Editor’s note: This piece was written as a response to another post at our sight, “Letter from a Skeptic.” The author’s insights will mean even more to the reader who has read that post first.
By Dick Alexander
Thank you for writing. You have made a concise critique of Christianity—a large part of which I wholeheartedly agree with. And you’ve asked a serious question that deserves an equally serious response. Thank you for giving me an opportunity to do that.
From your original question, “Can I be a Christian and be good?” a number of other questions followed. I’d like to add an implicit corollary question—“If Jesus is so good, then why are Christians so bad?”, and I’d like to begin there.
Your criticism of the Christianity you’ve seen in action targeted white Evangelical Christianity. I would narrow that a bit further to white Evangelical American Christianity since the middle of the 20th century. In my opinion, there are many ways this corner of the global church has veered off the path God intended, and as a result has often misrepresented God.
In the middle part of the 20th century, churches in America were growing, new ones were starting, and masses of people were involved. People who didn’t go to church were favorable toward the church and thought that’s what good people did—go to church. If they ever cleaned up their lives, they would do that too.
Government was warm toward Christianity, and it was considered not just acceptable, but in many cases desirable, to be known as a Christian. Many spoke of America as a “Christian nation.” Even though that wasn’t true, to think of it that way was dangerous. The church wasn’t meant to seek or exercise political power.
Then came the cultural turmoil of the 1960s. Church people, not knowing how to respond, withdrew and became harshly critical of the culture—this was the beginning of the “culture wars.” What Christians had not been able to accomplish through gentle persuasion, they tried to accomplish through government legislation. And white Evangelical Christianity became a tool of the Republican Party. Additionally, in fighting the culture wars, churches often communicated an attitude antithetical to Jesus, for example toward the LGBTQ community, as you pointed out.
The church has always been most aligned with God when it was serving the marginalized and oppressed. The first-century church did that—caring for the poor, giving dignity to women, saving infants, and seeing profound cultural change result. The American movement begun a few decades ago to settle cultural upheaval through political means was, in my opinion, misguided.
No arrogance is worse than religious arrogance. Humans were created to live in a love relationship with God—one that would yield a profound sense of worth and value for each individual. Once that relationship was fractured (the Garden of Eden story), the normal way of feeling worthwhile became comparison to others—I’m better looking, smarter, more successful. My tribe is stronger; my religion is the true one. The ultimate self-rightness is assuming rightness about God.
In the common use of the word religion, it is a set of beliefs and practices that make a person “good.” Paradoxically, those who pursue goodness on these terms usually feel deep guilt because they cannot attain to the standards, yet they have pride in whatever they think they do right.
At one level, that pride results in a verbal bludgeoning of those who disagree. At a more intense level, it results in physical violence and war. The confluence of human arrogance and religious truth systems has produced a history of religious wars. Globally, religious fundamentalists perpetrate violence, and too frequently Christianity has fallen into that trap.
But at its heart Christianity is not a truth system—it is a relationship with the living God. Jesus, who was the embodiment of truth, didn’t come to fill people’s heads with knowledge, but rather to restore broken relationships with their creator, their own souls, other humans, and the environment.
When truth is seen as a means to the end of knowing God as he really is and growing to wholeness in other relationships, the result is life as God intended it—rich in love for others and for him.
Truth matters. People who lack truth from the creator tend to self-destruct. But grace is the distinctive feature of Christianity. Scripture says Jesus came full of grace and truth—the order is meaningful. Among the world’s belief systems, all others require achieving goodness through endless human effort. Christianity alone claims to make a person whole through grace as a gift from God.
I’ve known people like the uncle you described. While they may be in Heaven one day by God’s grace, I don’t think they represent him well now.
I wonder at times why God allows those who bear his name to do this damage to his reputation. My wife and I were walking in a large square in the center of our city one evening last summer. A band was playing, and it was a nice intergenerational gathering.
At the edge of the crowd, a street preacher shouted, “God hates fornicators! Fornicators go to Hell!”
A young man walking by hand-in-hand with a young woman said, “I love fornicating,” mocking the preacher. I wanted to call down a lightning bolt to vaporize the preacher, just as Jesus’ apostles had done when they met some people with whom they disagreed. It was a very unchristian thought, I’ll admit. But when God granted freewill, he allowed for egregious actions, even when his reputation is at stake.
