I think this post raises a crucially important matter for christians today.
It was mob violence, but at least it didn’t lead to a lynching. Jason and a few friends, converts of the apostle Paul, were dragged before the city officials and angry accusations were made:
“These men [meaning Paul and company] …. are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus.” (Acts 17:6-7)
The officials released them on a bond. But, of course, the charges were quite accurate. Jesus is the king.
But it seems many christians no longer believe this …..
Jesus is the Messiah, the Lord, the king
One of the big gains in New Testament understanding over my lifetime has been the renewed emphasis on the kingdom of God, with Jesus as king.
- Mark records that Jesus commenced his ministry with the message: “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15) The word translated “good news” is the Greek euangelion, which normally had a secular meaning, announcing the coming of a new king.
- Scholars now generally accept that Jesus’ main message was the kingdom of God – Jesus uses the phrase over 50 times, and the apostles referred to it more than a dozen more times in Acts and the letters.
Always try to do what the king says
If Jesus is the king, it would be best to do what he says, right? So another renewed emphasis in the last few decades has been taking seriously Jesus’ teachings on living.
The Apostles Creed jumps straight from Jesus’ birth (“born of the virgin Mary”) to his death (“suffered under Pontius Pilate”), and says nothing about his teachings. (It says nothing about his miracles, nor about the Bible either.) But surely they are important, for they show us how to live in God’s kingdom.
The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) is a collection of many of King Jesus’ teachings about living and faith, so it has become much more prominent in recent years.
Guidelines for living
Jesus’ teachings are tough, epecially for richer christians. Jesus stresses:
- forgiving others is compulsory if we want God to forgive us;
- love of money isn’t consistent with love of God;
- we must love our enemies and pray for them;
- God will judge us by how we treat the poor, sick, oppressed, hungry and imprisoned;
- he wants our motives to be pure, not just our actions;
- God might permit divorce, but he doesn’t like it;
- anger and hatred are not pleasing to God.
There is some argument over how strictly we should take these sayings. Some say they are impractical, impossible ideals. But I can’t see Jesus wasting his breath if he didn’t want us to take then seriously. And I think we all know the world would be a better place if we all tried to live by them.
So impossible or not, I think King Jesus wants us to have a go. We will likely fall short, but better to obey the king than to ignore him.
Jesus called his disciples to follow him. This didn’t just mean walking where he walked – when a rabbi called someone to follow him, he was inviting them to become a disciples, to learn from him, and to obey his teachings.
If we call ourselves disciples of Jesus, then that is what we have committed ourselves to doing – learning from him and obeying him.
Do we want this king, or another king?
But I came across some worrying newspaper articles the other day. Several evangelical christians, commenting on why they support Donald Trump, gave an insight into what they think about Jesus’ teachings. Whatever we may think about christian support for Trump, it is their attitude to Jesus that is more important …. and more troubling.
Robert Jeffress, pastor at First Baptist Church in Dallas, was asked in a radio discussion if he wanted a President who would govern according to the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. He replied:
“Heck no. I would run from that candidate as far as possible, because the Sermon on the Mount was not given as a governing principle for this nation.”
Then he explained his reasoning in more detail:
“Nowhere is government told to forgive those who wrong it, nowhere is government told to turn the other cheek. Government is to be a strongman to protect its citizens against evildoers. When I’m looking for somebody who’s going to deal with ISIS and exterminate ISIS, I don’t care about that candidate’s tone or vocabulary, I want the meanest, toughest, son of a you-know-what I can find, and I believe that’s biblical.”
Strong and warlike, not weak?
Other christians echo Jeffress’s view that governments must be strong, not weak – with weak sometimes being equated with the personal values taught by Jesus.
Ken Crow, former Tea Party head, and a conservative christian, commented: “America needs a hard-charging, outspoken, politically incorrect, borderline jerk at the moment. We need someone who loves our nation, makes our enemies quiver in fear…”
Jerry Falwell Jr says in politics “you’re not supposed to turn the other cheek. You’re at war.” He justifies his view from the Bible: “I think they just need to read the teachings of Jesus more closely and stop trying to apply the teachings Jesus meant for personal every day life to the government”.
James Dobson has also been reported stressing the need for strong leadership
A major fork in the road?
