What are the greatest dangers to Christianity today?
Notice that I am not asking, “What are the greatest dangers to Christians?”
I am assuming the reality of something I am here calling “Christianity,” which is, to me, anyway, more than the aggregate of people who call themselves “Christians.”
It is what the church fathers called, “The Way of Light and Life.” It is the gospel revealed, hopefully received and lived.
It is, if you will, a Platonic ideal – not identical with any particular embodiment of it. Still and nevertheless, Christianity exists. It would exist even if there were no Christians. It is truth.
I realize this is almost impossible for many modern and postmodern people to grasp. We are so used to materializing things that we cannot think of ideals as real.
Even some Christians will accuse me of reifying “Christianity” – making real something that is only ideal.
I believe that the ideal has even more reality than the physical, the measurable, the quantifiable. I also happen to believe the possible is more real than the actual, but that is for another essay.
I am not asking what are the greatest dangers to Christians or the institutional, organized church or the Christian religion.
I am asking, “What are the greatest dangers to authentic Christianity as God means it to be in this world? How does God mean it to be in this world?” That we know from the New Testament and somewhat (using critical discernment) from the earliest Christian writers who knew the apostles. After that, I’m not so sure.
Karl Barth somewhere said that the greatest danger to the gospel (and, therefore, to authentic Christianity) is not that it be rejected but that it be comfortably accepted like everything else and owned like everything else we own.
What he meant, of course, is that the greatest danger to the gospel is that it be domesticated and controlled and made to serve our own selfish desires and ends. It loses its cutting edge; it becomes dull.
What would this look like here and now – in America, for example, in 2018?
What it looks like is Christianity not permeating and serving as a critical principle in all of life but being an add-on, an appendage, a possession, a crutch, a badge, a support for other ends rather than an end in itself.
Of course, I assume as a Christian that only God is an end in himself; here I mean only to say that authentic Christianity points, when actualized, to God as the only end in himself.
Americanism is the greatest danger to authentic Christianity today.
No, I’m not jumping on some left-wing anti-American bandwagon; I’m suggesting that “making America great again” is becoming a quasi-religion competing with authentic Christianity even among Christians.
Authentic Christianity calls us to be loyal to God and God’s people – wherever God is at work and wherever God’s people are glorifying and enjoying him.
Loyalty to America is not even secondary to loyalty to God and God’s people; it is so far below that calling it “secondary” is to exalt it too high.
In real, authentic Christianity loyalty to God, Jesus Christ and to the people of God spread throughout the world stand alone in incommensurable splendor.
The second greatest danger to authentic Christianity today is “invented Christianity,” “neo-Christianity,” “Christianity without roots” and without “bite.”
No, I’m not promoting “the old-time religion;” I’m not even promoting “paleo-orthodoxy” as Methodist theologian Thomas Oden once labeled firm adherence to the “ancient, ecumenical consensus.”
What I am promoting is Christianity firmly rooted in the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, Scripture and the great tradition of God’s people throughout the centuries.
Far too much contemporary “Christianity” is invented almost out of whole cloth with very little attention to revelation or tradition; it is made up to appeal to people.
Sociologists of religion have labeled one discovered form of this as “therapeutic, moralistic deism.” Much more prevalent, however, is entertainment “Christianity” created to make people feel good.
Neo-Christianity is crossless “Christianity.” It is “Christianity” without sacrifice. It is “Christianity” that comforts the already comfortable. It is “Christianity” based on cheap grace and easy-believism. It is “Christianity” that goes out of its way to not offend anyone.
Many years ago, theologian H. Richard Niebuhr (Yale) described the ethos of liberal Protestantism of his day thus: In it, “a God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”
My question is whether this has become an apt description of most U.S. “Christianity” today – including many churches that claim to be “evangelical.”
Roger Olson is the Foy Valentine professor of Christian theology and ethics at George W. Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas. He is the author of numerous books, including “Counterfeit Christianity” and “The Story of Christian Theology.”