Forget Christianity as We Know It

Welcome a new Christianity without rules, without bargains with God, without fear. I am astounded and still trying to assimilate the Internet Monk’s vision. I found it yesterday while surfing the web and reading my favorite blogs. Some will say it’s Christianity without teeth. I say it’s PURE GRACE. Here’s an excerpt:

The New Testament uses three commands to describe what seems to be “our side” of the transaction: repent, believe, and confess. The many variations and synonyms don’t need to be listed. Even if we include the diversity of Christian beliefs about the necessity of baptism, the majority of Christians would agree that repentance, faith and some form of confession are repeatedly urged and illustrated by the New Testament writers.

Most evangelical Christians would agree that these are “our part” in a transaction with God called “being saved.” We repent from sin, we believe in Jesus and the Gospel message, then we demonstrate the reality of that faith through some form of confession. That confession is usually understood by evangelicals to be a public invitation or altar call, baptism and/or the public confession that precedes church membership. In response, God gives us salvation by removing our sin and crediting us with the righteousness of Christ. Through the work of the Holy Spirit, the blessings of salvation become ours. Our entire existence is then infused with the “new creation” that is “in Christ.”

But is this the best way to think of the Christian message? I have serious questions about whether transactionalism confuses the language of scripture with the realities of God, and in the process, leads to a religion of “doing business” with a God who is manipulated. Is transactionalism the source of the trivialization of God and the elevation of man that plagues evangelicalism? I believe so.

Like Spencer, I have found this to be the most liberating admission I’ve read in a long time. I see it galvanizing Christianity as we know it. In the rest of the article he outlines his entire vision and yes, I was enrapt reading it, even during my favorite TV show: Ghost Hunters.

The email conversation I’ve been having with a former pastor emphasizes the need for a new vision. He said that he could never condone the “new community” I’ve found with other Christians on the Internet, in house churches, etc. because the church was in the business (my word) of dispensing graces, the gospel, and ministering to individuals. This can only be done, he says, in a local church. I countered that grace is not confined to this or that place. Grace is the free flow of Godde’s love regardless of location. The church is not a Pez dispenser. I suddenly realized, after his unequivocal assertion, that people have such a hard time allowing other people the freedom to find their own way. They want to herd us into groups like sheep so they can tell who’s “outside” the fold and garner control over those inside it. Once they know who’s “outside” they feel safe and can begin to point fingers. They can exclude by fear and claim exclusive authority to teach, to preach, and then deny sacraments. They can protect their own interests and shut the door to fresh thinking.

Spencer’s vision is far more radical than even this pastor or any old-school Christians can imagine. I’m still trying to digest it. His vision of the old views of atonement theory hit home for me, since the “dying as payment” idea never seemed quite merciful or right for a God of MERCY and LOVE. Spencer writes,

Debates about “transactionalism” have often been debates about the atonement. The Bible places the death of Jesus as the apex of a scriptural thread of sacrificial theology. Sacrifice is plainly transactional. No one can deny that, and I wouldn’t try. But is the death of Jesus a transaction, or is it a sacrament that allows us to think about the unthinkable and unknowable in a way that can be understood humanly and temporally?

Classical theologians argued about who received the “payoff” from Christ’s death on our behalf. Satan? The Father? When did the payment go into effect? Was the transaction between members of the Godhead, or does human faith and/or obedience effect the transaction? Did the atonement’s benefits extend to those who lived before it happened? Transactional questions are endless, leaving some persons weary and wondering, “Is this what the death of Jesus is all about? How many sins can be forgiven by how much blood? The calculation of worth?”

Such debates assume a temporal and transactional understanding of the atonement. They are built on the idea that, at some point in time, our reconciliation in Christ did not exist, but was in the future. Some Christians writers in the early history of the church, giving up the temporal aspect of the atonement, wondered if the “transactional” language of sacrifice was obscuring eternal truths about God. Was the death of Jesus a temporal sacrifice, and therefore a transaction, or was it something else? If God were dealing with another race in another galaxy, would the death of Jesus be the same, for the same reasons? Or could it be different because, in actuality, that death is a sacrament, and not a transaction at all.

