New directions for the Church 2: kingdom of God or cult of Christ?

This is the second of a series of posts reflecting on how the Church is conceived by its leaders, and offering alternative approaches. The first is here .

In the first I described the Archbishops’ ‘global prayer movement’ Thy Kingdom Come. Martyn Percy’s characteristically robust critique of it is well worth reading in full, though Kieran Bohan has produced a useful summary. Here I ask: is the Church just one more club, or something more important?

Percy contrasts the Church of England’s two best-selling publications. Faith in the City (1985) ‘engaged seriously with the decay and despair in our inner-city communities. It was ‘a kind of theology rooted in the Kingdom of God; one that put the people and the places they lived in before the needs and concerns of the Church.

Its sales figures have now been overtaken by the more recent Mission-Shaped Church (2004), a document focusing on how to build up church congregations by appealing to ‘homogeneous groups’. ‘These new genres of church’, Percy writes, ‘are usually apolitical in outlook, and often tend to be socially, politically and theologically conservative’.

To Percy, Thy Kingdom Come stands in the tradition of Mission-Shaped Church and, before it, the Decade of Evangelism which the 1980s were supposed to be. Observing that they don’t achieve their objectives, he describes the Church’s hierarchy as being in ‘broadcast mode’: ‘Like the proverbial Englishman abroad, they cannot make themselves understood in a world that increasingly finds the Church incomprehensible’, so ‘It just talks louder, hoping, somehow, it will be heard. It won’t.’

New Testament scholars are familiar with the difference. They distinguish between the ‘Jesus Movement’ and the ‘Christ Cult’.

Ancient Greek pouring of libation

Ancient Greek pouring of libation

The Jesus Movement was a continuation of what Jesus had started. Galileans continued to promote his vision of the Kingdom of God. They wrote down his sayings, in a text later copied into the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Scholars call it ‘Q’. It says nothing about his baptism, death or resurrection. For a long time scholars considered this odd; but now they accept that three other early Christian texts do the same: the Epistle of James, the Gospel of Thomas and the Didache. Thus the first followers of Jesus focused on his teaching about the Kingdom of God: what life would be like if we lived the way God has designed us to live. The death of Jesus didn’t stop them.

The Christ cult was an adaptation. As the Jesus movement expanded it attracted people more familiar with the wider culture dominated by Greek and Roman ideas. Like today, people met in social gatherings. Very often they shared bread and wine. Unlike today, they often associated their group with a patron god or hero. Patrons would be honoured with a libation of wine and stories of what they did to justify being honoured in this way. As the Jesus movement spread into this culture, its shared meals naturally borrowed its character. Jesus could be conceived as a divine or semi-divine character, with a status somewhere between the hero Theseus and the supreme god Zeus. Bread and wine would be shared in the context of speeches about how he brought salvation. The epistles of Paul reflect the early Christ cult.

The adaptation was perhaps inevitable, but differences arose. They are well illustrated by Percy’s contrast between those two publications. The Jesus Movement did not need to describe the death of Jesus. In the name of God’s kingdom he had led a movement critical of Roman rule. What they preserved was his vision of the Kingdom of God. Faith in the City, written in very different circumstances by very different people, nevertheless stood in that tradition. Like Jesus, it was condemned by the Government for being politically rebellious, though mercifully no crucifixions took place in 1985.

The Christ Cult lost the connection with the political and economic circumstances of first century Galilee. What Jesus stood for, and why the Romans treated him as an enemy of the state, ceased to be of interest. Instead he could be compared with the dying and rising gods of pagan Greek culture.

Mission-shaped Church fits this tradition. The universal perspective, based on the idea of a god who created and cares for the whole world, has almost disappeared. With it has gone public debate about how God calls individuals, society and humanity to live. What replaces it is an invitation for individuals to adopt a new identity as a member of a cult. The world outside the cult can then be imagined as alien.

The Jesus Movement and the Christ Cult didn’t have to go separate ways. Matthew, Mark and Luke did their best to hold them together. Among British church leaders today, however, the Christ Cult dominates. The values of the Jesus movement get little more than lip service. Thus Thy Kingdom Come

invites Christians around the world to pray for more people to come to know Jesus

without telling us what it means to ‘come to know Jesus’, let alone why it would be a good thing if more people did. It is the language of cult membership. In reality it is addressing people who already speak its language, and giving them something to do.

This form of Christianity resembles the countless hobbies that occupy those with time on their hands and no urgent needs. It offers a club with shared interests, like the community of Alfa Romeo drivers or antique furniture collectors. Like those clubs, it generates activities for its members. What it achieves is that it gives people a sense of belonging to something bigger than themselves.

