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to be Christian

In last Sunday’s sermon, we saw that New City is capital C Christian, not lower-case c christian. By this we mean our faith is not merely cultural. We’re not Christians by default because we’re neither Jews nor Muslims nor atheists, etc. For decades in this nation a form of cultural Christianity has prevailed, and it’s directly connected to the Cold War. Several weeks ago I wrote an article about deconstructing—disentangling the Christian faith from its cultural captivity. This process leads some to walk away from the Christian faith altogether, while in others it creates in them an ever-increasing desire to follow Jesus. In that article I briefly touched on the notion of the United States as a “Christian nation”.

When this nation was founded, it was not founded as a Christian nation. In 1776, when the Declaration of Independence was written, fewer than one in five—just 17%—of those who lived in the colonies attended a Christian church. This means 83% of the population did not attend church!

In 1796, just seven years after the United States Constitution was ratified, John Adams—yes, that John Adams—signed a treaty with the nation of Libya that was unanimously ratified by the new US Senate. At the time a significant number of Senators were original signers of the Declaration of Independence, which indicates their intimate knowledge with the founding of this nation. This treaty, the “Treaty of Tripoli” declared:

…the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion…

Article 11, “The Treaty of Tripoli”

It’s hard to state this in simpler terms: the United States was not, in fact, founded as a Christian nation. So what happened? The Cold War. Since the dreaded USSR was officially an atheist regime, and to encourage American support in the so-called Cold War, the myth of a Christian America was born. There are certainly roots that go back further than this, but it was in 1956 that the national motto was changed from “E Pluribus Unum”—from the many, one—to “In God We Trust”. To show where our national faith really was, this motto was immediately put on our currency. In 1954 Congress, under pressure from President Eisenhower in response to the danger of communism, amended the US Flag Code and created the Pledge of Allegiance still recited by many today:

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

The change was controversial, for it added the words “under God” to the pledge. By adding “under God” and embracing the motto “In God We Trust”, Americans were emphasizing they were not Communists, and therefore were not atheists. They were also not Jews or Muslims or Hindus, but good, honest, hardworking Americans, and to prove it, they went to church. American church attendance peaked in the 1950s at nearly 60%.

Attending church because one is neither a Communist nor a Jew nor a Muslim nor a Hindu nor an atheist is not an expression of genuine Christian faith. It is an expression of a cultural faith, or as I said on Sunday, lower-case c christianity. This sort of christianity does not require that one loves his neighbor. It does not require that one lays downs her preferences for the good of another. It does not require a person to take up his or her cross to follow Jesus anywhere. This sort of public faith merely requires a pinch of incense and rather than the words “Caesar is Lord”, it requires the words “one nation under God”.

As we continue to read and hear of the so-called “Nones” (those who identify “None” as their religious faith or affiliation) and as we hear of so many who “deconstruct” their faith, it is often cultural Christianity that is being left behind. Rarely is true, genuine faith in Jesus being rejected. Rather, a twisted and distorted patriotic faith is being rejected. To be sure, there are those who walk away from the true gospel. This has been the case from the beginning.

When we think of the popular understanding of deconstruction, what is really happening is the disentangling of cultural faith from true, genuine faith. When Christian hip-hop artist Lecrae speaks of deconstruction, this is what he means. When theologian and church historian Gavin Ortlund speaks of deconstruction, this is what he means. Both of these men went through a process of seeking to see the true Christian faith separate and distinct from false faith.

It was because of the conflation of American patriotism and Christian faith that we are in such a mess today, with hyperpartisanship dividing the nation. We’re told that faithful Christians vote a certain way, that is, those who truly love Jesus vote for a particular candidate or a particular party. To be a Christian, for many, is to vote for a particular party.

Unsurprisingly, Jesus himself decides who is a follower of Jesus or not. He himself set down the parameters, and also unsurprisingly, they do not mention voting or citizenship or even cultural norms.

Now great crowds accompanied him, and he turned and said to them, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.

