When I was at the seminary, a team of students did interviews with people who had made "decisions for Christ" in a local evangelistic crusade in Kentucky. They also interviewed others who knew the recent converts. To their surprise they found that the most common change in the new converts was that "they began to talk like fundamentalists." No noticeable change in lifestyle or any other behavior was reported.
Jesus came to replace religion with something far better-- himself. Jesus said, "Follow me." Jesus never said "follow the rules, follow the law, follow the Bible, or follow religion." Jesus warned against following the teachings of the popular religious leaders of the time (Matthew 16:6-12)
When Paul said in Philippians 3:13-14, "Forgetting what is behind and reaching forward to what is ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus," he was talking about letting go of religion in order to follow Jesus instead. Read all of Philippians 3 for the details of how Paul considers all of his former legalistic religious perfection to be a lost cause and "garbage" in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus, "and be found in Jesus, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God by faith."
Following legalistic, judgmental religion is a direct rejection of Jesus and all that Jesus did and taught. The selective use of Paul's writings in biblical literalism has been used to deny the freedom of good news in Christ and to teach garbage religion instead!
When I began to lead classes for new members in the Baptist churches that I served as pastor, I often asked the people to describe what it means to be a Baptist. The unexpected reply that came most often when I first asked the question was, "Baptists are the people who don't believe in dancing." I was not prepared to hear the great Baptist traditions of soul freedom, religious liberty, the priesthood of all believers, evangelism, missions, education, and separation of church and state reduced to "they don't believe in dancing."
When Jesus comes into your life, one of the main changes is that your attention is directed to love for other people and not to keeping the rules that will somehow make YOU more acceptable to God.
When I was a Southern Baptist pastor and baptized new Christians, I quoted Romans 6:4, "Therefore we have been buried with Christ through baptism into death, in order that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of God, so we too might walk in newness of life." Baptism represents a radical new beginning of a new life in Christ.
But does it? Does the "instant evangelism" of being "born again" produce the new life in Christ for most people? What do you think? What is missing?
In the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20, Jesus did not say "make converts." He said "make disciples." Disciple means "student" and includes the lifelong process of growing, learning, healing, recovering from sick and abusive religion, and becoming a teacher. The new life that God gives to you in Christ includes freedom in the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:17) to learn and grow and to explore new worlds that you never knew existed before.
One of my professors used to say that the only necessary requirement for learning is an open mind. When your religious experience is an invitation to close your mind and quit thinking, something is drastically wrong!
What do you see when you look at the other people around you? Do you see God? Do you see Jesus when you look into a mirror? Jesus said "Inasmuch as you did it unto one of the least of these people, who are my family, you did it to me." (Matthew 25:40) The transforming presence of Jesus in your life changes the way you see yourself and everyone you meet.
Jesus said, "I give you a NEW commandment that you love one another as I have loved you." (John 13:34). Then he added, "By this everyone will know that you really are my disciples if you love one another." We cannot learn how to love like Jesus loved by reading books, keeping rules or imitating what we see others do. Loving like Jesus loved is a gift. When Jesus comes into your life and you walk with Jesus, the love of God in Jesus fills your heart and pushes out the negative feelings and destructive impulses that can so easily take over our lives and control us.
"The love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us." (Romans 5:5).
FROM HOMOPHOBIA TO ACCEPTANCE
We are beginning to see a lot of church people become more accepting and affirming of us as Christian gay and lesbian people. This is partly due to their getting to know us. Our coming out of the closet and letting the people around us know who we really are is a necessary step for God to use us to change our own world.
I have been reading a book [Keith Hartman's Congregations In Conflict] that beautifully tells the stories of Rev. Jimmy Creech, Rev. Mahan Siler, and many others who have challenged the churches about homophobia and have opened the windows to throw the light of truth on the prejudices and ignorance of people who think that they are following Jesus when they judge, reject, and hurt gay people. One of the most striking things in the book is how many church people moved from rejection to acceptance and affirmation of homosexuals as a result of learning that some of their best church members are gay. Many church members expressed surprise and regret when they learned how much pain and suffering religion and the church has inflicted on homosexuals. Study groups also helped church members learn the facts about the Bible and homosexuality.
We continue to believe in the possibility of change in people who follow Jesus. Not only do we see many church people accepting and affirming gays and lesbians; we also see more gays and lesbians accepting themselves and each other. Paul is not our enemy. The real enemy is the twisted and distorted use of Paul to warp the good news of Jesus into a weapon of abuse and oppression of homosexuals. See 2 Peter 3:15-16: "Paul wrote some things that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable distort (twist) as they do the rest of scriptures to their own destruction."
We take courage and walk with confidence into the brave new world of Jesus with the good news that "Every person who is in Christ is a new creation; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come." (2 Corinthians 5:17).
Jesus gave one very clear invitation in all of the Gospels to let go of everything else and follow only Jesus. Every individual must work through what responding to that invitation means. Nobody else can dictate what your relationship to Jesus should be. Jesus has given us the Holy Spirit to stand alongside us ("paraklete") and be our guide, our encouragement, and our teacher. (John 14:16-17, 26-27; 16:13-15).
Romans 15:1-7 is a fitting conclusion to this article:
Now we who are strong ought to bear the weaknesses of those without strength and not just please ourselves. Let each of us please our neighbors for their good and to build them up. For even Christ did not indulge himself; but as it is written, "The reproaches of those who reproached thee fell upon me." (Psalm 69:9) For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, that through perseverance and the encouragement ("paraklete") of scriptures we might have hope. Now may the God who gives perseverance and encouragement grant to you to be of the same mind with one another according to Christ Jesus; That with one accord you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Sovereign Jesus Christ. Therefore accept one another just as Christ also accepted us to the glory of God.
Rev. Mel White
John J. McNeill