7-4 "I don't like Christians": Christian Disillusion with Christianity
There is a very frequent trend observable amongst our community, particularly in areas where the majority of brethren and sisters were not brought up as Christians. It's like this: people learn the Gospel, and with joy are baptized. They rejoice that they have found a community who preach the true Gospel, and who have also been baptized. They join this group with high expectations, confident that everyone will be deep, committed believers, living the Truth to a high level. As time passes, the realization dawns that really this isn't the case. Christian disillusion with Christianity sets in. All of us fall seriously short of the ideals of the Truth which we claim to believe. And so disillusion sets in. The convert starts to fall out of love with the local Christian community. Everything about us becomes wrong and negative. Or a personality clash develops, and the convert finds it impossible to continue mixing with someone who knows God's truth, and yet is deeply flawed in character and behaviour. If we were an ordinary human society or church, these things would not hurt us so deeply. But we know that what we believe is the Truth, and doctrinally at least we have to say with Peter " Lord, to whom (else) shall we go?" . And therefore the fact that others know this same Truth but don't live it as we feel they should, therefore hurts us so much more. It's so much harder to live with what we perceive to be hypocrisy, when it comes to anything to do with the Truth. Christian disillusion with Christianity is so easy to become part of. Online fellowships of out of church Christians are developing... useful as they are, they are in some ways an escape from the burden of real, live Christian forbearance and fellowship which we each carry in Christ. The Lord doesn't semi-distance Himself from us; He is deeply involved with us in and through all our weaknesses and dysfunctions. And we should be the same.
In Mt. 21:32 the Lord told the Jews that they were even more culpable for not repenting at the preaching of John the Baptist because the publicans and sinners had done so; and they hadn't. They should've changed their minds ['repented'] after they saw the publicans and sinners repent- so the Lord incisively observed and judged. The implication of that seems to me to be that we are intended to be inspired to faith and repentance by that of others. This is why the Christian life is intended to be lived in community.
And so it is that at some time or other, every believer will go through the desert island syndrome of Christian disillusion with Christianity; the desire to push out on our own onto our private spiritual island, where we have our own relationship with God until the Kingdom comes. There is no doubt that we will all experience this. The problem- and it seems to be a growing problem- is that after a relatively short time, new converts become so discouraged by the community of believers that they try to do just this. They head off on their own, tenaciously clinging to the idea that they still accept the basic doctrines, they still have their own relationship with God, bitterly challenging any of us to dare doubt they believe; claiming that they can have a relationship with God without their brothers and sisters. And on the surface, it might seem they have a point.
Yet Christian disillusion with Christianity is one of the most common paths to spiritual disaster. Before we start on the Biblical perspective, let me make a rather human comment. Every brother or sister with any pastoral experience will comment that such individuals either lose their faith, or in wondrous, wondrous humility, come crawling back with their tail between their legs. Contrary to how we feel, we are all intensely social creatures. To walk totally alone is impossible in the long term. C.S. Lewis was driven to the conclusion: " I believe that in all men's lives at certain periods, and in many men's lives at all periods between infancy and extreme old age, one of the most dominant elements is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside" (1). Sooner or later " the terror of being left outside" will lead most people to seek some kind of membership, in whatever sense, with one of the societies or communities (not necessarily a church) which does not have the Truth.
Biblically, it's impossible to have a relationship with God without relating with His children. Christian disillusion with Christianity isn't possible for a true Christian. This point is hammered home by John, writing as he was to ecclesias riven with factionism and accusation. The result of believing that Christ laid down His life for us, is that we lay down our lives for our brethren (3:16). All believers are the children of God. If we love God, we will love His children (5:1,2). God and His children, the believers, are inseparable. And yet within our human nature is the tendency to try to make a distinction between them. John was fully aware of this: " If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen? And this commandment have we from him, That he who loveth God love his brother also" (4:20,21) (2). Loving our brother is therefore the litmus test as to whether we are " of God" , whether we have " passed from death unto life" (3:10,14). It is simply impossible to claim to love God but politely disregard His children. It's not that we must love God and also our brother. If we love God we will love our brother, by loving our brother we love God. These things are axiomatic. The intimacy this implies between the Father and His sons is so deep. As those " in Christ" , all that is true of the Son of God, Jesus our Lord, becomes true of us. We share His relationship with the Father. It is impossible to love God without loving His Son, Jesus (Jn. 8:42); and 1 Jn. 5:1,2 is alluding to this, saying that this principle means that we can't love God without loving all His sons, those who are in Christ, the Son of God. Christian disillusion with Christianity is disobedience to this. If we think we can love God while disregarding His sons, we are making the same mistake as the Jews; they confidently thought they could love God and disregard His Son. And this faulty logic led them to crucify the Son of God. Latter day Israel will turn to the Lord their God, and part-and-parcel of this process will be the turning of the hearts of the fathers to the children (Lk. 1:16,17). When Israel earlier played traitor to their brethren, by doing so they broke their marriage covenant with God (Mal. 2:10); their attitude to their brethren was essentially their attitude to their Heavenly Father. Our God and our brethren simply can't be separated. Asa’s broken relationship with God resulted in him ‘crushing’ the people at the same time (2 Chron. 16:10 Avmg.).
