By Douglas Foster
If you were to ask a non-Christian, “What is the point of Christianity?” what do you think he or she would say? Based on many people’s experience with professed Christians, he might say the point of Christianity is to make people as miserable and uptight as possible. Or that it is to shape people into vigilantes who get great satisfaction from attacking and destroying those with whom they differ—in the name of Christ and sound doctrine. Unfortunately there is ample evidence to back up these impressions.
But what would you, a Christian and a reader of Christian Standard, say if someone asked, “What is the point of Christianity?” Maybe you would respond it is to get people to act right and preserve human society from chaos. Or you might say it is to convey the love of God for all humankind to the world. Perhaps you would insist its purpose is to take away our sin so we can live with God forever.
No question—every one of those statements is true. Each conveys something central to the nature of the gospel and Christianity. Yet if you were to ask me the point of Christianity, I would respond with one word—reconciliation.
THROUGHOUT THE BIBLE
From the first sin in Genesis to the scene around the throne at the end of Revelation, reconciliation is consistently shown to be the point of God’s dealings with humanity. Perhaps no passage is clearer than 2 Corinthians 5:17-20:
If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.1
Regardless of whether one interprets the passage to mean that only the apostles had the ministry of reconciliation or that all Christians have it, the point is the same—Christianity is essentially about reconciliation. God brings us back to him and heals the alienation between humans through Jesus—in Christ’s body, the church. That’s the point.
In Ephesians 2:13-16, Paul speaks of Christ having broken down the dividing wall of hostility between Jews and Gentiles, making the two groups one through his blood. We are so used to hearing this that we sometimes fail to realize the magnitude of the statement. Paul is asserting that one of the strongest and most enduring ethnic divisions in human history was eradicated by the reconciling work of Christ. The two were now one humanity, one body, because of the cross.
How could that be? They were still Jews and Gentiles. They were still diverse in culture, customs, food, and looks. But these things no longer had to be walls between them. Because of Christ, these differences became enriching, making each group more than they could be apart. Somehow in their reconciled relationships, the differences fostered the transformation into the likeness of Christ described in 2 Corinthians 3:18.
Galatians 3:27, 28 adds two other debilitating divisions among humans that the work of Christ is designed to end.
As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
Like Ephesians 2, this is an amazing statement of the reconciling power of Christ. But something isn’t right. As above, Jews remained Jews ethnically, and Gentiles were still Gentiles. Slavery continued to exist in Paul’s day. Men were still men and women were still women—with all the social distinctions attached to those roles.
Obviously being “in Christ” did not end slavery, or ethnic distinctions, or gender inequality. Many therefore have been content to understand this passage exclusively in an “otherworldly” way. These walls will be broken down eventually in Heaven. Christians should certainly accept all people at some level in the church, but full reconciliation should not be expected here and now.
I believe, however, that this passage reflects something deeply more significant—even essential—about the point of Christianity and how it shapes us here and now. In my “Reflections” articles this year I want to explore four areas of reconciliation in which God is at work, and in which I believe Christians should also be at work.
As an introduction to these thoughts, I want to use a brief discussion of slavery to say something about my understanding of the nature of Scripture and how God works through it.
CONTRARY TO THE GOSPEL
Over time (and it took a very long time), where Christianity became dominant, slavery was eventually seen as inherently contrary to the gospel. Why?
Neither the Old nor the New Testament ever condemns it. In fact, Scripture gives directions to slaves and masters as if slavery were normal and acceptable. Yet surely no one reading this article would attempt to defend slavery as being in harmony with God’s will.
This says something profound, I believe, about the nature of Scripture and how it functions. The gospel through the Spirit of Christ shapes people whose hearts are turned toward God in unbelievable and powerful ways—even when we are not fully aware of it.
This transformation is not the result of a merely intellectual, literalistic approach to Scripture. Taking a simple literal approach to Scripture, no one can refute the statement that the Bible never condemns slavery but regulates it as acceptable. If one assumes that Scripture functions merely or primarily as a “book of facts,” the conclusion that slavery is OK, approved, and regulated by God, is inescapable.
Don’t misunderstand. The Bible contains facts—truths revealed by God for us to know and obey. Yet despite the reality that the Bible never labels slavery as a sin, Christians have come to understand that the message of the gospel—the very point of Christianity—is that slavery cannot be right.
Christ came to reconcile the world to God, and people to one another. He came to break down the barriers that separate humans and that embody oppression and exploitation. He came to bring freedom to the captives. Somehow Scripture shapes our thinking in ways that go far beyond simply a literal factual approach.
The institution of slavery was abolished in most of the Western world in the 19th century. So we don’t have to worry about slavery today, right? Shamefully, an estimated 27 million people continue to suffer exploitation as slaves in many parts of the world. American Christians are often unaware of the magnitude of this evil because it is not in our faces. As Christians we ought to be outraged by the continuation of slavery that directly contradicts the nature of the gospel and the point of Christianity—reconciliation and freedom.
Several organizations are working to end this terrible sin. I urge every reader to learn as much as you can about these efforts and to do all that is possible as followers of Christ to aid in this work of reconciliation that is surely the work of God. The following Web sites provide information about what Christians can do.
1. The American Anti-Slavery Group gives specific information about slavery in the world today, www.iabolish.org/index.html.
2. The “Not For Sale” group urges churches to become involved today as they did in the 19th century, www.notforsalecampaign.org/free-to-be.html.
3. Christian Solidarity International combats all forms of persecution, including slavery, www.csi-int.org/sudan_slavery_commission.php.
1 Scripture quotes in this essay are from the New Revised Standard Version.
Douglas Foster is director of the Center for Restoration Studies and professor of church history at Abilene (Texas) Christian University.
Foster’s scholarly work has centered in two areas: understanding the place of the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement in the larger context of American Christianity, and understanding the idea of Christian unity that was integral to formation of the movement. Among his most recent publications are Renewing God’s People: A Concise History of Churches of Christ and Seeking a Lasting City: The Church’s Journey in the Story of God. He served as general editor of the Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement published in 2005. He serves as one of the general editors for a new global history of the Stone-Campbell Movement to be published in 2012, and is coeditor of the bicentennial volume One Church that focuses on the Declaration and Address. He was a leader in the Restoration Forums for the past two decades and continues to serve on the Stone-Campbell Dialogue. He has served on the board of the Disciples of Christ Historical Society, and serves presently on the boards of Stone-Campbell International and the World Convention of Churches of Christ.
Married in 1979 to the former Linda Grissom, Doug and Linda have two children, Mary Elizabeth Riedel (25) and Mark (20).