Tuesday, April 20, 2010

"If the Church Were Christian" by Philip Gulley

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)

Two Questions

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.



Bill Samuel said...

I resonate with what you say. Gulley shows the weaknesses of straight Christian (or semi-Christian (since it is difficult to understand why one should be called Christian if one doesn't think Jesus is the Christ) liberalism. His simplistic dualistic approach is very weak.

The curious thing is that he is a Friends pastor. Friends have one of the greatest traditions of a different paradigm than either the fundamentalist or liberal one. Why is he unwilling to take a Quaker approach? Is he ignorant of it? There is also the contemporary "emerging church" view which presents a different paradigm, with some real similarities with classical Quakerism and some differences.

It is sad to see such a shallow thinker get so much attention. But he exemplifies liberal Quakerism of today which is strong on what it isn't but very weak on providing a positive vision that is coherent. There are viable Christian alternatives both within and outside of Quakerism.

Brent Bill said...

An interesting and thoughtful review, Bill. Fine job.

Paul L said...

Thanks from me, too, for this review, and your comment, Bill.

As I read the chapter headings, I kept saying to myself, "Yes, but . . . . " To the extent that Gully is engaging in a dialectical process to correct extreme and unbalanced contemporary views, I agree with him 100%. But to take his propositions out of that kind of corrective context just gives you the weak semi-Christian (to be charitable) theology Bill identifies.

What I don't like in his propositions are the comparatives, the "rather than", "more important", "valued over", etc.-- the "either or" quality you identify. It seems to me that we have to maintain a living, paradoxical balance between each side of the equations. As you point out, Bill, Jesus made plenty of judgments even as he was reconciling all creation to himself, so why say that one is "more important" than the other (unless it is to correct an imbalance)?

He also jinxes the argument with loaded words. Why "communal uniformity" rather than "corporate discernment" or "accountability to others"? And is the counterpart to "affirming our potential" really "condemns" our brokenness"? Why can't we say that we must affirm our potential while we recognize our brokenness?

All that said, I still want to read his book. I found his previous ones helpful, even as they left holes.

Finally, I like your two questions at the end, particularly the first one. Perhaps the next book should be, "If Jesus is Christ".

kevin roberts said...

Re-inventing Jesus in one's own image has been a favorite activity of Christian and near-Christian writers for hundreds of years.

Sometimes new light is shed on the revelation, but more often what one reads is a description of what the author would have preferred Jesus to have been like, instead of what he was.

Generally the Jesus that emerges looks a lot like the author himself, with similar interests, beliefs, blind spots, and weaknesses.

Marshall Gibson said...


Phil and Bill both have clear about the Church and clearly they differ. Both are excellent pastors of the Meetings they serve.

Most of what we "know" about Jesus was recorded around the time that those disciples were dying off or had been martyred. Even Paul was gone. His writings are instructive and seem to pretty much reflect the thought of Jesus as recorded in Mark. Less so in Matthew and Luke, and, while John is beautifully presented, scholars other than Phil are sure that much of the Jesus that Phil advocates is
altered toward violence.

The later letters attributed to Paul also seem, according to many scholars, to veer toward the usual Roman rules of life.

Many of the stories of Jesus' behavior show that Jesus spent alot of effort healing people, feeding people, telling parables, and making the Roman occupied Jewish state leaders very uncomfortable.

Phil view of the church could as well be applied in large part to the people that Jesus made so uncomfortable. And, as the Council of Nicea left things, the Church has been egregiously unchristian, acquiring Rome and eventually all of its successors, right up to the United States.

There is nowhere that either Jesus of Paul recommended war, acquisition of great wealth and using that power to control the people that Jesus spent so much of his time feeding and healing.

So, without suggesting tht Bill Clendenen errs, the Church is hardly the Christian model it perports to be. At least one reason that Friends call their congregatins Meetings is to separate Friends from "the Church" and its traditional lust for power.

Anonymous said...

Whereas I agree with the writer of this article's criticism of Gulley's book I have some conclusions of my own. As someone who grew up in a traditional church and later on became a senior pastor of a traditional church, I have seen my share of how the church has become to look more like the empire (the world) than the Jesus they say they love and adore. I have watched since I was a boy how the church took custom and practice and somehow tried to make it sacred and holy. I have seen churches get more offended over transgressing a man made idea, than over a transgression of the ten commandments. I have watched many churches become nothing but another type country club where only the elite, prosperous and well off were welcome. So I welcome Gulley's book because it can serve as a wake up call for some institutional churches that have condemned brokenness, postured itself in judgement and focused more on the after-life than the life we are living now. Someone has to challenge the church of the 21st century to ask the question are we doing what Jesus would have us to do? Or we doing what we want to do because we want to feel better about us? Thank you Phillip Gulley for challenging my thinking, my church will not be the same!