The beautiful possibilities this evokes is endless. Some will wonder why then Jesus had to be so special at all and not some other dying and rising God. I think that for Christians who absolutely believe in the efficaciousness of Jesus over all others will have no problem with Spencer’s view after reading it, unless they are completely wedded to the transactional idea of salvation. Those who claim that Jesus does not matter in the history of the world will still remain unconvinced. I am the first to admit that there is no evidence to convince either way except that which those of faith have: personal experience.

And that’s precisely what all this is: a matter of faith. For someone like me who is just waiting for that excellent vision to tip me over the edge toward faith (and that’s a very precarious place to be), this has come closest to pushing me over. I’ll admit it. I need to believe. My intellect can only take me so far.

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24 thoughts on “Forget Christianity as We Know It

  1. MOI, you are still struggling mightily with this aren’t you?

    Your mind is telling you one thing, but you still want to hold on to the mystical beliefs.
    I know it’s hard. I tried for a long time to hold on to my belief in Jesus, in spite of the multitude of problems I found with the only book which tells about him. I was at an epistemological impasse no doubt. I no longer believed the Bible, but I didn’t want to let go of Jesus. However I finally had to let it go and now my mind is at peace with the world, with science, with real life and new information about the world no longer scares me. My family scares me, but not new facts, not new information, not science like all those things used to. Things just make sense now that I have come to realize that there is no magical power which will make things better, or make them worse.

  2. Noog,
    Yes, I am struggling mightily. 😦

    My mind is 100% convinced about faith having no basis. I understand that I can’t prove any of it. But how can you discount your own experience. If I believe strongly that our experience matters, and I do, then aren’t I still throwing my experiences away by discounting them in favor of science? I am not afraid of science, nor am I afraid of facts. I just acknowledge that there may be something out there besides all that.

    Now I can hear you pooh-poohing as I write this, but I’m not trying to convince you, just show you my thought process.

  3. I think it’s still possible to have mystical experiences while not having faith. To me, the mystical is part of the divine, or the sacred, or the awe-inspiring. Like the night sky. I always get a tremendous sense of awe anytime I look at all those stars, because it’s all so big, and yet I make up a part of the universe. That’s ripping open the box.

    Religion too often scrambes to create an iron-clad box, and then says ‘this far and no further.’ But christianity can lead to a great deal of mysticism, because it can invite you to be a part of something awe-inspiring, when seeing all the people come together and just work on a sense of love and justice and equality.

    And in many ways, that’s what the Gospels show Jesus doing. Death was supposed to be the end, and have the last word. Regardless of how one takes the Gospels — literal truth, metaphor, just a nice (or not so nice) story — it still shows the box being ripped open, because death doesn’t get the last word. Resurrection in any form can be a beautiful thing, because it involves shedding the old for the new.

    To me, it seems as though you’re looking for something boxless, and want to see if Christianity can do that.

  4. Heather,

    I do want something “boxless.” But I also see faith in something as a necessary part of existence, at least necessary for me. 🙂

  5. No, I wouldn’t pooh-pooh you.

    I, like you, enjoy watching those Ghost Hunter shows, and even those shows about demons possessing people and picking them up and throwing them against the wall. makes your hair stand on end sometimes. I will bet people who have had those experiences believe in the power of evil.

    But even while watching it with my wife, (who is convinced of evil powers and ghosts), I still sit skeptical about it all. I can’t explain some of the things people have seen and felt either, but I also just can’t say, “see ghosts are real”. It could be some super, but all natural, physical force which we know nothing about yet, I don’t know. It could just be cold air, smoke and imaginations, who knows. Maybe UFO’s are really, really space aliens and those who claim to have had experiences sure are convinced of it. However I still remain skeptical.

    I did walk through a church late one night many years ago and that was scary as hell, but I didn’t see any devils or ghosts, but I am not going to do that again either, ha.

