18 December 2006

what would jesus say?

In the midst of life's complexities and with a social agenda, Charles Sheldon asked, "What would Jesus do?" In light of the current conflict in Iraq, some opponents of the war ask, "Who would Jesus bomb?" And today I ran across a blog post, apparently aimed at perceived doctrinal errors in the Reformed world today, more or less asking, "What would Jesus say?"

The suggested answer appears to be that Jesus would manfully, sharply, and vigorously confront errors with words of scorn, rebuke, denunciation, and intolerance, giving opponents no slack at all. According to the author, while Jesus dealt mildly with the errors of simple folks, he was anything but mild when it came to false teachers who actively opposed his gospel.

Fair enough, I guess.

But the whole argument presupposes some kind of analogy or symmetry between, on one hand, the diversity of views that exists within contemporary Reformed theology (and we're talking about conservative, confessing theology here) and, on the other hand, those religious leaders who opposed Jesus and the good news he brought.

Moreover, the argument suggests that the essential clarity of God's word not only extends to (in the words of the Westminster Confession of Faith) "those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation" (1.7), but to all manner of detail - including items upon which there has never been a full consensus among Reformed divines, let alone the wider church catholic.

Rather, the argument seems to suppose a zero tolerance policy with regard to any and all perceived error, rejecting distinctions between "essentials" and "non-essentials," though hinting that we might give special attention to matters of greater importance (left undefined).

What is one to make of such an argument?

It's undeniable that Jesus sometimes used terrifying invective, cursing in no uncertain terms those opponents who harbored murderous intentions, plotted and grumbled against Jesus' mission to Israel, and in so doing led others astray. But this was not the only way Jesus dealt with those who entertained error, even in their roles as teachers and leaders. One might think here of Jesus' encounter with Nicodemus or even his often confused disciples.

For those who embraced Jesus' mission as part of the unfolding of God's redemptive plan for Israel and the world, Jesus provided sometimes firm instruction, but he also remained patient with those searching and welcomed such folks into table fellowship. This practice, alongside his relative inattention to the theology of the Sadduccees, indicates, therefore, that Jesus made distinctions between various sorts of errors and teachers.

We need then to ask what it was about some of Israel's religious leaders that provoked Jesus' harshest responses. Could it be that what drew fire from our Lord was not so much error in itself, but rather the fundamental attitude that expressed itself in various ways, incuding error?

And might it be that this attitude was primarily one that presumed upon God's grace, taking up the biblical story in pursuit of self-justification, to exclude and control, setting up boundaries other than (and inimical to) faith in the person of Jesus?

If that is so, then might not real danger arise when we begin to slide towards similar attitudes - perhaps when we dare take up the Gospels' story of Jesus in order to justify our own similarly exclusionary attitudes or our own right to imitate Jesus' invective in opposing those among his followers with whom we may disagree?

Whatever one may conclude regarding those questions, I'm convinced the imitatio Christi that my own confessional Reformed tradition needs to contemplate today is less one that focuses upon Jesus' words to his opponents and more one that embraces Jesus' teaching that the world will know the Father sent his Son if only we learn to love one another, especially when we disagree.