A Christian Nation No Longer. How Did We Get Here?

Does it feel like we are no longer living in a Christian nation? The influence of Christianity seems diminished compared to just a few decades ago. We, who are Christians, may feel like we are now outnumbered. With the pace of change in Canada, we might feel like we are living in a new and strange land with new and strange values.

How did we get here? Who gets the blame? Who is responsible for the diminished role of Christianity in Canadian society? Should we blame the government for changing laws? Should we blame the people for a lack of interest in Christianity?

Scholars have been pointing to the Old Testament Books of the Bible from the time of the exile of God’s people as a good mirror of our position today. The Northern Kingdom fell in the 700’s BC, while the Southern Kingdom, Judah, fell to the Babylonians in the 500’s BC. Those who were deported to Babylon from Judah, including Daniel and his friends from the Book of Daniel, found themselves living in a new and strange land with new and strange values.

How did they get there? Who gets the blame? Who is responsible for the likes of Daniel and his friends winding up in Babylon? Could they blame the Babylonians for being cruel? Could they blame their own government for defence cuts?

Where the responsibility lies is made quite clear in the Old Testament:

15 “Now listen! Today I am giving you a choice between life and death, between prosperity and disaster. 16 For I command you this day to love the Lord your God and to keep his commands, decrees, and regulations by walking in his ways. If you do this, you will live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you and the land you are about to enter and occupy.
17 “But if your heart turns away and you refuse to listen, and if you are drawn away to serve and worship other gods, 18 then I warn you now that you will certainly be destroyed. You will not live a long, good life in the land you are crossing the Jordan to occupy. Deuteronomy 30:15-18 (NLT) 

Long before God’s people were deported to Babylon, covenant promises were made as recorded in Deuteronomy. God’s people were not deported from their land because the enemy was stronger, but because their devotion to God was not strong at all. They refused to listen to God over the course of hundreds of years! God’s people themselves, were responsible for their ending up in a strange land.

Do we, as Christians in Canada bear any of the responsibility for the fact we find ourselves in a strange land? Yes, for several reasons.

First, we have watered Christianity down.

We have tried to make Christianity palatable to a people who find the beliefs and values to be weird. By “we,” I of course do not mean all of us, but many of us, too many of us. Many Christian teachers have downplayed the supernatural elements of Christianity, focusing instead on faith as being ‘helpful’. The messaging has been; become a Christian, not because it is true, but because it is useful. However, when we water down Biblical teaching, when we delete the supernatural, Christianity becomes tasteless. Who could be bothered?

The Psalmist tells us to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8 NLT). In many churches you can taste and see that the social club is good, but perhaps not as good as the senior’s centre, the entertainment is good, though perhaps not as good as Lady Gaga, that the celebrity pastor is good, though not as good as Oprah, that the good works are good, though maybe not as good as the cancer society. Church needs to be a place where people experience that God is good. Church needs to be a people who know that God is good. We cannot water down the teaching of God’s goodness and grace.

I recently attended a church where the vision statement was something like “helping people on whatever journey they are on, wherever it leads, thanking the earth for its goodness.” Where did God go? What about Jesus? When Christ is diminished in our churches, don’t be surprised when Christianity is diminished in our society.

Second, we have added unnecessary ingredients to Christianity.

My Mum once tried adding a tin of Heinz baked beans to Kraft Dinner. That did not work. The beans destroyed the Kraft dinner. Likewise there are beliefs and practices people try adding to Christianity that don’t work. These are destructive to Christianity.

By adding in religiosity and making it all about the rules and traditions, we have made Christianity taste awful. When Christianity is all about being religious, and not at all about being in relationship with the living God through Jesus and the Holy Spirit, then it becomes just another religion. When Christianity is just another religion, don’t be surprised when people choose another religion.

Also, by adding in unBiblical doctrines, we have made Christianity taste awful. I heard of some big-name Christians “de-converting” in recent years. Their faith began to unravel when they realized that what they were taught, that obedience leads directly to blessing from God, just didn’t work out in real life. However, that theology misses the mark with regards to what the Bible teaches. When Christians have trouble holding onto the theology of a church, because it is apparently not how the world works, then don’t be surprised if no one else is interested either.

Third, we have taken away important ingredients from Christianity.

Some people don’t need cream or milk in their coffee, but I do. I have great difficulty drinking coffee without a wee bit of something. Likewise, many will struggle with Christianity without some helpful ingredients.

Here is one helpful ingredient; the possibility of expressing doubts. Christian churches, movements, and even denominations can become subcultures which are based on certainties on practically everything. Doubts are not allowed, often about anything. Leaving out this ingredient leaves a bad taste in many mouths.