  6. Noogatiger,
    Yes, when I was a a frequenter in my teens of a youth group at a church in town, we’d play in the church at night. oooooo. Scary!
    Thanks for not Poohing me. 🙂

  7. *sigh*
    One can definitely sympathize with the messiness of human ministry and the church. Some have taken legalism to an extreme and used the church as a safe haven from which to throw stones. But honestly, throwing the baby out with the bathwater is not the answer.

    We cannot read the NT without remembering the OT. The first Christians read the OT as THEIR bible. In Acts, we see Jesus hiding His identity from 2 men as he walks down a road with them, showing them how “all the scriptures” pointed to Him. As the NT was written, it was added to the collection of scriptures that persecuted Christians were willing to die for if caught in possession of them.

    The House Church movement, while based on the Acts 2 church model, forgets that the ONLY reason the early church did church in that way was to avoid persecution. When not persecuted, they met and worshiped in the synagogues and large public gatherings.

    Additionally, “elders” (the greek word is “presbyter” are appointed and called to pastor less mature believers. Not only that, God specifically appoints the tribe of Levi to be priests (OT pastors) to guide and educate His people.

    I think this guy’s idea of a gracious Christianity is wonderful and incredibly overdue. I insist, however, that returning to a faithful contextual interpretation of the bible is the only real solution. The rest is just creative musing.

    How can the 3 pound lump of flesh between our ears be better than the word of God? (obviously, I’m assuming divinely inspired authorship of scripture, but I’d be happy to go into that as well. It’s quite logical and does not require unreasonable or unquestioning belief.).

  8. Brad,
    I’m not sure I’m ready to go back in the direction of the inerrancy doctrine. I’ve wrestled with that enough to know that way lies madness.

    I’m perfectly open to prophetic musings “outside the box” and think it’s a much-needed kick in the pants. Spencer is very pelagian in his thinking (in the real sense of thinking like Pelagius and not necessarily about a particular doctrine of Pelagius’).

    I’m content to sit back and let men duke it out about dogma and practice my spirituality quietly from the comfort of my own home.

  9. Hello 🙂

    I’ve come to a really easy place in all of this. It’s taken a little while but I’m no longer seeing to prove or disprove anything. I want to spend my energy focused on what uplifts me….so I do this:

    I rest on the SYMBOLIC. When I rest on the SYMBOLLIC, rather than on the literal, I am no longer mired down with the rules & regs, the transactions, the proving or disproving of His existance. (Personally, I think that church’s are most concerned about the home church or online church because they dramatically impact the FINANCING of the church..but I don’t feel like getting into a rant about that right now. LOL)

    Jesus’ message was a simple one: LOVE The Crucifixtion was that place of coming together where the old ways died so that a new Way could be born anew: Unconditional, eternal, forever love between the creation and the Creator because we are ONE: “Christ IN us…” “That they may be one as we are one”… and all that.

    If we can get to a point where it no longer matters who, what, when, where and how the MESSAGE comes – and get down to living the message from the Inside Out (from that Godd place within each of us), say ‘NO DEAL!” to the religious folks who are more interested in holding onto their traditions than allowing the Love of God to be expressed in 21st century life.

  10. i just read a great article by NT Wright about the atonement thing. and i think it would be useful for a lot of people. he says that our modern view as “christians” is skewed in the atonement. but he says that there still was atonement, but that Jesus being our Lord is the important thing, which makes the resurrection more important than the death.

    anyway, interesting.

    peter

  11. Well said Grace,

    I like that, focusing on the symbolic not the literal. The literal leads to legalism and phariseeism whereas the symbolic leads to love and grace. We are such a literal people. Everything has to be dissected down to the nth degree. I fall into that trap myself.

    Love. That’s the “evangelism” that matters. Pure love and a new era now.

  12. Peter,

    What I like is that Spencer breaks new ground, at least it did for me. And to me, the resurrection, if true, is the pivotal point of atonement, not the death, per se.

    I think that NT Wright is a prophet for a new age. I’m also concerned about the vast majority of male prophets without the tempering female voice in Christianity. If it is to survive, I think that this imbalance has to be remedied. I know I’m not going to promote an institution that silences this much needed voice.