Luke 14:25–27 ESV

It is clear Jesus does not call people to actual hatred. His point has been understood from the beginning to be one of contrast. One’s love for God must be so great that one’s love for family can hardly be compared. In that passage Jesus goes on to speak of counting the cost to follow him with the understanding that faithfulness to Jesus may well result in the loss of family and friends. It is in this that one’s love for the Lord ought to make familial love look rather like hate. Quite simply, the one who follows Jesus ought to be so utterly resolute in actually following him that it would appear one despises the relationships that would normally dominate his or her life. We should follow Jesus no matter the cost.

It is far easier to claim one has “stood up for Jesus” because he or she voted a certain way than to actually love one’s neighbor. Far easier to cast a ballot than to get involved in the messiness of another’s life as you walk alongside him or her and point that person to Jesus. Cultural Christianity is far easier than true Christianity because cultural Christianity has no real cost. Well, there is a cost, but the cost is real, genuine Christian faith, and with the loss of genuine Christian faith, we lose something else.

In his letter to the Colossians and after instructing the Colossian believers to put to death what belongs to their former identity and to walk in the newness of life that is in check with their new identity as those who are in Christ, Paul writes this:

Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.

Colossians 3:11 ESV

Here Paul cites four groups of people. Rather, he cites four groups of people who could not be more different from one another and in his day these differences resulted in great hostility. The world could be divided into two groups: Jews and everyone else. When Paul says there is not “Greek and Jew” he’s saying this widely held view is invalid. Yes, there are those who are Greek and there are those who are Jew, but this ethnic distinction is but a shallow and superficial distinction that carries no real weight.

Then he mentions “circumcised and uncircumcised”. This has to do with one’s religious background. To be circumcised meant to come from the Jewish faith and to be uncircumcised meant to come from an entirely different religious background. With these very different backgrounds came entire groups of sins that were very different. Whereas the uncircumcised were more likely to come out of sexual immorality and idolatry, the circumcised were more likely to come out of pride and indifference and a lack of love for neighbor.

He says there is no “barbarian, Scythian”. This is a cultural distinction. Barbarians were those who were not Greek or Roman in culture. Barbarians lacked the “refinement” of Roman culture. Scythians, however, were so utterly barbaric they made barbarians look downright civilized!

Finally, Paul says there is no slave or free. This is a socio-economic distinction. Up to half the population in Rome were slaves. The others were peasants or freedmen or, for a very small fraction, merchants and the ruling class. Paul says here this isn’t really a thing.

Where is “here”? When he says there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian and Scythian, slave and free, where does he mean? He means in the church. Among local groups of followers of Jesus, the very things that divide the broader culture do not divide Christians—true, genuine followers of Jesus. What unites Christians is Christ, and Christ is not and cannot be divided.

The problem with cultural Christianity is it emphasizes the otherness of literally everyone who is not part of your direct and immediate tribe. In the 1950s Americans were “Christian”, not because they loved Jesus and sought to follow him, but because they weren’t Communists. They weren’t atheists. They weren’t Jews or Muslims or Hindus. They were Americans, and when this became conflated with being Christian, they lost anything approaching real, genuine unity. Over time this otherness of others spread to more than not being Communists; now it’s not being of my party.

The true cost of cultural Christianity is the loss of real Christianity. At New City we are capital C Christians because we refuse to give up our identity as God’s people. It is because the Lord of the nations has called Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian and Scythian, rich and poor that we belong to him and we are united with him in his body, the church.

I want what is best for my nation. I want laws that are just and fair. I want prosperity to be available to all. Later today I plan to head to my voting precinct and cast my ballot, even though there’s just a single item on the ballot. History has shown one thing to be quite clear: nations come and go. There is only one kingdom that will last forever. That kingdom started out small and tiny yet continues to grow and will continue to grow until it has outlasted every other kingdom on earth. To be capital C Christian is to love that kingdom more than any other. To love that kingdom more than any other is to love its King and its citizens more than any other. That is what it means to be Christian.