Reference: Colossians 2:6-15
It is hard to know which is worst: the stereotype of Christians held by many of our “secular” neighbors, or the self-appointed spokespersons for the Christians. St. Paul would have understood. The Roman Empire in which he lived resembled our modern scene, perhaps more than any other time before or since. In his letter to the Colossians, referenced above, he clearly identifies the two deviant paths beckoning to them and is a beacon shining on the right path. The letter is just as relevant to us as it was to the Colossians. Paul notes that in the populace surrounding the Colossians are many who follow the traditions of the world. Many others live imprisoned in the Law and its regulations. The straight road past these detours is the way of the Cross, where the grace of God is the beacon. “When you were dead in your sins,… God made you alive with Christ” (Colossians 2:13).
The people who cling to the Law, the written code, were opponents of Jesus, especially the party of the Pharisees. Paul had been a Pharisee himself, and was well acquainted with their beliefs. While this has taken many forms over the centuries, it has always been attractive to a lot of people. At times, it has taken over and ruled the Church, the very institution founded to totally and ultimately refute the followers of the Law. When the secularists look at the Church today, these are the people they see. When the media quotes a Christian leader, it is generally someone like Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell, or Pat Robertson who they turn to. It is the “Christian Right” who is presumed to be the voice of Christ for America, a voice seething with hate, fear, rejection, and calling for adherence by others to the Law of Moses. They will note that they themselves are not among the sinful, but rather are the righteous prophets of a God who condemns.
Not all are openly contemptuous. Some simply want to use legal means to enforce moral behavior, as a shortcut to compliance, instead of using persuasion, acceptance and love to achieve a moral society. It is, of course, a legitimate role of government to make laws reflecting the ethics of its citizens. When this legislation is agreed upon by a large majority, there is no problem. But laws without popular support become untenable. Prohibition was a failure because the majority refused to abide by it. The war on drugs has been lost for the same reason. Laws against abortion, gambling and homosexual behavior disappeared when the public mood changed. This is stated neither with approval nor disapproval. It is simply an observation of how legislation works.
At this point, Christians are seen by a large number of people as being those who are trying to impose a particular morality through legislation instead of gaining it through persuasion. Because persuasion is not in the picture, there is little discussion across the polarities created by this. Slogans and soundbytes suffice, their purpose being not to convince but to cheerlead those already on your side. That Christians are seen this way is not new. The specific issues change, but the strategy and legalism is the same. In the dangerous polarization currently happening in America again (the last time, it ended in a brutal nightmarish civil war), “evangelical Christians” are increasingly identified with the Republican party, with the most personally immoral President the nation has ever had, and with a message opposite to that of Jesus, which was, in a nutshell, to love God and love your neighbor.
As someone (I can’t remember who) noted, the Christian Right has made significant evangelism with the Gospel, God’s grace and love, impossible for at least a generation. The Church, the community and Body of Christ, which is entrusted to carry forward the grace and love of God achieved for us on the Cross, has a currently muddled message. A large and loud part proclaims a religion of rules and laws, “the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us” (2:14). Paul observes “he took it [the written code] away, nailing it to the cross” (2:14). When the Donatists of the Fourth Century revived the written code, the Catholic Church refuted them. When the medieval Church saw the path as being through the written code of “works righteousness,” Luther thunderously announced God’s unmerited grace. Yet the written code keeps being revived in multiple forms, through the ages, by pietists, Puritans, Prohibitionists and more. The Devil himself could not do a better job of diverting people from the saving grace of God.
Another significant part, also pretty loud, has been taken “captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ” (2:8). Ignoring or denying Scriptural Tradition, they chase after the “latest things,” the newest trends. They proclaim, not the Gospel, but the world’s own notions back to it. The Church continues for no purpose except to be the Body of Christ in this generation, receiving the “paradosis,” the sacred Tradition and the authority of Scripture passed on to us by previous ages, and to proclaim and pass that on to the world around us and the next generation. It is through this sacramental grace that each of has a lifeline through baptism to the effective, loving action of salvation and resurrection and can live in thanks and joy because of it, as we care for our neighbor and the planet given to us to steward. To rewrite that accurate and wonderful narrative by wandering off into the shallow, incomplete notions of confused trendsetters, “the blind leading the blind,” taken “captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ” subverts the Christian message and purpose. Since it renders the Church unnecessary (the world does not need us to reflect its own muddle back to it), it leads to empty churches. Since a Church led by such people has an empty message, this is no great loss.
The great loss suffered by both detours off of the “straight road,” ortho-odos, is that of eucharistic grace, the one thing needful. As the factions in these two detours battle each other, we, as the children of grace, often are unnoticed and unheard. Nevertheless, those who have ears, those who “hunger and thirst after righteousness,” the kind that comes from Christ’s grace, will seek us out if we let them, past the confusions of the legalists and the trendy. The world is full of people who hunger for God’s love. Sometimes we rise to be icons of that love for them, with the help of the Holy Spirit. When we fail, we can still, as Martin Luther said, do evangelism as “a beggar telling other beggars where to find bread.”