Reconciliation vs Retribution
And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Matthew 6:5
Many believe the institutional church today is faltering because too many people know too little about Christianity to recognize the church as the body of Christ. I propose that, perhaps, too many people know too much about Christ and a Christian life to recognize the church, in its current state, as Christ’s body. They may not know Christianity with the intellectual knowledge by which the church proports to proclaim it, but they sense in their hearts that Jesus would be overturning tables and chasing money-changers out of our churches again today. They know Churchianity when they see it, and they want no part of it.
One of the many doctrines that drives people away from churches is the paradox of proclaiming a God of unconditional love and forgiveness, and in the same breath teaching about a God that threatens those who disobey with eternal damnation and torture. Many like to talk about tough love, saying God must not only threaten punishment but also actually punish those who disobey to bring them under God’s will. Then and only then can God provide the unconditional love we so desire. It is interesting and most telling that the obedience God apparently demands – the will of God – is usually consistent with what is most profitable to those proclaiming it. This is how some church leaders shape and teach God in their own image, often with extensive scriptural backing for their position, which shows not only the depravity of some church leaders but also how easily scripture can be manipulated for selfish purposes. The methods of scriptural justification used here are the same types that are used in biblical justifications for slavery and the subjugation of women. Such teaching creates an irreconcilable conflict between the concept of a loving God and the misleading teachings of some churches.
A church in my community has a large display on one of our main streets where they put pithy sayings each week. Last week it proclaimed, “What if you’re not good enough to get into heaven?” I was embarrassed, not only because a church body might be teaching such drivel, but that they would put it on public display for everyone to judge all churches by. As an active church member myself, I take offense at the arrogant, ignorant, and self-righteous attitudes behind a willingness to make such a statement. While I hope it was said with tongue-in-cheek, I suspect that particular church believes they have the recipe for keeping people out of hell. In my own arrogant and self-righteous way, I seriously doubt that they do.
In general, we have difficulty believing God loves us enough to accept us where we are and as we are. We believe there is a threshold beyond which God withdraws love and acceptance from us, but that threshold, which is not definitively defined in scripture, is often somewhere below our current score on the unworthiness scale. We set the thresholds according to whatever allows us salvation, but more importantly, we set the thresholds so that those we believe deserve punishment will receive what they have coming to them. The key words in that last statement are we and believe – we want certain others to suffer as we believe they should. Never mind that our definition of who is deserving of punishment is an irreconcilably biased opinion based solely on our judgement.
We tend to forgive ourselves when we cut someone off in traffic because at least we did not kill anyone. In that sense, we are not as bad as a murderer. We notoriously compare our sins with those of others, forgetting that Jesus never ranked sins as better or worse. Sin is what separates us from God and from each other, and Jesus always sought to restore that which had been separated. His was a ministry of reconciliation, not of retribution. His was a ministry of unification, not of division. If following Jesus does not make us humble and inclusive of others, we are following a different Jesus than the one portrayed in scripture.
Some self-proclaimed Christians, like the sign-keeper at the church, seem to read the Bible as more of a rule-book than a love story. If the rules given in the Bible were our requirements for salvation, no one would qualify. Indeed, the question of whether we have earned God’s love is the wrong question. The more relevant question is this: Who convinced us God does not love us? The Bible is full of accounts of people who sinned in ways similar to and worse than we sin. Yet, God relentlessly pursues them, forever seeking reconciliation and not retribution.
This is the 28th in the series of Life Notes titled Churchianity vs Christianity. I invite your thoughts, insights, and feedback via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or through my website, www.ContemplatingGrace.com. At the website, you can also sign up to have these reflections delivered to your Inbox every Thursday morning and browse the archives of my Life Notes, Podcasts, music, books, and other musings.