Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
In this Easter season, when our minds and hearts are directed to the miracle of Jesus’ Resurrection, there is another form of resurrection, or renewal, or transformation, that is desperately needed and that we are forced to confront in these dark times that emanate from the increasing secularization of society and the rapid shift to the politics of exclusion embraced by much of the organized “Church.” As the Church has been increasingly and dramatically co-opted by right wing political forces, we have to ask ourselves why so much of the organized “Church” has been ripe for the picking.
How have our thought processes allowed such co-optation; how have our tenacious desires to hang on to our perception of man-made “tradition,” that makes void the Word of God (Matthew 15:3), led us to this state of affairs that endangers the Church as we know it, and threatens to consign us to the dustbin of irrelevancy for much of the world?
Whereas in the past, all of God’s children have cried out in their captivity, “How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land” (Psalm 137:4), increasing numbers of Christians are asking this question about what has happened to Christ’s Church. Strident voices of fundamentalism have been increasingly heard, shouting down what reasonable voices exist, proclaiming their warped views of God, the Bible, the world, and, undoubtedly, themselves to those both outside and within the Church. Indeed, these voices have been so plentiful and insistent, that many Christians have come to define those voices as actually speaking for Christianity, even though they preach “war” in the name of the Prince of Peace; preach “morality” in the name of denying others’ civil and human rights that they, themselves, enjoy; preach their one-dimensional view of the Bible, despite the biblical scholarship that exists that contravenes that view; preach personal “salvation” at the expense of social justice for all of God’s children; insist on hierarchical obedience when we are all equal brothers and sisters in Christ.
What is there about our mind-set that has to be renewed so that we can fully become God’s Church and live up to His mandate that we be His representatives bringing love, peace, and justice to a sin-cursed world? It seems to me that there are four major errors in thinking that many professing Christians make that must be changed for there to be a renewal of consciousness that will make the Church an instrument worthy of being God’s representative on earth; enable professing Christians to be in God’s will in fulfilling our ministries until God calls us home.
These four errors in thinking are as follows:
The need to go from “bondage” to “liberation.” We must have a firm understanding of the Gospel. Basically, the Gospel says, “Jesus saves! No buts attached!” No human being or institution enables us to be reconciled to God but Jesus and Jesus alone! We are never to let other people define our reality for us or put us into bondage to their ways of thinking. (Isaiah 2:22; Galatians 1:10) We are not to ask, “What would Jesus do,” but ask, “What would Jesus have me do?” The Gospel sets all of us captives free, as seen in Jesus’ first pronouncement in His public ministry that quotes from Isaiah 62:1-2): “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)
Once we allow ourselves to be in bondage to other people, we are committing idolatry as, by so doing, we are putting God on the back burner of our lives and are seeking to please other mere human beings who are no closer to God than are any of the rest of us. We are not to be in bondage to anyone, or be in bondage to anything in our past, present, or future. For example, I consider Acts 23:1 to be the most remarkable verse of Scripture. Here, the Apostle Paul says, “Brothers, up to this day I have lived my life with a clear conscience before God.” How could he say such a thing? Here’s a man who confesses to be the chiefest of sinners (1Timothy 1:15); he confesses to constantly wrestling with sin that rules in his body (Romans 7:14-25); before he became an Apostle he partook of the stoning to death of Stephen, the first martyr of the Church (Acts 8:1).
How could Paul assert a clear conscience given his past and his acknowledgment that sin reigned in this body? He could make that assertion, because he understood the Gospel better than most of us do today. He knew that the Gospel, the Good news, entailed God’s grace, unmerited favor, to those who trust Him. (See, for example, Romans 5:1-2; Ephesians 2:8-9) He didn’t bother himself about the judgments of others. Indeed, he didn’t even bother himself about judging himself. As he wrote, “But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. I do not even judge myself.” (1Corinthians 4:3)
Only God is our judge, and only God is to be our judge! To go from “bondage” to “liberation,” we must steep ourselves in the Gospel, knowing that God loves us sinners (Romans 5:8); teach that Gospel to others; live out that Gospel in our everyday lives; be assured that for the man or woman of God it is harder to get out of God’s will than it is to remain in it. Paul knew the only Gospel emanating from the only Christ to be found in history and, hence, despite his past, his struggles, his defeats, he knew that he was in God’s will and could, therefore, have a clear conscience before God. We are to reckon ourselves so liberated and seek to show others that liberation that is to only be found in the grace of Christ.
The need to go from “religion” to “spirit.” In some circles, the emphasis on “religion” is called “churchianity.” Many professing Christians feel that their commitment to God begins and ends with their attendance in their church once a week, and listening to an uplifting, or not so uplifting, sermon. Many regularly even engage in “God talk,” where they feel obliged to act sanctimoniously and have at the ready certain Bible verses that they feel speak to any given problem or issue of the moment.
