When is a Christian not a Christian?
What influences us?
When there are disagreements, particularly in matters of Bible interpretation, it is good to first look at the protagonists, to see what makes them tick, to check for unspoken agendas. For example it is rare to find an atheist arguing in favour of creationism or intelligent design. Having already decided on the non-existence of God, they must construct a world view that does away with any divine component. Therefore they will hold on to their beliefs in the theories of Darwinism, even when evidence doesn't fit, because the alternative is unthinkable. If evidence was presented that seemed to speak of the existence of God, would you expect them, in the true spirit of scientific enquiry, to rethink their position? No, because they have an agenda.
There is not a chance (notwithstanding a miraculous intervention of course) that they would compromise their agenda, because every agenda has an underlying cause, a root. In this example the root could be a number of things. It could be nurture (inherited atheism), it could be nature (a rational mind). It could be a fierce independence, not wanting to be accountable to a higher power. It could be a matter of lifestyle, leading to an aversion to any kind of moral code. Or it could be a cocktail of all or some of these possibilities.
It's the root we should examine, not the agenda that flows from it. Of course I have an agenda - it is to restore the understanding of the Hebraic roots of Christianity that has been lost, since the early days of the Church. But the root of my agenda is the fact that I was born a Jew. Not every Jewish Christian would share my agenda, many have been absorbed into the Church without any thought of their origins. That is fine, there is nothing wrong in that. In my case there is the matter of a calling to use my particular root to follow an agenda that I believe God has ordained for me. I hope that is clear, but it works for me.
All Christians have a shared agenda. We all believe in what Jesus has done for us and the teachings that we must follow as a consequence. Others may analyse us in other ways, just as I analysed the agenda of an atheist. They could also bring up nature (a character flaw) and nurture (inherited beliefs). Some may say that we are weak individuals in need of a crutch or an authority figure, others just think we are mad or deluded. In every case, as we well know, the real root of our agenda is the work of the Spirit of God in our lives, to convict us and sanctify us.
But there can be other agendas in the Body of Christ, let's call them secondary agendas. The path dictated by my Jewish roots became my agenda. Others follow different paths and agendas because we all have different roots. Your family could be lifelong Methodists, Anglicans, Baptists or Catholics (or any one of hundreds of others) and, through your formative years you would have taken on board many of their teachings and customs. You could have a Muslim, Jewish or Hindu background and, as in my case, this could help direct your path, perhaps equipping you as a missionary to your own people. Then there is the matter of your lifestyle or personal philosophy before your conversion. You could have lived a hedonistic lifestyle of debauchery and self-fulfilment. You could have been a communist, a conservative, a green activist, a vegetarian, an animal liberationist, a feminist, a homosexual, even an atheist. You may have been a naturally spiritual person, or a rationalist, even the hardened sceptic. These are our roots. Even before God comes into our lives, we all still have a set of beliefs, even if it is just a self-belief.
Then God hits us with the gospel, opens up our minds and hearts and leads us into an incredible adventure as a New Creation. His intention, I believe, is to take the raw material and mould us into something new and wonderful. In some cases, the master potter uses some old clay, parts of our "old creation", as he re-constructs us from inside out. But we are not inanimate objects, lifeless jars of clay, but are allowed to retain that most precious of gifts, our free will. By ensuring that we continue to act as individuals within the great worldwide network of the Body of Christ, it also opens us up to a danger. It is the temptation of individualism, perhaps allowing too much of our past lives to season our present and future lives. In these cases the root could act as a catalyst for disruption. It’s a possibility and sometimes we need others to tell us if this is so.
My root of Jewishness could have led me to a form of legalism, an over-emphasis on striving to follow rules and regulations to such an extent as to stifle the Spirit that works within. Someone converted from a Muslim background could also have inherited a form of legalism from the rigid Shariah teachings of his past life. An ex-Hindu may have inherited a belief in multiple gods that has not yet been dealt with. An ex-communist may still be touched by humanism or may tend towards the contentious teachings of liberation theology.
And this all leads me to my main point, one of the key points in this book. There is a shared root by all who have lived and grown up in Western society. The root is the influence of the philosophies of Ancient Greece, which are far more prevalent than you could ever imagine.
To try to understand this, next week we are going to eavesdrop on a meeting held a long, long time ago ...
(This is an abridged extract from Steve's book How the Church Lost the Way: And How it Can Find it Again )
A Lib Dem candidate who was due to stand in the upcoming election...