I don’t know how many American christians see things this way. I suspect that many would be uncomfortable with an explicit repudiation of the Sermon on the Mount in politics, but it seems many hold similar views about military strength and the need to fight enemies.
So it does seem that western christianity is coming to a fork in the road.
Turning right are those who see public morality largely in terms of abortion, homosexuality, patriotism and a militarily powerful America. They justify putting Jesus’ teachings about loving enemies and caring for the poor aside in government by saying Jesus’ teachings don’t apply to governments. They see America as God’s chosen and favoured nation, which must stay the most powerful country in the world so that it can stand against the evil tides of Islam and secularism. Some believe God has directly chosen Donald Trump to bring this about, and some have even prophesied it. Their view of christianity and God seem to be based more on the Old Testament than on Jesus.
Turning left are those who believe when we pray (in the Lord’s Prayer) for God’s kingdom to come, we must also take steps to make God’s rule and will to be effective on earth as in heaven. They see a christian as one who doesn’t just believe in Jesus, but follows him in the way they live …. and vote, for they believe the Sermon on the Mount should be a guide for personal, public and government morality. Some are pacifists, others believe war is sometimes justified to protect the innocent, but all seek non-violent and peaceful solutions. They believe America’s wealth and privilege should be used to serve the poor and assist in reducing inequality.
It seems the gap is widening, and the two sides can hardly hear each other across the chasm, let alone discuss prayerfully, any more.
I am quite firmly in the latter camp. I am committed to following Jesus in the way I live and vote, even though I falter in that commitment at times. I believe when we say “Jesus is Lord”, we place allegiance to him above allegiance to any nation, political party or ideology, just as it meant the early church couldn’t give ultimate allegiance to Caesar. Being a christian touches my politics as much as it touches my personal life.
But I believe we shouldn’t be legalistic about this – we should be led by the Spirit. So I am not a complete pacifist, though I tend towards pacifism because it is the way of Jesus. But I recognise that governments represent all citizens, and most are not pacifists, and in Australia most are not christians, so it is unrealistic to expect governments to follow Jesus in everything. But we can argue for a more compassionate and Jesus-like response and hope to have an influence – like yeast in dough, as Jesus said.
It remains to be seen whether conservative christians are now following another king, or not. Most would be horrified to think so, but Jesus said we should judge a tree by its fruit and a person by their choices.
I believe this could become a defining issue in the changes in western christianity that have already been underway for half a century and look set to revolutionise the western churh.
Is Jesus to be our king, or just our saviour?
- A king for Jesus: what the religious right sees in Trump Roger Friedland in Religion Despatches.
- God Loves Donald Trump. Right? Thomas Edsall in New York Times
- Jesus or Trump; Southern Baptists and other evangelicals choose sides Bruce Gourley in Baptist History and Heritage Society.
- How Donald Trump Divided and Conquered Evangelicals Rolling Stone.
- Has Donald Trump been Chosen by God to Restore America Ken Crow in Crows Nest Politics
- 2011 Prophecy Claims God Chose Trump to Save America Veronica Neffinger in Christian Headlines and The real reason Donald Trump was chosen to be the Republican candidate for President Geoffrey Grider in Now the end begins
- Killer Clowns, Deportation and an Apology on Behalf of the Evangelical American Church Brooke in Compassion is a Journey blog.
Photo: Golden Mask of Tutankhamun in the Egyptian Museum. Wikimedia Commons (Carsten Frenzl)
I think you will get other Bible followers saying that Trump is the anti Christ and we are now in the “end of days”.
Just more examples of cherry picking the Bible to suit one’s political views. That’s why it’s so hard for non Christians to accept the lack of definitive standards in the Bible and the seemingly hypocritical beliefs of SOME of its followers.
I hope you had a pleasant trip back. Would you be comfortable living in the USA after Trump takes over ?
Though I’m not amazed by it, the belief that restrictions on abortion and homosexuality should inform politics but Jesus’ teachings not is some remarkable, amazing hypocrisy. There is nothing biblicist about that level of cherrypicking, just rebellion against God (and I’m certainly no biblicist myself).