For example, if someone is suffering, many professing Christians will address the sufferer with the platitude, “God doesn’t give us anything more than we can handle,” or words to that effect. They unquestioningly believe that if their pastor tells them that if they have enough faith, God will heal them of their ills, make them wealthy, heal their relationships, etc. They elevate the pastor and their church as beacons to light the way, and even define their Christian life, regardless of much of the irrationality of so many of these superficial pronouncements in light of the human condition.
What do we say to parents whose baby dies? “It is God’s will!” This statement, which may not be true at all, offers little or no comfort to the grieving parents. What do we say to the Tsunami victims’ loved ones? “God acts in mysterious ways.” Again, little or no comfort to those who have unspeakable grief. The fact is that “religion,” given its bureaucratic, hierarchical, frequently paternalistic and sanctimonious attitudes and utterances to the pains of people who seek genuine solace from God, offers little in the way of comfort. Like all bureaucracies, churches and denominations seek to perpetuate themselves by trying not to offend anyone, lest those offended leave them and take their contributions, tithes, and offerings with them. Hence, many of the insipid sermons given from the pulpits throughout the land that don’t speak to the real issues and struggles of people who look to the Church to be the voice of God in “the thin places” of our lives.
Whatever the importance of churches and denominations, they are no substitute for God’s voice that speaks to each and every one of His children! Churches and denominations are comprised and ruled by mere human beings and, despite the best of intentions, these leaders are no closer to God than any child of God who has committed his or her life to Christ. As I once heard someone say, “The church is the only place where we shoot our wounded.” Churches and denominations are useful, if their pronouncements and function are consistent with God’s mandate to trust Him and show love to other people. However, they are no substitute for the personal relationship one has with the God of the universe! God is Who He is, and He is forever; we are merely temporary fixtures on the world scene and we are quickly removed from it; we are mere fallible flesh who struggle with the problems of life, just as do “religious leaders.” Hence, our need for God’s mercy with which He plentifully endows us: “Yet he, being compassionate, forgave their iniquity, and did not destroy them; often he restrained his anger, and did not stir up all his wrath. He remembered that they were but flesh, a wind that passes and does not come again.” (Psalm 78:38-39)
The Holy Spirit Who indwells all of those who have yielded themselves to God directs our paths, in spite of our sins, our frailties, our failings, to manifest God’s will on this earth. We are to manifest the fruit of the Spirit: “… love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control …” (Galatians 5:22-23) in our personal lives.
Clearly, as God’s instrument on this earth, the Church as an institution is to manifest these same virtues. Unfortunately, history has shown its pitiful performance in this manifestation. Therefore, Christians are to manifest these virtues in spite of much of the organized Church and even leave oppressive churches and denominations as one way of manifesting the fruit of the Spirit. Sadly, in some cases, by remaining in certain churches and denominations, one becomes unable to manifest such fruit and may well be condemned by other professing Christians for so doing. At that point one has to ask oneself whether “religion” or the prompting of God’s “Spirit” holds the reins of his or her life.
All Christians must echo Joshua’s assertion, “… as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24:15) It may well be coming to a point in the evolution of the Church that the chaff is overtaking the wheat, and that the wheat will see the need to leave oppressive churches and denominations that thwart God’s will for love, liberation, and justice, and form their own worship communities so that they can not only worship the true God, but reinforce each other so that they can take the message of the Gospel, guided by the Spirit of God, to others, thereby fulfilling the Great Commission as Jesus undoubtedly envisioned it.
The need to go from “self control” to “God control.” So often, we try to accomplish what we think are God’s goals in our own strength, only to find that we are fighting an uphill battle to no avail, and that wearies us so that we no longer want to continue. The Apostle Paul exhorts all of us, “Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit. So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up.” (Galatians 6:7-9) We sow to our own flesh when we listen to misguided or venial clergy and others tell us how to live and how to treat others when those admonitions clearly contradict the will of God who unconditionally loves all of His children.
Moreover, in Christianity, as in life, one size doesn’t fit all! Hence, what may “work” for one person, even if it is the will of God for that person, may not work for another person if that same attitude and/or behavior is not in the will of God for that person. There is no one way to live the Christian life, save trusting God over and above seen circumstances, and loving other people! Everything else may be seen to be social and cultural expectations of what are viewed as “acceptable” expressions of Christianity, and may not be consistent with the will of God for a given person and, indeed, may thwart the will of God for that person. God is not the author of confusion (1Corinthians 14:33), but He does have unique ministries for each of His children that He, and only He, can confirm and enable.
