As a child, I learned that Christianity meant Jesus, that he was God, and that obedience was the Christian’s main duty. It made sense then, and it continues to make sense today.
If we are passionate about something, that will be evident in what we say and do. And if a person means something to us, then we will do whatever we can to show that in word and deed. Since our approach to life is practical — that is, motivated by what we like and need — it must be true of our religious life: Our faith will be visible in what we say and do.
I still believe this to be true today — that we are what we practice — but the question has continued to haunt me. Since I teach Christian history and theology, the question has become an insurmountable intellectual and spiritual challenge.
While history (partially) tells us the truth about historical Christianity, Scripture (and theology) tells us satisfactorily what and how it should be. What becomes quite clear is that historical Christianity is not so much a story of renewed people in Jesus as a story of fallen and corrupt people. Of course, there were people of sincere faith in church history, but they were an exception, not the norm.
Christians are not perfect people, and while it is normal and what we should expect, those who claim to follow Jesus must be different from those who do not. If they are not, what is the point of Christianity? What does it mean to be a “good Christian”?
Does attending a church make a person a good Christian, a “man of God,” as we often hear? Does a person who prays regularly in church make a good Christian? Does a person who sings regularly in church make a good Christian? Does a preacher or a teacher make a good Christian? Does a person who offers a lot of money make a good Christian?
The Bible would disagree in each of the above-mentioned instances — as most Christians would, in fact. Attending a church, preaching, teaching, praying, singing and offering money are external activities that may be done for various reasons and without a sincere concern for God.
“Attending a church, preaching, teaching, praying, singing and offering money are external activities that may be done for various reasons and without a sincere concern for God.”
In the last decade or so, the corruption of some famous preachers and leaders has been exposed to the world. While in most cases of corrupt Christians there rarely are surprises — their corruption is obvious but not officially exposed — the most recent case of the renowned apologist Ravi Zacharias has been a surprise to many Christians.
The recent findings regarding his intimate life reconfirms the biblical view that no one, not even an excellent preacher and/or apologist, is a “good” Christian. What is most troubling in cases of corrupt Christians is that corruption is a pattern of life, not a rare and/or incidental occurrence. Indeed, it is not something new, but again, if those who lead and represent Christianity in an official role are corrupt, what are we to expect from those for whom attending a church is a tradition? And the question, “What does it means to be a good Christian?” continues to beg an answer.
Obedience is an essential thread of Scripture, which urges people to obey God. Disobedience is the main reason of Jesus and of his incarnation, death and resurrection. And the main message of Christianity is simply obedience, which must be anchored in the faith in Jesus, the perfect model of obedience.
“The main message of Christianity is simply obedience, which must be anchored in the faith in Jesus, the perfect model of obedience.”
Regardless of our theological views, obedience remains the standard by which God makes difference between people. Without such a criterion, Christianity/God becomes meaningless — anything in this world is built on some principles. Without clear principles, what is Christianity really? If God does not require anything from people, why do people need God?
Regardless of how we try to simplify Christianity, we would need more than a word or a short formula to understand it; indeed, we need principles. For instance, since the word “faith” may mean many things to many people, we would need to agree on what it means. And the same is true in the case of the words “grace” and “love,” which summarize the meaning of Christianity.
Obedience has a pejorative meaning, related to punishment and repression, so some people would prefer the word “grace.”
“Grace is what matters,” some would say, and it is true because life and everything that is available to us are God’s gift to us. But grace does not make obedience irrelevant and/or unnecessary. On the contrary, when grace works properly — when people are aware of it in nature and in Jesus and when they take it seriously — it urges people to be graceful, which means to be obedient to the source and giver of grace. It cannot be separated from obedience. It does not mean a blind submission to a rigid and formal set of rules. It simply means a conscious life according to the grace that God reveals to us in nature, in ourselves and in Jesus. It means the restoration of God’s eternal kingdom, that is, love, justice and unity.
“A good Christian is not always someone who impresses the eye and tickles the ear.”
A good Christian is not always someone who impresses the eye and tickles the ear, someone who preachers and teaches and prays and sings and tithes frequently. These are external acts that may not involve a sincere faith and can be easily counterfeited by self-interested people. Obedience is related to the supreme Christian virtue, that is, to love, which is the true test of faith and the main thread of the Bible.
So, obedience means word and deed working through charity. Indeed, Paul states that what really matters is “faith working through love.” Of course, love does not mean unrestricted freedom. It must be read and interpreted in the most obvious sense of the Bible and according to its intended meaning. Obedience working through love builds justice and unity among Christians — that is, among people animated by the same Spirit and challenging others to do the same.
Gavril Andreicut teaches theology at Saint Xavier University in Chicago. He also is a visiting professor at the Baptist Theological Seminary in Bucharest, Romania.