At this time three years ago I was somewhat famous. After writing a blog piece about how I no longer believed in hell I was released by the United Methodist church I was serving as a student pastor. My incessant blogging on matters which sought to build my public platform blinded me to the fact that I had a church full of flesh-and-blood people, real people versus pixel amens, who were losing faith in their shepherd with every word I typed.
My exit from the church gave me everything I thought I had wanted. I was invited to do all sorts of radio and TV interviews, was part of a documentary called Hellbound? (don’t ask me if it’s any good, as I haven’t seen it), and got to rub shoulders with all the Christian celebrities I had grown to admire.
Being asked to speak at various Progressive, edgy, Christian conferences and camps introduced me to a community where I felt welcomed and at home. I felt I had been abandoned by my evangelical or conservative family but had found a new one. A new “tribe.”
I thought it was so cool and refreshing to be part of a new “church” family who didn’t judge me for my beliefs or for what I did. Having grown up in the holiness tradition with what I perceived to be nothing but rules and regulations it was quite liberating to now drink it up with various Christian authors and bloggers while at a Christian conference. And no one seemed to mind. It was cool to be part of an emerging Jesus movement which celebrated one of it’s prominent leaders choosing to live with his girlfriend and not marry until all gay persons had the same right. We would laugh when I drew the dreaded first slot of the day to speak (9AM) at one conference because, we joked, most of the attendees would be hung-over and still in bed. The crude language and joking which happened around the camp-fire outside the Patheos RV (famous for making “Patheos Punch”) late into the night reminded me of my Navy days where nothing was edited, nor sacred.
I had grown up believing that a large part of being a Christian was practicing self-control, being mindful of the words I spoke, taking care of the thoughts I had and that what I did with my body mattered. But within progressive Christianity I found a tribe of people who followed Jesus yet didn’t expect anything of me nor question anything I said, thought, or did.
These festivals were like high-school parties I attended as a youth but with the addition of booths to visit during the day where we learned about how to build water wells in Africa or how conservatives are harming gay people. We had a religion where Jesus cared deeply about the social sins of our day but not about the moral vapidness of our own hearts. The former we judged ruthlessly, to judge the latter was sinful.
Even as I type this I marvel that this was so. I have often wondered, looking back, what an alien visiting our planet would make of the Christian faith had it landed at one of these “Christian” conferences, or some other party, I mean, convention. I’ve concluded that they would walk away thinking we looked like every other person on earth absorbed with themselves and their desires with the only difference being we’d been well trained at numbing our conscience by blogging that love wins or by telling ourselves we are defending the real Jesus.
Paul would have called us “carnal” Christians. Had he done so at any of of these conferences, (or perhaps at some of our Annual Conferences?), we would have called him an old stick-in-the-mud, a relic from a church world which we, with our enlightenment, have been liberated. If Paul, or Jesus for that matter, walked into our party and used words like “repent,” or “sin,” or “holiness,” without attaching them to social evils (those things out there) but to our own hearts and minds, he would be called a Pharisee and blamed for the millenial evacuation of the church (which isn’t true, by the way).
I am convinced of this one truth: That anyone who is in Christ is a NEW creation (2 Cor. 5:17)! True Christians are not and never have been decent people gathering together around a common mission to transform the world but dead sinners made alive by the mercy of God. They gather to learn how to walk in the paths of righteousness and holiness, putting off their old self and putting on a new one, thus bringing glory to God. While this certainly will include digging water wells in Africa it also includes being made new and clean by the living water of Christ, transforming our hearts and minds in holiness.
And yet, this moral apathy, or rather, outright disdain towards personal morality, is rampant in Christian circles today. So much so that the “new life” which the gospel promises to produce in those who truly know Jesus is hardly recognizable nor different from the lives of pagans. In our rush to divorce ourselves from any vestiges of fundamentalism we have stampeded over the cliff of moral relativism. Where is our moral center?
While I was deep in my own addiction to pornography and sex I found solace in this “tribe” because they did not judge me. But solace is not salvation, and I needed to be saved, not assuaged. My reason for distrusting the progressive movement both within our own denomination and the greater Church is not only because I find it mushy in matters of biblical authority but also, and perhaps especially, because I find it lacking an authoritative word calling me and the world out of our moral malaise. I long for a church that once more remembers, as Karen Booth reminds us, to blush. But what I want matters far less than what I believe the Holy Spirit wants. Without holiness, no one will see the Lord. Spin the word holiness however you like, but it must never be divorced from personal morality, and always must consist of a clear contrast between those who have put on the “new man” and those who are still deluded by the old.
Therefore, be imitators of God…sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God (Eph. 5:1-5).
Dear God, forgive us for thinking that what we say, what we think, and what we do with our bodies doesn’t matter to You. Help restore our moral compass. Prick our hearts and reawaken our minds so that we would be sensitive again to the wickedness within us so that we would be once more driven to pursue holiness, without which we will not see You. Amen.