Only in Austin would we find a situation like the one reported by the Houston Chronicle back in March–an atheist named Robert Jensen has joined a Presbyterian Church. Albert Mohler recently covered the story that brings a new kind of fulfillment to the mantra “keep Austin weird!”
Robert Jensen is absolutely transparent in his atheism. “I don’t believe in God,” he asserts. That statement is simple enough, indicating a categorical denial in any belief in God.
Lest anyone mistake his atheism for mere theological confusion, Jensen went on to explain: “I don’t believe Jesus Christ was the son of a God that I don’t believe in, nor do I believe Jesus rose from the dead to ascend to a heaven that I don’t believe exists.”
What makes these statements all the more significant is that they appear in an article entitled, “Why I am a Christian (Sort Of),” in which Jensen, a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin, explains why he joined St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Austin.
Listen to Jensen’s description of himself–the epitomy of irony:
Moving from that most minimal of confessional pledges, Jensen went on to claim: “So, I am a Christian, sort of. A secular Christian. A Christian atheist, perhaps. But, in a deep sense, I would argue, a real Christian.”
Why would an atheist join a Christian church? Mohler reports:
As Jensen relates his story, he explains that he has joined the church as “more a political than a theological act.” In other words, Jensen sees the church of which he is now a member as more of a political than a theological institution.
Jensen makes an unconvincing case concerning his own motivations. He explains that “whatever my beliefs about the nature about the non-material world or my views on spirituality, I live in a country that is extremely religious, especially compared to other technologically advanced industrial nations.” In some sense, Jensen appears to be making a “if you can’t beat them, join them” argument.
The more important question that needs to be dealt with is, why would a church allow an atheist to join as a member?
The larger and more important question is how any church could justify accepting an atheist to join the church? In his article, published in the March 12, 2006 edition of The Houston Chronicle, Jensen explains, “the pastor and most of the congregation at St. Andrew’s understand my reasons for joining, realizing that I didn’t convert in a theological sense, but joined a moral and political community. There’s nothing special about me in this regard – many St. Andrew’s members I have talked to are seeking community and a place for spiritual, moral and political engagement. The church is expansive in defining faith; the degree to which members of the congregation believe in God and Christ in traditional terms varies widely. Many do, some don’t, and a whole lot of folks seem to be searching. St. Andrew’s offers a safe place and an exciting atmosphere for that search, in collaboration with others.”
I guess being “expansive in defining faith” now includes those who deny faith in God entirely. Mohler’s article goes into much more detail about the situation.
Developments like this one in Austin reveal a trend of the liberalism in the local church in American Christianity. When church is viewed more like a social club than a great commission hub, decisions like this one will naturally follow.
An additional reality in the church is that compromise in doctrine naturally overflows into compromise in lifestyle. This is abundantly evident in the church at Corinth. Among other concerns, Paul identifies a particular situation that is repulsive evidence of their moral laxity–in 1 Corinthians 5:1, he is repulsed by the fact that a man is sleeping with his stepmom:
It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and immorality of such a kind as does not exist even among the Gentiles, that someone has his father’s wife.
The church had compromised their beliefs to the point where their behavior was worse than that of the world. Just as importantly, the church passively observed the immorality without response.
While the parallels may not be perfect between the church at Corinth and St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Austin, both reveal a concerning pattern that must be avoided at all costs–compromise in what you believe about God overflows into compromise in how you behave for God.