“Just more examples of cherry picking the Bible to suit one’s political views. That’s why it’s so hard for non Christians to accept the lack of definitive standards in the Bible”
I think you have touched on something very important here. I am currently reading a book by New Testament scholars, and it was discussing whether the words of Jesus were used to decide on ways to behave. Surprisingly, they said the evidence suggested that the early christians used the words and actions of jesus in their evangelism, but for day-to-day behaviour they didn’t, preferring to trust the day-to-day guidance of the Holy Spirit.
I need to do some more checking, but I think this adds to the picture I already have (from scholars) that the first century Jews and christians didn’t see the Bible as a rule book, but as information to consider and interpret and apply in each different situation.
If that is true, the “problem” isn’t that people take different messages from the Bible, but that they don’t allow the Spirit of God to guide them in drawing those conclusions.
“I hope you had a pleasant trip back. Would you be comfortable living in the USA after Trump takes over ?”
A good trip back thanks, better than the one over (much less tiring). I don’t think I’d be comfortable living in USA anyway, really, less so with him.
“some remarkable, amazing hypocrisy.”
I think all of us are inconsistent, but, yes, the conservatives claim the greatest fidelity to scripture but seem just as inconsistent as anyone else.
I agree we are all inconsistent, but not all inconsistency is hypocritical. For instance, saying that theology can simply be a systematisation of everything the infallible Bible teaches and be coherent is inconsistent, but it’s not hypocritical in my view. But to consciously play down the teachings of Jesus while inflating the importance of things that aren’t in the Bible (abortions) or much more marginal (opposition to homosexuality), while asserting that the Bible is inerrant, but also that Jesus is the Son of God goes further than mere inconsistency in my view.
Not that I would insist on throwing that in anybody’s face, but it does seem like a dark place for American Protestantism to be. That doesn’t even take any of the many objections to Trump from a humanitarian viewpoint into account.
Yes, I agree with you, but I can also see the other side (to some degree). We can’t, I think, measure the importance of a teaching simply by the number of times it was mentioned by Jesus, even though that is one factor we should consider. If abortion is considered to be murder (for which there is a reasonable prima facie case, even though I think that case can also be questioned), then I can understand why it has become such an important issue for people. But your argument is stronger about homosexuality vs (say) wealth or violence, where it is hard to see any compelling reason to hold strongly to the Biblical teaching on the former and not on the latter two.
But yes, we are agreed that there is some deep inconsistency there. I have thought for some time that US christianity has got to change or suffer decline and judgment, and I can’t help feeling this is a step along that path.
Great post. Thanks.
I so much agree with you on your point about Jesus’ teachings. I too think they are to be followed in the heart and outwards. (And I think Jesus himself asks for this through the gospels).
I don’t think they are rules for outward behavior, a chekclist, but rather words and pictures that are to be sown in the heart to change it’s DISPOSITIONS (from the dictionary: the predominant or prevailing tendency of one’s spirits; natural mental and emotional outlook or mood; characteristic attitude).
When I look for truth in religions and in the human perspectives on religions, I always have The Sermon on The Mount as my lens or prism. If what I see are the colors of self-giving love, I believe it as being truth.
In Wright’s writings I see a christian paradigm that in a very high degree resonates with love. And that’s why I came to christianity after looking elsewhere (i.e. buddhism, etc.). It’s also Wright’s perspective of christianity I hold in high regard.
I think that you too reflects a christianity that are like Wright’s and which resonates deep in my heart. I have not read that much of Wright yet, I’m working on it, but both of you make so much sense to me.
I hope it is allright, that I answer you here, though you asked for a mail-correspondance(?) Of course I will write to you on mail, if you like, but then I saw this great post of yours. And I thought that this would be a great place to continue the dialogue of The Sermon on The Mount and self-giving love.
Hi Thomas, thanks again.
“I don’t think they are rules for outward behavior, a chekclist, but rather words and pictures that are to be sown in the heart to change it’s DISPOSITIONS”
I love this way of expressing it! Thanks.
“When I look for truth in religions and in the human perspectives on religions, I always have The Sermon on The Mount as my lens or prism. If what I see are the colors of self-giving love, I believe it as being truth.”
I agree. You should have a look at the teachings of the Anabaptists, this is one of their emphases.
I think there are several emphases in Jesus’ teaching – the kingdom of God, the way of love shown in the sermon on the mount, his redemptive death, the importance of forgiveness, etc – and I think it is good to keep all these in balance. It seems often that christians take hold of one or two, but neglect one or two.
