As the world becomes increasingly secular and atheistic, Christianity itself is being critically examined. What would Jesus say about this sobering crisis?
Statistics show that Christianity is the largest religion in the world, and according to the Pew Research Center, it is likely to remain so for the next four decades. As of 2010, there were an estimated 2.2 billion people identifying themselves as Christians, which was about one-third of the world’s population. But all is not well with the world’s largest religion.
Troubles in Christianity
News of the sexual abuse of children by leaders in the Catholic Church has been sobering. The abuse is said to have occurred in many places around the world, from Europe to Australia, from Chile to Canada. Reports in the United States have drawn much public attention. On Aug. 14, 2018, the Pennsylvania attorney general presented a report detailing seven decades of sexual abuse by priests against over 1,000 victims.
This kind of scandal is especially disheartening for young people, who are abandoning their Christian beliefs in large numbers. Reflecting this trend, in May 2018 voters in the Republic of Ireland (long considered a Catholic stronghold) by a 2-to-1 ratio overwhelmingly overturned the ban on abortion supported by the Catholic Church. Of course, young people’s rejection of traditional church teachings is not just because of the state of Christianity. It is also fueled by the atheistic and humanistic propaganda espoused at many college campuses and through social media.
Challenges also exist for those who wish to become Christians. It can be confusing and discouraging to find that churches are not unified in their beliefs. One group teaches one thing, and another teaches exactly the opposite. Sadly, among those claiming to be Christians there have been variations in doctrine and teaching from the earliest days.
Given these challenges to Christianity, a few questions are in order:
Do the sins of fallible humans reflect a problem with Christianity itself?
Is everyone who claims to be one really a Christian?
How would Jesus respond to these challenges to the way of life He is credited with founding?
First, God does not condone covering up or enabling sins to continue, and Jesus strongly warned any who would consider harming little ones (Matthew 18:6).
On the other end of the spectrum, however, the Bible does not say that all Christians are perfect individuals.
Although it can be hard to separate the teaching of the Bible from the ungodly actions of those who claim to be its adherents, all who desire to follow Christ must come to understand this. While Jesus clearly charges His followers to be “the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14), the reality is that all humans sin (Romans 3:23).
When criticized for associating with sinners, Jesus Himself said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” (Matthew 9:12).
The key point is that people who are committed to following Christ are not perfect now, but they are striving to become perfect. Their full intention should be to no longer sin as a way of life (1 John 1:7-10). When fallible humans repent of their sins and are baptized, they can receive forgiveness of their sins and God’s Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38), which can help them live as God desires and truly become “the light of the world.”
The Christianity of the Bible should not be condemned because people who claim to be Christians don’t always live up to its ideals.
Variations in belief within Christianity
Within a couple of decades of the founding of the Church of God on the Day of Pentecost in A.D. 31, doctrinal differences arose over whether gentile—non-Jewish—males needed to be circumcised in order to be saved (Acts 15:1). Although a judgment was made on this issue by the apostles and elders who had gathered in Jerusalem, some people refused to accept the ruling that gentile males need not be circumcised.
Those who opposed the ruling on circumcision also mistakenly tried to push the Church toward the ditch of justification by works (Galatians 5:1-4). Sadly, they created much confusion within the Church as they strove to advance their beliefs. Paul vigorously defended justification by faith and the decision made by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem. In doing so, Paul called those who opposed the teaching of the Church “false brethren” who were teaching a “different gospel” (Galatians 2:4; 1:6; compare 2 Corinthians 11:26).
Here we come face-to-face with an inconvenient truth. There can be false brethren. People aren’t necessarily Christians just because they say they are!
Toward the end of the first century the problem with false brethren became so acute that Jude urged faithful members “to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints. For certain men have crept in unnoticed, … ungodly men, who turn the grace of our God into lewdness and deny the only Lord God and our Lord Jesus Christ” (Jude 1:4). Here the false brethren were pushing the Church toward the opposite ditch of rejecting God’s law.
Along similar lines, John wrote of people who had left the Church but were apparently still trying to deceive members (1 John 2:19, 26). Furthermore, members in the congregations at Pergamos and Thyatira had been influenced by false doctrine and teaching (Revelation 2:14-15, 20).
In succeeding centuries false brethren and teachers systematically ignored or replaced the doctrines that were part of the Church of God at its founding. By the fourth century the majority of people and churches claiming to be Christians were worshipping on Sunday instead of the seventh-day Sabbath, observing man-made holidays instead of the holy days observed by Jesus and His apostles, and developing a nonbiblical explanation of the Godhead.
For further explanation and documentation of these historical changes, see Chapter 4 of our booklet Where Is the Church Jesus Built?
The importance of imitating Christ
The concept of being a disciple of Jesus has largely been lost among people claiming to be Christians today. To be a disciple “implies that the person not only accepts the views of the teacher, but that he is also in practice an adherent” (“Disciple,” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia). Another Bible help says, “A disciple of Christ is one who (1) believes his doctrine, (2) rests on his sacrifice, (3) imbibes his spirit, and (4) imitates his example” (“Disciple,” Easton’s Bible Dictionary).
Imitating Christ includes worshipping on the seventh day of the week (Saturday) and observing the biblical holy days instead of Christmas and Easter. This, of course, is precisely what Jesus’ disciples did. As Paul pointedly instructed the Corinthians: “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1).
“He who says he abides in Him ought himself also to walk just as He walked” (1 John 2:6).Living as Christ lived was preached by the other apostles as well. Peter said that we “should follow His steps” (1 Peter 2:21, emphasis added throughout), and John wrote: “He who says he abides in Him ought himself also to walk just as He walked” (1 John 2:6).
Christians of the first century heeded this instruction. As Paul told the Thessalonians: “And you became followers of us and of the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 1:6).
Today, if we want to truly be Christians, we need to imitate Christ in all ways. We need to practice the Christianity Jesus and His disciples of the first century practiced. We need to forgo the doctrinal changes introduced by men and instead faithfully adhere to the instruction given by Jesus and those He trained to establish His Church.
Christ’s response to current conditions
If Jesus were to respond to the state of Christianity today, what do you suppose He would say? Some sobering words from Jesus are found near the end of His Sermon on the Mount—the message that is perhaps the most well-known and comprehensive outline of His teaching.
On this occasion, concluding His message on how His disciples should conduct themselves, Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’” (Matthew 7:21-23).
Lawlessness is breaking God’s law. It is missing the mark or standard that Christ established for His followers. Just calling Jesus Lord and claiming to be a Christian is not sufficient. Jesus demands more. For more about what He desires, see our free booklet Change Your Life!
If you want to know more about the seventh-day Sabbath, see our articles on the Life, Hope & Truth website under the section “The Fourth Commandment.” To learn more about the holy days Jesus observed, see our booklet From Holidays to Holy Days: God’s Plan for You.
The problems within Christianity today are not the fault of the religion founded by Jesus. The fault lies with those who claim to be living it. May we all become better followers of Jesus, believing in His teaching and imitating His lifestyle!
Learn more in our article “What Is a Christian?”