It occurred to me the other day that church,

as we practice it, bears little resemblance to the personal example of Jesus Christ. What I mean is, in the purest sense, Rick Warren once said, “The Church should look like Jesus” (click audio above). I agree. Now, theologians will want to arm wrestle me by saying the Church did not come into existence until after Christ’s ascension, so basing the Church around the Gospels may be short-sighted. I believe the Church should echo the personal example of Christ, which it does not and, honestly, never has. Over time, the Church has become corrupted by men, her purpose distorted and her message garbled.

The Church, as we practice it, is not modeled after Christ but after Paul’s pastoral teachings about Christ, or Christ-once-removed. Jesus lived a simple life of nomadic austerity that bears no resemblance to American mainstream Christianity as we practice it. He routinely hung out with “sinners” and condemned no one (John 3:17) but religious phonies.

Jesus took no salary. Owned no Bentleys, no mansions, no private jets. He relied on the hospitality of those He came in contact with. Despite the nonsense Creflo Dollar told you, Jesus was not rich. There is no credible stream of theological thought that backs up Dollar’s ludicrous claim. From scripture, we glean that money collected by Christ and His followers was collected for the poor, not horded for Christ’s benefit or stored in bank accounts.

The Pastor of the Gospels was a servant, not an overlord. Yes, the disciples worshipped Jesus—and rightly so—but nobody worshipped Peter, whom Christ anointed to lead the church. Peter was neither well-educated nor rich. He never dressed in finery nor drove around in luxury SUV’s. Peter never oppressed the new believers for money—give, give, give—to line his own pockets or build glorious temples. In fact, there is no biblical model whatsoever for the Church having any facility at all; they met largely in secret, in each other’s homes, in caves, in borrowed spaces. The money was used for productive things, not wasted on the light bill or the pastor’s car.

What Evangelical Christians do—waste millions on fabulous campuses and blow wads of cash on conservative political causes—is virtually antichrist. Wasting money on luxurious facilities with stadium seating and state-of-the-art Rock Concert lights and sound has nothing whatsoever to do with Jesus Christ; there simply is no biblical model for wasting money like that.

Sending millions overseas (allegedly; I mean, let’s see some actual accounting) to do good for suffering Africans while virtually ignoring the poor literally within walking distance of these “ministries” is likewise an antichrist (i.e. Not Christ-like) mindset.

Of course, the Black Church is much worse and far more corrupted. Our focus is our pastor, period. In many if not most black churches, the pastor and the pastor’s ego are the top priorities; the money pit facility coming in second as we oppress the faithful—day and night—for money. I loathe the idea of joining a black church because I know I will be pressured—if not openly threatened with “a curse” —over money. Money, money, money, money. All I see is the pastor routinely going off on vacations and “conferences,” driving luxury cars and living in homes I know I will never, in this life, ever afford. But he’s constantly got his hand in my wallet, the black church constantly whining, crying broke, struggling to keep the lights on.

None of the above is modeled after Christ. Beloved: don’t you think, if Jesus wanted some huge cathedral built in His Name, that He would have made it so? Don’t you believe that, if Jesus wanted His followers to be oppressed by the yoke of financial bondage in order for Him to live in luxury, we’d see that model in scripture? As baffled as I am by the incongruent witness the Black Church in America provides, I am even more baffled by the ignorance of so many Church Folk. The Church should look like Christ. Does it? Does yours?

Jesus Versus Paul

Jesus taught and preached almost exclusively about the Kingdom of Heaven, with no emphasis on justification by faith—the dominant theme of Paul’s letters. Kingdom theology is a huge and largely abstract concept Jesus had to explain through metaphor, in little stories we call parables. The Jesus of the Gospels was fairly low on rules and regulations and saved his harsh rhetoric for the religious leaders—the Church Folk—of His day. He condemned a fig tree for being unproductive, but gave virtually everyone He met an opportunity for a better life by transforming their thinking from the kingdom of the world to the Kingdom of Heaven. Paul preached Christ, but not the Kingdom so much as a theology of personal salvation and a mechanism to achieve it: belief in and acceptance of Jesus Christ by faith.