“I think that you too reflects a christianity that are like Wright’s and which resonates deep in my heart. …. both of you make so much sense to me.”
I am flattered by the compliment, thank you so much. I think there is a slow but growing movement in christianity in this direction. I am so glad, and so impressed, that you have found your way into it and have such a good understanding of it.
It’s fine about commenting here rather than by email. I just suggested it because I was interested in hearing more of your story and how you got to be where you are now in your thinking and faith, and I thought you might prefer to do that by email. But whatever you think is fine.
Thanks again for your insightful and beautiful comments.
Thank you for your kind words and the links to the teachings of the Anabaptists.
There are probably many aspects to my history. One of them is that in my early or mid 20’s, I had an existential crisis. I asked a philosophical question I could not answer. That question came with great fear of being alone, and the easiest way to boil it down is to this thought experiment:
“In philosophy, the brain in a vat (alternately known as brain in a jar) is a scenario used in a variety of thought experiments intended to draw out certain features of our ideas of knowledge, reality, truth, mind, consciousness and meaning. It is an updated version of René Descartes’ Evil Demon thought experiment originated by Gilbert Harman. Common to many science fiction stories, it outlines a scenario in which a mad scientist, machine, or other entity might remove a person’s brain from the body, suspend it in a vat of life-sustaining liquid, and connect its neurons by wires to a supercomputer which would provide it with electrical impulses identical to those the brain normally receives. According to such stories, the computer would then be simulating reality (including appropriate responses to the brain’s own output) and the “disembodied” brain would continue to have perfectly normal conscious experiences, such as those of a person with an embodied brain, without these being related to objects or events in the real world.”
How could I know if anyone else but me was here?
What about love then? Did I only love phantoms? – Sensory input with no real persons behind them? So LOVE became something very important to me. Reaching out in self-giving love was something that had to be existentially true … it was some kind of antidote to the fear and the horrifying scenario expressed in “brain in a vat” (or a variation thereof).
When philosophy could’nt help me I turned to religion. Rather quickly I came to mysticism and this book: The perennial philosophy by Aldous Huxley. It comforted me because of the promise that it is possible to get knowledge beyond scientific and philisophical knowledge. In fact I’m convinced I did get intuitive certainty (not just “good feelings”) about this question of mine, but only in flashes – and only in moments when my ego became sort of empty.
But then I was quickly led astray by a man who told me that his soul was soaked in Jesus’ soul. He meant that The gospel of the holy twelve told the truth. And he compelled me to do furious attacks on “ordinary” christianity. And from there my ego took over.
Now, 10 years later, perhaps the doors to earnest seeking didn’t close completely for me. I hope not. Because here I am, beginning to believe in “ordinary” (for lack of a better word) christianity and getting inspired by Wright.
But I would like to ask you:
1) What is your take on mysticism?
2) Do you think it is possible to gain knowledge beyond the mere scientific and philiosophical areas? Because if it isn’t, a lot of things fall to the ground. – Everything gets in the grasp of scepticism I am afraid.
Hi Thomas, thanks for sharing all that. Did you grow up in a family that was christian, nominal christian, agnostic, atheist?
I understand the brain-in-a-vat problem, but I always thought of it as theoretical – I don’t think I’ve met anyone before who experienced it as a practical dilemma.
“1) What is your take on mysticism?”
I think we need to be careful with what we accept and believe, but I nevertheless believe it is a real thing, at least for some people. I have written on it here: Mystical experiences. I did quite a lot of research for that article, after I had read a book which gave me a lot of initial ideas.
There are some good scientific conclusions about mystical experiences, and they show that they are generally positive to a persons’s health and wellbeing.
“2) Do you think it is possible to gain knowledge beyond the mere scientific and philiosophical areas?”
Very much so. Even scientific people believe this, because they often say science is the only true way of knowing – not noticing that they’ve just claimed as true a statement that science cannot tell them.
We know things in many different ways – e.g. through personal experience I know I enjoyed cereal for breakfast this morning. That statement cannot be easily supported scientifically, especially the bit about my enjoying my breakfast, it relies on introspection and memory. And of course every scientist has to rely on memory otherwise they couldn’t achieve anything without constantly referring to textbooks and their notes, and not relying on memory for even 1 second.
