By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
The relevance of Jesus and the irrelevance of the church are not new topics. In 1804 Thomas Jefferson asserted that the moral teachings of Jesus were “the sublimest morality ever taught.” (see Notes below) Since then the church has remained the dominant social institution in America, but it is now in decline. That’s because church doctrines have subordinated the moral teachings of Jesus to exclusivist mystical beliefs, and belief in an inerrant and infallible Bible.
Restoring the relevance of Jesus and the church in a “post-Christian” and “post-truth” world of increasing religious diversity will require reversing church priorities. The church must counter the trend toward fundamentalism in evangelical Christianity by restoring the moral teachings of Jesus to prominence. It must also eliminate Christian exclusivity and accept advances in knowledge and reason in the interpretation of scriptural authority that defines truth.
Jesus was a Jewish rabbi who emphasized a coming kingdom of God. It was a spiritual, not a worldly, kingdom, and one based on the creative and transforming power of God’s love and mercy. Jesus called his disciples to follow him and help God’s kingdom come and His will be done on earth as it is in heaven. His teachings are in the four Gospel accounts, but are not a verbatim account; they should be interpreted based on tradition, experience and reason.
The passage that best summarizes the teachings of Jesus is the greatest commandment to love God and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves—including those neighbors of other races and religions. The love of God and neighbor is considered a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. It is not only relevant but essential to promote a politics of reconciliation in our polarized and dysfunctional democracy.
The exclusivist beliefs of Christian fundamentalists oppose a politics of reconciliation. They subordinate following the teachings of Jesus to belief in ancient religious doctrines that conflict with advances in knowledge and reason and are incompatible with fundamental human rights and justice. In politics evangelical Christians have promoted division rather than reconciliation, as was evident in their overwhelming support of Donald Trump for president.
All of the ancient prophets, including Jesus, promoted collective values that emphasized providing for the common good and caring for the poor and needy. They did not consider individual rights since those were not relevant to their ancient times; but Jesus challenged the religious leaders of his day to put love over law, and he was crucified for his efforts.
Christians must take up that cross to resolve the Christian paradox of worshipping the messenger of God rather than following him, and that requires putting the inclusive love for those of all races and religions over exclusivist beliefs. In politics, that means balancing individual rights with providing for the common good.
The relevance of Jesus and the church in today’s world depends upon belief in Jesus as the word of God to be followed, not as the sacrificial Lamb of God to be worshipped. Without such a shift in emphasis the church will remain irrelevant, and as the body of Christ in the world it will soon be as dead as a body without the spirit (see 1 Corinthians 12:12-27 and James 2:26).
Notes and commentary on related topics:
Thomas Jefferson wrote Henry Fry on June 17, 1804: "I consider the doctrines of Jesus as delivered by himself to contain the outlines of the sublimest morality that has ever been taught; but I hold in the utmost profound detestation and execration the corruptions of it which have been invested by priestcraft and kingcraft, constituting a conspiracy of church and state against the civil and religious liberties of man." Thomas Jefferson, The Jefferson Bible, edited by O. I. A. Roche, Clarkson H. Potter, Inc., New York, 1964, at p 378; While Jefferson was considered a deist, he wrote of himself: “I am a Christian in the only sense in which he [Jesus] wished anyone to be; sincerely attached to his doctrine in preference to all others and ascribing to him every human excellence, believing he never claimed any other.” (p 334) Robin R. Meyers addressed the issues from a modern theological perspective in Saving Jesus from the Church: How to Stop Worshiping Christ and Start Following Jesus, HarperCollins, 2009. See note 2 at page 425, The Teachings of Jesus and Muhammad on Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy, an interfaith study text posted at https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B3gvZV8mXUp-TJubVlISnpQc1U/view.
For a survival guide for our post Christian nation, see https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/a-survival-guide-for-our-post-christian-nation/2017/03/24/74b5ae7e-10c3-11e7-9b0d-d27c98455440_story.html?wpisrc=nl_opinionsA&wpmm=1.
On the evangelical roots of our post truth society, see https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/13/opinion/sunday/the-evangelical-roots-of-our-post-truth-society.html?smprod=nytcore-iphone&smid=nytcore-iphone-share&_r=0.
On how Trump breathed new life into the culture war waged by evangelicals, see https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/how-trump-breathed-new-life-into-the-cultural-war-waged-by-evangelicals/2017/04/14/6262ac10-04ff-11e7-b1e9-a05d3c21f7cf_story.html?wpisrc=nl_popns&wpmm=1.
On whether the culture wars really represent America, see https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/04/gorski-civil-religion/521751/.
On Americans becoming less religious, see
On save the mainline denominations, Ross Douthat urged liberals to “ignore the minor problem of actual belief” and go back to church. That’s not a minor problem in South Carolina. See https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/15/opinion/sunday/save-the-mainline.html?smprod=nytcore-iphone&smid=nytcore-iphone-share&_r=0.
Jonathan Malesic has expressed skepticism for Douthat’s advice to secular liberals. See http://religiondispatches.org/douthats-wager-go-to-church-even-if-you-dont-believe/.
On interpreting scripture based on tradition, experience and reason, see Our Theological Task in The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church , pages 78-91, at https://www.cokesbury.com/forms/DynamicContent.aspx?id=87&pageid=920.
On faith and freedom, see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2014/12/faith-and-freedom.html.
On the greatest commandment as a common word of faith, see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2015/01/the-greatest-commandment-common-word-of.html.
On love over law: a principle at the heart of legitimacy, see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2015/01/love-over-law-principle-at-heart-of.html.
On religion as good or evil, see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2015/02/is-religion-good-or-evil.html.
On God and country: conflicting concepts of sovereignty, see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2015/03/god-and-country-resolving-conflicting.html.8
On Jesus: A prophet, God’s only Son or the Logos? see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2015/04/jesus-prophet-god-only-son-or-logos.html.
On fear and fundamentalism, see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2015/07/fear-and-fundamentalism.html.
On freedom and fundamentalism, see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2015/08/freedom-and-fundamentalism.html.
On balancing individual rights with providing for the common good, see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2015/08/balancing-individual-rights-with.html.
On how religious fundamentalism and secularism shape politics and human rights, see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2015/08/how-religious-fundamentalism-and.html.
On what is truth? see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2015/08/what-is-truth.html.
On the politics of loving our neighbors as ourselves, see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2016/01/the-politics-of-loving-our-neighbors-as.html.
On the relevance of religion to politics, see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2016/04/the-relevance-of-religion-to-politics.html.
On religion and a politics of reconciliation, see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2016/05/religion-and-politics-of-reconciliation.html.
On religion and a politics of reconciliation based on shared values, see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2016/11/religion-and-politics-of-reconciliation_19.html.
On saving America from the church, see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/01/saving-america-from-church.html.
On the need for a revolution in religion and politics, see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/02/the-need-for-revolution-in-religion-and.html.
On moral ambiguity in religion and politics, see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/03/moral-ambiguity-in-religion-and-politics.html.
On how Easter and the Christian paradox have distorted the role of Jesus and the church in politics, see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/04/easter-and-christian-paradox.html