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Forget the Church and Follow Jesus? 

Perhaps you saw the recent issue of Newsweek magazine with the cover story: “Forget the Church. Follow Jesus.” The writer, Andrew Sullivan, says: “Christianity has been destroyed by politics, priests, and get-rich evangelists. Ignore them … and embrace Him [Jesus].”

At first glance, it seems that Sullivan is hitting the nail on the head. For who among us wouldn’t agree that the church needs to avoid the entanglements of power, corruption, and greed and focus on Jesus? But as the article continues, you quickly begin to realize that the Jesus Sullivan is calling people to focus on is not the Jesus of the Bible, but the Jesus of Jefferson, that is, Thomas Jefferson.

Thomas Jefferson was, of course, one of the founding fathers of the United States. He was largely responsible for writing the Declaration of Independence and served as President, Vice President, and Secretary of State. Jefferson was also deeply interested in philosophy and religion. Sullivan says, “If Jefferson’s greatest political legacy was the Declaration of Independence, this pure, precious moral teaching was his religious legacy.” Sullivan was referring to Jefferson’s Bible. At the age of 77, Thomas Jefferson began working on an edited version of the New Testament. The article quotes Jefferson: “We must reduce our volume to the simple evangelists, select, even from them, the very words only of Jesus.” Sullivan continues: “He removed what he felt were the ‘misconceptions’ of Jesus’ followers, ‘expressing unintelligibly for others what they had not understood themselves.’” According to Sullivan, Jefferson “described the difference between the real Jesus and the evangelists’ embellishments as ‘diamonds’ in a ‘dunghill,’ glittering as ‘the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.’” Jefferson, as you might imagine, met with stiff opposition from many orthodox Christian leaders of his day over his views, but insisted that he was “a real Christian, … a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus.” Jefferson greatly admired the moral and ethical teachings of Jesus, but he rejected the doctrines of the Trinity, the Deity of Christ, the Atonement, and the Resurrection. So in reality Jefferson invented his own version of the Christian faith, one free from things like miracles, substitutionary deaths, and bodily resurrections, and then claimed to be a real Christian. Thomas Jefferson was a one-man “Jesus Seminar.”

From Jefferson, Sullivan looks back in history to a better example of what real Christianity is supposed to look like from the life of St. Francis of Assisi. “His inspiration,” says Sullivan, “was even purer than Jefferson’s. He did not cut out passages of the Gospels to render them more reasonable than they appear to the modern mind. He simply opened the Gospels at random—as was often the custom at the time—and found three passages. They told him to ‘sell what you have and give to the poor, to ‘take nothing for your journey,’ not even a second tunic, and to ‘deny himself’ and follow the path of Jesus. That was it. So Francis renounced his inheritance, becoming homeless and earning food by manual labor … Francis insisted on living utterly without power over others.”

Like so many in our generation, Sullivan likes the idea of religion that consists of fighting inequality, eradicating poverty, eliminating war, doing philanthropic deeds, rejoicing in nature, and otherwise minding one’s own business. What he does not like is religion that meddles with the way people live out their personal lives.

Like the Catholic Church obsessing “about others’ sex lives, about who is entitled to civil marriage, and about who pays for birth control in health insurance.” Not to mention those Evangelicals who “defend a rigid biblical literalism …”

So here we have Mr. Sullivan telling us that we dare not pontificate, that we go about our religion quietly and peacefully like Francis of Assisi, but the sheer hypocrisy of it all is that he is not doing what he’s telling us we should be doing! He is pontificating! You should not take the Bible literally. You should not oppose same-sex marriage. You should not resist your religious liberties being stripped away. You should not believe the Bible to be the inspired, inerrant word of God. You should not doubt the truth of evolution.

The Jesus who Andrew Sullivan wants people to follow is a figment of his own imagination. Although Sullivan says he believes in both the divinity and the resurrection of Christ, the picture he paints of Christ bears more resemblance to Buddha, Gandhi, or the Dalai Lama than to Jesus of Nazareth.

According to Sullivan “total acceptance and love of all other human beings is at the sacred heart of Jesus’ teaching.” “That’s why,” he says, “in his final apolitical act, Jesus never defended his innocence at trial, never resisted his crucifixion, and even turned to those nailing his hands to the wood on the cross and forgave them, and loved them.” This is where he misses the primary point of the crucifixion and of the gospel itself. Jesus wasn’t dying primarily to show us how much He loved us; He was dying primarily to make atonement for our sins. Sullivan says, “The cross itself was not the point; nor was the intense physical suffering he endured. The point was how he conducted himself through it all—calm, loving, accepting, radically surrendering …  telling us that this is what it means to truly transcend our world and be with God.”

Simply stated, this is a different Jesus and a different gospel than the one we find in the pages of Scripture.

I’m not dismissing Mr. Sullivan’s criticism and concern over the grievous sins of the church and some of its leaders—Catholic, Protestant, and Evangelical included. There are many areas where we as Christians need to repent and obey the Word of God. The answer to the crises in Christianity, though, is not to forget the church and make up a new politically correct Jesus, as Sullivan has essentially done, but to see the church come back under the authority of the true Jesus in submission to His Holy Word.

*All quotes taken from: Accessed April 8, 2012.

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