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How and Why Christianity Must Change and What a Local Pastor Can Do

Paper presented at Georgetown College for the conference: Re-Imagining Faith for America and the World

Chuck Queen, Pastor, Immanuel Baptist Church, Frankfort, Kentucky


It’s important to understand that the change I believe must occur is not related to style, but substance. I’m sure most of you remember the abundance of church growth literature accessible at the height of that movement. Almost all of it related to style and methodology, which is not to say that such issues are not important, but my greater concerns relate to substance and message. So, what needs to happen?

First, Christianity must move from exclusive versions of faith to more inclusive versions if Christianity is to play a major role in the development of a more peaceful, just world.

I am not suggesting by the word “inclusive” that we ignore or dismiss substantive differences in faith perspectives. Obviously, some differentiation and categorization are necessary. All roads do not lead to the same place.

An inclusive faith, however, recognizes and claims a deeper reality that transcends all our differences, namely, that we are all connected, that we are all sisters and brothers in the same family. The Divine DNA is in all of us. The first thing about us (and this was foundational to Henri Nouwen’s spirituality and theology) is that we are all the dearly loved children of God. Original blessing is much more important than original sin (however you define original sin).

A story illustrates why this is so important. News reporter and commentator Peter Arnett told about the time he was in a small town on the West Bank in Israel when an explosion went off. Screams sounded from all directions.

A man suddenly emerged from the chaos holding a severely wounded little girl in his arms. He pleaded with Arnett to help him get her to a hospital. The Israeli troops had sealed off the area. No one could get in or out. But because Arnett was with the press, he could get through. He pleaded to Arnett for help.

So Arnett put them in his car, managed to get through the sealed area, and rushed the girl to a hospital in Jerusalem. The whole time the man with the little girl in his arms kept insisting that he hurry. He cried, “Can you go faster. I’m losing her!”

When they arrived at the hospital, they rushed the girl into surgery and the two men collapsed in the waiting room, too exhausted to even talk. After a short while, the doctor emerged with the news that the girl had died.

The man began to cry. Arnett went over and put his arm around him to comfort him. He said, “I don’t know what to say. I can’t imagine what you must be going through. I’ve never lost a child.” The man looked up at Arnett in a startled way and said, “Oh Mister, that Palestinian girl was not my daughter. I’m an Israeli settler. She was not my child. But, you know, there comes a time when each of us must realize that every child, regardless of that child’s background, is a daughter or son. There must come a time when we realize that we are all family.”

There must come a time . . . when we realize that we are all God’s children; we are one people. I define evangelism as helping people discover and become who they already are.

Christian leaders must challenge deeply entrenched dualistic either/or versions of Christian faith that narrowly divide the world between the saved and unsaved.

Secondly, Christian leaders must be more honest about the Bible and teach Christians how to read and apply Scripture with more discernment or else the Bible will continue to be used to diminish rather than enhance human flourishing.

Most moderate Baptist churches and mainline churches rightly reject biblical inerrancy and infallibility. We know that the Bible didn’t float down from heaven on the wings of angels. We know that no matter how one defines inspiration our sacred texts are fallible documents written by fallible human beings. There is no inerrant or infallible word.

We know that in theory, and yet in practice the Bible is given a god-like status in many of our churches. I am not suggesting that the Bible not be central to our faith, it should be, but it needs to be dethroned from its divine status.

Christian leaders have to be honest about the Bible’s limitations and fallibility. We have to teach the church how to engage in critical, literary, theological, and spiritual readings of the text, and most importantly, how to make good subjective judgments about which Scriptures should and should not have authority in our lives and faith communities.

Every Scripture is not of equal value. Some Scriptures stand in opposition to the gospel. The Bible argues with itself on just about everything of any importance. There are progressive and regressive texts; texts that move us three steps forward, and texts that move us two steps back – sometimes four or five steps back. As, for example, the way some texts in the Pastoral Epistles attempt to tone down and de-radicalize the egalitarianism of the original Pauline communities.

Thirdly, we need to help Christians understand that salvation is a way of life, not a single, isolated experience based on some legal, juridical transaction between the believer and God. Otherwise, we will continue to fail to make Christian disciples who actually participate in the work of the kingdom of God on earth.

It is not just progressive Christians who make this point. Some evangelicals are saying this. Evangelical philosopher and theologian Dallas Willard, in his book, The Divine Conspiracy, wrote quite brilliantly, I think, of what he called “sin management systems” that employ “bar code faith.”

Think of the bar codes on products we purchase. The scanner responds only to the bar code. It makes no difference what is actually in the package or box or container. The scanner reads the bar code through its electronic eye and then assigns a value.

Many Christians conceive of salvation very similarly. They think that believing certain things about Jesus is what constitutes a Christian. Willard asked: “Can we seriously believe that God would establish a plan for us that essentially bypasses the awesome needs of present human life and leaves human character untouched? . . . Can we believe that the essence of Christian faith and salvation covers nothing but death and after? Can we believe that being saved really has nothing whatever to do with the kinds of persons we are?”

