She had been marching as a militant feminist, angry at men, angry at God, angry at herself. Into that bitterness and bite, God gently showed her love—genuine love—and drew her to his truth and healing. She met Jesus on that liberal, colorful campus.

When she found a Bible study on campus, she was overjoyed that there were others like her, but most of them had been following Christ for a long time. They knew so much!

She observed how they dressed, how they related to one another, how they approached other believers, and how they did or did not engage with unbelievers. This, she felt, was what it meant to be a Christian. She understood that the gospel was a free gift of grace; it had gotten her “in.” Now she was being shown what to do.

Sound familiar? The details of her story may vary from ours, but the move toward adopting certain behaviors within Christianity and assigning an ethereal level of spirituality to them is familiar to every follower of Christ. Before we realize it, we find it difficult to extricate what it means to follow Jesus—to be a disciple—from how a particular Christian subculture behaves around one another.

For the sake of clarification, I’m not describing authentic discipleship. Yes, of course we want to be more like Christ, but that’s a genuine work of sanctification, and Scripture makes it clear that sanctification is led and fulfilled by the Holy Spirit. Try as we might, we cannot muster up anything that creates true change in our hearts and habits apart from Christ.

The modern church lingo and cultural practices where I am in the world (North America) aren’t the same as those practiced by believers in Africa or South America or Asia or the Philippines. Heck. I’m from California, and our flip flop/t-shirt/hang loose style isn’t practiced in a lot of churches in the other 49 United States. In fact, all of our modern and cultural practices aren’t how the church behaved at any other time in history, either.

Yet, so many of us find ourselves evangelizing a lifestyle instead of a savior.

Our new believer finding community at Cal Berkeley soon began to date a fellow student, and together they embraced the confines of a particular Christian religious group. She drastically changed everything external, equating her extreme choices with pleasing God.

So many of us find ourselves evangelizing a lifestyle instead of a savior.

By the time I met her, she was married with a few small children. We had lunch one summer Sunday in their home. From the opening conversation about when and how they prepared the meal to when and how they homeschool their children to when and how they worshipped (and with whom and under which teachers and at what time and without which instruments), we were being schooled in the lifestyle they had chosen to live.

At what point do we begin to proselytize others to our choices? My assumption here is that most of us don’t at first set out to do this. Initially, we are bowled over by the simple gospel, and we are excited about the relief and peace and joy that comes rushing in as new believers. We become fervent, sometimes even overly annoying, as we share our newfound faith with our friends and family.

But then we begin to learn how to behave.

Many of us think, rather guilelessly, “Yeah, yeah, I get the gospel. Now tell me what to do.” We begin to scorn the gospel—the pure good news of Jesus Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection on our behalf and God’s forgiveness of our sins—as the “milk.”

We erroneously believe that what Paul is saying to the church at Corinth when he tells them,

“But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way?” (1 Corinthians 3:1-3)

is that those simple truths are less important than the solid food of more advanced teaching.

What Paul is actually addressing is the contention and infighting that was occurring in the church at Corinth over who listened to whom and who followed which teachers. This was basic immature human behavior (picture a classroom of 2nd graders arguing dramatically, “Oh yeah? Well I follow Paul!”) and Paul is emphasizing that these folks desperately needed a good solid reminder of Whose they were and what Christ had done for them. They needed the gospel.

They needed, as he again confirms in 1 Peter, the simple gospel milk to nourish them: “Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation—” (I Peter 2:2).

I love the part about growing up into salvation. A child grows up immersed in the “milk” of who we are and what we value. If it’s the gospel, then the knowledge that they are loved by God because of what Jesus did for them permeates every corner of the home. From that milk grows a healthy and nourished soul, ready to learn more about Biblical faith, but thoroughly rooted and satiated in the firm foundation of God’s love for them.

Whenever, however, we must never move our thinking beyond the totality of what Jesus did for us at Calvary.

From that complete and nourishing milk of our faith and doctrine grows our deepening understanding of it all, and that takes time spent in the presence of God. That’s the hard part: time spent with God. It’s just easier to follow a list, wear the “right” clothes, say the “right” things, go to the “right” church, make all the “right” choices. Spending time with God, practicing what it means to be in his presence, allowing him to change us from the inside out, learning his voice and knowing his attributes—this is the center of our faith and orthopraxy.

The gospel, spending time with God, learning to live in the light of his love for us—that is the A-Z of Christianity.

 

Excerpt from Leaving Legalism: Learning to Love God, Others, and Yourself Again

Special thanks to my husband Fletch, who coined the term "evangelizing a lifestyle."