Paul Jenkins

Why the church may have a bigger identity crisis than Bruce Jenner

This week there have been a boatload of articles and blogs about the release of the Vanity Fair issue with Bruce “Call me Caitlyn” Jenner on the cover, and I haven’t read a single one.  They’re probably all good, and chances are pretty likely that a good number of them are better than the one you’re reading now.

I guess I just got too turned off by all the grandstanding and soapboxing that was going on among Christians that I couldn’t take any more of it. I got sick of seeing people post the low-blow status updates about “him, her, or it” on Monday after they had just posted about how great church was on Sunday.  And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the bigger identity crisis in culture today may not be the one Bruce Jenner has made so public.

It may be the one going on right now in the church.

Back when Jesus was walking the planet, people noticed that there was something different about him. It wasn’t so much the way he dressed (although his dress sure would stand out today) or the food he ate. And in what may come as a total shock to many today, it wasn’t even the things he said.  What made Jesus stand out in his day was the way he said the things he said.

The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law. (Mark 1:22)

Jesus had this amazing knack for telling people the truth about themselves and about God in a way that made those around him want to press in to hear more.  He had an authority that the other teachers didn’t have, a confidence in what he was saying that pulled most people in.  I say “most” because, as it turned out, some didn’t want to listen to him because some people were pretty sure they didn’t need anything Jesus was saying.  Those people were called Pharisees, and most of the people back in Jesus’ day felt about them the way a lot of us are feeling about Christians who are talking smack all over social media about the other Christians who they think are wrong about the cover of a magazine.

See, the difference between Jesus and the religious leaders of his day wasn’t standards; Jesus had higher ones than they did (see Matthew 5:17-20, especially the mind-blowing statement Jesus made in verse 20!). The difference was motive. The Pharisees wanted to be better than others, but Jesus wanted to make others better, and there’s a really big difference between the two.  This takes me back to the way Jesus taught and how different it must have sounded to the ones listening in his day.  Somehow, Jesus was able to make judgement calls without sounding judgemental, and I think there’s a real need for the church to learn how to do that again.

We need to be careful not to confuse STANDARDS with JUDGEMENT, and even more careful not to use JUDGEMENT to enforce STANDARDS.

This is the critical disconnect that has led to a major identity crisis in the church. We aren’t really sure who we are, what we’re supposed to do or how we’re supposed to do it. As a result, we end up fighting each other when we should be loving each other, and since we can’t seem to do the second one, the world writes off everything we have to say, even when we’re saying the right things.

There was a woman who got exposed in all her unholy glory by a bunch of cold-hearted standard bearers who caught her red-handed and brought her to Jesus. Actually, they threw her at the feet of Jesus (which is very different from leading people to Jesus) and demanded that Jesus judge her.

Isn’t that where we are today?  Culture is changing rapidly all around us, and in an attempt to make sense of it all, the temptation is to draw lines in the sand and demand a ruling, but what inevitably happens in these culture wars is that Christians war against each other while culture just walks away.

Do I believe that the choices Bruce Jenner is making will break God’s heart and lead him further from the identity God has planned for him? Absolutely, but no more than the myriad of sinful choices I make on a host of issues not controversial enough to warrant a sit-down with Diane Sawyer.  Can we please admit what when believers are pointing at each other in anger instead of pointing to Jesus in love, we have a far greater crisis than whether or not Jenner’s first name is Bruce or Caitlyn.

The woman thrown at Jesus’ feet was exposed, and in many ways, the Bruce Jenner controversy is exposing the church and forcing her to answer the question, “Will we lead people to Jesus to be loved or throw people at his feet to be judged?”

What’s interesting is that Jesus did both. He recognized that she was sinning and then sent her away without condemning her so that she could sin no more. One side wants to make the world conform to it, the other side tries to conform to the world, and both sides miss the truth that Jesus came to transform us all into his image.

Like kids who have forgotten that we’re in the same family, a divided body draws lines, but Jesus drew something else in the sand, and while no one can know for sure what it was, we do know that it resulted in stones being dropped and lives being challenged to follow him.

Ultimately, that’s the reason he came, because it is in the following that all of us – no matter which side of the line we feel we’re on – can find our true identity.

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