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In Search of a Better Gospel

“I don’t know whether or not I’m an evangelical anymore. Is there a BuzzFeed quiz for that?”

I tweeted that a month ago, half-joking. As it turns out, there is no simple quiz.

Instead, there’s this bleeding disaster that has been throbbing for almost two weeks now — lines in the sand, farewells, angry words, and a lot of us walking away pretty sure that we’re not evangelicals anymore but not sure what that even means.

These conversations are difficult, because they dip into a current that runs deep and strong. Though these words tend to get to the very core of our identities, they’re terribly blurry words. But they’re all we have to work with here, so bear with me.

For a while, I’ve felt like there are two different gospels floating around in our churches. 

One says “Jesus was born to die so you can go to heaven instead of hell, so pray this prayer and follow these rules to show that you believe.” The other says, “The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, so live as citizens of a Kingdom where Jesus is Lord.”

Look closely, or you might miss it. On the surface, they look similar. But as their implications ripple outward, you’ll see how very different they are.

One is very concerned with regulating morality (especially sexual behavior); the other is more concerned with justice and equality and healing. One anticipates Jesus’ return to slaughter his enemies and snatch the faithful few up to heaven; the other looks forward to the eventual restoration of all creation. One draws hard lines in the sand and farewells all those who disagree; the other welcomes those who have always lived as outsiders.

(These are generalizations, I know. Forgive me. I know most of us live between these generalizations. But I think if you look around you’ll see what I’m talking about.)

Last week was, I believe, a head-on collision between these two gospels. 

When given the choice between supporting the needy and perceived support of immorality, ten thousand Christians declared – with both their words and their money – that their dedication to morality trumps their dedication to those in need. Their abstract doctrines were more important than the real-life flesh-and-blood people standing right in front of them – both the LGBT people in the church and those children depending on their generous support.

Doubling down, some have explicitly stated that their strain of Christianity, even the gospel itself, lives or dies on the exclusion of gay couples from the church, that “heaven and hell hang in the balance“. They taken a few scattered verses from the Bible, a drop in the sea of Scripture, and declared that this is at “the core of the gospel“.

I am astonished.

Have we forgotten Jesus, what Love itself did when it walked barefoot on our dirty planet? 

Where religious systems want to draw tight circles around themselves and keep others out, Jesus wants to fling the doors open and welcome them all in.

The sick. The lost. The hurting. The widows and orphans. The exploited. The cheaters. The prostitutes. The racially excluded. The ceremonially unclean. And yes, the gay people that you can’t possibly believe really know Jesus. They all have a place to call “home” in the Kingdom of God.

And yet,

You stand there with your hand on your hip, wagging your finger at Jesus.

How dare you heal on the Sabbath; It’s not Biblical. How dare a Samaritan be the hero of the story; he’s unclean. How dare you let that woman touch you; don’t you know she’s a sinner? How dare you allow gay couples to serve in this ministry; don’t you know they’re assaulting traditional marriage? 

To all of this, Jesus shrugs and opens his arms to them anyway. 

This is the message strewn all throughout the Gospels:

Your moral codes do not trump the grace and mercy of Jesus.

Your rules for how people should live out their faith can’t limit where and how Jesus chooses to work.

And all your doctrine, your “Lord, Lord, did we not defend traditional marriage in your name?” isn’t worth a pile of straw when the Kingdom falls into the hands of the least of these, the very ones you kicked to the curb because you’d rather walk away than walk beside a Samaritan.

Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you.

In the middle of all this, the words of the Apostle Paul keep ringing in my ears:

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel — not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.”

Let me say this clear: If your rules about morality are at the heart of your gospel, it is not the Gospel of Jesus Christ. 

Friends, there’s really only one gospel. But there’s a hell of a lot of people troubling you, distorting the gospel of Christ.

And oh, how they trouble you!

With words like sticks and stones, they lay claim to our religion and declare themselves the sole arbiters of faithfulness, the only true interpreters of the Holy Words. They make their favorite rules prerequisites for the Kingdom of God. They force sincere, loving people to choose between a heart of generous compassion and an abstract threat against “marriage”.

They wield the “Gospel” like a threat until even the Apostle Peter denies his brothers and sisters in Christ like he once denied Jesus himself, because he fears those who declare that their way is the only way to be a Christian.

It’s as if they never even read the stories of Jesus, how over and over again he turned moralism and doctrine and Biblical rules upside-down just like those tables in the temple. It’s as if they never listened to the parables he told, how the outsiders and the rejects and the sinners are the rulers of Heaven. It’s as if they’ve never read the book of Acts, how the Spirit of God keeps drawing the circle bigger and bigger, inviting in all those who labeled “unclean”. 

But listen.

They don’t have a copyright on the Gospel.

It is free, and cannot be bound, bundled, bought, or sold. It can’t be bargained with or boycotted, held hostage to the whims of those whose pet prejudices want to leave you standing on the outside unless you conform to their interpretations of how you should live out your faith.

Listen, can you hear it?

Can you hear the whisper of grace beyond the walls that they built high to keep us in?

There’s a better Gospel.

I can feel it in my bones. I can remember it faintly etched on my heart.  I can see it glowing like the sunrise beyond distant mountains.

I’m leaving to go find it.

Do you want to come with me?


After writing this post yesterday, I woke up this morning and saw this piece on Scot McKnight’s blog about the same polarization of Christianity. It describes the same “two gospels” I’ve laid out here, but in greater detail. I highly recommend it. 

published April 3, 2014

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