The Temptation To Deform Jesus
Part 2 of the Church Planter Apprentice Series with Michael Badger
Michael and Kayla Badger are at the beginning of their church planting journey. They recently gathered a core team and moved to Burlington, VT, where Michael is starting a church planting apprenticeship with New King Church. We’ve asked Michael to share posts regularly throughout the process to encourage existing and prospective church planters along the way.
Christian history, especially in America, is rife with examples of cultures and individuals focusing on just one facet of Christ that fit their needs, while rejecting or ignoring those aspects of His character that did not fit their ideal of Him.
Jesus, The Simple Carpenter
Take for instance the rough and wild American frontier. Full of hostile terrain, ever-changing climates and native inhabitants who were not always happy to see them, the West in the 1840’s was traversed by rugged and tough individuals seeking a better life. As church historian Stephen Nichols points out in his book Jesus: Made in America, “For such a place, only a rugged and plain and unvarnished religion will do.” Not wanting to be encumbered by the confusing, high-brow creeds of church history, the people of the frontier sought a Jesus that focused on the simple things. A Jesus that was only concerned about honesty, honor and a personal feeling of friendship. Jesus the carpenter suited them just fine.
Jesus, The Gentle White Guy
Fast-forward to the Victorian era and you find a quite different picture of Jesus. The Victorian high-class society in America preferred a gentler Jesus. They preferred the Jesus who beckoned children to sit with Him, who was meek and mild. It was in the Victorian era that pictures of Jesus with an angular faced, flowing hair, manicured beard and glistening blue eyes became a standard in homes and churches. An emphasis on Jesus as a child also grew in popularity, focusing on the gentle and loving (and never judgmental or angry) aspect of his character.
Jesus, The Teacher Of Ethics
Moving to the Late Modern era, roughly the beginning of the Industrial Revolution to the end of the Second World War, Jesus had another image change. Spurred on by faith in human reason and scientific prowess, to many college professors and liberal preachers considered the doctrine of Jesus’s divinity archaic and superstitious. In fact, believing in those outdated ideas was missing the point of Jesus completely! Jesus was simply an archetype for the ethically perfect human – a template of moral behavior that we can aspire to. The focus was placed on Jesus as a moral teacher detached from anything miraculous. This Jesus was perfect for the modern mind.
To the committed Christian, these various forms of syncretism (warping the person of Jesus and/or His gospel to fit into any given culture) seem downright offensive! However, I believe that this temptation to synchronize Jesus to the culture is a danger that church planters can slip into from time to time, even unintentionally. And I myself am no exception. I too have felt the tug from the enemy to twist the image of the person of Jesus.
My First Temptation To Change Jesus
My wife and I just moved to Vermont. As we are away from our families with only a handful of people we know who are within driving distance from us, we are eager to begin building new relationships. One evening, while walking in our neighborhood, we met a friendly couple who attend the local Roman Catholic church. As we begin to talk, I immediately feel the sweat begin to bead on my forehead as I anticipate the future conversations we will undoubtedly have about religion. As I mentally walk through having to tell them my thoughts on Roman Catholic theology and my issues with its teaching on topics such as papal authority, justification and the Mass, I start to feel the ever so slight tug in my mind. The tug towards delivering them a Jesus that would suit them just fine. A Jesus perfectly synchronized to their already held beliefs.
From my conversations with church planters all over the world, and from my own experience, this temptation that I felt is not uncommon. It is one that many face, especially when there is a threat of social ostracization. But in these moments, I fervently pray that the Holy Spirit binds my wandering heart to the words of Romans 1:16, in which Paul emphatically states, “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation- to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”
The root of my temptation lies in shame and undue fear of man. So I pray that on my church planting journey God continues to deliver me from the sin of people-pleasing, which gives way to syncretism. I pray that God gives me the boldness of Peter and John in Acts 4, who despite being arrested and threatened, preached the whole Christ with great courage.! I pray that God allows me to stand with the apostle Paul and say, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel!,” and to hold it forth, not merely as my personal belief, but as God’s one and only power for salvation to all who will call on Jesus’ name.