Updated: Oct 3
It is abundantly clear that mainstream American Christianity has departed from the message of Jesus in such a fundamental way that I am not sure that one can even call their beliefs Christian.
Historically we have seen very few large Christian movements maintain a commitment to the teachings of Jesus as hierarchal superior to those attributed to Moses. This tension between "the law" and Jesus' declarations that showing love to those around you is the fulfillment of the law goes back all the way to the years after the crucifixion.
How did church goers come to simply ignore the plain teachings of Jesus? To answer that we must go back to the beginning.
In the very earliest years of Christianity there was already a sharp division between the supporters of Peter and the supporters of Paul. Peter and his followers expected the non-Jewish converts to adhere to some (but not all) of the law of Moses. In his case, Peter focused on the issue of male circumcision. He said that to be accepted into the Christian community, all men must be circumcised. OUCH. While I guess he had a point that any man willing to undergo that procedure in an age before anesthesia & antibiotics was truly committed; however, that was not the teaching of Jesus. In the council of Jerusalem, Paul swayed the disciples away from what Peter was promoting. Not only did he remind them of the teachings of Jesus, but he pointed out that they themselves pick and choose which Mosaic laws to obey. The "committee" declared that Hellenistic Christians did not need to be circumcised nor did they need to learn and obey the rituals of the Mosaic law. It was concluded that the only thing they would ask of Hellenistic Christians is that they (for the sake of their Jewish brothers) not buy and eat the meat that had been used in pagan sacrifices; and, they were told not to buy sex from the pagan temple priestesses/prostitutes because that in the symbolism that Jesus taught that by putting their penis into a false god's "vessel" they would be rejoining the pagan religion.
So it would seem that the matter was settled. The Jewish Christians would follow their traditions, and converts from other religions would not be encouraged to act like Jews. We see this intent carried out in Paul's letters to specific churches. In those letters he addressed local issues by showing how the "law of love" can be applied in circumstances that reflect their local culture. Paul presented Christianity not as a new culture, but a belief system and way of life that can be applied to a great many cultural settings. What is significant is that Paul never claimed to be writing for God. He never suggested that the things he was telling one church should be taken as universal doctrine. To Paul, only Jesus had the right to do so.
The followers of Peter however did not go away. They bided their time claiming, among other things, that only those who were direct disciples of Jesus, or those who had been the apprentices of those eleven remaining disciples could speak with authority as to what Christianity should look like. Thus, they naturally claimed superiority over the followers of Paul who never physically met Jesus.
This all simmered until all the original disciples had passed, as well as the first generation of direct apprentices to the eleven. That third generation of Peterists, then made a declaration that they and only they could define Christian belief and practice. This was called the doctrine of apostolic secession. These men gave themselves the title of Bishop and went to war with all professing Christians who questioned their claims. However they had only limited power to quash those who claimed that individual believers could interpret the gospels. That was until the year 325 when Roman Emperor Constantine ordered all the bishops to meet and draw up the official doctrines of Christianity. By definition, those who did not accept the doctrine of apostolic succession were excluded. Thus, in the official church Peter's vision of Christianity prevailed. A blend of selective teachings of Jesus and selective parts of the Mosaic law were combined with Byzantine/Roman traditions to create the core of their doctrine and practice. To give lip service to their inclusion of Paul, they included most of the extant letters of Paul to the early churches and declared them to be of equal authority as the writings of Moses, the Jewish prophets and the gospels. Though the Bishop of Rome was already seen as preeminent, and a good deal of hierarchal structure already in place, the council of Nicaea can be thought of the real beginning of the official universal church.
In time the Bishop of Rome was given the right to speak for God and make up entire lines of doctrine that had only the most tenuous tie to Moses or Jesus. Thus, by the middle ages, it would have been hard to find any of the teachings of Jesus in the priorities of the official church.
Did that mean those who were strict followers of Jesus entirely disappeared? No. Over and over again there have been efforts to reassert the primacy of Jesus in the practice of Christianity. For a thousand years nearly all who aggressively promoted that idea were summarily executed by "the church." No threat to the doctrine of apostolic succession was tolerated. This effort to keep the teachings of Jesus as a minor point of official Christianity was greatly aided when all Bibles were in Latin, and essentially the only people who could read Latin were clergy of the official church. In time official church teachings went far afield of both the law and the teachings of Jesus and the apostles to encompass a great many things that did not directly seem related to the Bible. Yet to deny or even question anything the official church declared was a capital offence.
There were a number of movements within the church to promote Jesus, most notably the work of Francis of Assisi and Francis Xavier. Their focus on the teachings of Jesus led them to found groups committed to those teachings within the official church. But after a few generations both groups, the Franciscans & Jesuits, had largely been co-opted by their own official church bureaucracy.
The Reformation was the largest effort to break the power of the bishops to define Christianity. And while many Protestant groups made a great effort to follow the scriptures, they simply could not acknowledge they were still following the path of Peter, rather than the path of Paul (and Jesus). Even today as Evangelicals loudly proclaim they are committed to the Bible, they are totally rejecting the apostles agreement at the counsel of Jerusalem that the Mosaic law is only for the Jews. This is why they, like Peter, claim the right to pick and choose what parts of the Mosaic Law that are important and must be followed and what parts can just be ignored.
The picking and choosing is not limited to the Mosaic law. F
rom the beginning of the official universal church, the leaders picked which teachings of Jesus were important and which were not. This is why the Evangelicals today simply ignore what Jesus said was the most important part of Christianity, but rather define their "Christianity" by their opposition to abortion and civil rights for homosexuals. I like to call the “cut & paste religion” since they quite openly chop the words of the entire Bible into little chunks and then re-arrange the chunks to say what they want it to say. Notice how when these so-called Christians want to “prove” what they say is right, that they never quote a passage a length, but rather they quote short phrases simply arranged to make the words say what they want them to say. It doesn't matter one bit to them that Jesus never even hinted that his followers should seek to punish the Romans for their sexual practices, nor did he even mention the common use of abortifacients even though they were quite common; yet to right-church goers those to things are now the core of what it means to be “Christian.” Even while they profess their allegiance to the Bible and to Jesus, they make a mockery of both.
So, while I am distressed that American Christianity is effectively fighting against the teachings of Jesus, this is not new. It has been that way for a very long time. To commit to living out and promotion of the teachings of Jesus has never been popular. The more power the pseudo-Christians have, the more dangerous it is to stand firmly on the side of Paul and the first disciples to follow Jesus not Moses. We should be thankful that we are not likely to be burned alive for rejecting the official church.