Monday, May 26, 2014

A Follower of Christ? Or A Pharisee?

We have a neighbor that does not attend church consistently even though her husband attends services regularly. It is not that she does not believe in God or Jesus Christ, but rather that she struggles with the hypocritical behaviors she sees “church goers” display. And can you blame her? How many of us sit in a pew, week after week, hearing preaching - good or bad - but do not seem to apply it to our lives? Recently, the Barna Research Group, (a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization) conducted a survey to determine if Christians were “More Like Jesus or Pharisees?” We reviewed the results of the survey as posted and were stunned. Let us explain why.

The survey composed of four components - two for determining Christ-like behavior and two for determining behavior more in line with the Pharisees, or an attitude of “Self-Righteousness”. The reason that this hit us hard was that we have recently left our church and denomination. We felt as though the denomination we were active with was not following the Bible in a way that we interpreted and understood the Bible. Simply put, we wanted to start doing Bible things in Bible ways. This decision to break away was not easy. And, like most people, we would have periods of self doubt. Did we make the right decision? Reading the article concerning the results of this survey clearly showed us that we did make the right decision.

For the two categories, a series of statements focused on actions and a series of statements focused on attitudes. We are going to list some of the statements posed in the survey and explain why we feel that the denomination that we left was turning us into Pharisees and taking our eyes off of Christ.

I tell others the most important thing in my life is following God’s rules. Trust us, it is not that we felt it was the most important; it was just that the “outside of the Bible, alleged Holiness Standards” of the church made us stand out. We believe Romans 12:2, which says, “And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.” But we believe that it means it is our mind that is transformed; not necessarily our appearance in such a way as to make us stand out. We mean really stand out. As in, our neighbors all thought we were in a cult, strange, unapproachable, and unsociable. Thankfully, at the time, we did not know we had this reputation! And so we were always being asked questions by family members and anyone else outside of the church. And yes, it seemed like we spent a good majority of our time, which really wasn’t much, was spent defending ourselves. And explaining what we thought at the time were God’s rules. This became even more frustrating when we began to look at the Scriptures on the very specific “standards” of the church and discovered much to our dismay, that we were following a man’s doctrines and not following God’s.

I don’t talk about my sins or struggles. That’s between me and God. We do talk about our struggles, but more in the guise of our “testimony”; or in prayer meetings. It’s not like we go out of our way to say we are having a hard time with this sin or that sin. It’s more like we have our “testimony” about what our life was like before Christ and how we came to know Christ - but that’s in the past and so now we are blessed. It’s okay to have health struggles or financial challenges, but it was all so superficial in hindsight. Almost as if to say we were struggling with any kind of sin was seen as a weakness in our faith and walk with God.

I try to avoid spending time with people who are openly gay or lesbian. Where we live, this really isn’t that big of an issue. We know some people that have this type of lifestyle, but we only really interact with them through social media and would avoid commenting on anything that positively portrayed their chosen lifestyle. And even then, it’s really because they are family and can’t be completely avoided. Instead, we would talk behind their backs - all in the guise of praying for them. This is not something that we are proud of or bragging about, but the church we were a part of almost made us judgmental of anyone and everyone that did not fit in the accepted standards of our church. We feel as though because the shackles of “holiness standards” have been exchanged for the bonds of Christ, that we are much more able to love people, regardless of their lifestyle, while still holding true to the Bible’s point of view. Or, as most people say, we can love the sinner, while still hating the sin.

I prefer to serve people who attend my church rather than those outside the church. This one was definitely true for us but for a couple of reasons. The first, is that we were literally so busy with “church” things that we did not really feel that we had much time for anything or anyone outside of the church. We were at church twice on Sundays, had a discipleship class on Mondays, Mid-Week services on Wednesday, Ladies Prayer or Meetings on Thursdays, the occasional special services on Friday night, Men’s breakfasts on Saturday, and so on. Plus, we do work to provide for our families. And we have to sleep and do other things like laundry, buy groceries, homeschool, and more.

Secondly, while our church family was relatively small, there were lots of ministry opportunities that kept us busy helping out the church family over helping out neighbors or strangers. We made food when someone had surgery or brought home a new baby. We helped create graduation invitations. We served by coordinating potlucks and helping to set up and clean up the fellowship hall. We helped prepare for special feasts. We helped with various ministries within the church and worked at church sponsored fundraisers and outreach opportunities. Our whole life revolved around the church almost to the exclusion of anything else.

All of this fostered actions that in hindsight were taking us further away from the actions of Christ. A secondary side effect of it was the development of an attitude that grew so gradually we were not even really aware of it until after we left the church. We found it hard to be friends with people that did not seem to meet our standards. We were often preached that we needed to inspect the fruits of the spirit of other people to determine whether or not they were “saved”. We were to invite people to our church as much as possible, but all of our fellowship was with like-minded members of the church. We would include any new members of course, and always tried to make visitors feel welcome. But in the back of our minds, we were also questioning “when is the Holy Spirit going to convict them about this” - and “this” was whatever “standard” they were not complying with. We really did begin to feel grateful to be a Christian when we saw and talked about other people’s failures and flaws. And we were being taught that we should stand against those who are opposed to Christian values; that we needed to defend our faith - wear the armor of God. We think that it is human nature to start comparing yourself to others which naturally results in an attitude of we are better than they are because we follow God’s rules better than they do.

Since leaving our denomination, we have both been afforded opportunities to display more Christ-like behaviors and attitudes. We feel as though we can listen to others to learn their story before telling them about our faith. We are not automatically in a defensive position, but rather, can now wait and listen to them. We have more opportunities to share our faith because we are not stuck in a position to defend it before we even get past “hello”. We have had the opportunity to witness to more people in the time we left the church than we had in the four years we attended! We believe that God is opening doors and softening hearts that were previously closed or hardened towards hearing about Him through us. We now listen for opportunities to serve other people simply because it is the right thing to do - to help out - whether they are a part of our church or not. This helps us to discover needs and be proactive - not just reactive. And because we are not constantly running to and from church services and activities, we have been able to slow down and talk to a lot of people - including our neighbor. We are sharing our faith, but using only the Bible and not man’s doctrines or traditions. The conversations we have are no longer about what we believe, but they are now more focused on what God says. And we share the good, the bad, and the ugly of our life in an effort to demonstrate how God can work through all of us - all the time. Learning to live God’s way has been hard for us since we left our church, but we are seeing God work in so many ways that we can honestly say it has been worth it to walk away from a denomination of Pharisees and towards the Bible and Jesus Christ.

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