must love each other, and if we don’t, people won’t believe in Jesus. We need to love each other so “that the world may believe.”
“Christians are homophobic, backwards and judgmental.” Is this true? Sadly, it often is. Some Christians have been very cruel and hateful to homosexuals. When AIDS first began ravaging the gay community, some Christians said that it was God’s judgment on them. And Christians in general were slow to come to the aid of those suffering from this horrible virus. In the early centuries of the church, when the plague swept through the Roman Empire, it was the Christians who cared for the sick and buried the dead—and it wasn’t just other believers that they cared for; it was anyone and everyone. Their Christian love in action is one reason why the gospel spread so quickly. Unfortunately we failed to follow their example when the AIDS pandemic broke and we sat on our hands—myself included. I’m sorry.
Many people in the gay community feel a great deal of hostility towards Christians. Why? Because they’ve felt a great deal of hostility from us. They’ve been told that God hates them and they are doomed to hell. They’ve been called names and made the butt of jokes. The only Christians many of them know are the ones picketing them or trying to pass legislation against them.
We have not represented Jesus well.
I know what some of you are thinking. “Doesn’t the Bible say that homosexuality is wrong?” Yes, I believe it does. But that is no excuse for treating people unkindly. The Bible also says that pride and greed are wrong—in fact, there are far more verses in the Bible against pride and greed than there are against homosexuality. But we don’t treat proud or greedy people with contempt—in fact, we may elect them to office…or ordain them as pastors! Who is protesting that? Some Christians have singled out homosexuality and made it the unforgiveable sin; the Bible doesn’t do that.
Several years ago, I did a talk on the subject of homosexuality; it was part of a series called, “The Great Divides”. You can get a CD of that at the info center, or you can find it on our website, if you would like to listen. In that talk, I read and discussed the verses in the Bible that deal with the subject. But the most powerful part of the service was a live interview that I did with two very courageous gay Christians. I asked them difficult questions and they gave honest answers. It’s worth listening to. And I was so proud of you, our church, for when the interview was over, you gave them a standing ovation. And a lot of people realized that these two were just people—like all of us—who were struggling with their junk just like I am struggling with my junk. We are all just people in need of the grace and power of God.
Here’s the bottom line: I think we need to treat people the way Jesus would treat them. I can’t imagine Jesus calling gay people names or hating them; I can imagine Jesus sitting down with them and listening and talking, loving them and being honest, treating them with respect and dignity. I think we need to treat others as we want to be treated—does that sound like Jesus? And when we don’t…well, that’s why they call us homophobic.
Christians, you are the only Bible some people will read; please represent Jesus well. Please.
I could give other objections, but we need to move on. If you want to dig deeper, let me recommend two resources:
UnChristian, by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons.
Lord, Save Us from Your Followers, a movie by Dan Merchant.
So here’s the problem: people reject Christianity when Christians don’t represent Jesus well. Now I want to give one brief caveat:
2. The caveat: Christians may be hated for doing good.
Matthew 5:10-12, 10:17-42, Luke 6:22-23, 26, John 3:19-21, 15:18-16:4, 1 Peter 4:14-16
Some people reject the Christian faith because they simply don’t believe it, and they dislike Christians because they do believe it and live it. In other words, it is possible to be disliked for doing good. It is possible to be hated for loving God.
ILL: Have you ever disliked someone because they were doing good and you weren’t?
The first murder was Cain killing his brother Abel. Why? Cain was jealous because Abel gave an acceptable sacrifice to God, and Cain didn’t. So he killed his brother. What had his brother done wrong? Nothing. In fact, he had done right, and it got him killed.
Have you ever disliked someone because they were prettier? Smarter? More talented? More successful? Or because they were doing right and you were doing wrong? This is pretty common; it’s human nature.
I’m thinking of a friend of mine who got involved in sexual immorality and quit coming to church. When I asked her why she quit coming, she said that Christians were so judgmental and self-righteous. But no one at her church even knew what she was doing! The truth is, she just felt guilty and transferred her guilty feelings to others—she blamed them for making her feel guilty!
The point is that it is possible to dislike, even hate someone for doing good.
The ultimate example of this is Jesus Himself. Why was Jesus crucified? It wasn’t because He picketed, or was hateful, or was a hypocrite; He was none of those. It was because He told the truth, because He did good. And here’s the kicker: He promised His followers that they would be opposed and hated and even killed for telling the truth too.
John 15:18, 20 “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first.
