It is quite popular among editorial writers to say things like: “It is my opinion…” or “As I see it….” Although that writer may put it that way, it doesn’t mean that no one else sees it his way. And when large groups of people have the same opinion some think it must be correct. It just isn’t necessarily so.
This morning we looked at a few of the arguments proposed against Christianity. They were some of the criticisms of Pierre Berton in “The Comfortable Pew” written in 1964. I am sure that if I visited the religious section of a few used books stores tomorrow, I could find newer books similar to this one. Which goes to prove that these are not just one man’s opinion. If you have your ear to the ground, listening even half way diligently, you hear these things all around you. It sounds like the brethren found one of the intellectual sons of Pierre Berton this past week up in central British Columbia. But I have no doubt you could find others on the American Columbia as well – the Columbia River.
You and I need to be able to give an answer to each of these people. For this reason I’d like to spend another thirty minutes considering some more of Berton’s arguments. Maybe some day you will be speaking to some soul who is seeking the truth about life and eternity. It would be good for you to have some genuine help for his soul. Perhaps this can provide a little of that help.
One reason that Pierre Berton left established religion was the hypocritical CLASS SYSTEM he saw.
He said a survey was made categorizing Protestant groups in order of the importance of its membership. Among those who claimed church affiliation more top executives, debutantes and political leaders claimed to be Anglican or Episcopalians than any other denomination. More doctors and university professors claim to be Episcopalian than any other Protestant church. After them in order came Presbyterians, Congregationalists and Methodists. The pollster came to the conclusion that rarely were class distinctions ever broken. Among the mainline denominations, membership rarely extends to the outcasts of society.
At this point Mr. Berton goes completely wacky. He said, “Christianity began among the poor, uneducationed, ignorant, minorities and misfits.” I challenge that thought – lots of people say that sort of things, but it isn’t true. Bible Christianity is not the property of the lower classes, the poor and the uneducated. Barnabas was a key man in the Jerusalem church and with world-wide missions. And Barnabas was extremely wealthy and influential. Paul originally had money, and the best education that money could buy. He was headed toward genuine power among the Jews. But the Lord called him, saved him and set him on a different course. Throughout the Bible you see people of influence, wealth and power – Moses, Daniel, Isaiah. But at the same time, those people and Christ Jesus ministered to everyone who would listen. Christ gave the gospel to the Pharisees, the publicans, the harlots and the lepers. And the common fact is that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of Heaven.” Our Lord cut across all lines of society, reaching from princes to prostitutes. But once they were redeemed and regenerated, they were all “Christians” on equal footing. And despite the pollsters working in the liberal churches, in Bible-believing Baptist churches, we find people from every class and every walk of life.
But while saying that – many of the most needy in our society are not welcomed in God’s house. Don’t most Christians want the wicked to be saved outside their church, before being invited to sit in the same pew as us? What if an out-of-the-closet homosexual came to this service this afternoon? How long would you continue to come if we had groups of Indians, Syrians or blacks attending? Do we ever use terms like “welfare leeches,” “moral degenerates,” and “sots” when speaking of the people we are supposed to be evangelizing? Do we drive people away before they ever even get close enough to hear of Christ? I grant you, those who choose sin over the Saviour, are to be treated as sinners. But I remind you that “such were some of you, but NOW are ye washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God.” The child of God is a black sheep if he has no compassion for socially diseased and disabled. Maybe here Mr. Berton has a point with which to needle us.
Another point which he raised caught me completely unprepared.
He said, “I will not be a part of a church where success is judged on a worldly basis.” Most of Berton’s arguments came from the position of a secular humanist. But then, once in a while, he seems to jump to the other side and look from a higher vantage point. In this criticism Berton is perfectly correct. Christianity is not supposed to be worldly and secular. Why is it that agnostics can see this and many “Christians” can’t ?
Every church has a gospel that it preaches, but sadly some have more than one or just the wrong one. Some preach the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ, for the purpose of saving lost souls. But some have the gospel of positive thinking and how to achieve the highest levels of personal success. And as such they run on different standards. Some judge ministerial success by the size of their bus ministry or the number of their congregations. Still others rate their accomplishments by the number of professions or how often the water in the baptistry splashes onto the carpet. If budget growth, program growth and membership growth determines success, then the scale being used to weigh the product is the same as used to weigh the Elks, Rotary Club and some political party. For centuries churches existed without buildings, but that is unthinkable today. If the building is in bad condition, obviously the church is in sad shape too. In the early days there was no financial advantage to being a church member, but today among some, that is just one step in properly networking yourself.
I hope this church never becomes successful in these ways. I would love to see 200 or 500 in our Sunday morning services, but only if they came to learn of Christ. Do I want to throw away our church building? It may come to that if the agnostics and liberals have their way. But no, I don’t want to become buildingless, because I think that it facilitates our service of the Lord. And yes, if it would help to reach our community with the Truth that would be fine with me. It is my prayer that this church become prosperous,….but by God’s standards. I yearn to see Christians living like Christians, and teaching that which is faithful to God’s Word. May this church be uncompromising and always putting God first. That is the way that success ought to be judged.
But even though Pierre Berton thinks that secular success is not the criteria for the church, his definition of religious success differs from the Bible.
