In the introductory chapter of If the Church Were Christian, Philip Gulley says something very important. "The question for Christians is whether the church reflects the priorities of Jesus". Identifying those priorities is essential for the life of the church. Gulley goes on to identify the priorities of Jesus as "less a codified doctrine or creed and more an approach to life that emphasizes grace, is always on the side of human dignity, is always devoted to our spiritual growth and moral evolution, and is always committed to the ongoing search for truth, even if that search leads us away from institutional Christianity."
He then presents in ten chapters propositions that describe how a church would live out those values:
- -Jesus would be a model for living rather than an object of worship.
- -Affirming our potential would be more important than condemning our brokenness.
- -Reconciliation would be valued over judgment.
- -Gracious behavior would be more important than right belief.
- -Inviting questions would be valued more than supplying answers.
- -Encouraging personal exploration would be more important than communal uniformity.
- -Meeting needs would be more important than maintaining institutions.
- -Peace would be more important than power.
- -It would care more about love and less about sex.
- -This life would be more important than the afterlife.
The Right Question - A Nebulous Answer
Gulley asks the right question. If the church is following Jesus it should be reflecting the priorities of Jesus. Gulley presents his vision of those priorities and gives many examples of people and churches that have followed those priorities well and not so well.
But how do we know the priorities of Jesus? Gulley argues that we cannot accurately know the true intentions of Jesus. In his view, the stories of Jesus are to some extent creations of the early church and there is no universal agreement on what those stories mean, so we cannot assume a universal understanding of what it means to be a Christian. Our understanding comes from our own experience, which is limited at best. There is an existential truth to the stories about Jesus that when combined with our experience and understanding, can give us some idea of the priorities of Jesus.
Gulley's priorities seem to be developed out of some of the stories about Jesus, his interactions with the theologies he grew up with and his various experiences with other people, both good and bad, along the way. There is no clear explanation of why these priorities are chosen over others. Some of them are more directly connected to Jesus by referring to some of the stories about Jesus, but others are just tossed out there. When a story about Jesus contradicts Gulley's argument it is explained away as an addition or a misunderstanding. For example, when Jesus makes judgmental statements about some pharisees it is seen as possibly an antisemitic addition by early Christians rather than anything Jesus would say.
But it is not a book of theology. It is a book about a journey. As such, it leaves some questions unanswered and some things lack clear definition.
An Either-Or World
As Gulley describes the values being lived out in the church, he does a better job of telling us what those values are not. He sees other expressions of Christianity as failing because they insist on believing specific things about Jesus. Creeds and doctrine get in the way of following the priorities of Jesus. In each chapter he shares stories and gives examples of people who have lived out their faith in wrong and hurtful ways, often because they are holding on to a particular set of beliefs. The implication is that if we let go of those beliefs, we will be rid of our wrong and hurtful ways of doing things.
It is an "either-or" world with little room in the middle. In the introduction he tells of a woman who describes herself as a Christian in general cultural terms: "If I say I am a Christian, I am." The only alternative he sees to this are those who "would have us examining one another closely, judging who among us is fit to bear that name, attempting to construct a definition suitable to all, which is both undesirable and impossible." Either one or the other. But there are other alternatives. There are many who hold to a traditional understanding of Christianity and are not judgmental, uncaring, and fixated on institutions.
The succeeding chapters set up more "either-or" choices with limited recognition of other ways of seeing things. Chapter 1 describes our choice as seeing Jesus either as a model for living or as an object of worship. Gulley describes his early religious training and his unquestioning acceptance of Jesus as divine. He then tells of his rethinking and rejection of that understanding of Jesus. It is true that if Jesus is not divine, then worshiping him would be a foolish thing. But worshiping Jesus as divine and following him as an example are not mutually exclusive. This has been part of being a Christian since Paul wrote in his letter to the Philippians, "Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus . . . ." (Philippians 2:5)
I am left with two basic questions about Gulley's argument:
- -Why keep Jesus? If the traditional and cultural understandings of Jesus keep people from recognizing the true priorities of Jesus, wouldn't it be easier to leave Jesus out? The priorities Gulley presents are pursued apart from Jesus by many. What is there about Jesus that needs to be held on to?
- -If the church is as irredeemable as described in this book, why bother with the church at all? In seventeenth century England the first generation of Quakers saw a church that had lost its way and they responded by establisheing new structures and ways of doing things that were not tied to the existing church. They worshiped and followed Jesus in a way that impacted their world far beyond their numbers.
I agree that the basic question for Christians is whether the church is reflecting the priorities of Jesus and I agree that people have done many terrible things in the name of the church while claiming to be followers of Jesus. But the solution is not to reduce a rich and vibrant faith to a set of feel-good platitudes.