Scot McKnight, Karl A. Olsson Professor in Religious Studies at North Park University, from a cover story in Christianity Today (click to view):

I grew up with, on, through, and in the apostle Paul. His letters were the heart of our Bible. From the time I began paying attention to my pastor's sermons, I can only recall sermons on 1 Corinthians—the whole book verse by verse, week by week—and Ephesians. I don't recall a series on any of the Gospels or on Jesus.

Something was clearly happening to me. Formerly I had loved Paul and thought with Paul. Then, when I encountered Jesus, as if for the first time, I began learning to think with Jesus. One of my colleagues occasionally suggested I was getting too Jesus-centered and ignoring Paul. I'm not so sure I was ignoring Paul; after all, I was teaching a few of his letters on a regular basis. But I had unlearned how to think in Pauline terms and was thinking only in the terms of Jesus. Everything was kingdom-centered for me. And, truth be told, I was so taken with Jesus' kingdom vision that reading Paul created a dilemma every time I opened his letters.

Evangelicalism is facing a crisis about the relationship of Jesus to Paul, and many today are choosing sides.

Paul’s letters—upon which most Christian church doctrine is based—were grounded in specific issues, personalities and places: challenges the Churches needed to overcome. When men decided to include Paul’s letters as Holy Scripture (which I believe would have gravely offended Paul because it completely distorts their intent), those specific issues, personalities, places and challenges became fixed as unambiguous commandments from God Himself—a complete distortion of Paul’s intent. As a result, the beauty and simplicity of The Gospel became mired in those archaic specifics along with it. Efforts by progressive ministers to free Paul’s teaching from the literal time and culture in which they were written are typically met with suspicion by conservatives.

Our Black Church culture is largely an oral tradition, with the great multitude of believers conducting little if any research and study into theology but rather guiding their lives by church tradition passed orally from one generation to the next. A Church of Christ—not the denomination but a church modeled literally after the Gospels and not weighted down by the cultural accretions inhibiting Paul’s letters—would seem radical if not apostate to us. Why? Because none of the junk we’ve been dragging along with us for a hundred years actually exists in the Gospels; they are mostly artifacts from our improper approach to Paul.

We don’t know this because we don’t question our own theology. We mostly sit and listen, accepting whatever the pastor says and becoming violently oppressive of any theological thought that challenges our tradition. Why? Because we don’t know any better and we don’t want to know any better. We don’t read, we don’t study. We don’t question. Neither do many if not most black pastors, who live their entire pastoral careers running in circles, their Sunday experiences essentially reruns of The Price Is Right; rubbing their bellies, cashing their checks, content to perpetuate the honorable vocation of baptizing and burying without ever once asking themselves is any of this actually what Christ had in mind?

My former lead pastor, Eric Mason, put it this way:

Paul was not intending to be the chief architect of Christian theology. He was hoping to spread the gospel (which he defined very simply) to as many people as he could before the return of Christ or his own death. Certainly Jesus was the center of Paul’s Gospel. Jesus was the center of Jesus’ Gospel. However Jesus is sometimes not the center of the church’s Gospel. The “unfathomable waste of money and resources” is only a part of the problem as you point out. Rather, it is our obsession with soteriology (the doctrine of salvation) and ecclesiology (theology as applied to the nature and structure of the Christian Church) over discipleship with Jesus as the center of our lives.

Paul’s focus on soteriology and ecclesiology make for terrific fodder in the church today. He was a marvelous evangelist and tremendously good at adapting to his context to share the Gospel of Christ. We are not so good. Rather, by canonizing letters to 2000-year old communities struggling with real human issues, we often canonize ecclesiology and tradition, two things that certainly have no business being canonized.

