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Don’t Tread on Me?

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Anne Rice’s recent announcement that she was “quitting Christianity” is yet another voice being added to the chorus of modern Christians who claim to have forsaken Christianity. Although there was nothing particularly novel or unique about Rice’s statement, hers has received an inordinate amount of press attention. Apparently now that every drop of crude has been wrung out of the Gulf oil spill, the American media is returning to its former fascinations and obsessions—and denigrating the church and Christianity is one of its perennial favorites. If you doubt this, I can assure you that I am speaking from personal experience. One of my weekday morning rituals is to locate positive and encouraging articles about Christianity and the church on the internet. It’s nearly as challenging as hunting for elk in Florida—maybe even more so.

One recent article—by William Lobdell in the Los Angeles Times—made the case that Anne Rice’s exodus is only the “tip of the iceberg.” Lobdell writes: “Rice is merely one of millions of Americans who have opted out of organized religion in recent years, making the unaffiliated category of faith the fastest-growing ‘religion’ in America, according to a 2008 study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.” Of course, Lobdell isn’t reporting anything new either. George Barna has been warning of this trend for more than ten years. In fact, just before his death earlier this year, Michael Spencer (aka The Internet Monk) completed a book entitled Mere Churchianity in which he made this observation:

What evangelicals in North America call Christianity is, ironically, largely disconnected from Jesus as he appears in the four Gospels. I have argued for the past decade that American Christianity has evolved into a movement that Jesus would not recognize if he were to show up next Sunday. And it’s not just the rituals and assumptions and values that are off-base. The spirituality itself that comes out of contemporary Christianity is largely unrelated to Jesus. You don’t have to believe me; all you need do is look at the statistics on who attends church, who used to attend, and who swears they will never attend again. Thousands, and possibly millions, of people are walking away from any association with the religion known as traditional Christianity. [1]

In other words, what is true of “organized religion” in general—Anne Rice was a Catholic—is also true of evangelicalism in particular. Spencer limits his focus to evangelicals, but Lobdell insists that this trend can be seen throughout all of Christendom. Apparently Christians of every stripe are becoming disillusioned with the model they have been given. But does this really mean that the model itself is deficient? Is Christianity as we have come to understand it, really a deviation from the biblical definition, such that Jesus Himself would fail to recognize it? Could it be that we have set our expectations too high? In truth, I believe the answer is much simpler and has more to do with who we are and what we believe as Americans, than it does with any perceived deficiency in the church or with organized Christianity.

In his book, The Prayer of the Lord, R.C. Sproul relates the following story:

When my friend John Guest, who was a noted evangelist in England, first came to the United States in the late 1960s, his first exposure to American culture was in the city of Philadelphia. During his first couple of days there, his hosts escorted him around the city to attractions such as Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, and they told him stories of the American Revolution to introduce him to the history of this new world he was embracing as his home. John was enjoying all of this until they went to Germantown, just outside Philadelphia, and visited an antiques store that specialized in Americana. Among the items in this shop were placards and signs that displayed some of the battle cries and slogans of the Revolutionary era, such as, “No Taxation without Representation” and “Don’t Tread on Me.” But the placard that drew his keenest attention was one that announced with bold letters, “We Serve No Sovereign Here.” John told me later: “That sign stopped me in my tracks. I had left my native land and come across the Atlantic Ocean in response to a call, a vocation to be a minister of the gospel, to proclaim the kingdom of God. But on seeing this sign, I was filled with fear and consternation. I thought, ‘How can I possibly preach the kingdom of God to people who have a profound aversion to sovereignty?’” [2]

John Guest’s question is no less important today than it was 40 years ago. In a dramatic twist of irony, the modern Christian accepts the sovereignty of the state without question, all the while being skeptical and critical of any sort of authority claimed by the church. While the majority of early American colonists sought a limited government that was accountable both to God and men, most modern Americans seek a government that can grant their every wish and a God who is limited and accountable only to them. Note the following reasons why Anne Rice decided to quit Christianity: “In the name of Christ, I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life. In the name of Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian.” Each one of these “reasons” is not only a hot-button political topic, but a convenient straw man that she can set up to make it look like she has actually thought through what she is refusing. The fact of the matter is that she realized that she could only serve one sovereign. It’s sad that she has chosen a liberal political agenda over the Bride of Christ, but to her credit, at least she made her choice. Too many other Americans are naively trying to swim the channel between the two.

