What’s new is old

by Keith Bassham

I have grown weary with the theology popularized in social media with phrasing like, “I love Jesus, but I don’t like religion,” or “Jesus is good, but churches are bad.” We citizens of Springfield, MO, saw a version of this play out a couple of weeks ago when we were voting on the repeal of the city’s Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity ordinance. The SOGI ordinance, intended to expand non-discrimination protections for race and religion to include sexual orientation and gender identity, had been passed by the city council last year. Critics (read “outraged citizens who thought their council members had lost their minds”) petitioned for a repeal, and the council chose to place the ordinance on a ballot.

As the day of the vote approached, the two opposing groups (Vote Yes and Vote No) were very public, and it turns out both religion and politics are fit topics for a conversation after all. The Vote Yes (to repeal the ordinance) group maintained the ordinance was cover for an anti-Christian movement designed to stop speech and behavior critical of homosexuality, flexible gender identities, and same-sex marriage. The Vote No group said it was a human rights issue, and churches (and perhaps Christians) should not involve themselves in either discrimination or political decision-making.

Social media was filled with the usual mix of truth, half-truth, and outright falsehood. But, what fascinated me was the large number of people who were suddenly conversant about the person, life, and teachings of Jesus. According to the posts I was reading, Jesus spent nearly all his time saying, “Judge not,” and “Love everyone.” What was taking up so much room in the rest of the Gospels beyond those two items is anyone’s guess.

The ordinance was repealed, but not by much of a majority. In Springfield. The home of thousands of Christians and hundreds of churches. In fact, many of those professing Christians and leaders in those churches campaigned for the ordinance to remain in place, and thus voted no. And in their minds, they were following the teaching of Jesus.

We should not be baffled by this. J. Gresham Machen, a Christian leader nearly 100 years ago, identified a similar problem in his own day. He wrote:

“The truth is that the life-purpose of Jesus discovered by modern liberalism is not the life-purpose of the real Jesus, but merely represents those elements in the teaching of Jesus — isolated and misinterpreted — which happen to agree with the modern program. It is not Jesus, then, who is the real authority, but the modern principle by which the selection within Jesus’ recorded teaching has been made. Certain isolated ethical principles of the Sermon on the Mount are accepted, not at all because they are the teachings of Jesus, but because they agree with modern ideas” (Christianity and Liberalism, 1923, pp. 77-78).

What’s new is old.