CULTURAL VS CRUCIFORM CHRISTIANITY
Why are Christians often labeled as hypocrites? Some of it is because people really do expect us to never make mistakes. But most of it is because there are far too many examples of inconsistency between the things we say and the things we actually do. Russell Moore has said on a number of occasions that many people who are deconstructing their way out of the faith are doing so because they don’t believe that the Christians around them actually believe the teachings of the faith. The thing that matters most to me is whether or not this is being done willfully by the offending party. There are people who knowingly deceive and lie for the sake of maintaining tradition, political power, or a coveted position within a local church. In my experience, this is not the majority. Most people I have encountered who live out a Christian faith that is inconsistent with Biblical teachings are not aware of this discrepancy. They are living out a version of Christianity that is faithful to what has been taught across the pulpit, dictated by political commentators, demonstrated by Christian celebrities, and exemplified in the lives of their local church leaders.
Part of the reason that people are so easily deceived into believing that this was or still is a decidedly ‘Christian’ nation is because of the centuries-long cultural Christianity that has dominated public life. Public prayer, Christian symbols, and Christian language have been the norm at sporting events, school assemblies, in the courtroom, and at graduations. But wearing a veneer of Christianity, no matter how convincing, is not the same thing as conducting oneself "Christianly". I would argue that our unjust laws, corrupt leaders, mistreatment of the poor/marginalized, and rabid idolatry of wealth, power, and the free market betrays our collective heart of darkness. God is mostly treated like a device and the Christian way of life is treated as something you do when it’s convenient rather than something you live because you are fully persuaded of its rightness. But the idea of loving the LORD simply because of who He is and obeying Him no matter the personal cost isn’t a very popular notion. It's certainly not the sentiment that is fueling the multi-billion dollar Evangelical industry of books, music, conferences, and highly paid celebrity pastors. Cultural Christianity invites us to enter into a way of life that is convenient, materially prosperous, and wildly popular. The way of Jesus invites us to deny ourselves daily, take up our cross, and follow Him (Luke 9:23).
According to a survey by Barna in 2020, almost 1 in 5 churchgoers say they never read the Bible. 50% of churchgoers in this poll say they read the Bible twice a year or less. If your knowledge of scripture is entirely divorced from its context, quite often misquoted or misapplied, and told entirely from a 21st-century, western cultural perspective, then how much of the Bible can a person truly know or understand within this context? I did a brief search to get an idea of what percentage of the Bible most American churches actually preach from. I was hard-pressed to find a straight answer but I can tell you that despite being a devoted Christian for most of my adult life, I was never taught from nor did I read from many portions of the Bible, namely the Old Testament. It wasn’t until I attended a Calvary Chapel Church in Newport News (shout out to Pastor Tony Clark and the CCNN fam!) that I was introduced to the idea of preaching and teaching through the entire Bible. I have lost track of the number of Bible-reading devotional plans I have started and stopped over the past decade. The Bible Project reading plan was the only one that I was finally able to complete and that took me a year and a half (Thanks Tim & Jon!). Reading a few familiar passages out of the "good" book twice a year as a Christian is hardly adequate!
Here’s the unpopular truth: if most people knew what the Bible was actually asking its followers to do, they would flat-out refuse or at least be strongly deterred. Many progressive Christians like to point out that Jesus ‘partied with sinners.’ (Which is not what he was doing at all, by the way). While it is true that he welcomed the lowly people of his day who were rejected and neglected by the religious elite and governing body, he expected a great deal from the people seeking to number among his followers, particularly the disciples. The rich young ruler ‘went away sorrowful’ when Jesus told him what he must to do inherit eternal life. Jesus’ own disciples who walked with him daily for three years were often confused and/or distressed by his sayings and teachings. How much more does a modern Christian, centuries removed from Jesus' time and ministry, need to devote themselves to studying scripture and following his life example?
