Christians Need to Stop Just Believing in Jesus and Start Living Like Him

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One of the practical upshots of the Protestant Reformation—at least for a significant segment of modern Protestants—is the belief that belief is more important than whatever one may choose to do about it. That is to say, dating all the way back to the Pelagian controversy in the fifth century, Augustine and his eventual heirs in the Protestant Reformation (namely, in this case, Martin Luther) found the idea of good “works” suspicious—since good works seemed to assume individual agency independent from God (an occasion for the sin of pride and further alienation from God).[1] Consequently, what came to count for Protestant orthodoxy insisted that if good works were potentially occasions for the advancement of individual pride, then the only proper referent for human salvation must occupy the sphere of faith (i.e., sola fide).

With faith pitted agains works—where faith is the positive side of the binary—some heirs of the Protestant Reformation began to understand faith not as “faithfulness” (viz., active embodiment of the ways and teachings of Jesus), but as a synonym for “belief” (viz., passive intellectual assent to dogma). In other words, at least in many of its most popular iterations, Protestants have assumed that—or at the very least, acted as though—it matters much less how one lives than what one believes.[2]

But this investment in correct belief over faithful embodiment of Jesus’ teachings has begun to wear thin—at least among those people who’ve read the Gospels, but who fail to see Jesus’ most publicly pious followers as authentic examples of Jesus’ teachings. Without belaboring the point about the dramatic rise of the “nones” in American cultural life (i.e., those, who when given a choice of religious preference, choose “none,” the ceaseless analysis of which has become a cottage industry over the last decade), it seems at least appropriate to observe that an increasing number of people who at one time claimed Christian commitments have walked away from those commitments. The question raised by this mass exodus of the formerly devout is “Why? Why are so many people leaving institutional expressions of faith?”. 

I would like to suggest that at least part of the answer lies in the weariness so many have of hearing Christians loudly profess their faith in Jesus, at the same time as those Christians seem to have successfully rationalized their failure to live the kind of life he asked his followers to live. People aren’t dumb. Many of those dubious of Christianity grew up in its midst, watching the very public example of Christians who claimed to believe all the right things, but who, when the time came to act on their faith, made excuses about why living out those beliefs was much less important than the mere fact of having beliefs. And the traditional Protestant disconnect between faith and works proved too great an obstacle for many who now identify as “nones” to overcome.

So many who’ve walked away from the church have said something on the order of: “I grew up hearing stories about Jesus feeding the hungry, advocating for the poor, embracing the outcast, healing the sick, and loving the unloved. Then I saw so many of those storytellers apparently forget the stories as they cozied up to xenophobes, misogynists, white supremacists, homophobes, transphobes, and plutocrats. I could never figure out how people could follow Jesus and Donald Trump—so I found something less cognitively dissonant to build a life on.”

Christianity has a long and contemptible history of burning people at the stake (literally and figuratively) for believing “the wrong things.” When was the last time you heard about Christians being burned at the stake for choosing to pacify the rich and the powerful, instead of the poor and vulnerable?

When was the last time you heard about someone being sent before the Grand Inquisitor for failing to put an end to the bullying of LGBTQ kids. 

When was the last time a denomination had a heresy trial for a pastor who refused to care for widows, orphans, and strangers in the land? 

When was the last time a congregation was kicked out of a denomination for refusing to put its money, influence, and the bodies of its members between people of color and systemic state sanctioned violence?

When was the last time denominational leaders were held to account for pursuing self-preservation over prophetic integrity?

When was the last time any part of the ecclesiastical hierarchy had to answer for its decision to jump in bed with Caesar in exchange for a little piece of its soul?

When was the last time a preacher had to go before the leadership for not being “political” enough?

These aren’t the idle questions of a professional smartass. This is how so many of the people who’ve walked away from the church evaluate its failures.

Because here’s the thing: To virtually everyone else, the church’s apparently casual relationship to good works is a fatal indictment of the truth of its claims. In other words, people who claim to follow Jesus can’t just believe things. There has to be some congruence between what people “feel in their hearts” and “what they do with their lives.” 

Pitting faith against works, where “faith” is always the answer, constitutes a surefire way to get the ambivalent to commit … to anything other than Christianity.

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  1. Pelagians maintained that people were capable of doing good works, with God’s prompting perhaps, but ultimately apart from God’s gracious (coercive?) insistence.   ↩

  2. I realize that what I’m arguing here is a gross oversimplification of some very nuanced doctrinal holdings. Nevertheless, I’m describing a practical, rather than a theoretical, reality in modern popular Christianity—one that I feel fairly confident holds up to scrutiny. One need only point to dopes like Joel Olsteen or Franklin Graham to see that—as long as certain doctrinal positions and personal pieties are observed—actually living like Jesus taught us to live has less to do with attending to issues of justice and mercy for the marginalized than with believing the right things and “inviting Jesus into your heart.”  ↩