Faith & Values: Figuring out true Christianity from false Christianity – Daily Press

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Over two decades ago, a perfect storm overwhelmed my life, and I considered walking away from the Christian faith. I was moving through a life-changing personal crisis and was disappointed with God in ways I could not get over. My crisis amplified a growing discontent I felt with the church.
I lived in a large city in middle Georgia where many neighbors living through homelessness became my friends. I was able to help some navigate an overburdened system to find the resources they needed, but I was in my mid-20s and needed help. I asked leaders in my church for help, only to be told I was doing work that was too risky and dangerous. I can still hear one church elder tell me in a meeting, “You need to stop. You could get stabbed and killed.”
I found more solidarity with people outside of my Christian faith than within it. I just could not understand why there were neighbors living through homelessness standing on the corners of so many streets when there were churches on the corner of almost every street.
In a desperate attempt to question the assumptions I held about God taught by those who formed me in my faith and the judgmental feelings I held about church, I turned to Christian history. I wanted to understand how what I read in the Christian scriptures, particularly in the life of Jesus and a letter called “Acts,” stood in such sharp contrast with what I was experiencing as a follower of Jesus in churches that didn’t seem to, well, act. What I learned saved my faith.
Dear reader, bear with me for a moment.
What I learned is that when famed Roman co-emperors Constantine and Lactantius issued the Edict of Milan (a proclamation that permanently established religious toleration of Christianity among the Greek and Roman religions), Christianity became a tool to establish the Roman concept of civilized order. Roman religion supported identities of dominance and superiority based upon gender and class (aristocracy). For 200 years prior, Christianity had proven to be a religion that challenged identities of dominance and long embraced a politic — meaning an ordered and governed way of life — that compelled followers of Jesus to work toward an ethic where all in the empire were welcomed and included, regardless of gender and class. This was particularly compelling for Emperor Lactantius. He wrote about how Christianity’s commitment to welcome and inclusion can be used to bring unity and order to Roman civilization. Of course, soon after that Lactantius began a low-key persecution of Christians despite the edict before his co-emperor Constantine overthrew him.
What neither Constantine or Lactantius seemed to imagine is that Christianity’s politic of welcome and inclusion didn’t challenge identities of dominance and superiority just within Rome, but throughout all of humanity everywhere.
They didn’t understand that the most basic teaching of the Christian faith, according to the life of Jesus and story found in “Acts,” is that no empire, nationality or specific ethnicity could be held as superior to another, if it wanted to remain a faithful expression of the Christ of Christianity. The first two centuries of Christianity consistently struggled and wrestled within itself in an effort to be faithful to the Christ’s law of love. Therefore, Christianity was not going to easily become the tool of any social or political system. Christianity already has a social and political system complete with its own “edict” issued by the one called the Christ, Jesus of Nazareth who is confessed as King and Lord.
The tragic outcome history reveals is that many became adherents to Lactantius and Constantine’s Roman-centric Christianity — that is to say a religion called Christianity married to and organized around the Roman empire’s political ideals and aspirations. These adherents laid down the law of love and picked up the laws of Rome. After Constantine’s death, these adherents, still referring to themselves as Christians, held onto this coercive expression of faith that empowered them to forcibly convert others or inflict violence upon them if they refused. Christianity became a religion of conquest and was re-planted in the soil that nurtured identities of dominance and superiority.
This history makes me think of how today’s American politicians and some of us everyday folk want to use Christianity as a tool for “uniting our nation” much like Constantine and Lactantius. But true Christianity will not be the USA’s religion or some mechanism for establishing American ideology or democracy. True Christianity stands on its own as a different politic governed by a law of love — self-giving and self-emptying love like the Christ. And that becomes the power that challenges all identities of dominance and superiority, whether it be gender-based, class-based, ethnic-based, race-based or nationality-based. And one day when the United States of America follows the way of Rome and becomes a footnote in the pages of history, varied expressions of true Christianity will still stand.
As I see it, and as a pastor in the Christian tradition, the task for us today is to know true Christianity from false Christianity. Historical sketches like this can help Christians know the difference.
The Rev. Fred Liggin is one of the pastors at Williamsburg Christian Church, and founder and co-executive director of Faith Community Development & Training with 3e Restoration Inc.
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