Following up on last week’s offering, where we were challenged in our use of language, I thought that I would write something on a topic that often frustrates me. It follows a short talk I listened to by John Ortberg, entitled ‘How to be wrong’. My frustration, which I must concede is something that I am very much guilty of, is that, at times, we can be more intent on being right than being like Jesus.
I recently watched brief snippets from a video message where a conservative speaker criticises and pokes fun at some progressive writers and social commentators, defining them as ‘not Christian’. I will admit that I don’t always agree with the output of these more progressive writers and commentators, nor are the conclusions they reach always helpful. Nevertheless, I was disturbed by the tone and content of the critique and equally by how many shares and likes it received on Facebook! This, to my mind, is not a good witness.
At times in my ministry, I have been taken aside by someone who informs me of the evils of the latest offering from Messrs Bell, Rohr, McLaren, and others. The conversation begins with them calling me ‘Brother’ and then telling me how the output they are advising me against was constructed, in their view, by Beelzebub and his devilish minions. When I attempt to probe what is so offensively dangerous, they will so often confess that they have not read or listened to it themselves but rather seen a review by someone else who has identified several theological fault lines.
For fear of alienating my brothers (and sisters), I will accept that some of the output these progressives offer is complete ‘bobbins’ (a theological term for not very good) and warrants a health warning. However, my concern is that the labelling, generalising, and conservative interpretations spill over into other areas, primarily the church. It begs the question, ‘Are we more focussed on teaching people how to be right, believe the right things, and say the correct words rather than helping people to become more like Jesus?’ Part of the church’s job is not simply to inform but to transform and shape habits and responses.
In his book ‘Renovation of the heart’, Dallas Willard asks the provocative question ‘Are we so intent on the basic goal to get as many people as possible ready to die and go to heaven that we have neglected getting heaven into people?’ It’s a good question. We have majored in instructing people how to die but not how to live. How to be right, but not necessarily how to be loving and Christ-like. In so doing, we are in danger of conveying a transactional approach to the Christian faith; if you believe this, this, and this, you will be saved. I have always thought that becoming a follower of Jesus is more a transformational relationship than a transactional agreement.
One of my growing convictions is that in our challenging time, we need to discover ways to work together with our sisters and brothers of other denominations – I’m even tempted to use the ‘E’ word that makes some tremble - ‘Ecumenical’.
It is rare for our rural communities to look at the many church buildings and comprehend the nuances in our interpretations of worship, communion, baptism, and spurious readings of who can or can’t officiate. However, what they will see is multiple monuments of schismatic theology, where the bigger issues of injustice, racism, hunger, ecological suicide, violence, marginalisation, and exploitation, to name just a few, are largely ignored within the walls of such buildings.
When Jesus encounters the law, so observes Richard Rohr (cue, sharp intake of breath), Jesus seems to put human compassion in front of the law. Who Jesus ate with broke many of the Levitical laws regarding cleanliness. He healed on the sabbath and failed to reprimand his followers for picking grain and eating it, reminding us that the law was created for humankind, humankind was not created for the law. Jesus came to remove barriers erected by the ruling religious classes between humanity and God; I cannot help but wonder if some are busily trying to re-erect these in the guise of conservative evangelicalism.
Please hear my heart; I am not saying anything goes, nor am I advocating an uncritical reading of some of the more progressive writers. I am simply asking whether we are more intent on being right that being like Jesus? Remember, God doesn’t love us because we are right, but because He is God.
In the recording I listened to, John Ortberg encourages us not to think about the painful person ‘out there’ who, through sharing their beliefs, have offended in terms of their rigidity of interpretation, but rather to think of ourselves and who we may have hurt by seeking to be more right than Christlike. It may mean that we have to say ‘sorry’ more often. I found that helpful.
So, in the coming weeks, I will consciously ‘put on Christ’, seek to decrease while he increases, and love others as Jesus has loved us. I will try to be less right, and more like Jesus.
CEO, Rural Ministries
 Galatians 3:27, John 3:30, John 15:12