Preaching Text: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them…” (Matthew 6:1a)
If the problem of God and evil is the greatest challenge to Christian doctrine, the problem of the notably less than perfect lives of Christians is the greatest challenge to the church as an institution.
We all know the drill. We’ve seen the headlines. Church members and officials act in ways that are not befitting the Christian ideal. Outsiders are not unaware of our character flaws and can cite other non-church people as better examples of those living upright, moral lives. And don’t get me started on the charge of Christian fanaticism! You know, those smug, self-righteous, holier-than-thou types!
Then again, Christianity – believe it or not – does not argue that church people are intrinsically better than non-church people. As Tim Keller points out, Christian theology instead assumes a “common grace,” the belief that God has gifted everyone so as to benefit of the world.
Furthermore – and this gets to the heart of the matter – Christian theology has always insisted on the reality of sin, of flawed, broken human character, not just in non-church people but in Christians as well!
At its core, Christianity has always rejected the idea that we must “clean up our lives before God accepts us.” Salvation, rather, is pure gift. I am accepted “just as I am,” flaws and all. Christians live by grace alone, not by achievement. Which is to say that we are forgiven, undeservedly. Our standing with God is sheer gift. All we need do is accept it.
Besides, good character, as Tim Keller points out, is largely due to conditions for which we’re not responsible: “a loving, safe, and stable family and social environment.” Many of us know only “unstable family backgrounds, poor role models, and a history of tragedy and disappointment,” with all that that entails. In fact, those who are broken may find themselves most attracted to the church as a place of healing and hope.
For, as the old saw goes, the church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.
And once Christ finds us, we don’t instantaneously become perfect people. It’s not like taking a Jesus-pill and knowing henceforth a problem-free life. More often than not, character growth and changes in behavior occur gradually and over time.
Responding to criticism of a fellow Christian’s gruff and irascible demeanor, G.K. Chesterton famously quipped, “Well, you should have seen him before he became a Christian!”
The real problem, it seems, is that moral and doctrinal perfectionism has been falsely conflated with Christian theology, not just by those outside the church but, worst of all, by those within.
Such is “Phariseeism,” the belief that Christian faith is essentially a form of moral improvement, rather than a life defined by unmerited grace and, thus, humility. This understanding only adds fuel to the fire for those who wish to speak of Christian “hypocrisy.”
This can lead to another error in thought. Here Christians are divided into two groups, those who are “nominal” and those who are “fanatics.” The nominalists are Christians “in name only,” those who don’t much practice it and barely even believe it.
The fanatics, at the other extreme, are “over-believers” who “overly practice their Christianity.” These are the modern-day Pharisees, super-Christians who assume their moral behavior and right doctrine give them a special “in” with God. Such belief leads to feelings of superiority, often of the smug variety. They are, as Keller puts it, “overbearing, self-righteous, insensitive, and harsh.”
Seeing these two options, some would argue for a middle position, one that allows us to believe but not to “go all the way with it!”
Keller counters, however, by arguing that the fanatic who claims to be all in for the gospel actually hasn’t gone far enough!
His point? That true Christianity, again, is based not on achievement, but grace! Thus while the Pharisee-type Christian is “fanatically zealous and courageous,” he or she fails in being “fanatically humble, sensitive, loving, empathetic, forgiving, or understanding,” as is the head of the church, Jesus Christ.
Not only that, biblical Christianity is extremely harsh in dealing with the wrong kind of Christian fanaticism.
In Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, which we heard this morning, Jesus criticizes not irreligious people, but the religionists! He roundly tweaks those who “pray, give to the poor, and seek to live according to the Bible.” The reason? They do it to get acclaim and power for themselves.
These super-religionists are seen as judgmental and condemning. Karl Barth even went so far as to say that it was the church, not the world, that crucified Jesus!
In the Old Testament, Isaiah the prophet roundly criticizes those who would appease God through ritual and good works, those who think they’ve pleased God “by the quality of their devotion and moral goodness.”
But God will not be manipulated. For grace is obtained by “giving up power!” As Jesus put it to his ego-seeking disciples, “Whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be servant of all.”
Because grace, and its companion, humility, define the Christian life, Christianity gives us varied and mighty tools to combat such false religion. With great irony, Keller points out that even the “strong secular critics” of Christianity use these “resources from [within Christianity] to denounce it.”
To those who would criticize the church as “power hungry and self-regarding,” Keller points out that in many cultures, both past and present, power and respect are considered good things!
In pre-Christian northern Europe, for instance, societies were based on the concept of honor. They were shame-based cultures where earning and demanding respect was paramount. The monks who sought to convert them, however, preached a gospel of charity, on doing what’s best for others.
Thus, in these cultures (the Anglo-Saxons included), morality was based on shame, and good actions on the fear that people would not respect you. It was “self-regarding” in that it was all about one’s honor and reputation. The Christian ethic, in contrast, is based on an “other-regarding ethic,” on how the victim of injustice might feel.
“Christianity,” writes C. John Summerville, “changed these honor-based cultures in which pride was valued rather than humility, dominance rather than service, courage rather than peaceableness, glory rather than modesty, loyalty to one’s tribe rather than equal respect for all.”
Thus, Keller says in response, “the typical criticisms by secular people about the oppressiveness and injustices of the Christian church actually come from Christianity’s own resources for critique of itself.”
In the final analysis, there is much in the history of the church to condemn. But, as Keller say, “giving up the Christian standards would be to leave us with no basis for the criticism.”
Thus rather than give up on Christianity we should “develop a further and deeper grasp of what Christianity is.”
For “when people have done injustice in the name of Christ they are not being true to the spirit of the one who himself died as a victim of injustice and who called for the forgiveness of his enemies.” Amen.