Here is another helpful ingredient; the encouragement of thought. Thinking is often discouraged in Christian circles. Christian artist, Marty Sampson from Hillsong, recently expressed his doubts publicly. In his post he listed some things along with “nobody is talking about it.” Actually Christians are talking about the things he listed, perhaps just not in his church. He also said that ‘science has pierced’ religion. Maybe science and faith don’t mix well in his church, but they work well together in ours, and many others. Freedom to be able to think through things, including how Christianity and science interrelate, can be a very important ingredient for many of us.

If thinking is discouraged, if the expression of doubt is impossible, if understanding is not there, then don’t be surprised if people are not there either.

Daniel and his friends found themselves in Babylon as a consequence of their own actions. If we, who are Christians, find ourselves in a strange land, we should not blame the government or the people of the land. We bear some responsibility for where we are. In spurning Biblical teaching we have watered down Christianity so that it has no flavour. In adding in unBiblical rules and doctrines we have added unnecessary, even harmful ingredients, to Christianity, so that it tastes awful. In taking away opportunities for people to express doubts, to think and rethink, and grow, we have taken away important ingredients. Before we call Canadians to repentance, let us look to what we need to repent from.

(This is an introduction to a series on the Book of Daniel called “Outnumbered. The Book of Daniel and Living As Christians In A Not-So-Christian Society.” Watch for the rest in the weeks to come.)

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When People Hear Your Name.

When people hear your name, what is their first response? Is it a negative reaction like “ewww,” or “uck,” or something better, like “yay!”? Another way of asking it, is “how will your name be remembered?” Names are a big part of the Book of Ruth which begins and ends with names. Thanks to the Book of Ruth the names of Naomi and Ruth have been remembered for generations. Will your name be remembered? For the right reasons?

Let us consider Naomi whose name literally means “pleasant.” However, Naomi herself asked to be renamed “Mara” in chapter one which means “bitter.” However, by the end of the book, Naomi can be known as pleasant again. This change for Naomi is something available to us as well. We don’t need to be saddled with an identity we started with, or one we picked up along the way. What our names bring to mind can be changed.

Let us also consider Ruth. People might immediately think of Ruth as being a Moabite. She therefore bore the label “disliked-foreigner,” since Moabites were not  particularly liked in that day and place. However, by chapter two, we find that Ruth has a different reputation:

10 Ruth fell at his feet and thanked him warmly. “What have I done to deserve such kindness?” she asked. “I am only a foreigner.”

11 “Yes, I know,” Boaz replied. “But I also know about everything you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband. I have heard how you left your father and mother and your own land to live here among complete strangers. Ruth 2:10-11 (NLT)

Boaz saw in Ruth something more than a Moabite!

By the end of the book the women of Bethlehem know Ruth, not as a Moabite, but as “your daughter-in-law who loves you and has been better to you than seven sons!” (Ruth 4:15 NLT). She has also come to be known as the great-grandmother of David, and ancestor of Jesus. Not only is she welcomed into the people of God as a foreigner, she is part of the family tree of God-the-Son! The label “Moabite” still fits, but there are other labels.

What your name brings to mind can be challenged, like Ruth. For Ruth, the first thing, and only thing coming to someone’s mind might be “ug, a Moabite.” But later it is a kind and good woman, who happens to be a Moabite. Moabite would always be part of her identity, appropriately so. However, “disliked foreigner” does not become the main part of her identity. It does not define how people relate to her.

Have you had a label stuck on you? Might it be something that may always be true? Like Ruth, you can open minds to a different perception, a different starting place for relationship. Whatever happens to be true about us need not be the only thing others perceive. For the early part of my life I wore the label “extremely shy.” I may as well have had that label on my forehead, or worse, on the inside of my glasses, where I would be reminded constantly of my shy identity. However, over the years I have been able to move that label. It still fits me, and I still wear it, but not on my forehead, or on the inside of my glasses. If you are an alcoholic or addict, that label may stick with you the rest of your life. But it need not be the first thing people see you as. Our labels can be moved. People’s perception of our identity can be challenged. What labels might we be wearing that need to move?

Now let us consider the genealogies of the the Book of Ruth which begins with the names of Elimelech, Naomi, Mahlon, Kilion, Orpah, and Ruth. It begins with names that had little significance as the story begins. However, their names become associated later in the book with Obed, Jessie, David, and eventually later in the Bible, Jesus. The Book ends with names that evoke fame and fond remembrance for many generations.

Your name may not bring to mind a great and famous family. There are rumours within our family that my great-grandfather was a quite-famous English nobleman, a very accomplished and well known individual. However, if true, then he was not very noble! I’ll stick with the not-at-all-famous “Dixon” name thank you very much. However our names can bring to mind a great family, with a great inheritance:

12 But to all who believed him and accepted him, he gave the right to become children of God. 13 They are reborn—not with a physical birth resulting from human passion or plan, but a birth that comes from God. John 1:12-13 (NLT)

In Jesus we are given the right to be children of God, to be in God’s family. What a family!

