The Identity Crisis in the Church: Christianity versus Jesus
Being a professional Christian for over 25 years (ordained in 1982), and having taught theology for about 15 of those, I am always amazed at the identity confusion amongst Australian believers. Relatively few seem to be conscious of what their union with Christ means, not only at a personal subjective level but in all spheres of life. Many struggle, self – confessedly, to live in a state of intimacy with God (contra, e.g.1 Cor 6:17, “he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.”). For some time I have come to the conclusion that at the root of the problem is not simply indwelling sin nor the forces of the world, but Christianity.
By “Christianity” I mean the construct of organised religious practice that developed in post – Constantinian Europe and was then progressively exported around the globe. It is the dominant form of religion we are familiar with to this day – church buildings, professional ministries, set services, academic training for ministry and so on. My agenda here is not to go over the usual ground covered by church renewal advocates, like the house church movement and the “emerging church”. Rather, I am interested in a more fundamental issue, Christian identity itself.
The Holy Spirit has been subjecting “Christianity” in Australia to humiliation for some years. One incident particularly comes to mind. In 2003 we had the very public scandal of Archbishop Peter Hollingworth resigning from our highest political office, Governor –General. This was because of his failure to deal with clerical sex abuse while he was archbishop of Brisbane. The list of scandals involving respected Christian leaders could easily be multiplied, but few commentators touch on the heart of the issue –we have become more focused on church culture than Christ. I think we are making disciples of the church more than disciples of Christ. This became very clear to me during a recent pastors breakfast.
Generally when the boys get together there’s talk about “who’s got the biggest” and “who can do it the best”; things were a little different this time as the guest speaker was not a church leader. His talk drew attention, amongst other things, to the creeping dangers of secularism and Islam. These topics excited the audience to a palpable degree, but I sensed their acute fear was not of Christ, whose “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). In fact, the centre of the anxiety seemed to be the loss of our “Christian heritage”. No – one present seemed to imagine that the kingdom of God could grow whilst the influence of Christianity on state policy and structures be in decline.
While all this was going on I had awareness that the Holy Spirit was drawing my attention to an earlier conversation at our table. One of the pastors related how he had recently taken the wedding of a divorcee whose first wife left him for another woman. It turned out that the repressed thought that had been traumatizing the man was, “Did I cause my wife to become gay?” The entire situation was permeated with confusion about gender identity – the woman was clearly not living in the truth of her femaleness, and her previous husband was uncertain about his masculinity.
Gender identity is generated in an oppositional or bipolar manner. Adam becomes aware of himself only after the creation of Eve, a helper “corresponding to”, or “standing over against” him. “A helping being, in which, as soon as he sees it, he will recognise himself.” (Delitzsch; my emphasis). Before the creation of a woman Adam is simply a name for humankind. It is in through the illumination, ““This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.”” (Gen 2:23), that Adam becomes a self – consciously male person and Eve a self –consciously female. Whilst Adam was alone, it was impossible for him to know through introversion his gender identity.
Counselling experience reveals similar patterns. Where the male- female pattern of intimate bonding is not imaged in a human family the result is always some level of confusion about who we are as sexual beings and how this can find genuine fulfillment. Auto – eroticism in various expressions is a necessary consequence. This is more pervasive than we generally imagine, as a (Christian) psychologist said to one of my parishioners, “You need to stop masturbating through your wife.” Since the “one flesh” of marriage is a type of Christ and the church (Eph 5:32), the divorce/gay situation immediately spoke to me about the real spiritual crisis in our midst today that was being overlooked in the pastors breakfast.
The primary spiritual struggle in contemporary Australia is not between Christianity and secularism, or Christianity and Islam, but between Jesus’ kingdom and Christianity. At the root of the widespread apathy in the church and the broadly acknowledged lack of intimacy with God, is confusion between Christianity and Christ. Contemporary Western Christianity largely defines itself by its relationship with itself and its history. It is extremely introverted. This is indicated, for example, by the inordinate focus on leadership, ministry, church growth, gifts, the Bible, anointing, prosperity, revival etc. rather than on the person of Jesus and his living presence amongst us. ““To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: ‘The words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands.” (Rev 2:1)
The people of God can only know their deepest inward identity as the Bride of Christ through an immediate and passionate awareness, in the Spirit, that Jesus is their Bridegroom (John 3:29; Rev 19:6 – 8). Where this is lacking, much of what transpires as Christian spirituality is simply “spiritual masturbation.” It may have the appearance of godliness, but is part of a religious culture that lacks the interpenetrative power of holiness (2 Tim 3:5). (For those with a trinitarian bent, it is not a participation in the perichoretic glory of God, cf. 2 Pet 1:4). Nothing less than a back to Jesus movement that emphasises the mystery of Christ at the centre of “our religion” (1 Tim 3:16) will see any significant change in the spiritual landscape of Australia.
On a practical note, for many years I have been teaching my students to use “the Jesus test”. When you are listening to a sermon pay attention to how long before the name of Jesus is mentioned, and whether he is used as an illustration of the principle being advocated or its substance. Practicing this rule has caused many of them (especially in Charismatic – Pentecostal congregations) much distress. “Test all things” (1 Thess 5:21).
The greatest obstacle to the advance of the kingdom of God in most of the West is not secularism, religious pluralism, or Islam, but a resurgent Christianity. By this I mean a religion dominated by mega churches, super pastors and political influence. What we are most in need of today is a post – Christianity church that returns to the one who said, “follow me” (Matt 4:19; 8:22; 9:9; 10:38; 16:24; 19:28 etc.).
My thinking on this subject was confirmed by a recent email sent out about the British religious scene under the heading, “Excarnating Christianity, Incarnating Islam”. The Church of England Newspaper May 26, 2008 says, “Islam is being institutionalised, incarnated, into national structures amazingly fast, at the same time as …. the ‘excarnation’ of Christianity… out of state policy and structures”. Whilst this may be sad for those who sentimentalise about the loss of the fides historica (inherited conventional religion), it is surely a sign of the judgement of God on the human construct of privilege and compromise called “Christianity”, and a preparation for a return to radical Christ- centred faith that disappeared from Western society long ago. “to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” (Eph 3:21)