Generic Christianity

by Rick Shrader

[Real] Christianity seldom occupies the attention of the bulk of nominal Christians. Thus we may expect them to be ignorant also of its tenets. They will be acquainted merely with those doctrines and principles that the law of the land commonly holds or sanctions. But whatever is unique in real Christianity and should be habitually kept in mind, this men will consider less and less, until it is almost wholly forgotten.

William Wilberforce, 18291

Tozer wrote, “In many churches Christianity has been watered down until the solution is so weak that if it were poison it would not hurt anyone, and if it were medicine it would not cure anyone.”2 It is generic Christianity! Any version will do, any level of commitment will suffice, any doctrinal system is sufficient. And why? Because the highest goal we have for Christianity is to mend broken homes, clean up society, reform broken lives, put God back into schools, and generally lift the moral level of mankind enough to alleviate some of its pain and suffering.

In our Denver paper last Sunday, the Knight Ridder News Service ran a column titled, “The moral life and TV’s ‘The Simpsons’: Despite continuing controversy, the show’s full of Christian ideals.” The article explains how the old TV show supposedly contained many Christian ideals about family and morals. > Not long ago the Associated Press ran an article about a Christian minister in Alabama who teaches a Bible class called “Finding the Way Back to Mayberry.” As he shows reruns of the Andy Griffith Show, the minister proclaims that he “sees God in Aunt Bee’s nurturing, in Andy’s wise counsel and Opie’s innocence.” Because the subject is so appealing, attendance at his church has grown over 200. >Many are talking now about the new “God speaking” billboard campaign which is running all over the country. Black and white billboards with a message such as “I love you. I love you. I love you. —God” One billboard says, “Keep using my name in vain. I’ll make rush hour longer.—God”

If Christianity is true because it works, perhaps Mormonism is more true! The 1999 Princeton Review of Colleges just reported that BYU is the least partying school in the USA. The Mormons are well known for their moral effect on cultures and societies. In a consumer-oriented culture, these may be better reasons for becoming a convert than the real message of Christianity.

The real message of Christianity has never been as popular with the world. But the generic version is popular with nominal Christians and non-Christians alike. It allows each person to keep his own dignity, his own personal desires and his own agenda in life. It attaches nicely to these, giving the person’s whole life a religious purpose as well as personal goals and achievements. Being a Christian, then, sheds all the negatives of repentance, sacrifice and especially suffering, and settles for the general rising standard of a good society where all faiths and religions contribute equally to a better moral climate.

In this generic form of Christianity, our positional and final sanctifications are emphasized almost to the exclusion of any progressive effort, which is now firmly relegated to the back-woods of “legalism.” The natural growth pattern of young person to young adult, and young adult to older person, is sanctification enough. The selfishness seen in a young person’s wilder life usually changes into young adult interests and we all rejoice in such “Christian growth.” The older Christians’ willingness to give the direction and leadership to young adults with as little resistance as possible is praised as wisdom and lauded by the young adults. Thus the natural aging pattern is also praised as wonderful “Christian growth.”

Is the Christian message to sinners unique from any other offer of religion or reform? Is there more to it than just belief in God, desire for happiness, good citizenship, spiritual dieting, exercising and crafting? Perhaps G.K. Chesterton was right when he said, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”3 C.S. Lewis said, “if we do not believe it, let us be honest and relegate the Christian faith to museums. If we do, let us give up the pretense that it makes no difference.”4 That is, that the Christian faith is generic, in the same field with all “faith communities.” It may succeed where others fail, and it may fail where others succeed. But if it lifts people to higher spiritual levels, it is true enough.

Mahatma Gandhi said that he was never interested in knowing whether Jesus really lived, the Sermon on the Mount would be just as true to him if Jesus never existed.5 That is pure liberalism and yet it may be just as descriptive of many generic Christians today as it was of the Hindu leader. Do we believe Christianity because it has utilitarian value to society, or because its doctrines are true? In 1923, J. Gresham Machen wrote,

Christianity will combat Bolshevism; but if it is accepted in order to combat Bolshevism, it is not Christianity: Christianity will produce a unified nation, in a slow but satisfactory way; but if it is accepted in order to produce a unified nation, it is not Christianity: Christianity will produce a healthy community; but if it is accepted in order to produce a healthy community, it is not Christianity: Christianity will promote international peace; but if it is accepted in order to promote international peace, it is not Christianity. Our Lord said: ‘Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.” But if you seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness in order that all those other things may be added unto you, you will miss both those other things and the Kingdom of God as well.6

1. William Wilberforce, Real Christianity (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1997) 100.
2. A.W. Tozer, Worship and Entertainment (Camp Hill, Penn: Christian Pub, 1997) ix.
3. G.K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong With The World (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994) 37.
4. C.S. Lewis, The Weight Of Glory (New York: Macmillan, 1980) 116.
5. Bruce Shelley, Church History in Plain Language (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1995) 46.
6. J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977) 152.