Another agnostic complaint of Christianity is the COMFORTABLENESS of it.
And again, Berton is correct. There was once a day when it cost something to be Christian, but rarely is that true today. To a lot of people church is some sort of super aspirin. When the problems of life really, really get bad, then its time to return to the church of our youth. To these people, God is made to serve man. But it is supposed to be the other way around.
Have you ever noticed the evolution of the artistic image of Christ? Now, I don’t like the idea of portraying the Lord Jesus in oil and pastels. But looking at what art has done down through the centuries is interesting. Many of the old “masters” painted Christ darkly; suffering was magnified, service was foremost. But today He’s a blue-eyed well-dressed sissy, playing with lambs and children. Christianity has progressed, or digressed, in exactly the same fashion. And now it is nearly impossible to tell who are the Christians and who are the agnostics.
A while back I read an article about the Lordship of Christ. It asked, “Is it possible to believe on Jesus as Saviour but not to accept Him as Lord?” Let me ask in reply: “Is it possible to believe on Jesus as Saviour, but not as redeemer?” Is it possible to receive Christ as Saviour, but not as the Atonement for our sins? In a sense, yes, it Is possible, if someone doesn’t understand all that is involved in redemption or atonement. But if someone refuses to accept Jesus’ atonement, then Christ is not his Saviour. And if Jesus did not redeem us, then we are still under the wrath of the Almighty. Furthermore, if we refuse to submit to the Lordship of Christ, then we are fooling ourselves in thinking that He is our Saviour.
If you are really a Christian, and in the army of the Lord, then wear the uniform and obey the orders. If you are truly saved from sin, then shame on you if no one ever knows of it. If the pew is too comfortable, then you’ve been sitting in it too long. It is time to put your hand to the plow and get to work. The first disciples all died as martyrs, except for John, who was simply too tough to kill. And millions since that day have died in the same sort of way. But today? Agnosticism has a real criticism in saying that modern Christianity is too soft. It is soft, flabby, weak and lazy. Why should anyone be interested in perpetuating that?
Also a part of this book’s criticism is in our METHOD OF COMMUNICATION.
Remember that Pierre Berton is a professional communicator. He attended church for eighteen years and came away saying that it did not speak to him. That charge has been repeated ten thousand times if not ten million times. But why?
Sometimes it is because the church services are like creaking hinges on an old casket. The more formal the services, the more cold and lifeless they become. The more familiar and rut-filled those services, the colder and deader they are. And I worry about the services that we have here. How often are we lifelessly going through the motions without any real heart attachment. Are we so stagnant, if not actually dead, waiting for some miracle to wake up the band? Brethren, there isn’t going to be any miracle, because we know our duties. “Wherefore he saith, Awake thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light. See then that ye walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise,Redeeming the time, because the days are evil.”
One reason some learn nothing during their youthful attendance at church is a lack of communication. Hymns without meaning are sung with hearts without feeling. I have heard tons of preaching that was well over my head and miles from my heart. I have heard and probably preached plenty of messages that are Biblical and yet foreign to the ear.
Some of this criticism is just, and some is not – some applies to us and some does not. As far as music goes, some of it is scriptural and tasteful, but much of it is garbage. As far as preaching goes, often times I’m guilty of not bringing it down to where we live. But as far as terminology is concerned, I can’t help it if the 21st century has no relevant synonym for “justification” or “atonement.” So I will continue to try to define the truth, until all the world might know what it means. All we can do in some of these areas is teach as best we can and pray that the Holy Spirit opens hearts. If these things bother some, it just goes to prove the deadness of those hearts. “The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God.”
And then it remains – the best way to communicate is through our lives. The preacher who can utter the most theologically correct sermon possible, has nothing to say if he is inconsistent in the way that he lives his seven day week. Christianity cannot flourish, and should not flourish, in an agnostic world when our lives don’t match our professions.
Now let me close with one more criticism, Berton called it the ABSOLUTE RIGHTNESS SYNDROME.
When the outsider looks in, he thinks he hears every corner of Christianity claim to be the owner of truth. Every branch is right and every other branch is wrong. And he says, “If all this Christendom is from the same tree, how is this possible?”
The answer is in the pure and unadulterated Word of God, this book right here. The Bible reveals that the multiplicity of denominations within Christianity are not from the same tree. If the agnostic wants the truth, then he needs to turn from the creeds of men to the Book of God. I was raised in one of the churches which Pierre Berton has rejected. Today I am a Baptist, a fundamental Baptist, who tries to take the Bible literally. This was a deliberate choice on my part, not something I was born into or raised in. It was something into which I was born again. My conversion was not as spectacular as that of Saul of Tarsus, but there are similarities.
To all the agnostics of this world, I say, “Pick up the King James Bible and begin to read.” Preferably start in the New Testament, before going back to the Old. And when you are done, reading it with an open mind, I believe that you’ll come out differently. First, you will have heard the gospel of the Saviour, over and over again. And you will also be able to see that this church and churches like this one come very close to what you find in the Bible. Here is the place to worship and serve God, here is the place to grow in Christ Jesus.
If you are looking at the religions of men, you will be greatly befuddled trying to choose the best one. But if you’re looking to serve God according to His Word, the choice is clear. The churches of Christ do still exist in this world, and they mean something to God, if not to anyone else.