Always faithful–except when I’m not

“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other.” (Matthew 6:24)

“Elijah went before the people and said, ‘How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.’ But the people said nothing.” (1 Kings 18:21)

At the heart of the faith is being disciples of Jesus Christ. Becoming one (“Follow me”) and making them as commanded in the Great Commission, defined further by “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Mt 28:20).

And yet it’s amazing how this simple task can be so distorted, misunderstood or simply neglected in the swirl of religious activity that is typical of so many churches. It’s not peculiar to our program-saturated day. And some of its failures have been tragic and even appalling.

Over the past few days I have been reading Jesus Wars by religion historian Philip Jenkins. The discussion focuses mostly on the 5th-century Mediterranean Christian world, when certain doctrines that we take for granted were being debated and hammered out. Hammered out is chosen deliberately because it was sometimes accompanied by violence.

Jenkins points out that on the issue of Christ’s divine and human nature (Christology) the debate could turn on one Greek letter: homoousios (“same being”) versus homoiousios (“like being”). One letter.

But it’s not the the doctrinal refinements that drew my attention. It was the way opposing factions “contended for the faith.” They acted less like Christians than rival gangs depicted in Gangs of New York (one of Jenkins’ descriptions), or the Montagues and Capulets in Romeo and Juliet (or their modern counterparts in West Side Story) or the crime families in The Godfather.

Backbiting and malicious slander, violence, abductions, even murder characterized the struggle for influence, dominance, acquiring more territory and consolidating and maintaining those gains. Any rational believer (or non-believer) might ask what any of this had to do with following the One who said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (Jn 13:35).

If I could sum up one “moral of the story” for the 5th-century church it would be: For all your zeal for formulating, declaring and contending for right doctrine, by itself it is not the equivalent of “teaching then to obey everything I have commanded.” You can believe the right things and still hate your brother.

In their responsibility to love one another as brethren and bear with each other’s shortcomings, to “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Eph 4:3), and to demonstrate to a watching world who you are by the way you relate to your brethren, they were utter failures.

Or to use another analogy, they were utterly unfaithful. But what about their zeal for the truth?

What of it? And what “truth”? The truth that enhanced their temporal standing in the church, elevating their power and prestige and earning favor with the emperor, while they ignored other, equally important portions of the truth at the same time? What about being faithful to the Bridegroom? Is he less or more important than the patriarch, the bishop or the emperor?

Imagine this prenuptial discussion. Your intended comes to you and says, “I am completely devoted to you. I want to be your wife (husband). I want you to be my husband (wife). But there are stipulations I have about this marriage.

Once a month I want the freedom to go and be with someone else of my own choosing—for the whole weekend. This right is not to be withheld, not to be interfered with. When I return on Sunday evening, I am yours—completely and without reservation. Until the next month.”

Are you crazy? Of course I won’t agree to that.

“OK, what about every two months?”

Why are you asking me this? Do you want to be married or don’t you?

“Of course I want to be married. But I want my freedom, too.”

You can have all kinds of freedom with which I won’t interfere. But not this ‘freedom.’

“What about once a year?”

Do you know what marriage is? You still have the freedom you want right now. We don’t have to be married. But marriage means surrendering the ‘freedom’ you will not relinquish.

“Follow me” means much more than “agree with,” “admire as a great teacher” or even “I’ll guard sound doctrine with great zeal.” It means complete devotion. It means obedience to everything he has commanded, even when it means subordinating your will to his. It means putting your hand to the plow and not turning back—or it’s not following Jesus in the sense he meant.

Note: As with previous references to books I’ve been reading, I do not promote or benefit from promoting any books or other products mentioned in these posts. The links are for information and reference only. I am not opposed to advertising or linking to product pages or other sites that offer goods or services that might be of interest to readers. But I don’t do it on this site.

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