Today I would like to conclude my series from the Quaker writer, Philip Gulley, where I briefly touch on the ten points from his book, If the Church Were Christian: Rediscovering the Values of Jesus. I realize that his claim to be “rediscovering” the values of Jesus could be interpreted as being a little pretentious. After all, were the values of Jesus lost? Of course not.
However, Gulley is one of those rare thinkers who can mine the teachings of the Bible, the doctrines of the Church, and the words of Jesus (specifically) and remind us of some golden nuggets that the Church has either misplaced or thrown away. I’m not making any haughty claims for myself, either, but I do see Gulley as a kindred spirit.
So, today, I am going to share the last four points of his book. If you don’t learn something from this, I hope that at least you are reminded of something. Perhaps, like me, sometimes you feel as if you have gone off course, off the right path, and you just need someone to remind you where the path is. So, let’s see where his words direct our paths today:
Point #7: If the Church were Christian meeting needs would be more important than maintaining institutions.
This is a tough one because if an institution dies it can no longer meet anyone’s needs. But I don’t think Gulley is just being anti-institutional. As in most of his ten points in this book, he’s talking about priorities. He’s talking about which one is more important than the other.
What he is criticizing is what we often see in the life of a congregation: maintaining an institution at the expense of meeting real needs. We forget that the purpose of this institution—the church—is to meet the needs of its members, the community, and benevolences both near and far.
The debate often shows up in the budget of a congregation. If things get tight, if resources begin to dry up, which is common these days, then the tendency is to put the well-being of the institution before the missions it supports. When that happens, the church has lost its path, and is no longer Christian. A church’s budget, in other words, is the clearest expression of its priorities.
Point #8: If the Church were Christian peace would be more important than power.
The pursuit and maintenance of power is inevitable in any institution. Power is not necessarily a bad thing, although it often gets a bad rap. When Lord Acton said, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” he was speaking truth (to power), and yet the side effect of his statement is that we will always look at power as primarily something that corrupts us. We will always look at power with suspicion.
At the same time, power can be used for good, and in fact, when good is accomplished in the world it is accomplished because someone used their power for good. Take the two big issues of the day: the pandemic and the protests. There are plenty of people with power working to stop the pandemic, primarily people with medical power and people with governmental power.
Protests are acts of power as well. One reason peaceful protests sometimes turn violent is because peace is not always seen as powerful. It seems weak to many people. People get frustrated and want to add more “muscle” to the protest. This is understandable, and yet, one of the lessons history has taught us, especially through people like Jesus, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr. is that peace itself is a powerful thing. Peace has the power to change the world. If the Church were Christian it would teach its people that the most powerful tool in their toolbelt is peace.
Point #9: If the Church were Christian it would care more about love and less about sex.
Historically, the Church has been obsessed with sex, mainly because it is obsessed with sin, and we have been conditioned to believe that there isn’t much to separate sin and sex. Sex is like power—indeed it is a form of power—and therefore just like power it can be used for good or ill.
One of the failings of the church, in my opinion, is that it tends to focus on sex without even trying to understand love. It focuses on the act without trying to understand the love that often motivates the act.
This shows up most clearly in the debate over same gender relationships. Many expressions of Christianity continue to interpret same gender relationships as “sin” without giving one thought to the possibility that two people of the same gender might authentically love one another.
The Church should care more about that—the love—and learn to celebrate love wherever and however it is made manifest. We do this so easily with heterosexual couples. We act like we understand love and are willing to celebrate it, and yet many Christians just can’t get past the sex act between people of the same gender.
If the Church were Christian it would understand that whom a person loves is not our call, it is not in our wheelhouse or bailiwick and we should instead celebrate all healthy expressions of love (rather than fighting against expressions of love we don’t “understand”).
Point #10: If the Church were Christian this life would be more important than the afterlife.
Well, now Gulley is really turning things upside down! I was raised to believe that Christianity was all about punching a ticket for my bus ride to heaven after I die. I still hope there is a fun ride to the celestial gates someday, but I understand what Gulley is doing here. He’s trying to help us see that when we focus too much on life after death, we have lost our path.
Because the path is here and now. It is in this life. Some people say, “life is short,” and this gives people the excuse to ignore following the path of Jesus and just worry about getting through Peter’s gate. This gets back to the purpose of the church that I talked about earlier.
The purpose of the church is its mission. To be a disciple of Jesus means to follow Jesus, and Jesus did not spend his time obsessing about the next life. He was a here and now kind of guy.
This doesn’t have to be an either/or thing by the way. We can speculate about the afterlife and focus on the path Jesus laid out for us in this life. We can walk and chew gum at the same time.
This concludes my series on Philip Gulley’s book: If the Church Were Christian. I will likely take a break next week because my wife is having surgery on Wednesday, and she said that if I am a Christian, I will be there for her. So, I will see you in a couple of weeks.