This is certainly not to say that conservative politics and Christianity go hand-in-hand though. It’s also not to say that everyone that has made the decision to quit Christianity has done so for political reasons. The fact of the matter is that people leave for all sorts of reasons. There are even some—like the rich young ruler (Matthew 19:16-22)—who go away grieving because they are unwilling to forsake all for Christ. But one thing is certain; those who are forsaking being Christians or being members of Christ’s Church are doing so because they believe that something else holds greater authority. And without fail, that “something else” is where that individual’s true religious convictions reside.

Notice how many “I”s are included in Anne Rice’s resignation notice. In essence, she is claiming that her personal creed is superior (and more “Christlike”) to the creed of organized Christianity. And in this belief she is far from being alone (just read the comments that follow her announcement). One of the most crippling heresies among modern Christians is that Christianity is a “personal” faith. Now, there is a sense where this is true, but it has been so inflated by evangelistic programs and techniques, that it has become the driving force of modern religion. Nearly every religious bestseller in the last twenty years has been written with the individual in mind. For every book that can be purchased at any popular Christian bookstore chain that discusses how the Gospel of Christ can transform a community, I can show you 50 that discuss how the Gospel of Christ can transform you: transform your marriage, transform your finances, transform your Bible study, even how to transform your sex life. Ever since Norman Vincent Peale, mainstream Christianity has been repackaging the same message and Christians have been buying into it. The message is that Christianity is primarily a private faith, a secret belief that has nearly limitless power to prepare you for any personal circumstance that life throws your way, yet one that is nearly powerless to change your neighborhood, community, town, or city. You see, the powers that be have informed us—and modern Christianity has conceded—that Jesus can only transform individuals; it takes a civil government to make any lasting societal change.

This change in sovereignty—replacing the True Sovereign with the state—has had drastic effects on how people view the church. Rather than viewing the state in light of the church, we have learned to view the church in light of the state. No longer do we question governmental policies based on what the Bible teaches, instead, like Anne Rice, we have learned to question the church’s policies in light of what the state teaches. We have taken Jesus’ statement to Pilate in John 19:11 and turned it upside down. Rather than Pilate being granted his power from above, we now believe that the state rules over the church. In reality, both church and state get their power from above; there would be no power anywhere on earth, if it wasn’t given from above.

This is what makes statements like Anne Rice’s so seditious. We have become comfortable enough with separating Jesus from His Church to the extent that we can no longer recognize that His Kingdom is over all. We are more than happy to have the nice loving Jesus, the one that meets all of our expectations of social equality, yet we get a bit squeamish over the commanding and law-abiding Jesus, the one who demands that if we love Him we will keep His commandments (John 14:15). This is where the reality of John Guest’s question about proclaiming a Sovereign to a people who “serve no sovereign” resides. It has become vogue once again to wave signs and banners like those found in the Germantown antiques store. But have we learned the lesson? What are we really proclaiming when we raise our “Don’t Tread on Me” flags at the local TEA party rally? We must remember always that we DO serve a Sovereign here, and His name is Christ, and He is the King of kings.

  1. Michael Spencer, Mere Churchianity: Finding Your Way Back to Jesus-Shaped Spirituality (Colorado Springs, CO: WaterBrook Press, 2010), 24-25.[]
  2. R.C. Sproul, The Prayer of the Lord (Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust, 2009), 40-41.[]

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