One of the beauties of Christianity is in its simplicity. Other major world religions require adherence to some set of rules in order to obtain their version of salvation. In order words, they are works based. Salvation, nirvana, getting to heaven, being accepted by God, is all dependent on what a person does. This is not true of Christianity. In Christianity, it is all about God's grace.
The only thing that God requires from us in order to come to him is faith in him. There are no rules that you have to follow or things you have to change prior to coming to salvation. In brief summary, here is what the Bible says about how to become a Christian.
- Realize that you sin and are in need of saving. Romans 3:23 says, "For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God." In Romans 6:23, we read the consequences of sin. "For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord." This is not about doing anything special, it is about having the humility to realize that without God, we are lost in our sin, separated from a relationship with God.
- Recognize that God made a way for us to have a relationship with Him by sending Jesus (who is God) to earth in order to take our punishment for us as a sacrifice, rising from the dead three days later, and acknowledge this truth as Jesus being the only path to God, placing your faith, love, trust, and life in His hands. Romans 10:9-10 says, "If you declare with your mouth, 'Jesus is Lord,' and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved." In John 14:6, Jesus answered the question of how a person comes to a relationship with God. "He answered, I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father, except through me."
To be sure, the Bible does clearly call some things sin, and tells Christians that we should avoid those things. Things like lying, adultery, and murder are all pretty clearly called sin. Here is the thing though. I do not believe that God expects us to be perfect. He knows that we are still prone to our fallen human nature and will mess up at times. I think that what he does expect of us, is to repent and to turn back to him. Even then, I believe that God works on us over time, and does not expect us to get it right the first or necessarily even the second or third time. God has mercy on us, and wants to help us in our shortcomings. Furthermore, God certainly does not expect us to change or to "fix" ourselves or our sins before coming to him. Those changes that need to be make come after giving your life to Christ, and through his power and help. Romans 5:8 says, "But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us." This says that you do not need to be perfect to come to Christ. You come as you are, and if God wants to change something in your life, just be open to God, and at some time and in some way he will point those things out to you.
This is one area in which I believe some churches can become spiritually abusive. They will tack on rules that one must follow in order to (according to them) become a Christian. This is called legalism. They are saying that you must have faith in Christ PLUS do or not do something else. This then essentially becomes what is known as works based salvation, ie, salvation that is obtained by you doing or not doing some specific thing or things aside from placing faith in Christ. Ephesians 2:8-9 is very clear when it says, "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith-and this is not from yourselves-it is the gift of God, not by works, so that nobody can boast." Furthermore, the entire book of Galatians is written to dispute the idea of legalism.
I saw a photograph recently of a person standing on the side of a street holding a sign that said, "you must change before coming to Christ." This is an excellent example of the legalism I am talking about. Based on the context from the other signs they were holding, they were meaning that one must either stop doing some sin or start doing some good thing before coming to Christ. This is simply not true, and again, based on this and the other signs they had, I would comfortably assume that the church they belong to is legalistic and likely spiritually abuse. This type of attitude lacks love, grace, mercy, and compassion. When a church lacks these things, there is a MUCH greater opportunity for abuse to occur.
There is another way that a church can be legalistic as well. These churches may not place a condition on you before they say you can be saved, but instead they will place dogmatic importance on certain beliefs and doctrines. If you do not hold to these doctrines, they might consider you a non-Christian, or at the least a "bad" Christian. Some churches, for example, would say that for you to be a "good" Christian in "good" standing with God, you must home school your children and teach them specific principles. They may say that you must hold to a Calvinist view or rather an Arminian view. They may say you must believe in the charismatic gifts. They may say that you must reject the charismatic gifts. They may say that you must give financially to the church until it hurts. There are near countless other things that leaders and churches have said you must do or not do, believe or not believe.
The common thread in many of these doctrines, is that these churches elevate the importance of the adherence to them to be equal or very nearly equal to the gospel message of the Bible. The truth is, many of these doctrines are much less important than what they say they are. There is also a good amount of Biblical support for many of these doctrines, but that still does not mean they are just as important. The Bible speaks of things that are of first importance. 1 Corinthians 15:3a says, "For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance:..." It follows that if some things are of first importance, other things are of lesser importance. When a church or person makes something more important that they ought to, it can easily lead to spiritual abuse when they try to force these doctrines on others. Galatians 5:1a states, "It is for freedom that Christ has set us free..." Forcing less important doctrines on somebody is revoking that freedom.
Understanding what some of these essential and non-essential doctrines are can be tricky. For more discussion and examples, I would recommend that you read the following blog article over at "Parchment & Pen."
Let me make clear that I do not think it is wrong to have ideas, beliefs, and convictions regarding certain doctrines, or to disagree and think that some doctrines are wrong. As I said, there is often Biblical support for various doctrines, and I do think that some are more right than others. The thing to remember, however, is that there is a chance that you are wrong in some of your convictions. I think that when we get to heaven, we will all learn that we were wrong about some idea or doctrine we held to. The whole idea here falls back to having grace with others in these gray areas. It is when we lack grace that abuse occurs.
In my next post, I want to begin to go over some things that I believe constitute spiritual abuse. What does spiritual abuse look like? How could a pastor be spiritually abusive? The post will deal with spiritual abuse as it pertains to individual churches, or to individual organizations of churches.