By Rudy Barnes, Jr., May 6, 2023
The Christian religion is a prepackaged faith that’s advertised and managed by churches that are now in decline. Many believers, known as nones, have left their churches discouraged by the lack of emphasis on the moral teachings of Jesus, a maverick Jewish rabbi who called his disciples to follow him, not to worship him. Those nones are forming new faith networks, not new churches.
The Apostle Paul shaped early church doctrine with his doctrine of atonement. It made salvation dependent on belief in the crucifixion as God’s blood sacrifice to atone for sin, and it subordinated the teachings of Jesus to belief in Jesus Christ as the alter ego of God. The atonement doctrine became the foundation of Christian belief; but it was never taught by Jesus.
That anomaly resulted from the realization of early church leaders that the teachings of Jesus on sacrificial love would never be popular. His universal teachings were summarized in the greatest commandment to love God and our neighbors, including those of other races and religions, as we love ourselves. It was taken from the Hebrew Bible, taught by Jesus and accepted by Islamic scholars as a common word of faith.
Thomas Jefferson described the teachings of Jesus as the most sublime moral code ever devised by man, and he detested a church that subordinated the moral teachings of Jesus to exclusivist church doctrines. Jesus taught of a God of love and mercy, and he never promoted one religion as the only means of salvation--not even his own.
The prevalence of greed, materialism, hedonism, and increasing gun violence is testimony to America’s rejection of the teachings of Jesus as moral standards of legitimacy. The altruistic teachings of Jesus were never popular; but since the church considers popularity the measure of its success, it has promoted cheap grace rather than the cost of discipleship.
American Christians have ignored the universal teachings of Jesus in the greatest commandment, even though it’s a universal and timeless common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims, and a moral imperative for religious and political reconciliation. Unfortunately, exclusivist religious doctrines have done more to divide us than to reconcile us.
Christian churches are hierarchical social institutions that do not tolerate criticism of their exclusivist doctrines. In 2016 the church lost its moral compass when a majority of white Christians elected a President whose egregious immorality is the antithesis of the teachings of Jesus. Since then the church has failed to correct that moral deficiency.
Christians in churches without a moral compass in politics should consider joining a faith network of believers who seek to follow the teachings of Jesus in the greatest commandment. They can leave traditional churches that are remnants of popular but increasingly irrelevant social institutions and join faith networks that are more relevant to their faith and politics.
Lots of Americans Are Losing Their Religion. Have You? See https://www.nytimes.com/2023/04/19/opinion/religion-america.html.
There are two different ways to remedy a declining and irrelevant church. One is to reform the church to conform more closely to the teachings of Jesus on discipleship; the other is to promote small groups, or networks of believers as an alternative to the institutional church. The 2,000 year history of the church indicates that it will not promote a faith based on discipleship, so long as popularity and worldly power are its measure of success. The Reformation broke up the Roman Catholic church, but most Protestant denominations adopted their structure and exclusivist beliefs with top-down hierarchies and stifling doctrines and dogmas. A faith network is a smaller and more horizontal organization than church hierarchies that can tolerate diversity and accommodate change. Networks don’t have the rigid hierarchies and stifling religious doctrines and dogmas that prevent change--or the overhead of religious institutions. Similar networks can affiliate with others without being controlled by an institutional religious hierarchy. A Christian faith network is not a new concept. The first disciples of Jesus were Jews who met in private homes rather than in synagogues. The church did not become a major religious institution until the 4th century when Emperor Constantine made it the religion of the Roman Empire. John Wesley was a maverick priest in the 18th century Church of England who organized small groups, or classes, that could be a model for modern faith networks. Wesley’s Methodists promoted discipleship in religion and politics. Bishop John Hopkins once cited three diverse commentators--Roger Starr, George Will, and Fred Barnes--who agreed that John Wesley’s Revival probably saved 18th century England from civil chaos, and that such a spiritual revival is needed in the U.S. today. (Hopkins comments at a Connectional Table meeting at Fort Worth, TX, on Oct 23, 2006). On Wesley’s Alternative for an Irrelevant Church,
The modern United Methodist Church (UMC) needs another Maverick like Wesley for the 21st century. The UMC is misnamed. Most of its churches are racially segregated and divided in their politics. Most Black United Methodists vote as Democrats, while most white United Methodists avoid mixing religion and politics in church and vote as Republicans. The UMC, like other Protestant churches, is in decline; and it’s going through a painful disaffiliation process over differences in UMC doctrine on homosexuality and same sex marriage.
In a faith network, house churches can set their own religious and political agendas, as well as their meeting times and places. They can have virtual or in person meetings, and members can stay in touch through the internet. They can join with those of different religions to promote universal reconciliation based on the greatest commandment as a common word of faith, or remain independent. On hierarchies and networks generally, see Niall Ferguson, The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power, from the Free Masons to Facebook; Penguin Books, 2017.
On the house church concept, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/House_church. The house church could also be an Interfaith church since Jews, Christians and Muslims all consider Jesus a great prophet, and the greatest commandment as a common word of faith.