The Ownership of Faith and the Silencing of the Church
Imagine you’re sitting at the end of a dock with a close friend. You know he can’t swim. He turns to you and says, “I think I’ll jump in.” Shocked, you reply, “But this water is way over your head, you’ll drown.” He pauses and looks at the water, “How do you know?” “Well, I just know, I believe the water is very deep here and I know you can’t swim, so I believe you will drown.” Your friend scowls. “So, it’s your personal belief, huh? Well, you have no right to force your beliefs on me.” He stands up and prepares to jump into the water. What do you do?
This little story illustrates the tension between a personal belief and an absolute truth. Do you ‘offend’ him by tackling him, preventing him from drowning? Or do you accept his right to believe what he wants, and let him jump off?
It’s a life and death decision, and it’s no less critical when applied to faith. Is our faith in Jesus a personal sentiment of belief, or the response to an absolute truth? As the Body of Christ, we must get this right. The voice of the church in our culture is at stake, and that same culture has already decided the issue for us.
I fear that far too many Christians view their faith as a personal choice that produces a private belief. When Christian faith becomes my faith, I can control how much and how often I practice it, and with whom, when, where and how (and if) I share it. What results is a faith I control, a faith that can be made to ‘fit’ my lifestyle, a faith that is convenient. We have become a body of owner-believers exercising an owner-faith.
Owner-believers see faith as a commodity, one more thing I own to be used as I need or desire. We may sincerely want to be faithful disciples, but an owner-faith will always give way to the most expedient and least costly ways to walk with Jesus.
This owner-faith approach has given rise to what is called MTD, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. MTD offers a version of Christian faith that believes that God’s will is for us to be good people (moralistic). Jesus came to teach us how to live moral, decent lives which will make us happy. It also depicts God as a great counselor (therapeutic), someone we can go to when we need a shoulder to cry on, a reliable friend that will help us when we get into a jam. Ultimately, MTD sees God as mostly absent (deism), leaving us alone to live out this faith as we wish. The decision for faith becomes one more private, personal decision among many. People ascribe to the MTD approach to faith because it ‘works for them’, but they keep it a private matter of personal choice.
If we are honest with ourselves, we are all guilty to some degree of allowing this owner-faith to creep into our spirit. It’s as if we hear Jesus say, “I came to share some really great ideas with you. If you follow these guidelines you can live a happier life. Try them and see if they work for you. This way of living won’t be for everyone, so be sure to keep it to yourself. And whatever you do, don’t offend anyone.”
We saw a supreme example of owner-faith recently when presidential candidate Joe Biden responded to the criticism of the Catholic church regarding his stance on abortion. As a professed Catholic and staunch abortion advocate, Biden used his owner-faith as a blind behind which he tried to hide, saying “I’m prepared to accept for me, personally, the doctrine of my church about when life begins, but I’m not prepared to impose that on every other person.”
For Biden, his faith has no efficacy outside of his personal, private life. This is not just a Biden issue or a Democrat issue, it has pervaded all sides of our political system, impressed itself on our nation’s social psyche and seeped its way into the heart of the church.
I have a friend who collects rare coins. He values them highly, so he keeps them locked in a safe. Once a week, he takes them to a meeting with other rare coin collectors. They admire their collections, listen to a guest speaker, then return home to hide them safely away again in the safe. That is the pattern of the owner-believer. Faith is valued, private, controlled, shared with a small congregation of fellow believers, then hidden away.
Owner-faith is a supremely effective tool of the enemy. It deceives the church into thinking we can live for Jesus without it costing us anything. It produces a dissipated spirit and a passionless spiritual life. Left to fester, it will be the death of the voice of the church. Not its physical existence, but its witness, its influence, and its ability to be used by God in any meaningful way. If we allow it to continue, we will lose our saltiness and, out of fear of offense, hide the light of the gospel under a bushel.
What is the alternative to owner-faith? Let’s go back to the dock. What our friend was soon to realize is that there is a profound difference between a relative faith and an absolute truth. And absolute truth rules regardless of what we believe. Truth is not relative, it is not private, and it is not controllable.
Scottish professor James Torrance, under whom I did my doctoral work, wrote a phrase on the board one day that stunned me then, and continues to challenge me today. It read, “What matters most in life is not our faith in Christ, but the Christ of our faith.” Do you see it? Professor Torrance gave shape to the shift from owning a private faith (my faith in Christ) to stewarding a universal truth (the Christ of my faith).
Building on that unequivocal foundation, he went on to show how scripture denounces the idea that ‘truth’ is some idea, dogma, statement of faith, belief or creed. Truth cannot be commoditized, controlled or conformed to my own convenience. Why? Because truth is not a what, but a WHO!
Jesus did not come to tell us the truth, teach us the truth or give us the truth. Jesus was the Truth and is the Truth. That is the radical, offensive claim of the church – we don’t choose our faith as though it was one possible entrée on a smorgasbord of spiritual offerings. Scripture will have none of that relative, owner-faith language. Instead it tells us a very different story. It says that God chose us (John 15:16), the Holy Spirit called us (1 Corinthians 12:3), the love of Christ compels us (2 Corinthians 5:14), faith is a gift of God (Ephesians 2:8), living for Jesus is not optional (Matthew 16:24-25), faith is not private (Mark 8:38), the truth of who Jesus is applies to everyone (Philippians 2:10), and all humanity is called to obedience to Christ (Romans 3:19).
As followers of Jesus, we are stewards of a universal, absolute Truth and we must reject the temptation of becoming owners of a private, relative faith. The Truth Project had one guiding question, “Do you really believe that what you believe to be true is really true?” The question is, “If Jesus Christ is the Truth, how do we live as faithful stewards of that Truth?” Here are a few ways to start.
- Let us live in freedom as stewards of the Truth and throw off the shackles of an owner-controlled faith.
- Let us be compassionate in service but never compromising in witness.
- Let us proclaim God’s Truth in a winsome way without denying its offense.
- Let us pray and work for the healing of our nation even when we are hated by it.
- Let us declare boldly the Truth who is Christ and reject every attempt to hide it under the bushel of privatized belief.
May we, as the Body of Christ, speak with one, clear, uncompromising voice, calling all humanity to know the Truth, who is Jesus Christ; the Truth who sets people free.