Church Life

The Oxymoron Church: Imprisoned freedom

As an American, freedom is a term that is both familiar and foundational. There are battles over various freedoms in our Western nations, and we wonder at the lack of basic freedoms around the world.

Freedom is an essential building block of Christianity. Though it neither demands nor forces the freedoms many fight for today, it offers a deeper freedom that cannot be bound by any earthly shackles of inequality or oppression.

Proclaiming freedom for captives and the truth that sets us free, the church invites the hopeless to a life of freedom in Christ. At the Oxymoron Church, while shaking the keys of freedom before the chains of sin and death, they hold open the door a new life where hope slowly dies in a different kind of prison.

It would be inaccurate to say the Oxymoron Church leads believers to this prison on accident. The members are far too familiar with those cold bars and leashes. Each life bears the effects of this prison.

The signs are a lack of joy, the pale face of living too far removed from the outside, malnutrition from a sparse spiritual diet, and the scars and callouses which mark the times they tried to break free, only to be pulled back into their cell.

They know what they are doing to new believers. With shining smiles and hallelujahs they offer new shackles in place of the old. Ironically, the new sheep gladly step into them, eager and proud to find their own place in the prison, all in the name of finding and following Jesus.

Is your faith simple?

Adventurer Bear Grylls made a video for the Alpha course. It’s a tool to encourage people to attend, and can be used as a way to invite people. Though it is brief, it recently set my mind and heart pondering some of the basic ideas we have about Christianity.

Grylls desribes the way faith in Jesus has helped him in life.

It has so often brought light to a dark path, warmth to a cold mountain, and strength to a failing body.

If you know who Bear Grylls is and the adventures he lives through, you probably consider those to be heavy words. But the words that set me thinking come shortly after, as he described following Jesus as a “simple faith”. It leads me to ask, how simple is my faith?

The faith we usually ask people to live by is far too complicated to be classified as simple. It isn’t a daily adventure, but a three ring circus full of hoops and performance for the cheers of others.

Yet in a circus the flying trapeze, lion tamer, clowns, and even the human cannonball, understand it is all a show. They smile all the way through. The faces at the Oxymoron Church, though, are sour, grimaced, and painful to look at as they reveal lives of pain and toil.

A prison is the better comparison. Everyone has their place, but it is a lonely cell with short chains. Every hand is appreciated as long as you complete the basic to-do list and follow orders.

Are we relieving burdens or adding them?

Don’t get me wrong. I believe in spiritual disciplines like prayer, Bible reading, and worship. I’m all for church attendance and serving with your gifts, or helping out to fill needs and see completed the things that need to get done.

How many of the “basics” of Christian living are just items we keep adding to a list that shouldn’t even exist? When did following Jesus get so complicated? No wonder people want to give up on the church but still follow Jesus.

Jesus promised an easy burden to those who broke their backs and wearied their souls under the burdensome weight of every other way. One of the roles of the church is to help each other bear life’s burdens.

The Oxymoron Church adds burdens to believers we are not even supposed to carry. Some of them are rules of conduct and appearance. Otheres are expectations of church involvement and participation. Though they are painted with a call to be holy as God is holy or as guidelines for healthy spirituality, the enforcement of these proves them as shackles and not keys to freedom.

If the believer strays from these expectations they are shamed and belittled, facing harsh words from pastors and peers. They are hounded for an explanation. Christian brothers and sisters shun them and gossip about them.

To restore their good standing, they have to repent to the pastor and the church, instead of repenting to God. And they have to serve some kind of penance to prove themselves.

While extreme cases may require a plan of restoration with elements like these, it should not be the regular business of the church. Such domination transforms the sanctuary of joy and freedom into a prison of fear, oppression, and judgement.

Paul and the prison keepers

One of the themes of Paul’s letters is living in Christ by the simplicity of faith. No heritage or accomplishment can replace or even compliment the base of faith. Wherever an individual or group came behind him and required believers subject themselves to earthly rules, he responded with protective indignation.

His letter to the Galatians revolves around the difference between living by faith or living by rules and tradition. Paul referred to these prison keepers as spies and called them “false believers” (2:4). Both they, and those caught in following them, were cursed (1:8, 3:10).

When writing to the Philippians, Paul took his gloves off and wrote what he really though of them.

Watch out for those dogs, those evildoers, those mutilators of the flesh. (Philippians 3:2 NIV)

He went on to show how superior his life would be if the rules mattered as much as some want them to (3:3-6). But such earthly righteousness means nothing, since what we really need is the righteousness we obtain by faith (3:9).

Protecting faith from rules

Here we run into a situation that encourages those who live by faith and scares the pants off of those in the Oxymoron Church. Paul chose to put his energy into protecting one and condemning the other.

The believer who chooses to live simply by faith is more important than those who would shackle them in rules and tradition. This was Paul’s opinion, and a large portion of our record regarding his “good fight”. It also echoes the words of Jesus to His Disciples.

“If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea… Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come!” (Matthew 18:6-7 NIV)

I choose to take this same approach, giving priority to new and potential believers over those who consider themselves mature in faith. One reason is because I believe this group is more vulnerable, when the mature should be equipped with the armor of God.

Along those lines, I know how wolves tend to strut around with the words and presence of maturity, but lead sheep to harm. When I read portions of Scripture like those above, I think Jesus and Paul would agree.

Again, please do not judge what I’m saying out of context. We need mature believers to mentor and disciple new believers. But too many of our discipleship programs focus on outward appearance and habits. These become checklists for living like a “good Christian” instead of serving as dynamic elements to encourage and grow in faith.

Our job is not to shape and mold believers into a picture of how we think they should behave and look. We are supposed to point towards and model Jesus, encourage dependence on the Holy Spirit, and walk the journey of faith together.

If you have spent a number of years in church, you may be surprised to realize you have accumulated a personal collection of shackles. They may be clean and pleasant to look at. Maybe they are etched with a cross or a fish. There could even be others in the church who admire them.

But rules and traditions are worthless. That isn’t just my opinion, but Paul’s, the zealous rule follower who sought to kill Christians over his traditions. Jesus said to follow Him, and you can only do that by faith.

It isn’t a complicated, three-ring circus kind of faith. Don’t relish in a short leash, locked up at night faith. We find freedom in a simple faith with our eyes on Jesus, the Author and Finisher of our faith.

“So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” (John 8:36 NIV)

And when God is personally present, a living Spirit, that old, constricting legislation is recognized as obsolete. We’re free of it! (2 Corinthians 3:17 MSG)

The Good News shows how God makes people right with himself—that it begins and ends with faith. As the Scripture says, “But those who are right with God will live by faith.” (Romans 1:17 NCV)

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