There is so much popular confusion, and so many misconceptions about the essence of Christianity in the popular mind, but more disturbingly also inside of too much of institutional Christianity. In a period of popular and political unrest in Germany almost a century ago (much like ours in the United States today), a charismatic leader emerged with a platform of restoring Germany to greatness, and swayed great crowds with the message. Part of his campaign strategy was to also co-opt the Christian church, so that to be a true ‘German Christian’ you would naturally support his agenda uncritically. The tragedy was that so much of the church did not really understand that the agenda of Jesus Christ and of the Kingdom of God which were totally at odds with the political agenda of that German leader. The small (and outlawed) witnessing church of Germany became an underground protest movement, and its primary leader, one Dietrich Bonhoeffer, became one of the clearest thinking Christian theologians of the last century. While he was emerging as an incredibly lucid and compelling teacher of the Christian faith, the majority of the German church was quite captive to the agenda of the popular political leader. They were what Bonhoeffer designated as religious Christianity, i.e., a counterfeit of true Christianity. (This, by the way, is all wonderfully spelled out in Bonhoefer’s classic The Cost of Discipleship).

Bonhoeffer was uncompromising in his insistence of how radical was the difference between the convenient and conformed popular counterfeit Christianity and the teachings of Christ. “When Jesus calls a man, he bids him come and die!” This message needs to be heralded today given the popular confusion over what the press designates as ‘evangelical Christians’ as a synonym for those politically wedded to a political agenda quite at odds with the radically transforming agenda of Jesus Christ and of the New Creation that he inaugurated.

And the problem behind the problem is careless church leadership that is either ignorant of the issue, or is intimidated by it, or whatever, … but the church has not taken seriously equipping each one of its baptized members into maturity in their conformity to Christ and to his mission. There is no such thing as passive membership. There is a clarion call to not be conformed to the world but to be transformed by the renewing of one’s mind in order to demonstrate what is the will of God. Jesus, himself, told those who would follow him that there was an absolutely all-consuming decision to be made: “If anyone would come after me, let him take up is cross (i.e., his/her willingness to die for me and my mission) and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”

In the classical tradition of the Christian faith the very act of baptism is a deliberate act of will by which one forsakes all other lords and loyalties and embraces without reservation that Jesus is his/her one true Lord, and that a life of obedient discipleship to Jesus now becomes the center and focus of one’s life. It is a renunciation of the dominion of darkness in all of its forms of economic and political principalities and powers. This has always made God’s people to be both a radical presence and a healing source of true humanity, of hope, and love and justice—at the same time often being a disruptive presence.

The true Christian church is not a comfort-zone community, but rather is a colony of God’s transforming gospel of peace. It cost Bonhoeffer his life, as it has so many others. One dare not identify oneself as a Christian without pondering the enormous difference between human religions … and the demanding and transformational calling by Jesus into his New Humanity that operates on a whole different wave-length. And what is my source for such statements? Try the four gospels of the New Testament for starts. Then ponder the lives and witness of all of the prophets and martyrs over the centuries—and especially don’t overlook Bonhoeffer’s opposition to one of the most powerful political forces of the last century. It’s very instructive.

About rthenderson

Sixty years a pastor-teacher within the Presbyterian Church. Author of several books, the latest of which are a trilogy on missional ecclesiology: ENCHANTED COMMUNITY: JOURNEY INTO THE MYSTERY OF THE CHURCH, then, REFOUNDING THE CHURCH FROM THE UNDERSIDE, then THE CHURCH AND THE RELENTLESS DARKNESS. Previous to this trilogy was A DOOR OF HOPE: SPIRITUAL CONFLICT IN PASTORAL MINISTRY, and SUBVERSIVE JESUS, RADICAL FAITH. I am a native of West Palm Beach, Florida, a graduate of Davidson College, then of Columbia and Westminster Theological Seminaries.
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