Have you ever been somewhere and needed to clean your hands but were unable? Perhaps you were in a public restroom and the soap had run out. Maybe it was in church last week when you passed the peace and shook the hands of twelve strangers. You might have been in the park and picked up some stray trash. If you’re a parent, you’ve surely experienced the same thing with your kids–they tend to get their hands on a whole lot of disgusting stuff, and there’s not always a bathroom nearby.
For times like that, I keep a small bottle of hand sanitizer in my purse. It’s not ideal, even though it says on the label that it will kill the germs. I don’t know about you, but I never feel quite clean enough. It’s better than nothing, but I nearly always think, I can’t wait to get home and just use water and real soap.
The church can be a bit like that hand sanitizer in the way we treat people and the issues in their lives. This morning, I read this excellent piece by Jennifer Luitwieler on the ways in which our culture promises happiness is the reward for skinniness. Now, this was about the wider society, not the church, but a thought struck me: Inside the church, we do exactly the same thing, but we dress it up in Jesusism.
I read a blog post a couple of months ago in which the writer claimed that being fat wasn’t okay with God. It was my opinion then, and it remains so now, that the writer was projecting her own beliefs and insecurities on other Christians. The truth is, God is not sitting up in heaven policing our bodies and demanding that we be thin. There is absolutely no command in the Bible about being thin. We could have a conversation about gluttony, but we need to keep in mind that fat and gluttonous are not synonyms. What’s really going on here is that the cultural pressure to be skinny has seeped into our churches. Instead of being counter to society, we’ve appropriated societal norms and bent them to a Christian worldview.
Body image isn’t the only way the church has done this. We’ve done it with parenting, money, leadership, and even sex. We don’t look for our actions in the persistent call for justice that runs like a river throughout the whole of Scripture. Instead, we’ve merely taken what’s happening in the world at large and tried to write new rules that conform to our interpretation of the Bible:
- Culture says skinny is good/fat is bad; the church says God wants you to be a “healthy weight” through “biblical principles.”
- Culture provides fertile ground for arguments and attacks on parenting style; the church says there is a Biblical way to parent, which is different based on which interpretation of Scripture one uses and looks remarkably similar to secular styles.
- Culture bombards us with investment opportunities and encourages spending; While the church may not encourage consumerism (though this is debatable), it does encourage investment, savings, and tithing (which may or may not actually help those in need, and a portion of which funds the church itself).
- Culture has standards for “excellence” in leadership and one can find books and seminars almost everywhere; the church not only encourages the same principles used in business, but often looks to secular leaders for advice.
- Culture provides sex without context; the church provides context without sex. Neither encourages having both.
You may be thinking one of two things. First, if you believe we once were a Christian nation, you may be thinking that I have it backwards–it’s the world that has corrupted these biblical principles and the church is merely trying to redeem them. Second, you may be thinking that there is nothing wrong with using the things that have value, so long as we don’t lose sight of God’s truth. Both lines of thinking are flawed.
First, there is no such thing as a Christian nation. Even if there was a time when most people at least nominally believed, by the very nature of who Jesus is there cannot be a Christian government. Jesus effectively silenced any notion of that in the way he ran counter to both the Roman authorities and the religious ones. We have no business linking God and human rule. We also have no business–for much the same reason–linking Jesus and culture.
Second, there isn’t anything wrong with making use of good sense. It is indeed wise, in our society, to save money for retirement. But that isn’t a biblical principle! That’s an entirely secular one. By biblical standards, we should be making sure that our poor and our elderly and our children and our infirm are cared for–without expecting that they’ve “planned” for it. There is nothing wrong with having healthy bodies, but we simply cannot get carried away to the point that we use junk science to support our theories and then call that “biblical.”
In other words, there is no problem with being part of our culture, as long as we don’t become confused and think that what culture says is biblical. We ought to take our cues first from the calls to love and justice in the Bible, rather than attempting to use the Bible to whitewash the culture. The problem is that the church has mostly been in the business of sanitizing worldly principles. Instead of making a commitment to this,
But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream! [Amos 5:24]
we’ve tried to apply the Bible like a Band-Aid to what the wider culture says. We haven’t committed to helping people find healing and wholeness. We’ve rather criticized them for what we believe are “poor lifestyle choices,” which are remarkably similar to what secular culture calls “poor lifestyle choices.”
I would love to stop reading blog posts and listening to sermons on the Ten Ways We Can Improve Our Lives. I don’t need another podcast with five points all starting with the letter P. I don’t need a workshop on becoming an effective leader. I need opportunities to love my neighbor, feed the hungry, and care for the oppressed. Jesus doesn’t care which seminars I’ve attended, he cares which people I’ve served.
When are we going to stop turning church functionally into hand sanitizer? When will we reach for the cleansing soap and water and really wash ourselves clean?