This truth is behind Paul’s logic in writing to Philemon: “the faith which thou hast toward the Lord Jesus and toward all the saints” (Philemon 5 RV). Because Philemon believes the Lord Jesus, he must believe what His brethren say. And so it is with us. In some parts of our community there is constant doubt of our brethren and suspicions as to their motives and words; and yet this, as with all attitudes we adopt to our brethren, is the mind we are showing toward the Lord Jesus Himself.
The Unity Of God
All too often, we know basic doctrine without believing it. If we believe basic doctrine, there will be some very practical results of this. There is one God. But this means so much more than saying " so, there's no trinity" . There is no trinity, but the fact I know there's no trinity doesn't of itself impact my way of life, until I believe in the total unity of God as I'm intended to. The Lord said that the first, the most important, of the commandments was that God is one Yahweh. He didn't see this as an abstract doctrine. He saw the doctrine of the unity of God as a command, it demands behaviour in response to it. Thus the command continues: " And (therefore) thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart...soul...strength...mind...and the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour (3) as thyself. There is none other commandment (singular) greater than these (two)" (Mk. 12:28-31). The Lord saw those two commandments as effectively one commandment; remember, He was answering the question about what was the greatest (singular) commandment. Christ saw the unity of God as part and parcel of the command to love our neighbour (in Christ) as ourselves. Why? Surely He saw that the facts that God's Name is one, and all His people are in some way in His Name, mean that we must love others in that Name as much as we love ourselves and as much as we love God. Now apply this to the phenomena of Christian disillusion with Christianity. We are in God, and God is one. So we are all one with each other. Loving our neighbour in Christ as ourselves is placed parallel with loving God with all our heart, strength etc. This means that the main drive of our service to God should be devoted to loving our brother, our neighbour. All those who are baptized into the Name must be loved as we love ourselves. This in itself sinks the possibility of a 'desert island' existence. We just can't live alone. We can't quit on the brotherhood if we want to love God. And this tough, far reaching conclusion comes from knowing that God is one, and all in Him are therefore one.
The Unity Of Christ
The Lord Jesus is the one vine, we are the branches. Severed from Him, we can do nothing, we will bring forth no fruit (Jn. 15:5). He didn't say that He was the trunk and we the branches. He is the whole tree, the ecclesia. Abiding in Christ therefore means abiding with the rest of the branches. Abiding in that vine involves God's word abiding in us (Jn. 15:7). If we read and meditate upon the word and respond as we ought, we will remain in the vine. Those who storm out of the body (or, more to the point, consider doing so), insisting that they still read their Bibles and do good works, ought to seriously consider the implications of the Lord's parable of the vine. Severed from the vine, they can do nothing. Likewise the man under the Old Covenant who made his offering of, e.g. an ox, at a place other than at " the door of the tabernacle of the congregation" was viewed as having shed blood and therefore was to be cut off from the congregation (Lev. 17:3,4). The Law foresaw that there would be this tendency, to worship God away from the rest of the congregation. Those who did so were condemned in the strongest terms: their sacrifice of an animal was seen as the murder of their brother, whereas they would have seen it as an expression of their righteousness. " He that killeth an ox is as if he slew a man" (Is. 66:3) refers back to this, making it parallel with idolatry and proudly refusing to let God's word dwell in the heart.
