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Unpacking a Meme: Who Represents True Christianity?

This meme is often posted by progressive or liberal Christians. They want people to know that Evangelicals, conservative Catholics, and Mormons — the religious right — don’t represent Christians. They also want people to know that their brand/flavor/shade of Christianity is true Christianity or the religion of Jesus. Much like Evangelicals do today, progressive/liberal Christians appropriate the Jesus of the Bible for their own religious, political, economic, and social use.

Jesus was a practicing Jew, not a Christian. There’s no Biblical evidence for the claim that Jesus was the founder of Christianity. If anything, the Apostle Paul (and to a lesser degree, James and John) was the originator of Christianity. Jesus left no writings, nothing that gives us a record of what he actually said and taught. The red words in the gospels are the words of unknown authors writing thirty-five to seventy-five years after the death of Jesus, not the actual words of Christ. The earliest manuscripts of the gospels date back to the second and third centuries, 120-150 years after the death of Jesus. All we have, then, are the words of unknown authors written decades after Jesus was executed by the Roman government.

Whatever Jesus might have said (or done) is lost to antiquity. Any claims to the contrary are wishful thinking. While I understand why various sects of Christians want to claim Jesus as their own, the fact remains that Jesus was not a Christian; that he likely would not recognize the Christianity of today. Nor would the Apostle Paul, James, Peter, John, or a host of other early church leaders. Every sect wants to trace its lineage back to AD 33. I have even seen church buildings with cornerstones that arrogantly say, BUILT AD 33. This is nothing more than ahistorical nonsense.

Christianity has been evolving since the first century. Every generation is confronted by its own version of Christianity; a version shaped, molded, and influenced by culture, social beliefs, and politics. Any sect/church/pastor that says their denomination or church or pastor practices first-century Christianity, and follows the teachings of Jesus, lacks understanding and self-awareness.

I was part of the Evangelical church for fifty years, and a pastor for twenty-five years. I am now sixty-five years old. The Evangelical Christianity of my youth is very different from the Evangelicalism of today. Better? Worse? Who’s to say? The best response is “different.” Religions change and evolve with time, regardless of where they fall on the Christianity spectrum. When Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) Christians say that they are practicing “old-fashioned’ Christianity, what they really mean is that they are practicing white, American, 1950s, Fundamentalist Christianity. When Frank Viola and the house church proponents say they are practicing “first-century” Christianity, what they really mean is that they have extracted from church history a form of belief and practice that best fits their theological, social, political, and economic proclivities. In other words, they fashioned and crafted a religion in their own image. Liberal and progressive Christians do the same. Does anyone seriously believe Jesus, Paul, and the early church were pro-LGBTQ and egalitarian? Only by torturing the Biblical text can one conclude that First United Methodist Church of Jerusalem celebrated Pride Month or had female pastors.

Christianity would be better served if its adherents admit that their Christianities are human creations; that whatever Jesus said and practiced lies buried with his body somewhere outside of Jerusalem. Instead of countless internecine wars over who is the real Christian (the No True Scotsman fallacy), Christianity would be better served by focusing on practicing the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount or devoting oneself to evidencing the fruit of the Spirit. Or better yet, how about practicing the two great commandments: loving God and loving others (including self)?

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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    I think you are on to something here. I believe in Freedom of Religion. I also believe in Freedom FROM Religion – where no one should be forced to follow a particular creed. I never cease to be amazed (and I consider myself a serious believer) how many sets and subsets of “Christianity” (especially even IFB “Christians”) there are – and amazingly everyone of them are right. And yes it would be nice if even if people don’t believe that Jesus is God, that we would at least follow His teachings. And my Fundamentalist brothers and sisters are incapable of doing even that.

    Even though we are miles apart theologically, I do consider you a friend for several reasons. One, you can rest assured I will never try to “reconvert” you or bring you back into the fold. My wife means it when she tells me no, and you mean it when you tell others no. To go down that road would be pointless and rude.

    Second, for an atheist, you probably know more Bible than I do. I feel like there are times I know enough to be dangerous. I don’t claim to know the answers. Besides, it always seems to be my luck that once I feel like I have the answers, they change the questions. And lately I have lots of questions.

    Finally it seems that a lot of people change their beliefs to suit their fancy. (You are familiar with the great theological and social issue of the day – should a woman wear pants right??) The very people who say that change is bad – are changing. And they weren’t very nice in their former beliefs but expect acceptance in their newfound beliefs. You changed your beliefs. But you are honest and open about it. I wish my friends would accept the fact that it is ok to ask questions and even change. Rest assured, Covid has taken a hit on my faith. I still have a deep abiding faith in God. The Church – not so much. So I have questions to which there seem to be no answers. So I will wing it and strive to be the best person I can be to my neighbor, to my friends and family, and even with those I have philosophical differences. We may agree to disagree – but I still consider you a friend.

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    MJ Lisbeth

    Michael–Well done!

    If Supreme Court justices can’t, as they claim, know the intentions of the men who wrote the Declaration of Independence, Constitution and Federalist Papers, how in the world can anyone claim to be practicing “true,” “original” or “first century” Christianity? After all, the authors of the United States’ founding documents wrote down far more of their thoughts than the authors of the Gospels or any other books in the Bible. Moreover, the Founders wrote more or less contemporally as they thought, and with the events of their time. Paul, John, Luke and the other Biblical writers set down their words decades or even longer after the death of Jesus and the other events they described.