Further, cognitive studies show that sometimes intuitive thought processes are more likely to give the right answer than rational ones – this occurs if the decisions are required quickly on complex matters which cannot be rationally assessed easily or in time. I’ve looked at this in Rational thinking is over-rated?, Why do people believe or disbelieve? What would it take to change your mind (or mine)? and Choosing our religion (3): how people make choices.
And I see no reason as a christian not to believe in supernatural revelation. I have written a little on this too – see Visions of Jesus?. I have even experienced this in a very small way – see The day God saved my life … perhaps.
What do you think?
I was raised in an agnostic family – perhaps close to atheistic – but “culturally christian”; i.e. going to church at Christmas. And it was my existential crisis that made me a seeker.
I am very glad for our dialogue and for your links to anabaptism and mysticism. It’s very much in sync with what I think and feel about the world.
It is exciting to realize the bit about scientific people believing(!) – in science. Good point.
I think you are very helpful on my journey toward greater understanding and devotion.
Hi Thomas, thanks so much for the encouragement and kind words. If this website has helped you, that is it’s purpose and I am well satisfied. Let’s keep in touch.
1. I think the question whether abortion qualifies as murder raises a serious topic and deserves mature answers. But my issue was very specific: specifically with (apparent) adherents of biblicism* who seem to abandon Biblical teachings from Jesus but retain religiously motivated opposition to abortion. As I’m sure you know, there is no direct mention let alone injunction against abortion in the Bible. So there’s an odd mismatch between a rejected but clear Biblical teaching and an upheld extrabiblical view.
2. I would agree that the number of mentions by Jesus doesn’t count for much. The phrasing and context of a teaching (importance, scope, intended audience) and the consistency of mentions in the gospels are far more important criteria.
* I take biblicism to be the view that the Bible as a whole offers a single, strictly coherent (not internally contradictory) and strictly authoritative (uncontestable) theology that provides an unambiguous basis for a further theological framework.
Yes, I agree with everything you say here. I like your definition of biblicism, and I agree with you on both your numbered points. I think any apparent disagreement between us was in reality just mentioning two different sides of these questions which we both agree are complex.
Two things, if I may:
1. I really appreciate Thomas’ story about existential crisis and LOVE. It sounds almost exactly like the thought-process I went through, after giving birth to my second child. (And I, too, came to the conclusion that I could either descend into craziness, in the way of Nietzsche. Or I could accept that I will never know *everything* through science and philosophy alone…) It’s encouraging to read the thoughts of another person who has traveled the same path!
2. Regarding abortion and homosexuality, I believe it’s possible to argue the wrongness of both, without appealing to the Bible at all. In the United States, whenever a committed Christian politician tries to gain office, then he/she will be accused of “trying to establish a Theocracy” by the “freedom-from-religion” sort. (Is this an issue in Australia, or just over here?) Anyway, arguing as a Biblicist on ANY topic will prevent you from getting elected. Period.
But–even the most staunch Atheist believes that human life is sacred and that sex is deeply spiritual, though they won’t use those words. I believe it’s possible to make a solid case against homosexuality and abortion, without the hypocrisy of cherry-picking Jesus. (Indeed, I don’t think it’s necessary to reference Him at all. Because, in God’s great mercy, he has written the truth on ALL of our hearts.)
Thanks for this post!
Hi, thanks for the positive comments, I’m glad you found this post and conversation interesting.
I find it interesting that you say that ” arguing as a Biblicist on ANY topic will prevent you from getting elected”, for my perception from a distance was the opposite – that being an atheist made it difficult to get elected.
It isn’t such an issue in Australia. Our last 4 Prime Ministers have identified as Protestant, Atheist, Catholic and Agnostic, and no-one really cared all that much (except maybe the Catholic was mistrusted by some secularists for his views on sexual ethics, but he didn’t really do much on those matters). All four did nothing much to limit abortion or promote same sex marriage, so political realities were stronger than personal ideology.
Thank you for sharing this!
Wow, I didn’t knew others had it like me. Very inspiring to hear that 🙂
Very late reply, but I think it’s possible to get elected in some polities as a biblicist on some/any topics, but I would agree it’s a Sisyphean task to try that as a biblicist on all topics. I’m more sceptical about your proposals on abortion and homosexuality – opposition to both in practice always rely on religiously based arguments these days in the West, though that was different in the past.