If there is one thing that is sure as the rising or setting of the sun, it is “Christians” do not like to be called on their crap.
They say they help those who are hungry, homeless or on society’s edge because it is the right thing to do. However, lurking behind that hypocrisy is the real reason: To win souls for Christ. It is precisely this kind of arrogance, questionable traditions and just flat out power and control issues that have left churches empty, churches struggling to pay the bills and worship services looking more like a Hollywood production then actual worship.
Where does this come from? Simple, it is the mis-reading, misinterpretation or mistranslation of some of the sacred text. The two most often quoted are John 14:6:
Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”
This is not a bible study, but let it suffice to say, to use this for the basis of no one getting to God outside of Jesus is to take the quote out of context. In fact one needs to read the entire 13th and 14th chapters to see the context of this remark. Here is a hint; nowhere did Jesus ever utter these words in public.
And Mark 16:15-18: He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.”
Here is the footnote you find in most bibles concerning this verse: [The earliest manuscripts and some other ancient witnesses do not have verses 9-20.]
So the centerpiece for justification for killing, threatening people with someplace called hell and the general thought of “my way or the highway” are based on a misinterpretation and an “add on” long after the fact.
This is serious stuff because the approach to faith is from a point of judgment rather then relationship, which is the complete opposite of the Gospel Jesus proclaimed.
Really, you say? Try this.
A couple years back I got a phone call from one of the local pastors or maybe it was an email, inviting our church and me to join them on a “prayer walk” through Piedmont Park. The purpose of this prayerful walk was to call on God to “take back midtown” from the drug dealers, prostitutes and bars. I have been accused of being arrogant in my day but sorry my first thought was … and who the hell are you to decide midtown Atlanta needs saving?
Of course this pastor and I ended up in a rather testy conversation about the attitude and the approach of the Church. His position in a nutshell was, the only way to be saved was to have Jesus Christ as your personal Savior and once that was done in massive enough numbers drugs, prostitution and the bars (source of lewd and awful behavior) would go away. I assume this would be because more and more of the converted would be so appalled by the drugs and prostitution that they would force the police to arrest and prosecute the offenders, sending off to jail the offending element of society.
I am not sure what the outcome for the bars would be; I suppose they would go from alcohol sales to the sale of soft drinks thereby ending lewd and awful behavior.
Nowhere in this conversation was there anything said or raised about a concern for the individuals and what their stories were, just the desire to wipe out perceived sin and bad behavior via walking around a park looking and sounding like a bunch of circus freaks.
My theology on the other hand, has always been a field of dreams kind of thing. In the movie the theme was “build it and they will come.” I adjusted the theme to say, “Walk the talk and they will come.” This has nothing to do with winning souls to Christ, but rather simply living out Christ’s one and only command; “Love one another as I have loved you.”
So, if that is the commandment of Jesus, and I don’t mean to sound too critical here, but damn doesn’t it make more sense to find out why folks are using drugs or to find a way to end the need for drugs? How about finding out why people are selling themselves or buying services from others? How about visiting a watering hole and getting to know people and listening to their stories? If we follow that command, would we not take this approach because it is not about saving a soul but rather healing that soul from destructive behavior? Oh wait, that is too risky, one might get sucked into the sin if they actually make contact with those sinners or worse if you are seen, people will assume you are a druggie, prostitute or bar whore. So, instead we will just pray for God to do something.
If this was from a mainline, charismatic type of church it would be bad enough, but this was coming from a gay pastor and a gay affirming church.
Of course, the problem with “save the sinner” kind of theology is that it requires people to do good things to save souls and correct the perceived sinfulness of the world. As opposed to doing justice, acting mercifully and walking humbly with God because it is the correct way for them to live out their faith and follow what the Creator desires. (Micah 6:8)
This “save the sinner” approach causes one to say and think, “You are worse than me and I going to save you for me, God, and country. I am saved and now I am going to save you.”
I have had several pastors who are involved in homeless ministries and feeding programs say the church is there to “save souls.” Really? They are not doing this ministry because these people have a need and deserve shelter and most assuredly need to eat? These church programs are doing this to “save” people rather than doing an act of justice and meeting the need?
So, folks feed the hungry not because it is the right thing to do, but because they are looking to save souls, to get a convert in their trophy case. They want to stand before God and say “see how many souls I saved.” I cannot tell you how many times I have heard people say: “I feel so sorry for those people, I just want to introduce them to Jesus and save their souls.”
Wow, I think my response to that would be, “save your own damn self and leave me be.”
I would also be remiss if I didn’t also mention that “saving souls” is not what will save you; rather it’s having a relationship with God that will save you.
When I was part of a board of a non-profit they received a gift of $100,000.00 to feed the hungry. We sat in this meeting for over two hours coming up with the rules for handing out the food. Designing ways that we could make sure we were not being abused or taken advantage of. Also laying out what the criteria was for someone to get food and how much.
I was asked by one of the pastors to share my thoughts as I had not said a word up to this point. I indicated they might not want to hear what I had to say, but I was encouraged to share.
I said that this reminded me of “Jesus and the feeding of the 5,000.” Most the pastors nodded their heads and even chimed in that that is what we could name the program. I said, “However, let me finish. You see I am wondering which of the disciples went into the crowd of 5,000 and got the proper paper work filled out? Which disciple determined whose need was real and whose was irresponsible? How did they determine who was just following Jesus around so they could eat?”
A pastor sitting next me offered this advice, “Paul, I understand your idealism, but this is the real world and we have to be responsible with this gift or God will take it away.”
My response was, “Well, if you don’t just simply meet the need, then you will lose the entire ministry.” This non-profit closed their doors for good a couple of years ago.
The real problem with the Christian traditional church is that over the years it is majoring in minors. Jesus is quoted at one point, observing:
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are. Matthew 23:13-15 (New International Version)
So, the solution? Spend some time with this: “Love one another as I have loved you.” What does that command mean to you? If you follow it will your life be different?
For me, following this command allows me to sum things up with a thought from a friend of mine that captures the truth and heart of my faith and belief: Here’s my personal take on my Christian beliefs: I refuse to tell you that your religion (or lack of religion) is wrong, and I refuse to insist that you change if what you believe works for you. I’m convinced in my heart that God (however God appears to you) loves and embraces everyone: queer or straight; white or black or polka-dotted; believer or non-believer; liberal or conservative.
Editor-in-Chief of Whosoever and Founding and Senior Pastor of Gentle Spirit Christian Church of Atlanta, Rev. Paul M. Turner (he/him) grew up in suburban Chicago and was ordained by the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches in 1989. He and his husband Bill have lived in metro Atlanta since 1994, have been in a committed partnership since the early 1980s and have been legally married since 2015.