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We spend so much time and effort on proclamation of the Good News of the love of God made visible in the person of Jesus. We work diligently and passionately to witness to the fact that Christianity exists to make known the new life that is possible -- a life of peace, purpose, fulfillment, and true community.

Yet somehow that message is not getting out. Ask the average person in the street what Christianity is about and the answer will be nowhere near what most of us proclaim in our pulpits every week.

That unfortunate reality was demonstrated to me by two incidents that occurred in the past month. The first was on a visit to Los Angeles, where we took in a play that did an excellent job of examining the theme of human companionship, within and between sexes. I was introduced as a Lutheran pastor to one of those involved in the play.

His reaction was telling and utterly discouraging. I saw mixture of concern, fear, and confusion. It was so obvious that his understanding of the Christian message was that it was one of judgment and disapproval of anyone outside the fold.

I certainly do not blame him. He was gracious and concerned about offending me. But in the context of what he had experienced, he had no place to put a Christian other than in the category of narrow-minded, self-proclaimed morality police. As a pastor, I was expected to be especially aggressive in this role.

This response was not an outlier. In fact, that appears to be the conventional wisdom in the secular United States as to what a Christian is.

Why, despite all that we proclaim and do in our congregations to bring the love of Christ to hurting and lost people, is the prevailing view that Christians in our society are, at best, holier-than-thou monitors of others’ behavior, and at worst, intolerant, arrogant, irrational members of a vested interest?

Unfortunately, I found an answer to that question when I returned home and found a national syndicated editorial by Christine Flowers, a staunch defender of her particular denomination of Christianity. Flowers was effusive in her praise of religious judgmentalism:

“I’ve always felt more drawn to the Old Testament than to its sequel, because I think judging makes a lot of sense.”

In a rational world people would find it bizarre that someone who is so openly disdainful of what Christ taught holds herself up as a national spokesman for what she calls “the fundamental doctrine” of Christ’s church. But the fact is, the appeal of judging others and proclaiming our superiority is so strong a lure that many Christians have given in to its temptation.

After reading this op-ed, I realized it is no wonder that the secular world views Christians as primarily judgmental, arrogant, and superior because (despite Jesus’ injunction to “Judge not, lest you be judged”) that is precisely the view that so many Christians convey.

That is why, in our presidential politics, those candidates who most loudly proclaim their commitment to Christianity tend to be those most infatuated with judging and condemning others. Based on the frequency with which people temper or apologize for their language or behavior when they discover I am a pastor, it is often the view they expect me to hold.

I hope that I was able to present a different, more authentic understanding of Christianity in my brief encounter out in Los Angeles. But given the overwhelming p.r. success of the judgment crowd, I wouldn’t be surprised if all I did was create confusion.

So there it is. In the struggle to get our message of life out to a world that desperately needs to hear it, we are failing miserably. I wouldn’t mind so much if the secular world disparaged the teachings of Jesus. But I find it exasperating that they reject Christianity because they reject a doctrine that is not in any sense what I believe Christianity to be.

I’m not sure what to do about this. I have some ideas, but the problem is way bigger than I can solve by myself. We desperately need urgent dialogue on this issue if Christianity, that is the actual following of Jesus, is to be an effective force in the world.

Note for those overwhelmed by the negativity of this post: I’ll balance that next month with a report of where we are succeeding.

Nathan Aaseng serves as pastor at St. John's Lutheran Church in Eau Claire, WI. He has had more than 170 books published, sacred and secular, for readers from 8 to adult. His latest work is The Five Realms, an epic fantasy based on 1 Corinthians 1:27.

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Talk about it...

Joseph Penrose

commented on Sep 23, 2015

Nathan, I struggle with this every moment of my life. Even with my own family! I try to look into scripture for myself and others to look at it also to try to understand it's all about Jesus..... I look into James and it's all about walking the walk of a true Christian. If we can walk that walk, we may be on our way to becoming a Christian. I've often used James as a reference and it has worked well for me. It's a short read and it's simplistic... We sometimes try to dig too deep and this confuses the many issues that develop. I try so hard to develop an open line of thinking, constantly reminding those that Christianity can be found quite easily if we keep it simple....

E L Zacharias

commented on Sep 23, 2015

Good timing. This Sunday's Gospel includes a request of Jesus, wondering what should be done to an unauthorized person who was caught casting out a demon, using Jesus' name. Jesus reminds them that good will come from many who use his name. However, watch out for those who cause evil to happen. Bottom line: Let's praise the good that comes from others and exalt Jesus as Lord; let's stop evil and lift up that which is good. Praise be to you, O Christ.

Bill Andrews

commented on Sep 23, 2015

Along the journey, I undercover this simple truth about this matter. It is never about the simplicity of the subject, the sermon, or the text, it is heart of the hearer. Until the issues of the heart are addressed even the best of us cannot save the worse of us. We must get back to the roots of truth. Preach and teach the word line upon line. And, come out of the shadow of the world way of thinking and doing. Just my observation.

Tim Thompson

commented on Sep 23, 2015

Nathan, Thank you for your observations this discussion. I used to preach for a Church of Christ in Black River Falls, just a few miles south of you. I now preach for a church in the Florida Keys. I didn't face, or at least hear as much about the judgmental Christian when I was up north, but down here in the Keys I hear it much, much more. Perhaps because the lifestyles of so many are not what they should be and therefore they use the "judgmental Christian" as an excuse to proliferate their lifestyle. But it seems that we as Christians have not been as accepting as of sinners because of their sins. That to me is ironic, since Christ came to save sinners from their sins. Our job, is not to judge but to take and present the saving grace of Jesus to others. I have taken a lot of flack for taking in homeless, embracing homosexuals, and loving the criminals and addicted, etc. It's what Jesus did and even in my own attempts to imitate Him, I find myself easily falling back into that judgmental mindset. We all need to listen to what we look like to the world, even if it might not be true of us individually, the world "judges us" by what they have seen in too many of us. Thank you for your words.

Lawrence Webb

commented on Sep 23, 2015

Here's my experience that may relate to the actor's response to you as a minister: Baptists gave America the concept of church-state separation, and I am proud of that as my heritage. Sad to say, Southern Baptists have deserted their history to the point that when I attended my first meeting of Americans United for Separation of Church and State and identified myself as a Baptist minister, I met with strong suspicion. They thought I was a mole. I stayed with them and convinced them of my commitment to this gift Baptists gave the nation. We don't all agree on every issue that comes up, but we have a common core belief in keeping the two areas separate.

Andrew Shields

commented on Sep 23, 2015

You begin the article with a good description of what "we" work hard to do. I think this is good, but I the solution to the problem mentioned is inside this "we." The problem isn't politicians or any outside influence. The problem is when the "we" is preachers and the "we" is not the whole church. We all have to know the purpose of Christians and the vision and purpose of their individual congregations. The church won't get the message of grace and mercy out to the lost world if we let our church members think it is our (pastor's ) job.,

Terry Phillips

commented on Sep 23, 2015

Don't get too discouraged on this issue. Yes, we should continually judge ourselves but, remember, there are people whose lives are contrary to Christ at a deep level and a truly Christian presence will irritate and aggravate that hostility and they, in fact, become the judges.

Lascelles James

commented on Sep 24, 2015

You have written the truth Nathan. Many if not most Christians have adopted a judgmental attitude to non-Christians. On the other hand many have become Gospel-hardened, anti-Christs who need to be reminded that the "Lake of fire" though intended for Satan is also for sinners. I hope that those who read this will interpret anti-Christs as John sees them in the epistle (1 John 2:18 Little children, it is the last time: and as ye have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists; whereby we know that it is the last time).

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