Is Christianity a custom fit religion?

I’ve been noticing more and more that people speak of Christianity, specifically coming to Christ, as a “journey” rather than a lifestyle that is adopted. The problem is that the term “journey” today might mean something different than it did in the past.

In ancient Christianity the idea of “theosis” was prevalent. The idea that we must begin to move towards being like God in all things except being and identity. Since that can sometimes be confused with pantheism (which the teaching of theosis is not pantheistic at all, but can be confused as such), we have used different terms over the years to describe the act of theosis. We use sanctification, Christ-like, Godly, and other terms to indicate that we are becoming more like Christ. In this way, Christianity is a journey and one where different people will be on different levels of their journey. Some of them might grow closer to Christ through engaging in music or paintings. Others might grow through books. But even though the style of our growth might be subjective, historically the journey required fidelity to Christ and His teachings.

Lately, however, the word “journey” is merely code for, “What I like in a religion.” I heard someone the other day say that he was looking for a religion that fit him. He really liked what some Christians had to offer, especially from a local church that met at a bar on Sunday nights. He said he felt that he wouldn’t have to change too much, just change his plans on Sunday nights to attend.

This is the Christianity that we’ve been breeding for some time now. We have built a custom-fit religion that doesn’t require us to change either how we act or how we think (or both). We like a religion that conforms to our culture rather than having to conform to the religion. This is one reason that the “institutional” church is facing such a backlash right now; we’re constantly told that Christianity is a relationship and not a religion. We’re told that the relationship exists, but the rules are man-made. Even those who are part of the institution of the Church tend to distance themselves away from the institution and attempt to look more “journey-friendly” than anything else. We all know of “big box” churches that tower above the landscape that when you walk it they just feel more contemporary. The stage is set up in a professional manner, the preacher will wear a polo shirt with jeans or, if he’s younger, shorts. They use terms like “small group” and “discussion group,” even if there is little discussion occurring. Regardless, no matter how much such churches may try to appear to be laid back and rule free, they still have rules, regulations, and doctrines that members must adhere to in order to be active in the church.

An unforeseen consequence of such anti-establishment thinking, however, has been the erosion of all standards and all doctrines. For so long we’ve railed against rules and conformity to a system that the younger generation has begin to move away from the rules that we did keep and the doctrines we viewed as essential. We have created a very individualistic faith, but Christianity is the furthest thing from individualistic. How have we made a communal faith individualistic? We’ve eradicated the necessity for people to conform and instead now we expect the church to conform to the people.

I read an article from the “Brooklyn Rail” that did a write-up on Jay Bakker’s church in New York City that really helps to illustrate my point. The article really talks about two different churches – one in Williamsburg and the other in NYC – but says the one in Williamsburg, while different from other organized churches, still harms its image of being “open and friendly” by adhering to some doctrines (most notably the doctrine of Hell). In writing about Jay Bakker’s church, however, she talks about how a pastor from Houston was there speaking. The author writes,

“Brian Yarbrough from Anchor Church in Houston is guest speaker today. I’m ready for another helping of friendly evangelism, but what I’m served is downright radical, even revolutionary. “This pure form of the pursuit of the God question has to be reconciled in each of us,” Yarbrough says. “And that may take the form of Buddhist or Muslim or Hindu or all the other religions that we think aren’t as important as ours.” Say what? I do know Christians who view Christianity as a cultural choice that works for them, rather than the only key to the pearly gates. But I’ve never heard this viewpoint articulated and promoted by a member of an organized religion itself.”

Notice how under such a view a Christian might end up a Buddhist, a Muslim, a Hindu, or whatever and still be on a path that leads to God. Such thinking flies in the face of what Christ said, who declared Himself as the way, the truth, and the life. He did not offer Himself up as a way, nor did He point to a way higher than Himself, but instead that He was the way. While there is much wisdom to be found in other religions, they are not the way to the Father. The only way to God is through Christ, as Christ said Himself in John 14:6. In the passage Jesus speaks about how He is going to prepare a place for those who believe in Him. Thomas, ever the curious disciple, asked how this was possible since they had no idea where Jesus was going. That is when he responds that he is the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through Christ.

But how do we get to Christ? Some pluralists might say that we get to Christ through enlightened living or serving the poor. While serving the poor might be a part of faith, it is not the entirety of faith and instead flows from a faith that is already present. Rather, the way to Christ is to first confess Him as Lord (as God) and believe in Him that God rose Him from the dead (Romans 10:9). Of course, once we have done this we must continue in fidelity to Christ and Christ alone; we cannot worship Christ as God and still draw from other religious sources to have a pluralistic faith. We know from numerous passages that God wants worship to be excluded to Him, but we know through the words of Christ that we can only truly worship God if we have first come to Christ.

