Christianity’s status and spiritual vitality depends on how it practices what it preaches. If Christianity does not start practicing what it claims to profess, it will continue to decline, becoming an even more formal religion without vitality and power to attract people to the Jesus whom it preaches.
I have taught theology for decades. But theology, however important, is secondary when it comes to the nature and mission of the Church. The first mark Christians make on those who are not Christians is their attitude. People look at what one does, not what one professes. This may be common knowledge, evident in our daily life and activities, but it is often ignored for the sake of our self-centered interests.
I was born in Romania, where I lived until I completed my academic studies in history. I remember that most Protestant Christians, most of them Baptists and Pentecostals, were identified as “sectarians.” Their religious allegiance was conveyed by the way they related to others and society, not by their theology or a set of theological principles for which they had argued vigorously and insistently. I also remember that people who converted to Baptist Christianity had done so because they were impressed by the way Baptist believers had related to others, not because they were dissatisfied with the way the Orthodox Church had explained Christianity. Instead, they believed that a firm commitment to Jesus would help them to live a more meaningful life.
What made Baptist Christians in Romania different was not their irreproachable comportment but their constant effort to honor Jesus by a decent and honorable way of life. I realize that the word “effort” may sound intriguing to some Christians, but since we are living in a material world, with temptations and desires, it is impossible to live a decent Christian way of life without a sustained and constant effort. Those who believe otherwise, in my view, are diluting Christianity for the sake of an acceptable and inclusive Christianity.
“Theology, however important, is secondary when it comes to the nature and mission of the Church.”
Certainly theology is important, but a sophisticated theology is not a condition for being a good Christian. In Romania, most Christians knew nothing more than that Jesus was God’s Son, that he was born on earth, died on a cross and was resurrected from the dead by God – and that he saves all who have faith and obey him. This is what matters; everything else is commentary. Romanian believers did not debate about the intricacies of the Trinity, about how Jesus and the Holy Spirit related to the Father, or about grace and predestination. Nevertheless, they were never confused about salvation, that is, who is saved and who is not; they knew that Jesus saves all who repent and obey his commandments.
For many Christians, theology – and more broadly, teaching and preaching – seem to have a tranquilizing effect, inducing a sleepiness that prevents them from seeing Christianity practically. Many Christians are satisfied with attending a church, listening halfheartedly to a sermon on Sunday, and then getting back to their daily business. In 1955, Will Herberg argued that American Christianity is known as “the American Way of Life,” that “their religious beliefs had no real effect on their ideas or conduct…. Life is the operative faith of the American people.” Has anything changed since then?
Christianity has always been part of the American cultural heritage, but the competitive nature of America’s social system has opposed Christianity’s essential teachings on brotherhood, which implies love, justice and unity. In addition, Christianity has become a matter of a few theological precepts – depending on the particular Christian tradition – which are considered the essence of being a Christian. Among these, especially for Baptists, the most important is baptism. A baptized person, regardless of behavior and attitude, is a Christian. This has become commonly accepted in American Christianity, in part because churches do not want to lose members. In a sense, quantity has replaced quality. Instead of a spiritual community, we buy into something more like a business transaction.
How much has theological knowledge changed Christians practically? How much right teaching actually leads to right living? The truth is that theology has often divided the Christian community. Indeed, many focus on what Christianity teaches in an effort to solve controversial issues rather than focusing on following Jesus’ teachings practically.
I have been teaching Christian theology and church history for many years, a calling I have taken seriously. Most of my students have been Christians, with some Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists. I say, with regret, that those who took the classes on Christianity seriously were not the Christians, but those of other religious traditions. Many Christian students were disinterested because of negative experiences with their parents or their churches. Rather than unconditional and inclusive love, what they often witnessed were unfair and partisan treatment of others and an apathy toward injustice that caused them to break their relationship with the church and, in some cases, with Christianity.
According to other students, since their parents did not show any sign of being Christians, they grew up without learning how to follow in the way of Jesus. When Christianity has no practical impact on people’s lives, it fails to attract others, even children raised in “Christian” families.
“Christianity today may have a social and political function in society, but what about its spiritual role and influence?”
Practice, not theology, is what really matters when it comes to Christianity’s effectiveness as a movement entrusted with the mission of bringing people to Jesus. The challenge for Christianity is not theological differences, though these should not be disregarded. Indeed, theological differences and theological divides have characterized Christianity from its beginnings. But theology is not the most serious cause of concern for a declining Christian witness in America. The truth remains that people are drawn to Christianity because they see ample evidence that teaching and preaching are accompanied by deeds and practice.
People question Christianity because of Christians’ failure to live to the moral standards taught by Jesus and the prophets – that is, repentance, love and justice. Just in the last few years, Christians have been accused – with good reason – of racism, greed, sexual misconduct, abusive of power and failure to address injustice. In a society which is characterized by these destructive realities, if Christianity is not different, if people do not see Christianity challenging them consistently, if they do not have in Christianity a place of refuge and comfort, they will question its relevance and reliability. According to a proverb I heard in Romania, “If your religion does not make you a better person, it is not worth following it.” If Jesus does not change a person, then that Christian does not understand Jesus.
No one can serve two masters – God and mammon. If Christianity fails to be light and salt to the world, it also fails to be faithful to its nature and mission. Christianity today may have a social and political function in society, but what about its spiritual role and influence? Jesus requires nothing less than a complete transformation according to the rules of God’s Kingdom.