  13. This is all about the “baby.” How can one throw out the baby with the bathwater when and or if, if you like, there is no baby?

    This is not about a historical Jesus. This is about a divine Jesus. Is this Bible Jesus God? If not, then the baby is not any different then the rest of us. If not God, then following Jesus is more of a philosophy of life then a religion. In that case, on can certainly throw the baby out with the bathwater because technically, the baby doesn’t matter when it comes to the matter of heaven and hell, eternal salvation, eternal security, inerrancy and so on.

    Either the claims of the baby’s divinity are true or they are not. I see no middle ground. If some Christians or a growing number of Christians are leaving fundamentalism for a newer kind of Christianity, one that flows away from legalism, inerrancy and absolutes then to my mind, they are reinventing the wheel, which doesn’t hurt I guess, but why continue to call themselves Christians?

    Either Jesus Christ is God or not. If not, then why bother?
    Is it really about the baby or is it really about the fear of hell?

    Well I’ve rambled on Moi but thanks for the chance. 🙂

  14. Agnostic,
    Come on over and ramble anytime!

    I think the wheel does need to be reinvented, if one is committed to the wheel that is. I’m just glad there is a movement afoot to begin the reinvention process. That’s encouraging.

    On the other hand, I’m with you. Either Jesus is God or not. I’m not so sure the baby doesn’t need to be thrown out as well. The point is that the discussion needs to be on the table whether one side fears hell or not. Demystifying the process goes along way toward smashing the idols of our time.

  15. hehe, I like Agnostic’s KISS method here. He’s right. Either Jesus was a Liar, Lunatic, or Lord. There is no middle ground.

    Call it an argument of symantics, but here is the distinction I try to make with both the skewed who are churched and the disenfranchised who are unchurched:

    The wheel does not need to be reinvented. The wheel as we know it has become more of a box that we shove scripture into so that it fits nicely and neatly. We need to shed the box and RETURN to the original wheel design.

    Am I making any sense? The group that popularly adheres to “Fundamentalism,” as has been largely labeled in American society, are not really fundamentalists. If they were, they would have something that looked a lot more like a wheel than a box.

    So seriously, let’s put the “Fun” back in “Fundamentalism.”

    Jonathan Edwards (a dude with a really cool last name, but I’m bias) saw the solution way back at the beginning of the Enlightenment. I wrote a very detailed post about this solution here:

    http://bradedwards.wordpress.com/2007/05/31/cheap-grace-legalism-and-the-emergingent-church-part-2/

    I go into a lot more detail and explain it much better than I could on a simple comment. The synopsis, though, is that there IS a solution to being able to both “love our neighbor as ourself,” as well as believe in the divine authorship of scripture (and thus a “historical-contextual” literal interpretation).

    Let me know what you think….

  16. Oh, MOI, I forgot to mention: With your background in English, you will appreciate the grammatical argumentation Edwards uses.

    🙂

    Enjoy!

  17. Agnostic, you are soooo right. The Baby and the Bathwater were supposed to be the same thing. Jesus was the word and the word was without beginning it says.
    So, if you are throwing out the bathwater then the baby has to go with it. Sorry.
    If the word isn’t perfect, then it didn’t come from God. (and it isn’t and it didn’t by the way). If the word didn’t come from God then it is a book of poetry and wild made up fairy tale stories and is not worthy of any religious reverence, any more than the stories about Zeus and Mt. Olympus. Really, why would it be any different?

    I am telling you guys again, (but not for the last time I am sure because of that obsessive compulsive side of me), that trying to hold on to that baby even though the bathwater is full of crap will not bring you happiness. It just won’t. I finally gave up on the baby, because you just can’t separate it from the poopy bathwater it is in. The moment I let go of that baby it was as if the world suddenly opened up for me

  18. Noogatiger,

    Life is like poopy bathwater.

    You said: “I am telling you guys again, (but not for the last time I am sure because of that obsessive compulsive side of me), that trying to hold on to that baby even though the bathwater is full of crap will not bring you happiness.”

    I keep looking in the poopy bathwater for the clean bar of soap, but ultimately it will probably dissolve before I find it. By then it will be too late and the baby will have died.