Christian pastors and leaders need to emphasize repeatedly that what one believes about Jesus is not nearly as important as the daily commitment to be like Jesus. Faith in Jesus is good, but having the faith of Jesus is much better. Having the faith, hope, and love of Jesus and aspiring to his way of life is much more important than holding to a set of beliefs about Jesus.

Fourthly, the time has come to seriously question substitutionary theories of the atonement and to offer alternative ways to attribute saving efficacy to the death of Jesus.

There are two primary reasons why I believe this is necessary. One, the doctrine of substitutionary atonement makes God look small and petty. What kind of God requires the violent death of an innocent victim? And if God demands a violent atonement, then violence must in some sense be redemptive, which, I believe, stands in direct opposition to the good news of God’s nonviolent rule that Jesus proclaimed and embodied.

Substitutionary theories at their worst make God guilty of cosmic child abuse; at their best, they lack coherence and common sense. Even Trinitarian formulations that emphasize the union between Father and Son cannot erase the fact that in all versions of substitutionary atonement the bottom line is that God must save us from God.

Another reason why we must challenge substitutionary atonement is because it reinforces the unhealthy notion I mentioned earlier that salvation is simply a legal, juridical transaction between the believer and God. According to most versions of substitutionary atonement, our guilt is imputed to Jesus, and his righteousness is imputed to us. As such, it does nothing to nurture authentic conversion and discipleship to Jesus.

What can pastors and Christian leaders do? We can preach and teach alternative ways to understand and appropriate Jesus’ death. We can show how the death and resurrection of Jesus constitute a single event that functions as a paradigm for all authentic transformation. It’s the pattern of death and rebirth, relinquishment and renewal, letting go and putting on. Dying with Christ to the false self or little self (what Paul calls “the flesh” or “sin” in the singular) opens us to a life of righteousness and compassion in the power of the Spirit. Death and resurrection constitute the transformative pattern.

We can also teach how the cross functions as an archetypal symbol of obedience to God’s will as reflected in the passion narratives in the Gospel stories and in the Christ hymn of Philippians 2. Jesus came not to die, but to live an authentic human life, showing us what it means to be truly human.

His death was the culmination of his life—a life lived sacrificially for the good of others. This offers a healthier, more constructive image of sacrifice, as used by Paul, for example, in Romans 12, where he urges his readers to present their bodies to God as a living sacrifice, refusing to be conformed to this world and being transformed through the renewing of their minds.

Jesus’ life made his death inevitable by confronting the status quo and challenging deeply entrenched conventional wisdom and beliefs. Jesus bore in his death, not the wrath of God, but the wrath of the religious and political powers, without returning that wrath. Thus, in his life and death, Jesus offers us a way to break cycles of violence and make peace.

Christ, then, is the quintessential model (at least for Christians) of how one can empty oneself of selfish ambition and live sacrificially for the good of others.

We can also preach and teach how the death of Jesus functions as a revelation of divine love. Here I would recommend the writings of Jurgen Moltmann. On the cross, in Jesus, we connect with a God who shares intimately in human suffering and becomes the victim of injustice. All victims of injustice have a brother and companion in Jesus.

We are converted and changed not by believing in a doctrine of atonement, but by faithfully pursuing the way of the cross.

Fifthly, it is important for Christians to be committed to social justice as a nonnegotiable component of Christian discipleship, just as important as personal piety and charity.

It is certainly important for Christians to be forgiving, kind, gracious, and merciful— helping to feed the poor, care for the sick, and encourage the downtrodden. However, deeds of mercy, generosity, and charity, as essential as they are to Christian discipleship, reflect only one side of Christian ministry and service—the pastoral side.

Equally important (and I emphasize equally) is the prophetic side of ministry, which involves speaking truth to power and confronting oppressive systems of injustice that create poverty, inequality, and a growing disparity between the haves and have-nots.

Social justice means naming and struggling against the powerful forces of sexism, classism, racism, nationalism, materialism, elitism, and exceptionalism through peaceful, nonviolent means.

We who are pastors and leaders must speak to and become involved in such issues as the need for comprehensive immigration reform, the right of every individual to adequate health care, the need for restorative, racial, and equal justice within our criminal justice system, environmental issues, and fairness laws that ban discrimination against our LGBT sisters and brothers.

We must do so humbly, confessing our own complicity in injustice (we are all entangled within unjust systems), and compassionately, recognizing that both the oppressed and the oppressor are children of God.

William Sloan Coffin got it right when he said, “the gospel of Jesus is not about a social ethic, it is a social ethic.”

As the Israeli settler said, “There must come a time . . .” What better time than now. I don’t think the question is simply: Does Christianity have a future? I think the more critical question is: What kind of future will Christianity have? Will the prevailing Christianity of the future be the kind that is committed to and works for a just world or will it be the kind that fosters further polarization and Christian exceptionalism?

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