20 Remember the words I spoke to you: ‘No servant is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also.
What a great promise! Here’s another:
Matthew 5:10–12 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Notice that Jesus is talking about being persecuted for righteousness—not for being a butthead! He is talking about being persecuted “because of me”, because you follow Jesus. And He points out that there is a long tradition of persecuting truth tellers and do-gooders going all the way back to the prophets—all the way back to Abel. Sometimes you can take heat for being good. In fact, isn’t it interesting that “do-gooder” has become a term of contempt! Think about it!
1 Peter 4:14–16 If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. 15 If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. 16 However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name.
Peter contrasts suffering “because of the name of Christ” or “as a Christian” with suffering for doing wrong.
Why did I insert this caveat?
I want Christians to know that not all opposition is bad. If you are hated for being a butthead, that’s your fault. If you are hated for doing good and belonging to Jesus, that’s ok. Not all opposition is bad.
I want non-Christians to be honest about their hostility. If you hate Christians because they are jerks, well, we have it coming and need to change. If you hate us because we tell the truth and do good and those things make you uncomfortable, then you’ve got an issue you need to face. Then your issue is with Jesus and what He taught.
In other words, a little honest self-evaluation would be good for all of us, Christians or not.
If the problem is that Christians don’t represent Jesus well, what is the solution?
3. The solution: Christians need to repent and be real.
Matthew 5:16, Luke 10:25-37, Colossians 4:5-6, 1 Peter 3:13-17
We need to repent. When you meet someone who has had a bad experience with Christians, whether it is you or not, apologize to them. I can’t tell you how many people have told me horror stories about churches or Christians. I listen, and then I apologize, even though it wasn’t me who did it. “I’m so sorry that happened to you.” It is so easy to be defensive and give excuses; it’s always the wrong response. Just apologize.
I know some of you are thinking, “I don’t need to apologize. It wasn’t my fault. I didn’t do it.” True. But you don’t need to defend it or excuse it either. And often the person telling the story wants to forgive, wants to heal, but can’t because the guilty won’t own up. So since I am part of the church, since I am a Christian, I can help the healing start by giving them the apology they never got.
ILL: My favorite story in Donald Miller’s book, Blue Like Jazz, is the story of the confessional booth.
Don and his friend, Tony the Beat Poet, were meeting with a few Christian students on the campus of Reed College in Portland, Oregon, arguably one of the most liberal campuses in the country. Each year at Reed they have a festival called Ren Fayre; it is a weekend long party where “everybody gets pretty drunk and high, and some people get naked.” Don and Tony and friends were wondering how to represent Christ on this weekend. As a joke, Don suggested they build a confessional booth in the middle of campus and take confessions. To Don’s horror, Tony thought it was a great idea.
“Ok, here’s the catch,” Tony said. “We are not actually going to accept confessions. We are going to confess to them. We are going to confess that as followers of Jesus we have not been very loving; we have been bitter, and for that we are sorry. We will apologize for the Crusades, we will apologize for the televangelists, we will apologize for neglecting the poor and the lonely, we will ask them to forgive us, and we will tell them that in our selfishness, we have misrepresented Jesus on this campus. We will tell people who come into the booth that Jesus loves them.”
So they built the booth and wondered if anyone would come in. They did, mostly out of curiosity, and were surprised when Don or Tony said that they wanted to confess to them! Person after person listened to Don or Tony’s confession, and would forgive them, and then would start talking about their own sins, telling their stories and asking for forgiveness. Almost everyone wanted a hug when they left.
Jake, the first student in the booth, asked what Christians really believe. When he was ready to leave, there were tears in his eyes, and he said, “This is cool what you guys are doing. I am going to tell my friends about this.”
Don laughed and said, “I don’t know whether to thank you for that or not; I have to sit here and confess all my crap.”
Jake looked at him seriously and said, “It’s worth it.”
It’s worth it. It’s worth it to simply own up and apologize, even if it wasn’t you. I wasn’t part of the Crusades, or the Inquisition. I didn’t own slaves or misplace Native Americans. I have never hated a gay person. But Christians have been complicit in all those, and I can apologize on behalf of my brothers and sisters, and let the healing begin.
We need to repent, which means we not only apologize, but with God’s help, we change.
And we have to be real. I love what Rhea said about being fake. I am so tired of fake Christians. We don’t have to be perfect—no one expects that. We just have to be real. Be honest. Be willing to admit that sometimes you doubt, that you struggle, that you sin. Be real.