Pagan Church?

(I borrowed the idea for the title of today’s post from the book Pagan Christianity? by Frank Viola and George Barna. This is a book that is worth your time.)

What Paul wrote, in his letter to the Galatians, just blew me away. Literally.

Before you read these words, though, remember the context of this letter. These new believers, called forth from a pagan world, began to dabble in the Jewish law and rituals, as prescribed in the Torah. Paul was hurt, believing, to some extent, that he wasted his time when he taught them. That was how mad he was.

So they were called from the pagan world, to believe in the grace of Jesus, only to enter into a ritualized form of faith, as observed by Jewish believers. They exchanged free grace, for the lie of earning favor with God.

Okay. Once you have that, now you can read these words, in Galatians 4:8-11.

Formerly, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those who by nature are not gods. But now that you know God—or rather are known by God —how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable principles? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again? You are observing special days and months and seasons and years! I fear for you, that somehow I have wasted my efforts on you.

Did you catch that? I didn’t either, until this morning.

Paul compared their previous pagan faith, to their current observance of the Jewish law.

This was written by a guy who killed people on behalf of that very same Jewish law.

Paul’s transformation is remarkable. Formerly, he defended the Jewish law. Now, to him, it was nothing more than idolatry.

So the next step is obvious.

If you and I believe in any way we can earn God’s favor, we are, too, committing idolatry.

And if our churches believe that we can help people “live better” because of what they can do in our organizations, we are flirting with the same idea, because we are asking people to exalt our church and all that it can do, rather than exalt the cross, and all it has done.

The modern unbeliever does not want this. I know, because if you and I were unbelievers, we wouldn’t want this, either.

They do not want strings attached to any adventure they take in faith. They do not want to be volunteers. They do not want responsibilities. They are already overwhelmed with those things in their careers and schools and neighborhood baseball.

Church growth is non-existent, because we keep requiring more and more from people who are exhausted, and have less and less to give. Unemployment is higher than its been in a generation. People are working longer hours. Parents rarely see their children, either because of their work schedule, or because they have involved their kids in a thousand different extra-curricular programs.

And when, by the grace of God, they do finally attend a church, the church just wants to get them involved. Churches are so afraid of losing them, that, I think, we force them to identify with us by finding any of the various places and opportunities to serve.

I once attended a church where the pastor, after baptizing a sweet, sweet lady, asked if she also would pledge her time to volunteer, and her money, to that particular church. It was weird. I just don’t remember finding anything like that in the New Testament.

That, according to Paul, is a return to the practices of a pagan world, where identity is found in what you do, not whose you are.

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To enforce his argument, Paul included the ways of a very pagan world in Galatians 5:19-21. Here they are, and they are the products of lives lived without the spirit of God:

… sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like.

Very aggressive behaviors. Selfish behaviors. Greedy behaviors. Ambitious behaviors.

There is a great exchange that happens, though, when the spirit of God invades our lives. It frees us from investment and ambition. These very pagan behaviors are gone. Instead, this is what is produced, from Galatians 5:22.

… love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

The ways of a pagan world are purposeful behaviors. Pre-meditated. But the ways of the spirit are natural. They do not require practice, or ambition.

They do not need to be provoked by church leadership or involvement plans. These things grow from a person whose nutrition is the spirit of God.

__________

One more statement from Paul today. It is one of the final things he wrote in Galatians.

Those who want to make a good impression outwardly are trying to compel you to be circumcised.The only reason they do this is to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ. (Galatians 6:12)

Circumcision, as you know, was the physical proof that one followed the Jewish law. To Paul, though, as he wrote this letter, he saw it as something different.

It was the better choice than being persecuted for Jesus. Because doing something (anything … even this!) was better than laying down their life for Jesus. I fear we do the same. Anything that is busy, or that can give us a sense of accomplishment, is better than being radical.

Here’s what Francis Chan wrote in his book, Crazy Love, about radical believers, by the way:

Lukewarm people are moved by stories about people who do radical things for Christ, yet they do not act. They assume such action is for “extreme” Christians, not average ones. Lukewarm people call “radical” what Jesus expected of all his followers.

We exchange the call of Christ, and the persecution that will always follow, for involvement in our local church that makes us look like we are busy, and rarely leads to persecution. That passage is so powerful, that I fear any such commentary on my part will just diminish its power.

__________

We are free. Free to worship. Free to live. Free to move. Free to be. Free to live in peace. God has borne all of the sins of idolatry and ambition in the magnificence and tragedy of the cross. Please, dear reader, live in this freedom today.

__________

Today is day sixty in ninety straight days of reading the New Testament, and posting here, on my blog, each of those days. Thank you for reading today. You can find the all of the other posts here.

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