One way people judge if something is right is by observing how it works out in practice. Outsiders are always looking at christians, and the church, to see whether their lives match their rhetoric and the teachings of Jesus.
So how does christianity score these days?
A lot depends on where you look. For years I have had several pages on this site examining the track record of christianity (e.g. Does religion poison everything?). There are many positives and many negatives. But sometimes it seems the gap between the idea and the reality is widening.
Let’s have another look.
5 tests for the church
There are many ways we could judge the church, and so make an assessment of how christianity works out in practice. Here I have considered how the church scores on 5 clear teachings of Jesus. I think most outsiders would criticise the church if it didn’t follow these teachings.
I recognise that there are many christians living quietly unselfish lives, but I have focused on a few trends I see that disturb me.
Jesus told his followers to love their neighbour as they love themselves, and made it clear that our neighbour is anyone we come into contact with. He even said his followers should love their enemies. And he said that people could rightly judge who were his true followers by the way they loved others.
In christian ethics, “love” means caring for someone, being willing to care for their interests. People expect christians to be loving, and are critical when churches and christians show unloving attitudes. And christianity has taken a few hits in this regard in recent years. Too often christians have come across as harsh, unloving, uncaring about people and issues that many outside the church care about.
For example, christians have historically opposed homosexuality. This is changing, but the majority seems to still think the same. So it is no surprise that christians generally (certainly not all) don’t support same sex marriage.
But what is surprising and disappointing is the unloving way in which christians and churches have often opposed same sex marriage and discriminated against gays. Christians have often used their secular power and influence to deny people the right to make their own choices about their sexual ethics. Too often christians have demonised the LGBTQI community. And the watching world notices.
Mike Frost writes about interpathy, having empathy for someone different to us because we are willing to see the world through their eyes. Such an understanding is a follow-on from the love Jesus requires of his followers.
Interpathy would lead christians towards being gentle with each other – not holding grudges, not being harsh, but showing our love in tangible ways. And to forgiveness, which is at the core of christian belief. Jesus said we must forgive those who have wronged us and seek restoration of any relationship that has broken down.
The world I live in seems to be becoming harsher, less forgiving and less loving. And instead of standing against this and “living in the opposite spirit”, many christians are becoming harsh too, especially in their dealings with those who disagree with them. We see this particularly in the political arena, where polarisation and discourtesy have become more common in recent years, culminating in Donald Trump’s mockery, name-calling and a lack of empathy towards those he disagrees with. Unfortunately, it seems christians engaged in political discussion, especially on the internet, are prone to this as well.
But there is another side to the story
Many christians are still living quiet, sincere lives, showing love, to the gays, the refugees, the poor and their enemies. They are gentle, kind, caring. But they are not always as noticeable as the christians whose behaviour is less Jesus-like.
2. Caring for the poor and suffering
Caring for the poor, the suffering and the victimised is one of the most obvious ways to show love. And Jesus said he expected his followers to care for them as if they were caring for him. He said this was one of the main reasons he came, and he expected us to give it a similar priority.
This has been one of the strengths of christianity down through the centuries. Christians have set up hospitals and schools at home and abroad. Christian organisations in the first world support aid and development overseas in the third world, and are prominent in social welfare and aged care at home. Some activist christians are strong in their support and advocacy on behalf of asylum-seekers and the poor. Our societies and many countries would be far worse places without these christians.
But it isn’t all a good news story for christianity. Many christians support governments that are taking away help for those citizens who are suffering, and governments that treat refugees and asylum seekers cruelly – another example of the political harshness I mentioned before. And some churches seem to only care for the poor when they can evangelise them.
A particularly galling example is the way churches have addressed child sexual abuse and predatory sexual behaviour by pastors and priests. It is bad enough that these things happen, but beyond awful that so often the churches’ first thought is to protect their reputation and finances. Too often they try to escape scrutiny by denying what has happened, moving priests on to other parishes to offend again, and demonising the complainant.
In the US and Australia, indigenous and black people were been discriminated against in the past, and justice seems to demand that some reparations be made, or at least acknowledgement, apology and change. Again, some christians have been strongly supportive of this, but others remain callous to past suffering and unwilling to vote for governments that will make a difference.
Some churches seem to have forgotten that Jesus constantly supported the suffering and victimised, and said it would be better for his followers to be dropped in the sea with contrete boots than cause powerless people to suffer. It is no wonder that a #churchtoo movement has sprung up in parallel to #metoo.
