I once got told to leave a church and never come back.
I was 21 years old and leading a vibrant local youth group at the time. The youth group was going so well that quite a number of young people from surrounding congregations were leaving their own stuffy and stale churches to attend mine instead.
That was when I got the call.
An aggrieved pastor from one of the surrounding churches rang me one day to explain, in no uncertain terms, what he thought of me. In what could only be described as a bitter and vitriolic rant, the pastor accused me of being a “false prophet” and “stealing his sheep.”
Being young and a bit of smart ass, I told the the angry pastor that I would never steal his sheep (as if they even belonged to him), but I do grow better grass. That really sent him into a spin. “You are not to set foot inside my church ever again,” the pastor spat and then hung up the phone.
What a loving guy.
Still, I wore this excommunication of sorts as a bit of a badge of honor. After all, I really don’t think that Jesus would have lasted too long as a member of a local congregation — especially not the one run by the pastor who phoned me up that day. I’m almost certain that — before too long — Jesus himself would be told not to set foot inside the church ever again. Here’s why:
He undermined the authority of the leaders
By the time Jesus rocked up in human history, the Jewish religion had developed into a well-established system of authority and control. At the head of Judaism were the teachers of the law — otherwise known as Pharisees.
The Pharisees were renowned for knowing and keeping all of the laws in the Old Testament, trying their darnedest to impose those laws on everyone else, and punishing those who didn’t measure up. You could say they were your ancient fundamentalist believers.
In fact, the Pharisees were so concerned with keeping the Bible laws that they created additional laws to help people keep the laws. In fact, the Pharisees developed a list of over 600 different laws and laws about laws. As a result, they were living out a kind of heartless, cold and arrogant brand of self-righteousness — the kind that looks down on others and judges others, while simultaneously congratulating oneself on having it all together.
Jesus observes the pharisees — their actions, their attitudes and simply has this to say to them:
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. On the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.”
There are many wonderful and well-meaning women and men leading churches. So, far be it for me to suggest that every modern-day church leader is a pharisee. No way! However, sadly, there are those who exercise their positions of leadership to impose performance-based religion on their adherents, just like the pharisees. I suspect that Jesus would have a few choice words to say to them as well.
He didn’t honor the biggest donors
I once worked with a Pastor who lead a church that ran two different church services. One service was attended predominately by adult members who were, by virtue of the stage of life they were in, mostly established in the workforce and earning a reasonable income. The other service was attended by college students and young people who did not earn much money at all. Consequently, the donations collected at the first service eclipsed the donations collected at the second service by a significant margin.
The pastor at this particular church would often refuse to preach at the second service, giving the lion’s share of his time and effort to the service attended by the financially well-endowed. I suppose this can happen when the Pastor’s livelihood is largely dependent on his ability to generate financial gifts to the church in the form of tithes and offerings, but in reality it amounts to nothing more than favoring the rich over the poor.
Jesus, on the other hand, refused to honor those who gave out of their abundance. Consider this story from Mark 12:41:44:
Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents.
Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything — all she had to live on.”
Jesus would cause real problems in a church if he downplayed the financial gifts of the wealthy. For this reason, I don’t think Jesus would make a good church pastor in a modern church!
He didn’t pander to political powers
“Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?”
These were the words spoken to Jesus by the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate — the most powerful political figure in the province of Judea in the time of Jesus.
With his life hanging in the balance, Jesus would stare Pilate down and simply reply: “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. In other words: You’re only in charge because someone above you put you in charge. You’re not that great, impressive or important.
Contrast Jesus approach to political power with the uncomfortable marriage that seems to exist between the church and the conservative side of politics today. Rather than voting for a candidate based on the moral and ethical implications of their policies, the church usually advocates for and selects the candidate who offers the church the most freedom to exercise power and influence in society. Like a ‘gold-digging’ woman in search of a wealthy man to seduce, the modern church got into bed with certain politicians.
Perhaps that is why it is a well established fact that white, evangelical protestant Christians overwhelmingly support Donald Trump and his presidency to the point where “Evangelical Christian” has become a kind of synonym for “Trump Supporter.”
Jesus’s scant regard for the power and authority of man-made systems and structures would surely land him in hot water in your average church these days.
He hung out with the wrong crowd
If Jesus attended a modern church, the church gossip mill would be sent into overdrive:
“Did you hear that Jesus was spotted hanging out with a group of prostitutes! Unbelievable!”
It would be comical if not for the fact that I have witnessed with my own eyes and ears the kind of gossip and slander that goes around in church circles when people are perceived to be doing the wrong thing, or hanging out with the wrong people.