The Bible is not a children’s book of cute stories that portrays one-dimensional good guys and bad guys. It tells us of people who sometimes do good and other times commit great evil. It is at times descriptive and at other times prescriptive; discerning this difference in our studies is critical to interpreting its contents faithfully. It’s a sophisticated book meant to teach us about an unfathomable God and the incredibly complex humans that He created to reflect His glory. It’s written in many different styles, by many different authors, and occurs over a very long period of history. It is ancient Hebrew meditation literature, meant to be studied over and over again over the course of the believer’s lifetime. The same scripture read a year later, then five years later, then 25 years later will ring differently each time to the devoted reader. It’s a book meant to change the hearts of its readers and show them the areas of their lives where they need GOD to renovate. This is the miraculous process that is missed out on by people who claim to follow Jesus but don’t actually study the Biblical scriptures.
I will conclude with this. One of my go-to Biblical scholars is Tim Gombis. He has a very wise and systematic way of walking through scripture and gleaning truth from it that many people miss. This is especially true for the Pauline texts, which is the focus of his scholarly expertise . He did not invent the terminology, ‘cruciform life’ but I have not heard anyone compel others to live this way quite as convincingly as he does. A cross-shaped life…one that looks and sounds like the cross…is a life so rooted in GOD’s river of living water that the fragrance of His flora is experienced by all who come in contact with us. To experience the way that people with pain, sickness, and shame were drawn to Jesus and yet also experience the way that others resented and despised his bold statements against corruption, religious idolatry, and the exploitation of the poor. This is not a life of comfort and ease. It is a life of great purpose, meaning, conviction, and sacrifice.
I am currently reading his book Power in Weakness, a sobering study of the life and ministry of the Apostle Paul. “Churches and pastors, writes Gombis, must adopt such cruciform patterns in the face of the cosmic powers ruling this age. These powers generate an enslaving matrix of idolatrous ideologies, mindsets, social injustices, prejudices, fears, and sinful patterns of life that keep God’s creation from flourishing. Often, for the sake of “good ends,” churches or pastors act coercively or competitively, seek social power and prestige, and demonize and dominate others. Such actions “stir up and radiate” the enslaving, oppressive dynamics of the cosmic powers rather than God’s redemptive, reconciling resurrection power.” Cultural Christianity convinced many white Christians some decades ago that racial integration was a sin. Cruciform Christianity compelled other black and white Christians to risk their lives and livelihoods to secure equal rights for colored people.
There is so much more I could say about this but I think I will settle for just introducing the topic and stirring your thought pot. I encourage you to consider the following scriptures as you contemplate what it means to live a cross-shaped life rather than a cultural Christian one:
Again, I saw under the sun that the race is not to the swift, or the battle to the strong, or bread to the wise, or riches to the discerning, or favor to the skillful; rather, time and chance happen to all of them. (Ecc 9:11, CSB)
6 So be truly glad.[a] There is wonderful joy ahead, even though you must endure many trials for a little while. 7 These trials will show that your faith is genuine. It is being tested as fire tests and purifies gold—though your faith is far more precious than mere gold. So when your faith remains strong through many trials, it will bring you much praise and glory and honor on the day when Jesus Christ is revealed to the whole world. (1 Peter 6-7, NLT)
3 We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. 4 And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. 5 And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love. (Rom 5: 3-5, NLT)
2 Consider it a great joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you experience various trials, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. 4 And let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing. (James 1: 2, NLT)
Is the God we want the God of the Bible? Is the life we want a life of humble servitude, sacrifice, and guaranteed hardship with the promise that GOD will walk with us through it? Or are we still searching for a genie who can grant us an infinitely charmed existence? Knowing the better answer and chasing after the better answer can amount to very different ways of life.
As a small group of my church brothers and sisters prayed for an ailing sister in Christ who sounds to be nearing the end stages of metastatic cancer, we pleaded with GOD to ease her passing and comfort the heavy hearts of her loved ones. It would not have been wrong to pray for miraculous healing. I think the reason that none of us did so is that we sensed that this was not how the Lord was going to move. But bound together in prayer, we became a cohesive,supernatural organism equipped to reach the heart of GOD with this great need. We weren’t praying for her to die, we were praying for her to be resurrected. Death is not the end, Jesus is. When this becomes more than just a belief but a heartfelt truth, then it makes you fearless and hopeful in the face of just about anyhthing. This is the kind of life that Christians are called to. May we never stop seeking the courage to live our lives this way.