But there is another side to the story
During the Covid pandemic, some churches have been particularly active in providing services – food banks, financial help, keeping in touch and counselling – to people who are isolated, unemployed or running out of resources. The Love Your Neighbour movement in UK is a particularly admirable response to the pandemic.
And the work of christians overseas aid and development organisations such as World Vision and Tearfund continues. Church and christian based organisations provide housing and meals, help the unemployed seek work, provide haven for familie fleeing domestic violence and provide aged care.
3. Putting others first
Unselfishness is supposed to be one of the marks of a follower of Jesus. The Bible says christians should be looking after the needs of others. Unselfishness is a necessary basis for caring for the poor.
And again, christians have often done well here. Studies show that christians, along with other religious believers, are more altruistic than the general population with both their time and their money.
But I’m beginning to see another behaviour pattern – christians insisting on their own rights and sometimes, in the process, denying rights to others. It has happened with gay marriage and also with anti-discrimination laws. Somehow christians have chosen to put their own perceived needs ahead of others, seeking to enact laws that protect christians but reduce that protection for others. I am not taking sides on whether anti-discrimination laws are necessary or not, but rather questioning the attitude that christians can sometimes bring to the question.
4. Materialism and wealth
Jesus spoke a lot about wealth and materialism. He said we couldn’t love both God and wealth. He said the poor would be blessed, while the rich would find it hard to enter God’s kingdom. He said he came with a message of good news for the poor, and taught that wealth was a trap that could keep us from following him.
Most first world christians are relatively rich by world standards – it would be difficult to live in an advanced western country without a measure of wealth. That means sincere first world christians inevitably face a challenge in following Jesus. Many are generous with their wealth – more generous than average it seems. Many do jobs that are socially beneficial but not always financially rewarding (school teacher, social worker, nurse, minister, etc).
But too many christians, and not a few churches, seem to have turned away from Jesus’ teachings on wealth. Some churches and some christian lifestyles are opulent and ostentatious. Too many christians feel OK about spending on luxuries while the world’s poor go begging. It is a challenge I feel acutely.
And the world is watching. People notice the extravagant lifestyles of a few rich televangelists and high profile wealthy christians.
But I feel the problems go deeper than this. Bob Dylan famously wrote “when you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose”. And the opposite is also true: when we’ve got a lot, we can easily feel the need to protect it. So it seems that modern first world christians tend to be voting for politicians who will protect their wealth and privilege rather than care for the poor and dispossessed.
Worse still, when others (christians or not) make political choices to care for the poor, some christians are labelling that behaviour as “Marxist”. As if following the teachings of Jesus was somehow threatening a government takeover of the means of production!
But there is another side to the story
Protestant christianity seems to be dividing into two polarised groups – the conservatives who vote conservative and seem to want to protect their privilege, and the progressives who see the need to care for the poor. But both sides are still generous in their giving to charitable causes, though the focus of their giving is different.
5. Power and control
Jesus warned his followers against using power to “lord it over” others. His followers should have a very different approach to the way the world practices leadership. Leaders and teachers must be humble, serving those who they lead and teach. A loving follower of Jesus will respect the rights and choices of other people.
Some christians feel for this reason that they should stay aloof from politics, and so not be tainted by the quest for power. Others see politics as a means of helping the poor and reduce inequality.
But I am seeing a third way now – christians who see political power as a means to force their agenda on others, and who seek that power in ugly ways.
The most obvious example is the way evangelical christians in the US have sought and enjoyed power through the Republican party and President Donald Trump. Of course, they have every right to choose which party and which politicians they support. But when that support goes to a President who has been shown to regularly invent facts and distort truth, and to a party that it seems clear has engaged in various forms of voter suppression, I can’t help wondering if they have “sold their souls” to gain power illegitimately.
But there is another side to the story
There are many christians on all sides of politics faithfully serving in government and parliament, seeking to have integrity in political systems that can so easily distort truth and make ethical decision-making difficult.
The bottom line
Jesus said his followers should seek first the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God means allowing God to actively rule through his king, Jesus, in the choices we make. He warned that if we put aside his teachings we are building something that won’t last. But if we follow his teachings, we will build something that will stand and be worthy.
Jesus’ teachings make sense. They lead to compassion, loving service, forgiveness, selflessness. Those christians who follow his teachings, however imperfectly, show their truth.
I’m less sure that western christianity and conservative churches are advertisements for him.
Graphic: Carl Bloch’s Sermon_on_the_Mount (Wikipedia).