We cannot allow churches and denominations, or even other Christians, no matter how well intentioned they may be, to usurp God’s unique call on our lives. As Paul wrote, “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” (Romans 8:6) We set our mind on the flesh when we look to fleshly wisdom be it from others or from ourselves, to decide on how we are to fulfill our ministries and live the Christian life! All people, whether we recognize the fact or not, are ultimately under God’s control! To whom we’re born, where we’re born, many major incidents that occur in our lives, the decay of our own bodies, interpersonal relations, why we die, when we die, what happens to us after we die, are all in the control of a sovereign God. Much of our reliance of what we think is “self control” is delusional, especially in the important aspects and dimensions of our lives. The Apostle Paul, echoing God’s revelation to Jeremiah regarding the potter’s house (Jeremiah 18:1-11), wrote, “But who indeed are you, a human being, to argue with God? Will what is molded say to the one who molds it ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one object for special use and another for ordinary use?” (Romans 9:20-21) We must never chafe under the sovereign choices of God; never let ourselves be deluded that we are our own.
As Paul wrote, “You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of human masters.” (Romans 7:23) Indeed, we are also not to become slaves of the illusion that we are in absolute control of our lives, but we are to be yielded to God and let Him have the reins of our life. Indeed, even if one is not yielded to God, He still has control of that person’s life, as seen when the Pharaoh wouldn’t release the children of Israel from the bonds of slavery in Egypt. Scripture records concerning God, “And he hardened Pharaoh’s heart, that he hearkened not unto them; as the LORD had said.” (Exodus 7:13) The plain sense of the words is that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart! As Christians, we are obliged to give God the reins of our life! He has them anyway!
The need to go from a “time” perspective to an “eternity” perspective. I remember a sign carried by a protester during the civil rights movement in the 1960s that read, “How can you kill me when I’m already dead?” Paul says the same thing about all Christians: “…I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:19b-20); “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” (Colossians 3:2-3) We are not to look for the world’s approval; we are not to look for anyone else’s approval. We are to know that God already approves of us because He has already called us to Himself to do a work for Him that transcends time and space. Therefore, we don’t live in “time” but we live in “eternity.”
We are here a very short time! Even if we live to be one hundred years old, it would still be a very short life! When we cultivate this eternal perspective, we won’t unduly care about what others think of us, we won’t be consumed by materialism, and we won’t be gullible and malleable to be used by reactionary, or any other kind of ungodly, forces for their own nefarious ends, and for their own self-serving agendas that enable them to acquire credibility, power, prestige, and wealth on the back of the Church, its people, and of Jesus Himself. As I once heard it said, “When we are born, we are crying and everyone else is smiling. We are to live our lives in such a way that when we are dying, we are smiling, and everyone else is crying.” When we see that we truly live in eternity and act accordingly, fulfilling our ministries as God has ordained, we can take heart that we have been in God’s will; have cooperated with Him in His using us for His own, sometimes inscrutable, purposes.
By allowing God to transform our consciousness from bondage to liberation, from fealty to religion to fealty to the movement of the Spirit, from belief in self-control to the reality of a God-controlled life, from having a time bound perspective to our recognition that we live in eternity, we help bring ourselves and the Church that comprises us, with Jesus as its head, into conformity to God’s will for us and for all of His creation. As icing on the cake, by such a transformation of consciousness, we will be like the guests at the wedding feast at Cana when Jesus, performing His first miracle, turned the water into wine. (John 2:1-11)
After turning the water into wine, Jesus told some people to take the wine to the chief steward. “So they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from, the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, ‘Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.'” (John 2:8b-10) In performing this miracle, Jesus saved the best wine for last!
When our consciousness is renewed, or transformed, to be in conformity with God’s will for us and His Church, and we have the integrity befitting God’s Church that shines as a prophetic voice and beacon manifesting the fruit of the Spirit and fighting for justice for all of God’s children, being faithful stewards of the many gifts of life and creation given to us by God, we will be able to smile as we lay dying. While others may cry at our going home, we will be able to smile, knowing that we fought the good fight, we ran the race to the end, we never tired of doing good, we manifested God’s grace to suffering and hurting people, we fought for justice and the removal of yokes of bondage placed by ignorant and/or selfish people on God’s suffering children.
As we smile as God ushers us into His kingdom, we will say to Him, “You have enabled me to climb every mountain that I had to face. You gave me your strength and peace amidst the many storms in my life. You made a way where there was no way. You blessed me with many wonderful gifts in my life. You allowed me to experience your wonderful gifts of love and passion. Despite my burdens, You made it possible for me to fulfill the ministry You ordained for me. But You saved the best for last!”
Professor Emeritus of Sociology at California State University, Chico, Rev. Dr. Jerry S. Maneker served as an ordained priest in the Congregational Catholic Church, a division of the Independent Catholic Churches International (ICCI). For many years he published a weekly column in the Sacramento Valley Mirror titled “Christianity and Society” where he dealt with a variety of social issues from a biblical and sociological perspective. He also published a blog called A Christian Voice for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Rights and the website Radical Christianity.