Church and the perception of God

Elise got me thinking about another fascinating (although in real life, painful) subject: How the dogma and behavior of a church are in part a reflection of that organization’s perception of God. If religious life is composed of being forced to follow a list of dogmatic rules (not drinking alcohol, going to church 2 times a week minimum, tithing 10%, mandatory baptism, mandatory bible verse memorization, etc.) then that organization’s perception of God is one who is distant and needs to be appeased by good behavior. I used to attend a church like this myself and HATED it. I have found that there are some people that do not think of God this way but still attend a church like this. To me however, it is a loosing battle. This society that supports oppressive dogmatism will steal away their good perception of God and it will instead mold it into the one the church affirms. Only integrity will help you survive and get you out.

I have tended to run away from dogmatic churches like that. I do not think of God as being one who is distant and requires obedience to be happy with me. How do I think of God? As a warm and caring person who wants to be in a deep, personal relationship with me. This relationship can be best understood by the living myth examples in our lives – a marriage relationship or a parent/child relationship. In either of these models, all interactions are motivated by love, not duty or obligation. What is correct behavior for living and interacting with my wife? How should I behave and treat my children? What is the list of rules? There are none. Paul said it best – everything is allowable, but not everything is beneficial. The one who follows Christ has been set free. To truly love, you must be free.

When I choose to have a love relationship with my wife, I do so because I love her, not because it is a duty or obligation. I don’t buy her roses or go out on dates with her simply because I noticed on my list that I need to do them, but because I am motivated to spend time with her and be with her because I love her. Using the child/parent relationship, I don’t interact with my daughter simply because she can count to 10 or speak a couple of words without making mistakes. My motivation for our interaction is not her good behavior or her good works, but simply because I love her. If she tries to run down the stairs, or gets into a bottle of bleach – I run after her and try to stop her, not because she is screwing up and doing things wrong and I’m angry, but because I love her and want her to be safe and not to hurt herself.

So how does this tie into how a church should look? The ideal Christian church in my mind would be one that simple acknowledges the Bible (as written by the original authors) as absolutely true, and that God is real, and Jesus is the only way to God. Without these essential beliefs, a Christian church is simply not Christian. That is where the ‘dogma’ ends. Everything else, including rules for my behavior, is free for me to determine good or bad, right or wrong. My only rule is to do anything that is beneficial, but do not do anything that is hurtful to God, myself, or others. If I drink or not, it is determined by if it is beneficial or not to ME. If I decide to get baptized, it is because it is beneficial to God and I. If I tithe 10% of my income, it is because I see benefit to others who need it. If other people think differently about these things? They are not sinning, but also determining what is beneficial for them to do. How about all the rest of the rules? The other sins? Those again come down to what is beneficial or not.

I imagine “sin” or brokenness in this illustration: A person banging themselves on the head with a hammer. After repeated hits, the person’s head starts to crack and bleed. Is the cracking and bleeding God’s wrath to punish the sinner? No – it’s just the natural result of self-injury that occurs because of how our skulls are designed. So it is with all sin. The spiritual and physical universe we live in has an established design. To engage in activity against that design is destructive – you are now turning the laws of the universe against yourself to your own hurt and the hurt of those around you. God does not need to divinely punish with lightening bolts – He warns us not to live or act contrary to our design because he does not want us to ‘drink the bleach’ (returning to the analogy of a parent/child relationship), and when we don’t, we will suffer the natural consequences of our actions, because unlike our kids, God has given us free will – we are allowed to act in harm against ourselves. Acting in a beneficial manner is simply abiding by the laws of existence and living in a way that is conducive to how we were designed. I’m not designed to receive multiple hammer blows to my skull, therefore it is harmful to me to hit myself in the head with a hammer. I’m not designed to live alone in this world, therefore it is harmful for me to push away God and humanity.

So If I want to drink, I go ahead and do it. If I want to dance, that’s OK. If I want to buy a really expensive car, go for it. If I don’t want to tithe, big deal, I don’t have to. These choices are all manifestations of a deeper understanding of how I am designed, and what God likes and dislikes. My relationship with Him is what continually compels me to understand more, not at all unlike my relationship with my wife – I am always trying to be a better partner to her – to understand her better so I might be able to love her more. In a love relationship, the beloved always comes first. In the case of a Christian the order goes like this: God, others, me. So this focus, coupled with my understanding of my general design, as well as my unique design, dictate to me what is beneficial to do and what is not in my remaining 40+ years of life. Whatever church I go to MUST understand these foundational principles of the Christian life, and have a correct, truthful perception of God. Without them, any church will drift inevitably towards a dogmatic human-devised religious institution again.

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