I was raised in a Christian environment. For as long as I can remember, my family went to church. In fact, all growing up, my family were only members of two different churches, both Southern Baptist. We were very loyal and dedicated. My dad is a deacon. My mom sings in the choir and they both are involved in various ministries in their church. I was as well.
During my middle and high school years, I was not the most popular kid in the youth group, but I made my fair share of friends. I was heavily influenced theologically by the teachings of John Piper, John Macarthur, Charles Spurgeon, and Jonathan Edwards, to name a few. Granted, certain things all of these men said rubbed me the wrong way or I found myself disagreeing with, but I was also taught that they were merely human and nothing they said would be perfect. So I learned to filter out those parts I disagreed with and focus only on what I did.
I felt a call to ministry when I was a senior in high school, and went forward during the altar call to make that publically known to the whole church. As a result of my felt calling, I went to college with the intention of being a youth pastor.
At which point, my theological foundation began to crack.
When I started college, I began to theologically align more and more with groups like the Presbyterians. Groups that leaned much more Calvinist than even my Southern Baptist upbringing. I was very intolerant of ideas like free will and was also rather vocal about my opposition to the typical Conservative talking points of abortion, homosexuality, and, at the time, euthanasia.
I was reading, as a devotional book, John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion.
And then I had lunch with a real human and the whole thing began to crumble.
I do not to this day know what exactly led me to ask the guy to lunch, but I did. I was headed to the Denny’s around the corner from campus and I asked if he wanted to join me. He said yes and we sat down and the conversation held nothing back. He immediately brought up stem cell research. A topic I had been taught was a pro-abortion thing. I was supposed to be against it because they used aborted fetuses, and in fact, had to deliberately abort babies to do it. He schooled me on the matter, and also told me he was diagnosed with a rare condition and stem cells held the potential for a cure.
We became friends.
I came across the teachings of a man named Rob Bell. He asked questions. Hard ones. He questioned doctrines like Hell and as a thought experiment the virgin birth. I came across books by Tony Campolo and learned that it was possible to be a Christian and also an environmentalist. I read Wendall Berry. I read Plato. Then I read a book that was really stirring it up at the time: Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the problem of the Old Testament.
During all of this, I was working as a youth pastor. Then I got married in an unconventional manner, we eloped, which is what, more or less, got me relieved of my duties at that church.
Things were getting shakier.
I graduated college right into a recession, so there were no jobs to be found in what I had been led to believe was a field with a constant need for workers. Then I went through a divorce and it all went out the window. Or at least my devotion to the whole Christian thing did.
Throughout all of this, I came across numerous people who were downright terrible. For a while, I was even on track to be one of them. I might even have been one of them. To someone, somewhere I very likely was.
When I graduated college, this is one of the things that made it hard to get involved with any real seriousness. I was a newlywed with little income, I was working part-time at a J C Penney because that was the only job I could find. The reaction of church people around me was that I had done something sinful to cause all of this to happen to myself and needed to repent.
They came out in full force when the divorce happened. That was entirely my fault. It did not matter what the circumstances were that led up to it, I, as the man, had caused it by not being in control of my household, which included my wife.
I lived with lesbians. I hung out with agnostics and atheists. And as a result, I met some of the most loving and caring people in my entire life.
Because here is the whole point of this whole story: you do not need to be a Christian in order to be a decent human being. You do not have to be a Bible thumper in order to treat other people the way that you would like to be treated.
Any religion that turns you into a bigot is a false religion. Even if that religion is Christianity.
I can say this even with the authority of the Bible to back me up.
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. (James 1:27)
You see, real religion, “the kind that passes muster before God” (as another version of the Bible puts it) is compassionate. It cares for those who are in need. It puts others first. In fact, it puts the lowest of the low at the forefront.
Which is the opposite of being a selfish prick.
It also guards itself against corruption.
Growing up, this was always applied to the individual. It was about not drinking and smoking and cussing and watching R-rated movies. It was about protesting abortion and not listening to secular music. But after getting pushed away from the religious community I began to see a deeper meaning here.
You see, James was not writing to one person. He was writing to a whole group of people. So all of these things he says are important apply to groups. Collectively, pure religion serves others. Collectively, pure religion guards against corruption.
When a room full of Christians chant, “Let's go Brandon”, that is a sign of false religion. When a whole collective group of Christians endorses as the “Christian” choice for president a man who steals from cancer charities and pays off porn stars he has slept with, that is an impure religion. When a group of Christians claims that a specific political party or country is God’s own, that is corrupted religion.
And guess what: that religion happens to be Christianity. In other words, just because you are a Christian, that does not mean you are “saved.”