Over my own decades of paying attention to the varied — and I mean really varied — ways Christianity is defined and expressed, there have been those who note that more is involved or required than simply following the moral philosophy of Jesus.
My first encounter with someone who actually holds — or at least publicly conveys holding — to this understanding and practice was with a college professor. When asked if he were a Christian, he said, “Yes, if you mean I seek to live by the teachings of Jesus.”
He went on to say he would not be considered a Christian by many, however, if that means having some kind of spiritual relationship with God and others — and all the other trappings associated with Christianity.
I was taken aback by his comments, which to me revealed such a limited understanding and embrace of Christianity — especially absent the familiar “accepting Jesus Christ as my lord and savior” and joining a church.
My sadness was in thinking that he was missing out on so much.
But I now have a greater concern. It is that so many Americanized Christians — who have professed faith in Jesus and joined a church — are missing or omitting what Jesus embraced.
Is being Christian more than a moral philosophy based on the life and teachings of Jesus?
Yes, but it is not less than — or exclusive of or contrary to — what God has revealed to us in Jesus and called us to do likewise.
For many Americanized Christians, the words and deeds of Jesus are treated as nice sayings, but largely irrelevant to how one really is expected to live today.
These clear and counter-cultural teachings — while just lovely when stated in Old English — don’t often make their way far from the children’s Sunday school classrooms.
Such teachings are considered idealistic and too weak for our rough-and-tumble world of religiously fueled politics in which white evangelicals so desperately seek to gain or retain power. Their fear of losing cultural dominance simply trumps all else.
That’s understandable, of course, considering that Jesus lived and spoke those words — and paid the consequences — amid a time of easy-going, kumbaya religion and polite, sword-less politics. Wink, wink.
Much of Americanized Christianity today operates as if Jesus’ moral philosophy and his pointed, primary call to follow in his steps are passé. And a few even say it out loud.
Some political operatives and ministers (who are also political operatives) have even mocked Jesus’ ideals and instructions for turning the other cheek, putting others ahead of oneself, forgiving repeatedly, and caring for those who are at risk and powerless — especially if they look and believe differently.
To hold such a contrasting perspective and opposing set of values, it is absolutely necessary to dismiss the moral philosophy of Jesus in order to redefine the faith in its popular American terms today.
Doing so allows for the recasting of Christianity as accepting and promoting the well-installed tenets of authoritarianism, discrimination, toxic masculinity, white nationalism, ethically compromised politics and outright rejection of truth based on facts.
Without the need to resemble Jesus, a harsh, nationalistic, warrior God can be easily erected — one who is as petty and self-serving as those who manufacture such a deity in their fantasized self-image.
Jesus is relegated to the assigned role of merely delivering souls from hell by the magic words that are recited — and then serving as a cosmic buddy who helps the favored ones escape harm and get what they want out of life.
Is there more to being Christian than embracing a moral philosophy? Yes, but there should be no Christian identity — or faithfulness — apart from following Jesus.
So, give me Jesus, and whatever comes along with being Christian — if, and only if, it is consistent with that primary allegiance.
Given a choice, however, between competing allegiances that get defined somehow as “Christian,” at least give me the moral principles that flow from the life and teachings of Jesus.
For this is the way his followers — from the first fishermen who dropped their nets and stepped onto his sandaled path to those of us who live in a highly technical world yet face the same seductions of power — are called to live.
Executive editor / publisher at Good Faith Media.