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    It’s true that the present US Religious Right doesn’t represent true Christianity — it’s far too liberal. The modern progressive Christians are more liberal than the Religious Right, but the Religious Right is far more liberal than what Christianity was like for most of its history, when it was dominant in society and people fervently believed and obeyed. Back then it was characterized by burning witches and heretics, sawing homosexuals in half, launching incredibly bloody religious wars (from the Crusades to the Thirty Years War) and relentlessly persecuting those pagans who didn’t convert (late Roman times). In those days there were Christians who dedicated years to studying the Bible and who believed in it without question, to a degree no modern person can match — and all those practices were the result. To them, the IFB, David Tee, and all the rest of the moderns would be shockingly weak in their faith, flaming (literally) liberals, apostates worthy of persecution and death. It’s hard to think of a single modern figure that historical True Christians would accept as one of their own. Maybe Fred Phelps — barely.

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    Ben Berwick

    The idea of one true faith always intrigues me. Like you said Bruce, the No True Scotsman Fallacy is alive and well in these circumstances. Every follower of every version of every religion follows the One True Way. They all know themselves to be right. They all know they and they alone have true salvation. Evangelicals know it. Moderates know it. Every Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, and more, they all have that complete certainty that they are saved, and everyone else is a heathen.

    Hence, why religious conflicts never seem to end 🙁

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      Yes, soon after deconversion, I attended my family’s fundy church and heard a sermon about Paul’s assertion that he, and he alone preached the one true gospel, unlike others. In my fundy days, I’d probably have been agreeing that Paul was a hero, a defender of the one true faith. Now, I thought, we only have Paul’s word for it, maybe he was just jealous those others got bigger audiences and more money in the offerings. There never was one true faith. Right from those earliest times, there were theological spats and splits, human jealousies and all round unpleasantness to others with differing views.

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    Paul was pretty arrogant to say that he knew the One True Faith. What about Jesus’ actual disciples who literally spent time with him for 3 years? Those guys didn’t have the One True Faith?

    One huge problem with fundamentalist literalist religions is the notion that their religion never changes. Bullshit. Every priest, pastor, theologian, follower, is shaped by their particular culture. Cultures change over time, and the interpretations of religious tenets changes too. Paul, for example, was a Jew with Greek education. To our knowledge, Jesus did not have a Greek education. (Those who believe Jesus is God would consider that irrelevant because they would probably consider Jesus possessing all if the knowledge of the world past, present, and future which is….silly). Anyway, my comment is that Paul’s personal education and experience shaped his perceptions and interpretations of Jesus’ teachings. John Piper’s education and experience are vastly different from Paul’s, and thus there are differences in their interpretations. It’s how it is.

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    I’m a 70 year old ex-Christian, and Bruce, you’re right on, about the glory days of the 50’s. I was raised in the Southern Baptist church, and we were never allowed to dance, go to dances, or associate with those who did…we also would never have drank anything alcoholic!
    Now, they have dance activities at church, and, believe it or not, will drink wine together at parties, and have a drink when they go out to eat!
    Times have certainly changed!

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    Every time I see a liberal/progressive Christian state that the fundies/Dominionists/whatnot aren’t “true Christians,” I have to suppress explaining to them they are wrong. Why suppress it? Because it is usually people who agree with a liberal/progressive agenda, and I prefer to not alienate allies. So I let it pass if it is on social media. I can have that debate in real life if necessary.

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    Karen the rock whisperer

    Raised Catholic, dipped my toe in to Evangelical Christianity, ultimately ended up jettisoning the whole lot to become an atheist and something of a secular humanist. But…if someone tells me that they’re Christian (including Catholics!) or Muslim or Buddhist or whatever, then they’re practitioners of that religion. All the major religions of the world, and probably most of the minor ones, have a wide range of beliefs and practices. Because religion is fundamentally a human practice, even if you insist there is/are deity/deities involved.

    If you perceive the presence of a deity, if you feel that deity is worthy of worship, if you engage with a faith tradition that works for you, AWESOME! If you insist that my unbelief means I’m going to hang with Bruce, Christopher Hitchens, Marcus Aurelius, and Steven Hawking in Hell, I don’t share that belief (but wow, what a poker game!) so whatever. We don’t need to agree to coexist in this giant lifeboat we call Planet Earth. I’d like more of us to agree that Jesus was onto something, saying that we need to love one another and do unto each other as we’d like done unto us, even if those are the words of a literary character.

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    Burr Deming

    This is as coherent an attack on my faith as I have seen.
    Yet the tone strikes me as gentle, even friendly.

    The final proscription fits well my understanding of what I do believe Jesus teaches me.

    Well worth a read.
    As your work typically is.

    Thank you, sir.

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    Captain Cassidy

    Coming in super late, wanted to compliment and mention something: Every one of the Christians who condemns other Christians as being fake Christians can be condemned in turn by the so-called fakes. They all have Bible verses to support their beliefs. They all have the same basic arguments explaining why they’re the real deal and their tribal enemies are the fakey fakes. There’s no way whatsoever to tell who’s real and who isn’t. We can have an opinion about what flavors we prefer, like my own “best-case” version of the religion that focuses on charity, social progress, and service, but every standard Christians use to judge other Christians can be used to judge the judges.

    Christians sort themselves into groups/tribes according to how they resonate with particular policies and stances. In a very real sense, they build a faith for themselves that fits and justifies who they are and what they want to do. Then they declare that their own particular flavor of Christianity is the real deal, which makes competing flavors fakey fakes.

    All this to say: the fakey fakes being judged in the meme think their judges are the fakey fakes, and they’ve got just as valid a reason to think so as their judges do. Without any objective means of evaluation, all anyone can say is that they’re all real true genuine Christians, just some are more horrible people than others.

    Excellent post as always, Bruce. You do such wonderful work. You expand my mind.

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Bruce Gerencser