In an ideal world Christians would live together in harmony. Of course in an ideal world, everyone would get along. But Christianity by nature should be a safe haven of humble, loving fellowship. A respite from a dark and abusive world for those who are weary of their own sin and the sins committed against them—a place where intimacy is wooed out of hiding, not forced.

God created institutions for us to enjoy various levels of intimate fellowship, namely marriage, family, and church. From infancy, human beings long for connection with other human beings—between souls, minds, and bodies. Marriage, family, and church were instituted as places of safety and deep intimacy. The place where people can be truly known and fully accepted—where everyone is free to be transparent about their struggles and has their eyes on Jesus, not another person, to save them. These institutions are places to be nurtured, not fixed with external methods like enabling, controlling anger, or manipulation. I think of the early church of Acts chapter 2 as one such ideal utopia:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42–47)

Here we see no trace of gossip or slander. No envy of property, spouse, or platform. No hidden sin in the leadership. No biting and devouring one another. No critical spirits or angry curmudgeons. No victim blaming, silencing, or bullying.

This New Testament ideal has spawned many separationist church communities of those who desire to escape the meanness of the world, for the simple joy of experiencing newness of life in community with like-minded people. But then newness of life wears off, and they find themselves living among Christians in perhaps an even more combative environment than before. The institutions give way to power grabs, exploitation, platforms, greed, and abuse. It’s ugly for the very reason that it should be beautiful.

It Wasn’t Supposed to Be Like This

Certainly there was an Eden on this very unhappy earth. We all long for it, and we are constantly glimpsing it: our whole nature at its best and least corrupted, its gentlest and most humane, is still soaked with the sense of ‘exile’. —J. R. R. Tolkien

In the same way that Peter was able to walk on water as long as his eyes were on Jesus but then sank as he turned his gaze to the tumult around him, we lose sight of our real Savior too. We begin to sink as overwhelming circumstances loom, spiritual abuse confuses, fleshly desires rule, and trust in our own ingenuity becomes the solution to our pain.

The institutions meant to protect us exploit us instead. Insanity takes over and we do the same things again and again, expecting a different result. We don’t think to cry out to our real Savior until we are already drowning. Over and over we reach for other human beings and tangible objects for deliverance. Those things, apart from Jesus, are little saviors, blocks of wood that cannot save. They are idols that sit on the throne of our hearts demanding to be fulfilled, but they will never be satisfied.

And hypocrisy is the essence of idolatry. How many churches throw money, programs, and warm bodies at real suffering and call it ministry? Endless discussions on shoulds and shouldn’ts send congregants into hiding rather than into transparent and therefore intimate relationships. People find themselves going through the motions of religious activity, thinking eventually it will lead to rest.

Somewhere along the way, newness of life gets derailed, even for those who escaped to a utopian commune. While Christians may be able to isolate themselves from idols on the outside, they cannot protect themselves from those that come from within—and especially not with willpower and rules.

As you read on in Acts, you may notice this sort of fellowship did not last in the early church either, even with the apostles at the helm. It didn’t take long before religious bullies stepped in to beat and imprison those who boldly preached the gospel of grace alone (chapter 4). Next, came the greedy lies (disguised as generosity) of a few scoundrels among the brethren (chapter 5). Then came infighting about food and preferential treatment of one group of widows over another (chapter 6). The first martyr shows up in chapter 7. And by the time we reach chapter 8, the sheep are scattered, broken, and disillusioned.

A careful reading of the New Testament reveals that we can expect such division and realize that an isolated commune is not the solution to shutting out sin. Much sin and persecution will come from within, from those who claim to be a part of the Christian faith. Paul told the Ephesians: “Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth.” Why will they do this? “In order to draw away disciples after them[selves]” (Acts 20:30). Paul scolded the Corinthians for putting themselves under the authority of men who exploited them, pushed themselves forward, even slapped them in the face (2 Corinthians 11). Exploitation disguises itself as salvation and spiritual growth. Human beings cannot save, but many will promise that they can.

I have lived my entire life in Christianity (with the exception of a few years in my late teens and early twenties). It has taken me a long time to see in myself and in the lives of those I love the heartbreaking reality that idolatry creeps into our lives in a variety of ways, and subtly turns us against our Savior and each other. Idolatry takes many forms, but at its core it is something or someone—smaller than Jesus—that a worshipper looks to for some form of salvation. I call these small things and people little saviors.

I am writing this book to expose many of the little saviors that have nestled unnoticed in our marriages, churches, families, and communities. Many of them are disguised as good things to pursue, or wages that we believe we have to earn, or control of others we feel entitled to. We run after them with reckless abandon to the destruction of intimate relationships and faith.

This book takes a clear-eyed look at moralism and how it leads Christians to trade honest relationships for rote obligations. We will investigate how it is disguised as the gospel, but in reality is a system of works where disciples continue to put hope for earthly blessings in their ability to perform (or appear to be performing) morally. The leaders of moralism set themselves up as little saviors. They promise earthly blessing but are unable to deliver. When the veil of deception is lifted, it becomes obvious in many cases that they have been protecting their platforms and pocketbooks instead of the people in their congregations. In many situations, the sheep have been exploited to protect the shepherds.

Underneath moralism lies discontentment. Moralism fuels discontentment in that it preaches conditional salvation in the here and now—salvation from less than perfect circumstances. It fosters a community of phony happiness—a Facebook existence with fake relationships and no conflict resolution. It stirs a desire in people for more than a spiritual savior; they covet a physical, emotional, relational, and financial savior as well.

Discontentment is the source of much quarreling in the church and in families. The sneaky side of it is the belief that God is on my side and is encouraging me to pursue these little saviors with His help. This breeds an entitlement mentality that my happiness depends on these little saviors. I may begin to believe that if others are not contributing to my happiness and helping me achieve my little saviors, then they are displeasing to God and I must get them back on track—or even replace them.

Understanding grace frees us from our death-grip demand for what we think will make us happy—and godly. Grace can be disorienting and confusing for those of us who were raised in moralism. We can’t help but return over and over again to the belief that busyness equals godliness, and performance is our part of the deal. But if any part of our salvation were up to us, then it would cease to be good news. It was Jesus’s work on the cross that earned for us communion with God. It is His righteousness that saves, not our own. We receive it through faith as a gift (Romans 3:20–24). This is the good news. Jesus is a real Savior. He is our perfect righteousness and the end of our striving. “This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe” (Romans 3:22). Believing it is the hardest part.

This is taken from Marci’s book, Little Saviors: How Moralism Kills Intimacy and the Gospel of Grace.

Listen to Marci's interview on SBE!