In my last post Thank You Chairman Mao, I made the following statement:

Why did the intentions of both Constantine and Mao end up the exact opposite of what they both expected? Because neither of them understood how Christianity really works. Both viewed Christianity as a human institution. Constantine’s good intentions pushed Jesus out of control of the Church. It was replaced by human clergy, State sponsorship and human power. Mao’s less than noble intentions put Jesus right back in control. Christianity stopped being a human controlled institution and became, once again what it was intended to be all along. It became an organically structured network of people under Christ and led by Christ, with Christ’s power.

I’d like to investigate, in a bit more detail, this idea of how Christianity really works vs. how many of us, including Constantine and Mao thought it worked. To understand how Christianity really works, we need to understand how God deals with humans. All through history God’s interaction with humans has been through covenants. He does this with individuals (Abraham and David) with nations (Israel) and with a gathered people (the Church). Covenants are agreements between both parties which are entered into through free will.

Trying Hard is Being Foolish

Israel had a covenant with God. It was called the Law. It worked like this. God gave a detailed moral law to Israel, outlining the kind of lifestyle he wanted them to live. They, in their own power, with their own effort, would try to obey this law. They would do their best, but they would fail. God would count their effort as righteousness. And if we are careful to obey all this law before the LORD our God, as he has commanded us, that will be our righteousness (Deut. 6:25). This kind of covenantal arrangement is much better than not knowing how to please God at all, but it is frustrating. Man always fails. His efforts are never good enough. Yet God, being a gracious God, always forgives.

This is where Constantine and Chairman Mao went wrong. They thought the Church was a human institution, functioning under human effort by following religious rules. In essence they thought the Church functioned like Israel. Constantine thought he could help by giving them governmental favor and helping them organize. Mao thought he could hurt them by taking away their human leadership and controlling them through State domination. Both are based on a misunderstanding of how the Church functions. It is still a common misunderstanding. And sadly many Christians have that same misunderstanding. They think that Christianity is based on understanding what God wants, then trying real hard to do it.

Being Jars of Clay Filled with Treasure

The Church has a different covenant with God. It is called the new covenant. It can be found in both the Old Testament as a promise of better things to come (Jer. 31:34). It is found all through the New Testament but stated explicitly in Heb. 8: 7-12. The new covenant works like this. God has a relationship with us by actually living in us. He puts the law (his way of living) in our hearts and minds. We no longer live by our own effort, understanding and trying. We live by his power, listening and obeying. These then are all new covenant statements taken from the New Testament: Christ in us the hope of glory, being in Christ, filled with the Holy Spirit, walking in the Spirit, our bodies the temple of the  Holy Spirit, the letter (law) kills but the Spirit gives life, jars of clay filled with treasure, abide in Christ. I could go on, but I think you get the idea.

By stripping away what was already in place; human controlled, legalistic, institutional Christianity, Mao did us a favor. By taking away the human control, he released the power of the Spirit. The Church exploded in power both numerically and spiritually. That’s what we Western Christians desperately need. We need to quit trying so hard. We need to learn instead to trust God. We need to learn to listen to the Spirit, who has already placed his ways in our hearts and minds. We need to merely listen and obey. Then we too can live like our Chinese brothers have learned to live, in the power of the Spirit, by living in the new covenant. How to do this is the focus of my upcoming book The Jesus Virus.

  • Why do you think we would replace listening and obeying with understanding and trying?
  • What is so attractive about the Old Covenant of the Law?
  • If we listen to the Spirit and obey; how do we know if we are doing the right thing?
  • What would Western Christianity look like if suddenly we all began to listen carefully to Christ’s individualized commands and obey?
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