You mentioned historic examples of the wheels coming off Christianity, and there are many. Our sinfulness runs deep. But I would encourage you not to dismiss the good so easily.
A friend in India noted that Christians make up 2 percent of India’s population but have started 30 percent of the nation’s hospitals and schools. As I drove across East Africa last month, I noticed that most schools and clinics in the poor villages carried Christian names. After the Vietnam War, it was largely churches that helped resettle the Vietnamese refugees who flooded into the United States. Christians are disproportionately represented among adoptive parents, especially for special needs children. There’s a very long list.
Lee Strobel is a pastor and author who graduated from journalism school as a convinced atheist. Five months into his new job at the Chicago Tribune, he was assigned to do a story each day for a month profiling a different needy family as part of a Chicago media charity Neediest Kids Fund drive.
In the process, he said he stumbled onto a vast network of Christians serving the poor—food pantries, homeless shelters, clothing centers, job training institutes, drug rehabilitation centers, sports ministries for kids—all run by churches and Christian charities.
In God’s Outrageous Claims, he wrote, “I (was) quietly observing the volunteers who poured their lives into selflessly serving these otherwise forgotten people. . . . As an atheist, it just didn’t make sense to me. I wanted to know why.”
Most of the good Christians do is unseen by anyone except by the immediate beneficiaries, because it is done out of the spotlight. Vast numbers of the real Christ followers aren’t looking for publicity—they just want to help. Again, none of this good justifies the bad Christians do. But a person who wants to do good will find passionate allies in the church.
You asked some specific questions—for instance, do you have to accept a literal six-day creation? Simply put, no. Very knowledgeable and serious Bible students disagree on the meaning of the six days of creation. Beyond a very short list of foundational beliefs about the nature of God and Scripture, committed Christians differ on many things. It’s not that it doesn’t matter what we believe—it’s that human understanding is clouded. So there’s room to disagree, and we’re wise to do it with a large measure of grace.
One of the great things about Christianity is it is self-reforming.
Because we have direction from Scripture and the Spirit of God at work in his church, when a part of the church wanders off track, God calls it back. That’s happening now in American Christianity.
A few years ago I attended a conference in Portland, Oregon, called simply “Q.” It’s led and attended by Christians who are seeking to recover more closely the way of life God intended, and live it in today’s world.
The middle night of the conference featured a panel that included Sam Adams, the first openly gay mayor of a major U.S. city, and Rick McKinley, pastor of Imago Dei church. McKinley had helped mobilize 450 churches and 27,000 Christians to serve the proudly secular city of Portland.
It was intriguing watching the pastor and the mayor talk about working together for the good of the city. Near the end of the interview, Mayor Adams took the mike and noted there obviously were many things on which he and the pastor would disagree. But then he said, “The quality of volunteers and staying power is unmatched outside the faith community. It is almost impossible to find those volunteers elsewhere.”
There is a rebirth of Christianity happening in America. It includes a reassessment of what the Bible actually teaches on many areas you mentioned—war, the environment, the relationship of science and faith, racism, etc. There remain many like your uncle, but a new day is on the horizon.
I believe you have correctly identified a number of values that are good and right and true, and I think you would find a great deal of resonance with this recovery of the ancient faith and its way of life.
So yes, you can be good and be a Christian!
But I would ask several things of you. First, continue asking questions of God—pursue him. Don’t let people you don’t admire control your life by discouraging you from following Jesus.
And I’d encourage you not to just look for a God who fits your preconceptions. You have identified well some attributes that are true of the living God. But God is God, and is not of our making. He always does what is right and good, but it’s often not what we would expect or what we can understand. Be open to his surprising you, even if the surprises are troubling at first.
Also, as you consider God (which I’m thankful you are doing), please don’t go it alone. Find others who are pursuing him, and share the journey. A faith crafted solely in a closet is likely to be absent some key facets.
And one other thing—humility. For me, it’s too easy to critique the street preacher, while arrogantly thinking I am serving God correctly. My own life has so many weaknesses—I just pray that at the end of most of my days that God is smiling.
Thanks so much for writing—I really appreciate your thoughts. I’d welcome corresponding more about this if it would be helpful, or talking over a cup of coffee. I welcome your pushback on any of this—God is the only one who is perfect.
Dick Alexander resides in Cincinnati, Ohio. He is an international consultant for Christian Missionary Fellowship, Indianapolis, Indiana.