By Rudy Barnes, Jr., June 24, 2023
In case you haven’t noticed, churches in America are losing membership, and their influence in shaping American culture is diminishing. The church has traditionally been the primary source of America’s standards of moral legitimacy (what’s right and wrong). Its nadir came in 2016 when most white Christians elected Donald Trump.
Trump’s narcissism is the antithesis of the altruistic moral teachings of Jesus on discipleship; and Trump’s continued popularity in the white church has sealed its fate. The church seems beyond redemption, unable to reconcile America’s tribal polarized partisan politics, and unable to promote altruistic morality in a materialistic and hedonistic culture.
When the early church adopted Paul’s atonement doctrine it subordinated the cost of discipleship taught by Jesus to mystical doctrines of belief in a divine Jesus Christ as the alter ego of God and as a blood sacrifice to forgive the sins of all believers. Church doctrines made those exclusivist beliefs essential to salvation, but they were never taught by Jesus.
The church should promote the altruistic values taught by Jesus, and accept the reality that most Christians have put belief in exclusivist church doctrines over the teachings of Jesus. Christians should oppose the corrupt moral values of America’s materialistic and hedonistic culture. While that may make them a political minority, they can be a minority for God's will.
The teachings of Jesus are summarized in the greatest commandment to love God and our neighbors of other races and religions as we love ourselves. It’s a universal moral imperative taken from the Hebrew Bible and taught by Jesus, and it has been accepted by Muslim scholars as a common word of faith.
Jesus was a Jew who taught his disciples to follow him, not to worship him. It’s unlikely that a church that has grown popular and powerful by promoting the worship of Jesus Christ as the only means of salvation will support universal salvation by loving the least of those among us--but that’s what Jesus taught in the story of the last judgment in Matthew 25:31-46.
The teachings of Jesus were never popular. Church doctrines limiting salvation to exclusivist beliefs provided cheap grace by ignoring the cost of discipleship. While that enabled the church to become popular and powerful, the election of 2016 exposed its moral weakness. Discipleship has become costly to the church since like politics its measure of success is popularity.
The church can remain a popular social institution and continue to ignore the moral imperatives of discipleship; but Christians who seek to follow Jesus will have to reject the cheap grace of exclusivist church doctrines and accept altruistic love as the cost of discipleship. They will have to choose the narrow way of God’s love over the broad and popular ways of the world.
On the largest and fastest religious shift in America that is well underway, see https://www.nytimes.com/2023/06/21/opinion/religion-dechurching.html.
On how remaining United Methodists must look to religious life after disaffiliations, see https://triblive.com/local/regional/remaining-united-methodists-look-to-religious-life-after-disaffiliations/.
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