It’s always interesting to see how people react when I tell them I’m a Christian. Some people get tongue-tied, unsure of what to say. Others’ eyes glaze over and it’s clear that whole area of spirituality has zero meaning for them whatsoever. Then, of course, there are the disciples of the New Atheists, who immediately start railing against a kind of God I don’t believe in anyway. But by far the most negative reactions, in my experience, come from people who were raised in conservative Christian groups and are living with a kind of post-traumatic Church disorder.
The stories are as endless as they are heartbreaking and infuriating. I won’t bother listing them here — God knows they’re easy enough to find (post-evangelical baggage is a big seller these days) — but if I’m honest, I can’t blame these people for wanting nothing to do with Church, the Gospel, or Jesus. Often their entire experience of it has been nothing but power, control, and coercion.
No thank you.
While the details have changed over the centuries, this kind of spiritual abuse and neglect is nothing new. It was often at the heart of Jesus’ conflict with the religious authorities of his own day. Perhaps nowhere is this more clearly spelled out than in the Gospel readings for the past couple of days, from the final verses of Luke 11. Here, Jesus loses patience with the teachers and interpreters of the Jewish Law, and goes on the attack. He accuses them of hypocrisy, of laying heavy burdens on the people they are meant to support, and of building monuments to honour prophets whose message they rejected and whose lives they had taken. Finally, he says: “Woe to you experts in the law, because you have taken away the key to knowledge. You yourselves have not entered, and you have hindered those who were entering” (Luke 11.52).
Not only does Jesus think the religious establishment is inflexible, ungracious, and hypocritical, but he also accuses them of missing the point of the whole endeavour. They hold in their hands the key to salvation — to a whole and healthy life in the world and with God — but they don’t open the door to that life even for themselves. They have turned the Law, which was meant to show them what God’s freedom looks like, into a means of power and control, caring more about holding the key to life with God than using it. They delight in being gate-keepers, but don’t even use the gate themselves.
The contrast between this abuse of religious authority and the way of Jesus could not be more stark. As Jesus puts it, not only does he open the door for everyone, but he is the door: “I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture” (John 10.9). I love this metaphor because it highlights that purpose of religion isn’t to determine who is in or who is out, but to offer safety and pasture: to create a space where people are given what they need in order to grow.
As I wrote in one of the first posts on this blog, true religion is a faith that works. It promotes growth and healed relationships. It is not about behaviour control; it isn’t about political power; and it certainly isn’t about gate-keeping or stifling curiosity, questions, and knowledge.
It’s about bearing good fruit. It’s about building a new kind of community.
It’s about life, and life to the fullest.
The point of all this is not to point fingers or cast blame, whether at the Pharisees of old or those today who mistake purity culture or other fundamentalisms for the Gospel. This tendency is alive and well in all of us — we all have our pet legalisms and criteria of purity we’d like to apply. And so the point is to nip that legalistic tendency in the bud and follow instead the open and gracious way of Jesus: to offer welcome to the outcast, safety for the fearful, and pasture for the hungry in body or heart or mind. And, first and foremost, to make sure we are living in that welcoming pasture ourselves.
Set down the keys. The door is open. Let’s enter and be glad.
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