When a person comes to faith in Christ, there is necessarily an immediate and ongoing response. There are certain things they can continue to do. There are other things, however, that they cannot continue to do. And then there are things that they can continue to do, but now with a new motivation. For example: a hard-working father in Barstow, California enters into a relationship with God through Jesus after years of church attendance. Immediately, he is convicted about his materialism and selfishness. These things, he recognizes, he must leave behind in order to follow Jesus. He is also aware of his need to read the Bible and speak to God through prayer, habits he had never picked up despite years of good instruction from his pastor. There are other things in his life, that he will continue to do, but now for new reasons. He should continue work hard and do his best, but not out of a desire for social status or material goods. He needs to keep spending quality time with his kids, but not in order to avoid the embarrassment of an unruly child or to make up for unkept promises of the past. His new motivition to continue all of these behaviors is Jesus. This response is one that happens over time. As we mature in the Lord, we become more like Him. He teaches and stretches us and shows us those places in our lives that need to be developed and changed.
We see this pattern pretty clearly in the case of a churchgoing American: repentence, then the ongoing process of sanctification. But what about a Muslim or a Hindu? If someone from a Buddhist cultural background comes to faith in Christ, can he continue identifying himself as Buddhist? This question is one that missionaries are faced with all over the world. IMB personnel struggle with it on a daily basis.
I believe that there is only one way to God and life in Him; it is Jesus, not Christianity, that provides access to the Most High God. So would I have a problem with an Indian believer who, after being reborn in the Holy Spirit, continues to call himself a Hindu? No. But I’m certain that the Board would not agree. IMB leaders are rumored to be considering a poliicy that would require our personnel to stop using the word “Allah” when referring to God. Allah, some reason, is the Muslim God. Nevermind that it is the Arabic word for God, or that the works-based religion traces itself back to the same Yahweh of the Hebrew people.
I guess the question is this: Did Jesus come to start a new religion? I don’t think He did. I think He fulfilled a religion, and permitted those whose cultural identity was wrapped up in it to continue practicing it. In Acts, we read that the first “Christians” continued meeting in the synagogues. For them, their national identity was Judiasm; it was not unlike the cultural Catholicism found throughout Europe or the cultural Christianity common in the U.S.
Did Jesus intend for His followers to build the spiritual family into an institution? I don’t think so. Sure, He instructed them to do certain things, and to avoid others. There were certain traditions, like a communion meal or baptism, that He seemed to expect us to continue. But I can’t help but wonder how He would feel about joining some of the Southern Baptist churches in the States. I don’t mean to say that our way of doing church is wrong, I’m saying that congregational cooperations are a cultural construct, and that we ought to recognize them as such. Being a follower of Jesus is, after all, about a relationship, not a religion, right?