Theology

Why You Ought to Leave the Church

Courtesy Odyssey Netowrks
What does it look like when God defies the restrictions we presume are in place? Courtesy Odyssey Netowrks

Recently, a large wealthy church decided to break up with my denomination. I’m not 100 percent sure I know why. But the no-regrets explanation they wrote implied that religious differences between us were too severe for them to stay committed to our relationship.

Religion has a way of making people do extraordinary things to create peace and unity. It also, as we know well, has a destructive capacity to turn people against one another. It can make us grip our convictions so tightly that we choke out their life. We chase others away, then say “Good riddance” to soothe the pain of the separation. Even more alarming, too many religious people insist on isolating themselves and limiting their imagination about where and how God can be known.

All these realities take on a sad irony when we read about God promising to be outside the walls, present with different people in different places. What does it look like when God defies the restrictions we presume are in place?

Reclaiming the Word

FOR GENERATIONS, Native North Americans and other Indigenous peoples have lived the false belief that a fulfilled relationship with their Creator through Jesus required rejecting their own culture and adopting another, European in origin. In consequence, conventional approaches to mission with Indigenous peoples in North America and around the world have produced relatively dismal outcomes.

The result has subjected Indigenous people to deep-rooted self-doubt at best, self-hatred at worst.

One of the more egregious examples of the “conventional” approach in Canada involved the church-run residential schools. Indigenous children were taken from their families, prevented from speaking their native languages, and subjected to various other forms of abuse.

Isabelle Knockwood, a survivor of church-run residential schools, observed, “I thought about how many of my former schoolmates, like Leona, Hilda, and Maimie, had died premature deaths. I wondered how many were still alive and how they were doing, how well they were coping, and if they were still carrying the burden of the past on their shoulders like I was.”

Given the countless mission efforts over the past four centuries (which in practice were targeted not so much to spiritual transformation as to social and cultural annihilation), we might conclude that Indigenous people must possess a unique spiritual intransigence to the gospel.

But that would not tell the whole story.

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Salvation: All Is Grace

Abstract smoke image, grace illustration, Amnartk / Shutterstock.com
Abstract smoke image, grace illustration, Amnartk / Shutterstock.com

One sort of Christian believes taking Eucharist weekly saves her. Another Christian believes his confession of Jesus Christ as Lord saves him. Still another looks to his Baptism. Another to her participation in the body of Christ. One to his repentance. And another to her care for the sick, the hungry, the prisoner, and the poor.

We elevate one belief or practice over another, then divide ourselves as Christ followers by the priority we set when, in fact, all of these are taught as saving by Christ, who alone is our salvation.

Christ saves me, not the accuracy and purity of my beliefs. Christ saves me, not my works. Christ saves me, not the measure of my adherence to a doctrine or practice.

When all is said and done, many Christians tend to look to their habits, their faith, and their perseverance when it comes to salvation rather than to the work, belief, and faithfulness of Christ in us, over us, under us, and through us.

New & Noteworthy

Faith and Reform
Writer and social reform Harriet Beecher Stowe’s controversial 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin brought many people to the anti-slavery movement. In Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Spiritual Life, biographer Nancy Koester illuminates the shifting role and expression of faith in Stowe’s personal and public life and work. Wm. B. Eerdmans

Falling into Love
A few years ago a young man named Rocky Braat left Pittsburgh to wander India; he’s ended up working for years in an orphanage for HIV-positive children there. His friend, filmmaker Steve Hoover, went to explore why. The result is a Sundance-award-winning documentary, Blood Brother. www.bloodbrotherfilm.com

A Way of Peace
In The Nonviolent Life, veteran peace activist John Dear offers a primer on what he sees as the three vital dimensions of living nonviolently: nonviolence toward ourselves, toward all others (and all creation), and joining the global grassroots movement for peace. Pace e Beene Press

Spirit of Respect
Introduction to First Nations Ministry, by Cheryl Bear-Barnetson (Nadleh Whut’en), presents a course on Indigenous values, world views, history, theology, and ministry. Created for Foursquare Church ministers, the content is helpful for anyone seeking to learn more about Indigenous Christianity. Cherohala Press

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Birmingham Before the Dream

AS AN EVANGELICAL pastor of a multiethnic church in New York City, I often find myself at the intersection of lively discussions about race. These conversations almost inevitably lead to a familiar question: What does the church do now? Maybe stated another way, “How do we work toward the dream of the beloved community?” This is why I find Edward Gilbreath’s Birmingham Revolution: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Epic Challenge to the Church to be a timely and necessary read.

While many books have been written on Dr. King and civil rights, Birmingham Revolution places King’s faith at the foreground of the writing. This is an important distinctive as King has often been co-opted, by conservative and liberal agendas alike. Yet history cannot deny that prayerful action, and a gospel that took seriously the social dimensions of human life, were at the very heart of King’s theology.