The Kingdom is hard to get into (see camels and needles). Also, we love to talk about sanctification rather than focusing on the justification of the believer. What is and isn’t a sin for this or for that or for all believers is just enough of a Farmville-like theological labyrinth that good men and women are often lost in it. We also love to condemn others more than we love to abide in Him (see camels and gnats and splinters and logs).

Paul was all about helping his people negotiate the trappings of their society to focus on the pure life of God. [Philippians 4:8, Almost all of Corinthians, etc.] Spiritual leaders like yourself are called to do the same. And you are called to help the church negotiate the trappings of this material, Western culture (see true religion ala James).

Move Monkeys

The empirical evidence of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is not tongues, not supernatural gifts. It is humility. Where Christ’s Spirit abound, so do those qualities, those Spiritual Gifts Paul enumerates in Galatians 5. “The Church should look like Jesus,” Warren said. But how literally should we take that statement? Does his church look like Jesus? How many people could have been fed with the millions spent to build Saddleback? Or Lakewood Church? Or Second Baptist Church Houston, TX? Or any of these other Mega Campuses? I imagine, were Jesus to inspect those facilities, His first thought might be how many beds they could fit in there to house the homeless and how many meals they could buy with the millions stored in the treasury.

Jesus was a practical person whose consistent message was compassion for the poor. The Gospels are very specific—and they’re right there, just read them. They provide absolutely no foundation for the lunatic psychotic narcissism that all but defines our tradition, or our unfathomable waste of money and resources.

What we do is, at best, a distortion of Paul. The Church, both white and black, looks to Paul and not Christ to do dumb things: to condemn, to oppress. We dig up some Old Testament scripture— something fulfilled by the Passion of The Christ and, therefore, no longer in effect—or we skip ahead to Paul. Why? Because we’re trying to do something Christ Himself never provided a model for. We’ve decided, in our own heads, in our own righteousness, that we know better; that we can and should fill in the blanks of Christ’s ministry and devise practical appliances that are, in and of themselves, violations not only of Christ’s teachings but of His witness (His personal example). Finding no model for what we want to do in Christ Himself, we therefore look back or skip ahead to discover other models for our platform.

It’s possible I’m missing something. I mean, I’m not the brightest guy in the world. As always, I welcome comment, feedback and views and, as always, most of you will remain silent. I’m just baffled by what we do and not surprised at the changing face of church—white and black—from Christ’s example of personal ministry to these increasingly huge worshiptainment chantitoriums where we sit anonymously in the dark repeating banal choruses until we're mesmerized while watching religion up there on the JumboTron.

Jesus Outranks Paul

It deeply troubles me that I have to preach this, to actually say this out loud. Beloved: Jesus Outranks Paul. By his own testimony, Paul was a deeply flawed and imperfect individual. Yet, this is our practice: modeling ourselves after imperfection rather than perfection. Why? Because Paul had rules while Jesus had a less-structured and more individually-focused ministry. We often cannot find scripture in the Gospels to back our play when we’re trying to hate or oppress people, so we go back to Moses or skip ahead to Paul.

But Jesus outranks Paul. He really does. The Gospels lack the detailed structure we see in Acts or in Paul’s letters, which posits the question: is all of that structure really necessary? The church’s hierarchy has been, from the very beginning, antrichrist. Don’t look at Paul; look to Jesus, to the Gospels, wherein the disciples attempted to form a hierarchy. What was Jesus’ response?

Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to Him, saying, “Teacher, we want You to do for us whatever we ask.” 36 And He said to them, “What do you want Me to do for you?” 37 They said to Him, “Grant us that we may sit, one on Your right hand and the other on Your left, in Your glory.” 38 But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you ask.”

42 “You know that those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 43 Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant. 44 And whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”
  —Mark 10:35-37, 42-45

It utterly baffles me as to why any of us actually consider what we do as something that honors Christ or even represents Him in anything other than a superficial way. Warren is right: the Church should look like Jesus. It does not. It horrifies me that none of us seem to notice.

Christopher J. Priest
1 January 2016

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