The same idea commonly occurs in the NT descriptions of each of us having been baptized into the body of Christ, with the result that we are each part of the Christ-body (Rom. 12:4,5). Our baptism was not therefore only a statement between us and Christ, but it was an entry into a relationship between us and the body of Christ. Christian disillusion with Christianity therefore implies a disillusion with Christ. Salvation involves us receiving “an inheritance among them which are sanctified” (Acts 26:18). It is not a purely personal matter. It is part of a shared experience, something we obtain a part in. Christ is His body. He doesn't exist separate from His body; for all existence in the Bible is bodily existence. And we are His body. He is us. Likewise we are the branches of the Christ-vine (Jn. 15). Because we are all in the one body of Christ, therefore we are intimately associated with the other parts of the body. As John realized the tendency of some to think they could love God without loving His Sons, so Paul tackled the same problem at Corinth. He reasons that " the eye cannot say to the hand, I have no need of thee...if the ear shall say, Because I am not the eye, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? And if they were all one member, where were the body?" (1 Cor. 12). He knew that some would want to go off on their own, and he shows that such behaviour would suggest that they alone were the whole body. He knew that some would think that they had no need of other parts of the ecclesial body; he saw that some would feel that they were so inferior to others that they had no place in the body. All these are reasons why believers push off on their own. But notice that Paul doesn't actually say 'the eye shouldn't say to the hand, I have no need of thee'; but rather " the eye cannot say to the hand..." . Although some may say or feel this, ultimately, from God's perspective, it's simply not valid. Christian disillusion with Christianity mustn't lead us to quit the body. The same logic applies to those who think that the body of Christ is divided; ultimately, there is one body, and from God's perspective this is indivisible. The divisions only exist in the minds of men. Those who say that they don't need fellowship with their brethren " cannot say" this, according to Paul. If they continue on this road, ultimately they declare themselves not of the one body of Christ; although I trust there are many brethren who have done just this who may still receive God's gracious salvation.
Many of those who ungraciously storm out of fellowship with the rest of the body, do so because they complain that other believers are weak, unloving, hypocrites, don't practice what they preach etc. And in many ways, their complaints are true (seeing that the Lord came to heal those who need a doctor rather than shake hands with the healthy). And again, Paul has a comment on this situation. He says that those parts of our bodies " that seem to be weaker...that we think are less honourable...the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty...with special honour" (NIV). The private parts of our bodies are the parts we are most sensitive to, although on the outside they seem weak and hidden. And so Paul reasons that the weaker parts of the ecclesial body should be treated the same. The Greek for " feeble" (1 Cor. 12:21) is used (notably in Corinthians) to describe spiritual weakness: Mk. 14:38; Rom. 5:6; 1 Cor. 8:7,10; 9:22; 11:30; 1 Thess. 5:14. And in some ways, we are all " weak" (1 Cor. 1:27; 4:10). Christian disillusion with Christianity is justified by our behaviour at times.
The Indispensable Weak
So those we perceive (" that seem to be...that we think" ) to be spiritually weak in their external appearance, we should be especially sensitive towards. Significantly, the " sick" (s.w. " feeble" ) in the parable of Mt. 25:38-43 are the " least" of Christ's brethren, the spiritually weakest; and at the day of judgment, the rejected are condemned because of their attitude towards these spiritually weakest of Christ's brethren. The parable of the debtors splits the responsible into two categories; those who forgive their brother, and those who demand that their erring brother pays up what he owes, even though he can't possibly do so (Mt. 18:28). All of us who walk away from our annoying, spiritually weak brethren (as we perceive them) are playing with our salvation. The day of judgment will be a day of surprises for all of us. The rejected in the parable just can't believe that they would be rejected 'just' for being indifferent to the spiritually weak in the ecclesia.
Our attitude to the spiritually weak is a vital part of our salvation. Christian disillusion with Christianity ignores this at its peril. Thus " those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable" (1 Cor. 12:22 NIV); indispensable for our spiritual development and salvation. So we shouldn't be surprised if we don't like our brethren, if there are things which unbearably bug us about the community. This irritation, this clear vision of the weakness of our fellow believers, is a God-designed feature of our spiritual experience. If the day of disillusion and disappointment with the brotherhood hasn't come for you, it surely will do. But remember how indispensable this all is. Consider all the miserable complaints believers make about us: they gossip about me, they actually fabricate things as well as exaggerate, she stole from me, he disregards me, her son swore at me, would you believe it (I would); they don't ask me to speak, he's such a hypocrite, and do you know what she did... Let's say every word is true. These weak brethren and sisters who are doing all this are " indispensable" to the salvation of the one who suffers all this, if he responds properly. Just walking away from them is to effectively put ourselves outside the body. We need them, the Spirit says, we need all the mud, the comments and the undermining and the upstaging and the betrayal, all at the most sensitive and hurtful points. The logic of all this is tough, really tough. And your wandering writer doesn't always face up to it himself, veteran as he is of all too many bitter disputes. But, brethren. This is the logic, this is the Spirit's voice. Surely we can all see the theory, clear as daylight. So.