What does your name bring to mind? Whatever your name evokes right now, it can be a name which is honourable and honoured. You can be God’s child and so become marked and moved by the Holy Spirit, maturing into a family resemblance:

22 But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. . . Galatians 5:22-23 (NLT)

When people hear your name, is their first response “I know him, he is loving!”?  Or, “I know her, she is joyful!”? Or, “That person is peaceable, patient, kind, good, faithful, gentle, or self-controlled.”? When people hear your name, what is their first response?

Take the Initiative, or Leave it To God?

Do we trust God, or do we work things out for ourselves? Do we wait on God, or take the initiative? Do we leave everything in God’s hands, or do we take things into our own hands? Do we wait for a sign, or go ahead with a decision? The Book of Ruth gets at the heart of these questions. Right in the middle of the book Naomi takes a bold step:

1 Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, “My daughter, I need to seek some security for you, so that it may be well with you. Ruth 3:1 (NRSV emphasis added)

Naomi then puts a plan into action which sees her daughter-in-law Ruth request marriage to Boaz, their “guardian-redeemer.”

We are not told if Naomi spent time in prayer in formulating this plan. The Book of Ruth does not tell us about Naomi’s prayers, her devotional times, or if she ever sought counsel from godly people, or God himself for that matter! It simply tells us that she took the initiative to solve a problem. She saw an opportunity to make a difference. She saw a practical solution to a practical problem.

While God is very involved in our lives, we have the opportunity to work out practical solutions to practical problems. God gives us the opportunity to grow in knowledge, skill, and wisdom. Finding solutions to problems is a thrill we get to share in. Some have the opportunity to share in finding a cure, a vaccine, a better way to help people, a more efficient car, or a faster motorcycle. Human ingenuity is something to celebrate. Being created in the image of God, we reflect the creativity of God.

Your ingenuity is something to be celebrated, and developed. God does not desire for us to be like infants forever, but to learn to walk on our own two feet. No parent wants their child to never take a first step. We celebrate the growth and development of children. However, no parent wants to come home to find their child has completely disassembled the car. There is a time to celebrate initiative, and there is a time to defer to God who knows best!

While Naomi could take the intiative, the closing verse of the Book of Ruth reminds us that God is sovereign. Only God could establish David’s reign. Only God could make and keep the promises that would lead to Jesus and salvation. Naomi’s initiative had potential impact on the DNA of Jesus, but only God could do what he did through Jesus. There are spiritual problems for which there are only God solutions.

Only God can bring salvation. There is no initiative you can take to reconcile yourself to God. No amount of effort, work, or deep thinking, can reconcile you to God. It is a gift from God. Our salvation is his initiative, his effort, his work on the cross. When it comes to salvation, we celebrate God’s initiative, not ours.

But when it came to finding security for Ruth, Naomi takes some credit. In fact, if Naomi had not taken the initiative , perhaps things may have not turned out as well. We don’t know, but perhaps Naomi might still be bitter by the end of chapter 4, just as we found her at the end of chapter 1. Instead, the Book of Ruth ends with joy and hope. This possibility is instructive. It is possible that looking for purely spiritual solutions to practical problems can lead to spiritual problems.

Many years ago I worked with some people in a Bible study specifically for those with mental illness. A well meaning church in town was willing to pick such folk up for programming they offered at their church. That was all very good, however, some were told that if they could find the sin that led to mental illness and repented of it, they would be healed from their mental illness. If anything, many of these people were much closer to Jesus than the “sound-minded” Christians in the churches! Perhaps some mental illness can be chalked up to spiritual problems, but much mental illness comes from practical problems, for which doctors continue to work on practical solutions. While we pray for miracle cures we also pray for those who work toward practical helps.

There is something else we can notice about Naomi’s initiative. She was keeping in step with God. Naomi saw an opportunity provided by the guardian-redeemer laws that God set up for His people of that time and place. We don’t live by those laws today as Christians, but we do live by the Spirit. We are to keep in step with God’s Spirit. Our initiatives and practical solutions should, and can, be in step with God. To give an example, our neighbour might find a practical solution to the problem of our barking dog. A well aimed bullet would do it. But that is not a good solution. There are better solutions that would keep in step with God!

So do we trust in God, or take initiative? Naomi devises a plan and advises Ruth to take a practical step, a step which lead to a positive outcome. However, in reading the whole book of Ruth, we understand that God is working everything out for good from beginning to end. It is not either/or, but both/and. We take initiative where it makes sense to do so, keeping in step with God, while always trusting in God. God, in his wisdom and power is able to accomplish his purposes despite, and often even through, our initiative. Perhaps this helps us take the initiative to pray. We don’t how our prayers could impact a sovereign God, but we have a wonderful opportunity to participate with God’s activity through our decisions in prayer. Mysterious, yet wonderful!