An alternative evangelism

What I long for instead is a reaffirmation of the Jesus Movement. As I see it, its main features would be:

  • A renewed emphasis on God. When we worship Jesus rather than God, we distinguish ourselves from those outside the Christian tradition. When our worship is directed to the God who created the universe and cares for everybody alike, we remain inclusive. However strongly we disapprove of some other people, God loves them as much as us and calls us to live in harmony with them.
  • Public discourse. We should refuse to hide away in a churchy club. Our beliefs about how God has designed us should be our contribution to public debate about how our communities, our nation and humanity can make the most of life. If we do it well, we will find ourselves agreeing with Muslims and atheists about some things and disagreeing with fellow-Christians about others.
  • Prayer for the job. The way to encourage people to pray is to explain, openly and honestly, how it makes a difference for the better. Individuals can be left to try it out for themselves in their own good time.

There are some church leaders who long to see a change of direction along these lines. I think it would prove popular; after all, among the unchurched there is a hunger for spiritual leadership. Even if it didn’t, for those who believe in the Jesus Movement it would be the right thing to do.

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6 Responses to New directions for the Church 2: kingdom of God or cult of Christ?

  1. Paul Mayo says:

    I’m a paid up member of the Christ cult. I literally worship Jesus as God. I believe that he is still alive. I look forward to the day when I will be with him forever. I earnestly hope never to be ashamed of him or the words he said. I would be content to die for him and I aim to use every day of my life for him. It is rather more than a hobby for me.

    Diarmaid MacCulloch starts his *A History of Christianity* by writing, “Christianity is, at root, a personality cult. Its central message is the story of a person, Jesus.” He points out that Christians have always sung things like:

    “Here might I stay and sing,
    No story so divine;
    Never was love, dear King,
    Never was grief like Thine.
    This is my Friend,
    In whose sweet praise
    I all my days
    Could gladly spend.”

    Are you really claiming that 2000 years of Christian devotion and 26 books of the NT missed the message of Jesus? If so, he was a complete failure as a teacher. Are you saying that this failure was the product of their adaptation to Greco-Roman culture? If so, then your call to adapt Christianity to our own culture seems dangerously short-sighted.

    • Yes, I accept that the Christ cult has been part of Christian culture from the first century. However there is much else to Christianity too. People have often believed in both the Jesus Movement and the Christ Cult. My complaint about the way it is used today is that it dominates at the expense of the Jesus Movement. Christianity then becomes (a) uninterested in society as a whole – non-political, etc; and (b) divisive, as it separates itself from the spiritualities of those who worship God but not Christ.

  2. Mark Wharton says:

    So would you affirm the divinity of Christ then?

    • Thanks for asking.
      My answer is influenced by my disappointment that so much Western Christian discourse these days consists of tribalistic slogans, whose main function is to divide people into the ones who agree with the speaker and the ones who don’t.
      So we’d have to decide what we mean by divinity. I’d want to insist that what it’s like to be divine is beyond all human understanding; but most people believe that the divine beyond is there with us, even if we can’t say what we mean by it. So I’d want to say yes, to the extent that Jesus expressed the divine, pointed people to the divine, and still does. (I’m already aware that what I’m saying is capable of different interpretations.) So Jesus was divine in a sense, but then so are you, in a sense. Maybe a different sense. How do we distinguish these senses? We can’t, because the divine is beyond our understanding.
      There are two things I would definitely want to deny. One is that Christ is a second god, along with God the Father. There is only one God. The other is that Jesus wasn’t a real human being. One early Christian – I can’t remember who it was – believed that Jesus, being divine, never excreted.

  3. well, I have spent most of my life trying to serve the Jesus movement and the cult. I was strongly influenced by the theology of the Kingdom now more or less absent. For the last 18 years since I left St James Piccadilly, I have been engaged in the Balkans as the founder of a small mediating organisation – the Soul of Europe. Some of our work succeeded like instigating the rebuilding oa world heritage Mosque in Banja Luka,setting up a civic forum,getting feligious leaders to establish creative working relationships,and much else. We also failed as of now to get a Memorial established to those murdered at the killing camp at Omarska. And much else, this was Kingdom work. Myreason for embarking on this ministry was to try and see whether it is possible to prepare the way for establishing reconciliation,etc.
    Now I am keen to do what Hector in the History Boys says ‘Pass it on,boys. Feel it,think it but pass it on that’s all you can do’. BUT there is mot much interest in the Cof E s – peripheral to the overriding concerns to get more people in!!

  4. Leonel Abaroa says:

    waaaaay too much either/or in this piece.
    easy with the assumptions now.

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