Monday, August 7, 2017

The Core Message of Christianity

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
Mark 1:14-15

I grew up believing that when Jesus proclaimed the “Gospel,” he was talking about his life and death and resurrection. That was the “good news of God.”

Imagine my surprise when my New Testament professor said that the “good news” proclaimed by Jesus was actually about the Kingdom of God. (Of course if I had paid attention to what I was reading rather than just assuming I knew what it meant, I would have already known that.)

My first thought was that the professor must be wrong. My second thought was that this changed everything.

I thought about that transformational learning as I read a blogpost by Alisa Childers on “Five Signs Your Church Might Be HeadingToward Progressive Christianity.” She lists the five signs as: (1) A Lowered View of the Bible, (2) The Emphasis on Feelings Over Facts, (3) The Reinterpretation of Essential Christian Doctrines, (4) The Redefinition of Historic Terms, and (5) The Heart of the Christian Message Shifts from Sin and Redemption to Social Justice.

These “Five Signs” can be summarized in what she sees as the fatal flaw of Progressive Christianity: A failure to take the Bible literally.

And by literally, she means her understanding of the literal meaning of each story and verse in the Bible. It is, of course, a selective literalism which allows one to make the claim of literalism while ignoring, for example, significant sections of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). And making believe that there is only one Creation story, rather than two. And one account of Noah’s Ark, rather than two.

Biblical literalism claims to take a high view of the Bible, but in reality it denies central elements of the biblical witness. The symbolic language of the Bible is not less than literalism; it is more. Literalism limits the meaning of the text to the words on the paper. An ancient rabbinic teaching says that God is found in the white spaces that surround the black letters of the text. Biblical literalism sees only the letters. For the literalist, there is nothing beyond the text.

Paul said that the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life (II Corinthians 3:6).

But this isn’t just Biblical Literalism, this is Selective Biblical Literalism and the problem is most evident in her last complaint, that “The heart of the Christian message shifts from sin and redemption to Social Justice.”

Childers explains it this way:

“There is no doubt that the Bible commands us to take care of the unfortunate and defend those who are oppressed. This is a very real and profoundly important part of what it means to live out our Christian faith. However, the core message of Christianity—the gospel—is that Jesus died for our sins, was buried and resurrected, and thereby reconciled us to God. This is the message that will truly bring freedom to the oppressed.”
She is correct in saying that the Gospel is both personal and social, but she has the order and the priority reversed. And her assertion that the needs of the oppressed are primarily spiritual rather than material reminds one of the question posed in the First Letter of John, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” (I John 3:17)

Jesus’ preaching was focused on the Kingdom of God. That was the heart of his message. He proclaimed it as a present reality and a future hope. He said it was among us, around us, and within us.

The Romans crucified him for sedition. His invitation and challenge to his disciples was to “take up the cross and follow me.” He was inviting them to be part of the Kingdom of God rather than the Roman Empire. In this new reality, the poor are lifted up and the mighty are cast down. In this new reality the normalcy of violence is replaced by peace and justice. Everyone has a place at the table and everyone has enough.

Jesus stands in a prophetic tradition that sees sin and redemption primarily in social terms.

In Matthew 25, those who have failed to be faithful ask,

“Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?”

And the Lord will answer them,

"Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”

The final test is not about what we believe. It is about what we do. Specifically, it is about what we do for those who are on the margins. And so that there can be no mistake in the meaning of the parable, Jesus makes clear at the beginning that the nations will be judged. In other words, this final test is about social justice.

If your church is becoming more focused on Social Justice, then it is following more closely the life and teachings of Jesus.

Faith always begins with the personal and Jesus spoke to his disciples and his listeners in personal terms. He called them to a personal commitment to follow him. But for Jesus, as for the prophets before him, that commitment led to social justice. 

Micah declared God’s commandment to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.” And Jesus referenced Micah’s proclamation when he told his disciples that God desires “mercy and not sacrifice.” Without a commitment to social justice God is not moved by our worship.

Christians have always been tempted to reduce sin and redemption to personal issues. It is easier and less controversial. And no one was ever crucified just for being a good person.

By reducing sin and redemption to personal terms we also reduce the meaning of Jesus’ crucifixion. Walter Rauschenbusch was right when he observed that,

"Jesus did not in any real sense bear the sin of some ancient Briton who beat up his wife in B. C. 56, or of some mountaineer in Tennessee who got drunk in A. D. 1917. But he did in a very real sense bear the weight of the public sins of organized society, and they in turn are causally connected with all private sins."

If your church is focusing on social justice, that’s a good sign that they are trying to be more faithful.

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish. 


  1. You have summarized so wonderfully well my own thinking. Thank you!

  2. Ideally the Minister would focus on the 5 as you put it and members of the congregation would feel called to be involved in social justice. But eternity is still very important.