Christianity in Crisis: A Guilt Ridden Gospel?

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It has been proclaimed as the good news, heralded as the greatest love story ever told.  God, come to earth, in the form of His son, Jesus, to be a reconciliation and atonement for the sins of mankind.  The story continues that the Christ would have died if we were the only ones in need of salvation.  And while I affirm the gospel as the good news, I have often wondered how this “good news” could be met with such resistance and rejection all across the country.

            As mentioned in my previous article (Christianity in Crisis in America) the Christian influence in America has been slowly waning over the past four decades and is now widely recognized as being at an all time low.  Often it has been too easy for me, Christians and ministers alike to point the finger at “lukewarm Christians” or a lack of sincerity among Christ followers.  Certainly, the hypocrisies of all Christians can be a stumbling block to faith.  That said it has not been a lack of moral accountability that has representedthe biggest complaint against Christianity.  So, before proceeding, allow me to state my intention is not to judge or criticize, but to honestly and compassionately state my observations of Christianity and many others’ experience with Christianity that I have heard throughout the years. 

            Without a doubt the most frequent complaint by non Christians levied against Christianity is that it makes people feel guilty and shameful.  Iam reminded of the words of a former seminary professor, “if the gospel is the greatest love story ever told then why do we preach it with clinched fists.” Unfortunately too many of our churches/ ministries are still too rigid, rules bent and legalistic; instead of offering the abundant life that Jesus came to give, they have produced a guilt ridden gospel. 

What is a guilt ridden gospel?

            At its core a guilt ridden gospel is a message or presentation of the gospel that encourages a guilt based/ induced motivation and legalistic teachings.  It has been my experience that this has been done primarily from a view of an angry and vengeful God, in an attempt to exhort congregants towards holiness or in frustration over prevailing sin.  In this form of discipleship (what he refers to as an exhortation model) counselor and author Larry Crab, states that the power we rely on to change lives is pressure in its ugliest of forms: guilt, shame, threat, fear and manipulation. [i]  Compounding this problem is that many Christians enjoy a good guilt ridden sermon.  In his book Churches that Heal, pastor and author Doug Murren talks about a guilt inducing message that he had preached out of frustration.  After the sermon he had felt convicted by the Holy Spirit, but was astonished and bewildered that so many people seemed to appreciate the very message he was repenting from!  “I’m convinced that in a morbid way we are addicted to guilt.  We’ve used guilt so long as a personal motivator that we don’t know how to live without it—that is, until we have been completely healed.” [ii].  I remember preaching out of college and seminary, I had widely heard and believed a sermon wasn’t “any good” if it didn’t make people feel guilty about their sin!!  But now I can’t help but ask, has this guilt actually changed our behaviors and led to repentance or has it just led to further guilt??  And what have been the long term consequences of this guilt?? 

 Furthermore, a guilt ridden gospel is one that encourages legalistic teachings by adding and creating rules to the Bible to the negligence of the message God’s grace throughout its pages.   The Bible is a majestic book, retelling narratives of creation, the patriarchs, prophets and apostles of the faith.  Many can identify with Moses’ timidity and lack of confidence or with David’s entanglements in sexual sin.  Often we can relate to Saul’s struggles with impatience and jealousy or the dishonesty of Abraham.  In the New Testament we can read and relate to Peter’s impulsiveness, the doubts of Thomas or the clinging nature of Mary Magdalene.  And as Christians, we can all appreciate the unconditional love and grace that Jesus demonstrated for us on the cross.   

Unfortunately, many have made the Bible, the revelation of God’s character, God’s nature and His purpose for mankind, into a mere rule book through legalistic interpretations.   As Christians we can be bombarded and weighed down with all sorts of rules, requirements and expectations.  Living according the ideals of the Bible can be challenging.  It is far too easy to forget that these “rules” were intended for our good and to bring us life!  Furthermore, Jesus’ intention was not for people to be burdened with excessive rules and tradition, but to passionately seek His righteousness.  The more rules that are added, the more that God’s message of redemption of mankind, in this life and after, is degraded to a mere rule book. 

In many ways, Christianity has paralleled the Pharisees’ externalism that Jesus condemns in passages like Mt 15:8 where Jesus, quoting Isaiah, states “these people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (Mt. 15:8).  Is it any wonder that so many continually yearn to rekindle the passionate faith of their youth?  Perhaps Jesus’ most stinging indictment of the Pharisees’ externalism is found in Matthew 23.  Among other things He rebukes them for cleaning or focusing on the outside of the dish, while allowing the inside to grow corrupt and dirty.  Unfortunately, much of our efforts towards discipleship have focused on the outside of the dish.  We have forced our rules, regulations and sharp ideals over people’s lives with marginal success.  We have beat people down with legalistic rituals and practices.  And tragically, we have left many, searching for answers, bruised and battered, cynical and weary to return to our doors.  In short, we have substituted life-changing application for overly sensationalistic motivation and legalistic interpretation– and thus have produced a guilt ridden gospel.  Instead, Jesus said, the inside of the cup should have been cleaned, and then the outside would be clean as well. 

In conclusion, it is my earnest belief that much of the Christian tradition has used “pressure tactics” in a sincere attempt to promote Christian behaviors in Christian followers and society as a whole.  Unfortunately, the fruit of this approach has proved marginally successful at best and its consequences have been devastating.  My next article will go further to the root of this problem while presenting a new vision for the future of Christianity in America. 

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[i]Crab, Larry.  Connecting: A Radical New Vision.  (Nashville: Word Publishing, 1999), 26.

[ii]Murren, Doug.  Churches that Heal.  (West Monroe, LA: Howard Publishing Co., 1999), 52.

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