Mel Sensenig


Toxic Christianity

By Dr. Mel Sensenig

I started watching a TV series this month that featured a rather stock Hollywood character, the crazy preacher threatening judgment on everyone in his small Midwestern town. This particular preacher sometimes even received messages from God through his defective hearing aid. It made me laugh – and it also made me think about how our spirituality is perceived by outsiders.

AdobeStock_41558737 [Converted]The caricatures that we see on TV of crazy religious people doing crazy things in the name of God is not just part of Hollywood’s so called war on religion. One can only make a caricature of something that actually exists. Toxic Christianity is a problem that has existed all throughout the church. The Protestant reformer Martin Luther, said, “…how are we to flee the world? Not by donning caps and creeping into a corner or going into the wilderness. You cannot so escape the devil and sin. Satan will as easily find you in the wilderness in a gray cap as he will in the market in a red coat. It is the heart which must flee, and that by keeping itself “unspotted from the world,” as James 1:27 says.” James was responding to a problem in the first century church. In fact, the Greek word for “religious” in James 1:26 refers to any kind of religious activity such as attendance at services, fasting, etc., in any religion. James also says in 1:26 that religion can be empty, or worthless. It’s a strong word, and is the same word used it to describe Israel’s idolatry for which the Lord eventually sent them into exile.

This reminded me again powerfully that there is such a thing as bad religion, and it can even be worse than no religion because it feeds our innate self-righteousness and leads us away from our total dependence upon Christ. In fact, Jonathan Edwards, the well-known Puritan preacher, said, “… the Scripture never uses such emphatical expressions concerning any other signs of hypocrisy, and unsoundness of heart, as concerning an unholy practice [of religion].” It’s astounding to think that there could be such a thing as an “unholy” expression of Christianity! But that is the testimony of Scripture and some of the church’s best teachers throughout the ages.

It makes me long for the pure, spotless religion that James describes and that the world respects: an accurate knowledge of my own spirituality, both its strengths and weaknesses, sincerity, peaceableness, care for the poor and the oppressed, all of which come, James says, from the new creation work of the Lord Jesus Christ. Any other source is just bad religion!


Fruit of the Spirit

By Dr. Mel Sensenig, Pastor in Residence

In our Young Adult Bible Study, we have been going through the book of James. James works with loving rigor, probing to the very depths of our professed Christian spirituality. This past week, we looked at James 1:19-21:

“Understand this, my dear brothers and sisters: You must all be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry. Human anger does not produce the righteousness God desires. So get rid of all the filth and evil in your lives, and humbly accept the word God has planted in your hearts, for it has the power to save your souls.” (New Living Translation)

Fruit-of-the-SpiritTake a look at how James connects “knowing” and “doing” in verse 19. There is something that we need to know, and that knowledge also must actually come about in our living. In other words, the real test of Christian knowledge is how much of its fruit appears in our lives. On the other hand, there cannot be any fruit without genuine spiritual knowledge. Attempts at Christian discipleship apart from the truth are simply self-made righteousness, and have no value in the sight of God. On the other hand, truth which has not produced any fruit is evidence of a lack of spiritual life. Note that verse 21 describes the word as “implanted” – implying that is a living thing that necessarily produces fruit. We would ordinarily conclude that a tree with no fruit is dead, and we can ask the same question of ourselves as professing Christians. In fact, from the previous verses, James says that sin conceives death, while God conceives life. There is a continual growing process going on inside us: either we are growing in our knowledge of God, or sin is producing its fruit within us. We are never standing still!

Many times, the practical test of these truths is conflict. In the midst of conflict, we find out how much the gospel has truly gripped us. How often in personal conflict do we lose sight of God’s goal in it – His personal discipleship of us, which we forget in the desire for revenge. It is in these situations that God gives us an opportunity to learn how to be swift to do some things and slow to do others, and especially to experience the fruit of the Spirit because it is the exact opposite of what our normal tendency (the flesh) would be. Apart from these difficult situations, we would have no opportunity for God to disciple us and to grow in our faith. Therefore, even these difficult times of troubled relationships are part of God’s discipling us in His character.

So, what is our response to this? Do we simply become a Home Depot Christian, immediately turning to “more doing”? In a letter like James’s, our human self-righteous religiosity quickly leads us to the question, “What should I do?” James gives the answer in a passive verb: humbly accept the word God has planted in your hearts. The “word” that James refers to hear is the Christian gospel, the affirmation found summarized in The Apostles Creed or any number of summary statements in the New Testament. Here James asks us to pray that God would take what we have affirmed with our mouths and cause it to grow in our hearts. One of the proofs of the growth of the gospel in our lives will be that we are slower to get angry, quicker to listen, and slower to try to tell others how to do it. What would the world think of us if the gospel truly brought about its transforming work in our lives in this way?

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