Andrew Sullivan, Jesus, and the Church


In his latest Newsweek article, Andrew Sullivan has come up with an absolutely original idea that’s never been put forth before; abandon the Church and follow Jesus. Certainly my last statement is a tad bit facetious as the cry of leaving the Church to follow Christ has been repeated for nearly two-thousand years. Yet, Sullivan thinks that saving Christianity is really that simple, that with him posting an article in Newsweek it will occur. Sadly, his solution actually contributes to the main problem within the Church.

For one, Sullivan has accepted this de facto position that Paul’s writings are somehow sub-par to Jesus’ writings. If we ignore this position, we see that the Church is necessary via Paul’s commands. But even if we only look to the “words of Jesus,” the Church is still necessary.

Christ never taught us to buy into individualism. But this whole “I’m spiritual, but not religious” nonsense is nothing more than pure individualism. In fact, it’s so replete with individualism, that even the language of the movement focuses almost solely on the self; “My belief,” “my Jesus,” “my walk,” and so on. There is absolutely no sense of community beyond a bunch of individuals with individual beliefs who try to work together. While this Utopian ideal may seem like a good thing, the truth is that it’s never worked.

While the Church should never be domineering and directing everything we do, we shouldn’t embrace some kind of ecclesial anarchy either. The reason for this is quite simple – the Church is the bride of Christ. What sense does it make to embrace the bridegroom, but to kill the bride? Certainly we can reform the bride, but to kill her goes beyond excessive and overreactive.

Thus, even if we disagree with the organized Church due to her failings, this doesn’t excuse us from getting involved. Rather than retreating to individualism where we can say, “Oh, I follow Jesus, but I’m not like them,” we can instead say, “Yes, I follow Jesus along with them, but I disagree with how it’s been manifested.” Even more, we can talk to those we are with and attempt to convince them to divorce themselves from their conservative or liberal ideology.

Ultimately, however, what Sullivan is calling for is nothing more than a private faith that is a step below the Social Gospel. Yet, the “Social Gospel” movement has failed and will continue to fail in every manifestation, even ones that are watered down. When we rob the Gospel of its power and reduce it to nothing more than “Take care of the poor,” then the movement will fail because it lacks the power of the Holy Spirit behind it. This is not to say that we shouldn’t take care of those who need it – I’ve been very clear on this issue in my writings – rather that we should realize that the Gospel extends beyond just helping the poor, and goes to bringing people to Christ. It also means we stand up for social justice, that we aren’t “apolitical,” but follow a politic that fits within the ideals of Christianity.

It seems that Sullivan thinks Christians should remain quiet on issues such as abortion, but would he say the same thing for Christians involved in movements to end sex-trafficking or slave-labor overseas? Should we not petition our government on these issues? Should William Wilberforce have simply shut his mouth on the issue of slavery? Should the Christian civil rights activists of the 50s, 60s, and 70s have simply lived the “way of Jesus” rather than petitioning the government and society itself to change how it viewed minorities? I’m sure that Sullivan would rightfully applaud these efforts, but in doing so he would negate his entire stance; these efforts weren’t brought about by individuals following the way of Christ (solely), but instead by entire churches mobilizing against what they saw as an injustice.

To summarize – one cannot follow Christ apart from the Church. It is within the community that we grow stronger. It is within the community that we learn what it means to follow Christ. And when the community becomes corrupt, it is our duty to reform the community. The Church’s role in society is to proclaim the Gospel and to live the Gospel, and sometimes this requires us to become politically involved when the injustice is so great (such as in the case of abortion or slavery). That is what it means to love one another, that we love strangers so much that we’d get involved in a political process to help them. While sometimes this is misguided – on both the left and the right – the actions of a few or even many doesn’t release us from the obligation to pursue justice in our society. The deplorable actions of a few within the Church doesn’t release us from our obligation to the Church, any more than a few bad blood cells releases us from our mothers.

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5 thoughts on “Andrew Sullivan, Jesus, and the Church

  1. “Receive Jesus as your ‘personal’ Lord and Savior.” -Can you please find out for me and blog where we get the word ‘personal’ and why the hek do we even emphasize it.

    1. The only time I see “personal Lord and Savior” as a good thing is if we misuse what we mean by “personal.” If it’s a top-down relationship, where it’s “personal” in that Jesus is Lord over my life, then it does make a bit of sense.

      The problem is that’s never how it’s meant. Instead, Jesus becomes a cosmic genie who grants us our wishes. The whole “I’m spiritual, but not religious” movement is the step-child of this mentality, whether they want to admit it or not.

  2. Joel, you lose a bit of credibility when you say: “For one, Sullivan has accepted this de facto position that Paul’s writings are somehow sub-par to Jesus’ writings.”….. I totally agree with the thought that Paul’s writings are as valuable to Christianity as the Gospels. But we need to remember here that Jesus (as man) didn’t write the Gospels, Matthew Mark Luke and John did as inspired by God, just as Paul write his epistles as inspired by God. The Red Letter words of Jesus are the interpreted and remembered words of Jesus. In ancient times writers frequently summarized, abridged and clarified quotations or sometimes even created speeches to summarize longer less compact arguments (in the thesis sense of argument). There is no reason to believe that many of the words of Jesus are the same sorts of writing. We have to be careful with our use of words 🙂

    1. It’s not a matter of “beig careful.” the problem is people sometimes demand too much nuance to what is essentially colloquial language. Saying “Jesus’ writings” simple refers to His sayings. It’s no different than saying Aristotles writings even though he never wrote a single thing.

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