The exclusionary nature of the Gospel is found all throughout the Gospels. Christ Himself said that the gate that leads to destruction is wide and many will pass through it, but the gate that leads to eternal life is narrow and few shall pass through it (Matthew 7:13-14). How does Mr. Yarbrough reconcile his teaching with the words of Christ? Certainly if we eradicate the idea of Hell or the idea of punishment and embrace all religions, then what path is narrow? If all philosophies lead to the same destination then there are no longer two paths. Just a few verses later we see Jesus saying that He would tell those who did not belong to Him to depart from Him into the abyss (Matthew 7:21). There is nothing inclusive about the message of Christ, rather it is a message of conformity.

Such a message simply does not resonate with the world, especially with American culture. No one likes the idea that we need to change and conform to the world rather than have Christianity conform to us. Later on in the article the author writes,

“If the establishment Church wants to stay (or rather become) relevant, it needs to take a cue from Revolution. Bakker says institutional Christianity “needs to get back down to love God and love your neighbor as yourself.” Keep it pure, he urges…Christian agnosticism verges on Buddhism in a way. The Buddha taught a way to access God or Oneness, but he never said those who didn’t follow him would rot eternally. This approach offers up Christianity as one train among many with the same destination. It just depends on what kind of scenery you like watching out the window.”

The author is correct in a sense. If Christians want to remain relevant, that is, accepted by the culture and well-recieved, then they have to compromise and admit that they aren’t the own one’s with the key to Heaven. As the author states, they have to abandon their view of exclusivity and work towards embracing other faiths as different trains with the same destination. The theory is that if the Church is going to continue to exist in Western Society, it must conform to that society so people feel comfortable with going to Church.

But such conformity has never been a part of the Christian tradition. If Christ meant “conform to society” or “create a one-size-fits-all religion” when He told us to love our neighbors as ourselves, then that message must have been lost on everyone who followed Him. All of His disciples faced persecutions and were killed for their faith in Him (except John, who though persecuted, died of natural causes). If Christianity has always been inclusive and the path to God went through various religious practices, then the early Christians should have had no problem swearing allegiance to Caesar and declaring him Lord. They shouldn’t have had a problem with the pagan practices of the Romans, but they did. That is because true Christianity has always been a counter-cultural force, it has always made the pagans nervous and angry, and it has always been in the minority.

Christ wasn’t killed for political reasons (He told people to respect their government officials), He wasn’t killed for being a revolutionary (He never engaged in or encouraged violence), and He wasn’t killed for being nice (no one kills a servant). He was killed for being exclusive. He was killed for saying that He is God and the only way to God is through Him. His followers took up His banner after His resurrection from the dead to say that unless people believed that Christ was God and was raised from the dead for their sins they could not inherit eternity. They said that all humans must wear loyalty to Christ rather than “follow their own path.” It is for this belief that they died.

But what about conforming to our culture? What about making church accessible to those who aren’t Christians? Didn’t Paul say that to a Jew he became as a Jew and to a Greek he became as a Greek?

Certainly, the church must adapt to its culture in various ways. If the culture tends to be vegetarian due to a native religion then there is no harm in also taking on the dietary customs of the culture. But instead of laying down different rules and regulations, the main rule is this:

1) Does the cultural norm or practices require you to move away from fidelity with God?

2) Does the cultural norm or practice require you to hate your neighbor or commit an injustice against him?

If neither of these are violated, then it’s generally okay to adopt a cultural practice. But the beliefs of a culture, the philosophies of a culture, and the practices of a culture that violate Christian living must be abandoned. Christ does not conform to the culture, but instead conforms the culture to Himself.

Peter warns us not to go back to our pagan ways of thinking (1 Peter 1:14). But isn’t that what the article calls for us to do? Rather than holding fast to the truth of Christ the article says that we should instead embrace all faiths, which is a pagan thing to belief. Paul makes the warning even more explicit when he writes,

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2)

The call of the Christian is not to conform to the world so as to appease the world, but instead to conform to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29) so that we might please God. We are to call on others to do the same.

Christianity is not Burger King, it is not a religion where you can have it your way. Rather than saying, “I don’t like this belief in Christianity, so I’ll abandon it) we should instead see if our own pride or former pagan way of thinking is preventing us from accepting the belief. We should study that belief to see if it truly is of Christ. But in all, we should make sure that we don’t hold onto a belief or reject a belief because of what it does to our comfort level. Instead, we should constantly seek to conform to the image of Christ rather than to conform to the world, but we can only do this by being faithful to Christ and not turning to pagan religions.