The fact of the matter is that Jesus spent a large portion of his time with the socially disreputable people of his day — prostitutes, tax collectors and those of limited financial means. His closest followers were a ragtag team of social misfits who would have evoked the ire of those who were more spiritual.
I like to imagine who Jesus might hang around if he came to earth today. No doubt it would send some church folk into a spin. However, the fact that Jesus was accused of being a ‘friend of sinners’ means that he is a friend of mine.
He frequently violated the religious law
Let’s be perfectly clear. Jesus was executed as a criminal. He managed to achieve that feat by repeatedly and deliberately breaking the religious laws of the day — at least in the eyes of the religious leaders. What Jesus actually did was violate the interpretations that religious leaders had developed around certain biblical commands. To put it simply, he broke the laws that the pharisees had invented to make people keep the laws.
If you want to upset a religious person then challenge their interpretation of Scripture. Go ahead and suggest that their understanding of Scripture might not be the one, true and correct one. This is particularly upsetting to older men with theological training, and it’s a sure fire way to get kicked out of a church.
What modern “religious laws” would Jesus break today? Would he be a faithful church attendee? Would he tithe? Would he mask his true feelings behind a thin veneer of Christian niceness? Would he condemn the LGBTIQ+ community as wicked and sinful?
I have my doubts.
He challenged the status quo
Churches pride themselves in being an oasis of stability and predictability but Jesus came to disturb the status quo. In fact, Jesus ushered in an entire new way of thinking, believing and living — one that would upset the apple cart of the religion of the day. He was the first reformer of the faith.
I’d suggest that if Jesus came today he might just do the same with modern Christianity. How much of modern Christianity consists of what is actually peripheral to the true essence of the faith? What would Jesus make of our big, fancy buildings, our paid clergy, and the burden of religious performance we place on believers? Would he challenge the way we do church?
I have a feeling he might! Maybe he would even go further than that… which leads my to my next point.
He trashed the place
When many people think of Jesus they often think of a gentle, placid figure who taught others to love God and each other. And this is true — for the most part.
However, at one point in the gospels, Jesus was so appalled with the state of the Temple of God that he rips through the place with a whip that he braided with his own two hands, overturning tables and driving out those who were exploiting religion for profit. It was a violent reaction against a religious system that was taking advantage of the poor, and those who were genuinely seeking the favor of God.
What would Jesus make of our modern ‘temples?’ Would Jesus be upset by the overpriced books in the church bookstore? The barista made coffee? The ATM machine in the foyer? The twenty-minute long ‘mini-sermons’ that are given before the offering is collected, where an earnest plea for financial gifts is given with the promise of greater blessings in return?
Would Jesus take to our modern churches with a whip?
He brought God to the masses
Throughout human history, many of those who sought to make God accessible to the masses were unfairly persecuted at the hands of the religious elite who were more concerned about losing their ability to control people with their apparently superior knowledge of the faith.
For example, in the middle ages, the men who did the pioneering work of turning Hebrew and Greek scriptures into English rather than the authorized Latin, faced incredible opposition from the church. After all, if the basis for moral authority shifted from the official view of the church to the private judgment of citizens, based on their own reading of the Scriptures, people could not be counted on to back the views of the authorities automatically. Consequently, many Bible translators who sought to bring God to the masses, were whipped, tortured and even burned at the stake.
Jesus suffered a similar fate. His chief purpose was to bridge humanity and the divine — making a way for common people to have unrestricted access to God. This required a complete upheaval of the former religious structures, systems and ideas. That is why the price that Jesus paid to complete his mission was his own life. It was not ordinary, average people who killed Jesus. It was the religious leaders; the spiritually elite.
If you try to make God accessible to people by removing the hoops that the church has expected people to jump through, and by tearing down the walls that the church has put up to delineate who is in and who is out, then expect to face opposition — just as Jesus did.
Could your church handle Jesus?
Do you really think that Jesus would be welcome in your church? Really?
Would you throw open your arms to a man who called out hypocrisy when he saw it? Would you allow a man to subvert your systems of authority where those systems are designed to maintain power and control? Would you want a man at your church who spends the lion’s share of his time with those who society despises? Would you tolerate a man who refused to toe the ‘company line?’ Would you welcome a man who shows scant regard for religious traditions — a man who demands change?
I’m sure the answer is a resounding yes — in theory. In practice though, I’m not sure if the church could handle Jesus. It might just be easier to kill the man who rocks the boat of our religious traditions.
Previously published on medium
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