Paul, as always, is our hero. For no other believer was tempted to be as anti-Christian as he was. The one who gave his life, his health, his career, his marriage, his soul, for the salvation of others. Only to have confidences betrayed, to be cruelly slandered, to be threatened, to be so passionately hated by his converts that some even tried to kill him and betray him to the Romans and Jews. He talks of how we must honour those who we think are " less honourable" (1 Cor. 12:23). He uses a word he earlier appropriates to himself in 1 Cor. 4:10 (AV " despised" ). He's saying 'OK, if you think I'm so weak, so despised, let's say I am. But you should receive me, because I'm still in the body'. And to that there was no answer (and still isn't any) by those Christians disillusioned with Christianity.
To quit the brotherhood, or (more commonly) to effectively keep away from it whilst retaining a nominal membership, is to flatly contradict Paul's teaching that our patient continuance with our weak brethren is an indispensable part of our salvation. We cannot, we dare not, say that we don't need them. Not only so, if we do so, we are breaking apart the body. The body has been " tempered" by God together, there are just the right members in the body. The context of 1 Cor. 12 is primarily the ecclesia at Corinth, and only secondarily the world-wide body of believers. In our local contexts, God has provided the right fellow believers to be near us, so that we should develop. If we neglect to contact them, or if that contact is on a coldly formal, dutiful level, we will not be achieving the growth which God intends for us. Those other parts of the body are indispensable - Paul's word (in the NIV), not mine- for our eternal redemption. Christian disillusion with Christianity must be weighed in the light of this.
God has " tempered" the whole body together (1 Cor. 12:24). This is alluding to the way in which the unleavened cakes of flour were " mingled" or " tempered" with the oil (cp. the Spirit) in order to be an acceptable offering (Lev. 2:4,5; 7:10; 9:4 etc.). Paul has already likened his Corinthian ecclesia to a lump of unleavened flour (1 Cor. 5:7); he is now saying that they have been " tempered" together by the oil of God's Spirit. If we break apart from our brethren, we are breaking apart, or denying, that " tempering" of the body which God has made. It's like a husband and wife breaking apart their marriage, which God has joined together. It isn't only that we are missing out on the patience etc. which we could develop if we stayed in contact with our brethren. Our indifference and shunning of our brethren is actively doing despite to the Spirit of grace and unity which in prospect God has enabled His people to experience. The body “maketh increase of itself...unto the edifying of itself in love”. By remaining in the body, we are built up from what every part of it contributes to the growth of the whole. To quit from our brethren is to quit from that source of nutrition and upbuilding. The earth in the sower parable represents various types of believers; and the Lord went on to say that the earth brings forth fruit “of itself”. The community of itself brings forth spirituality in its members. Some of the most Spirit-filled brethren and sisters you can meet are those who have stuck at ecclesial life all their days, really struggled with personality clashes, with endless ecclesial storms and wrangles- but they've stuck it out. And thereby they have remained in touch with, and been moulded by, that Spirit of tempering together which is so fundamental to the body of the Lord Jesus Christ. And the influence of the Spirit of the Lord Jesus results in a generous and positive attitude towards their brethren, seeing the undeniable good which there is in the body, rather than focusing on the negative. For this is without doubt how the Lord looks upon us; and this is how we, as his maturing people, must come to look on each other. Quite simply, we are all in the position of Peter as he stood before his Lord, eyes on the sand. He was asked ‘Do you love me?’, and when he said ‘yes’, he was told each time to go and care for Christ’s brethren. If we love Him, we will love His brethren. For He is inextricably bound up with them. Christ is in them, and they are in Christ. Our attitude to Him is our attitude to them, and vice versa. It’s simply so. Christian disillusion with Christianity is a disease we have to battle against and overcome.
(1) C.S. Lewis, The Inner Ring .
(2) The idea of not being able to " see" God must be understood in the context of how John uses the word " see" . It carries not only the idea of physical vision, but also of believing and understanding. If we can't love our brother, another human being who on some level we can comprehend; who then can we love God, who in this life we cannot comprehend? Yet John mentions in the same context that ultimately, we will see God (1 Jn. 3:2). Perhaps the implication is that seeing God in our brother and loving him, having a relationship with him, is the prelude to seeing God Himself and relating with Him eternally.
(3) The command to love our neighbour alludes to the command given to Israel. They were not told to love the tribes around them; loving their neighbour meant loving their neighbour in the camp of Israel (e.g. Lev. 18:20). And likewise the command for Christians to love their neighbour refers to loving others in Christ, the people of God, not the world around them.