    (Sorry, I couldn’t resist, but it sums me up nicely)

  19. hahaha, and the sad part is, MOI, that Edwards is most infamous for his fire and brimstone sermons. Ironically, they make up an incredibly small fraction of his works, which are 95% about grace. His book, “Religious Affections” is an amazing example of this.

    Noogatiger,
    I’m curious, what are you referring to by this:
    “Sorry. If the word isn’t perfect, then it didn’t come from God. ”

    What do you mean by “perfect,” and do you have any examples you are referring to?

    Another excellent discussion… but if it’s ok with you, I’m going to try and forget I read about trying to find the bar of soap in a tub of poopy bathwater…. I’m glad I already ate lunch….

  20. Brad,
    Here is what I really mean.

    If there is a “Word from God” a “Book from God” which is supposedly from the creator of the whole cosmos, surely he would have written something scientifically correct about the cosmos and correctly describe what the stars are, and how far away they they are, what they are hung on, and how galaxies are formed. The Bible does even come close to having it right.

    If the God of creation sent us his own word about how he created things surely it would be scientifically correct about how things came into being, and when and on what day, and how long ago, and who the heck Cain married, it doesn’t.

    If the God who actually formed the earth wrote us a book to tell us how the earth is formed, you would think it would describe a spherical earth which revolves around the sun, it doesn’t.

    If the God of creation wrote us a book, surely he knows that insects have 6 legs.

    If the God of all living things wrote us a book surely he would know that striped donkeys are not produced by having them look at striped sticks.

    If the God of all mankind is nothing but love and goodness, he would never permit, allow or condone slavery, polygamy, genocide, rape and would never allow women to be treated as property.

    If the God who brought everything into existence is smart enough to do all of that, surely he could produce a book which was not full of errors, contradictions, fairy tales, misogynistic views, false prophecies and plenty of moral problems itself.

    I would fully expect a much better work from the God who created everything. This thing is not even close.

  21. The sacrafice of Jesus was meant to put an end to the transactional relationship. He was the Lamb of God sacraficed from the foundation of the world… that includes all who went before and came after.

    The keys to it all are from Christ’s words: The kingdom of God is within you. And to access that kingdom, Christ gives the second key: love god with all your heart mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself, for in those two laws all the others rest.

    And what exactly is dispensing graces???? Everything comes from God, not the priests… that is why the veil between the holies of holies was torn asumder when Christ died.

    Organized religion is an attempt to govern spiritual life. The Romans borrowed the structure from paganism, the temples, the priest system, the church cycle, etc. And then overlayed it with philosophy: Platos Republic. I’m not saying this was done out of evil intentions, but rather man’s desire for order, structure and form.

    How did this whole Judeo-Christian thing start? Abraham loved God as a friend and God reckoned it as righteousness… all the laws came later when Abraham’s children did not love god as a friend.

  22. Noot – “It could be some super, but all natural, physical force which we know nothing about yet, I don’t know. It could just be cold air, smoke and imaginations, who knows. ”

    I agree – what if spiritual beings actually had substance… we know that moodsand personality are influenced by chemicals released in the brain… and we know that those chemicals are triggered by other chemicals outside of us, say, for instance phermomones. What if demons did exist in the form of negative thoughts that oppress? We only call them demons because we do not know the scientific name by which to call them yet, and we do not even know their origin. I’m sure there are plenty of substances we simply have not discovered. What if our soul had substance or even layers of substance? People who see ghosts are seeing some substance that is registering in their optic nerves, some chemical touching off another chemical response. Just because we are able to identify something in a scientific way doesn’t negate its existence, it simply unravels the mystery that is life a bit by making it explainable. Quite truthfully, I’m still awed by the concept of soundwaves and being able to capture them. Just because someone can explain them to me in a scientific way, doesn’t erase the magic of it for me. I think God is all of the laws of physics and nature, not a separate thing. I just think we do not know them all yet. And so we use spiritual language which is imprecise, and clumsy, because we are trying to describe in language which is meant for communication in the material world things which have no material explanation. Yet.

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