Birmingham Revolution hones in on the year 1963—a time when the Southern Christian Leadership Conference took the civil rights efforts into the bowels of structural racism. Brown vs. Board of Education had provided an important Supreme Court victory in 1954, but many forms of local resistance to desegregation prevailed in the South.

To compound the drama, many advocates in Alabama, both black and white, believed further progress should happen through legal means. They had a misplaced confidence that local structures would uphold federal law, despite the continued presence of the KKK and other such groups. Gilbreath explains Birmingham’s defining moment not only in confronting segregation, but also in challenging the subtler, unwittingly complicit voice of the moderate.

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Indigenous Peoples Prayer Calendar

Terry LeBlanc’s cover story, “Reclaiming the Word” (Sojourners, March 2014) addresses the reclamation of Christianity by Indigenous peoples who have often been hurt by the church, but who have, in some way or another, salvaged a deep faith for themselves. He writes, “For Indigenous people, the biblical text, our history, and our life experience suggest that all of creation, not just human beings, is of a spiritual nature and is the focus of God’s redemptive activity in Jesus.”

Indigenous faith is strongly connected to nature. This is echoed in the following calendar that serves as a companion to LeBlanc’s article. Each day is paired with an image and prayer from various tribes around North and Central America that reflect an Indigenous understanding of God. These prayers show a deep connection to nature and fellow human beings and often call for balance, peace, and harmony in everyday life.

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Kara Lofton is editorial/online assistant at Sojourners.

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Taking It to the Streets

AS I ATTENDED seminary in my native Chicago, I heard about one senseless death after another. A six-month-old baby shot multiple times with an assault weapon; a young black girl, with promise and a future, caught in the crossfire—all casualties of gang violence.

This violence is further evidence to me that our theology is needed on the streets. A theology that can impact the crisis facing the black community must be relevant to the black community. Theology can never be disengaged from the history of black people, the “isms” that have oppressed us, and the struggles that have birthed our progress. “Relevancy,” for theology, means moving beyond the academy and the church and into the streets, where it becomes our thinking faith in action.

Does our theology have anything to say to African-American gang girls? The formation of girl gangs is rooted in the numerous social ills affecting many urban African-American communities. By taking our theology to the streets, we can offer African-American gang girls an alternative hope and future. Four theological frameworks can aid in that task.

First, a practical theology—thinking faith in action—that models Jesus’ ministry to the marginalized can reach these girls with the message of God’s compassion, peace, and hope by offering a positive relational sisterhood that can replace gang life.

Second, a public theology that calls for common-sense gun laws and a ban on assault weapons is a Christian ethical imperative that empowers change in public policy and can save the lives of our youth.

Third, our liberation theology is now also a struggle to free the black community from the oppression of violence, and our faith leads us to the liberating task of acting as “interrupters” to the cycles of violence in our communities.

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Smoking What We’re Growing: 8 Things That Happen When We Live (or Don’t Live) What We Talk About

Theory v. action concept, art4all / Shutterstock.com
Theory v. action concept, art4all / Shutterstock.com

I was down in Mexico a few years ago for a gathering of peers who are leading faith communities around the world. It was a rich time of conversation, encouragement, and visioning.

Walking through a local Mexican neighborhood between sessions, something struck me. While those of us in the Minority World (often called the 1st or Western World) are thinking and talking about our theology, most of the folks in the Majority World (often called the 3rd World) have no choice but to simply live into their theology. Talking about our theology, faith, and practice in lecture halls, church buildings, and conference rooms is a luxury that the vast majority of Jesus followers in the world have no opportunity to participate in.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it is reality. And those of us with this luxury better own up to it, because it is easy for us in the West to think we have a corner on the market of theology, which we then project (whether consciously or subconsciously) onto the rest of the world. But who's to say theology built in academia is any more valid than theology build in the realities of everyday life?

When Christians Love Theology More Than People

Holding hands, Mats Bergström / Shutterstock.com
Holding hands, Mats Bergström / Shutterstock.com

Beyond the realm of churches, religious blogs, and bible colleges, nobody really cares about theology. What does matter is the way you treat other people.

Within Christendom, we’re often taught the exact opposite: that doctrines, traditions, theologies, and distinct beliefs are the only things that do matter. It’s what separates churches, denominations, theologians, and those who are “saved” and “unsaved.”

Historically, Christians have been tempted to categorize the Bible into numerous sets of beliefs that are either inspired or heretical, good or bad, right or wrong — with no room for doubt or questioning or uncertainty.

It’s easy to get caught up in theorizing about God, but within our everyday lives reality is what matters most to the people around us. Theorizing only becomes important once it becomes relevant and practical and applicable to our lives.

When I'm sick, and you bring me a meal, I don't care whether you're a Calvinist or Arminian

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