Thursday, September 2, 2010

You can't make Jesus an "individualist"

The alarming sight of evangelical celebrities making common cause with Glenn Beck at his rally on Saturday should have been enough to prompt this post.

But today's news of Jerry Falwell, Jr. and Peter Lillback, the president of Westminster Reformed Seminary, appearing on Beck's show make this post necessary.

The gospel is only about individual salvation?
Beck had his guests on to shore up his statement that what Jesus preached was an individual salvation...only. "It's individual salvation. The Lord doesn't call us up, review our salvation and go, 'Ok now hang on just a second. Now serving group number 10!' It's individual. Your church is either for socialist government or the living of the gospel. It's either about God or government," says Beck, according to Christianity Today magazine.

His guests appear, in news accounts, to agree with him - although a careful look at the quotes suggests that they may not have been talking about the same thing.

That's good, because while the Bible certainly teaches us that we each are responsible before God for receiving salvation by faith in Christ, our responsibility as Christians is not "individual" at all - not if that means we just have to keep our own noses clean and each of us is on our own - and that's the whole point of the gospel!

I understand why many evangelicals believe that: my discipleship as a believer began in the kind of churches that unfortunately (and perhaps inadvertently) teach that. It's "Jesus and me...perfect together" to borrow from an old NJ tourism commercial. I used to think that my relationship with Jesus was the beginning and the end of the whole enterprise called Christianity. I got together with other Christians to celebrate it, and to do evangelism and missionary-work (which is mostly evangelistic or there is no point to it), but that was just a) convenient and b) more fun. I learned to disparage churches that seemed to spend their time and assets doing "social work" - I thought they didn't understand that this ship was going down, and the only important work was getting people into the lifeboats: when Jesus came again and destroyed the earth, what point would there be in having made the world a better place, if its inhabitants went to hell?

The problem with seeing the gospel through that lens is that I just didn't know what to do with things Jesus said and did. Why did Jesus begin his ministry quoting Isaiah, "the Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor," saying "today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing"? (Luke 4). Why didn't he just SAY what he came for was to rescue individuals from sin and death (and that's all)?

Why is the Sermon on the Mount the way it is? Many evangelicals understand what Jesus is saying in Matthew 5-7 to be a charge to be a very special community, one in which married people stay married, never commit adultery, give to the needy, pray in secret and don't worry, so that other individuals will want to come to faith in Jesus, too, and have this special individual relationship. And they're not wrong: that is partly what it's about.

But why does Jesus start out talking about the poor being blessed, about the meek and mourning being rewarded? And why, in the whole thing, does Jesus continue to talk to "you" in the plural?

What are all those healings, exorcisms and nature miracles about - why so many? After all, couldn't Jesus have done a couple of healings and miracles as calling cards for his divinity, and then gone straight to the cross to accomplish our salvation? And why did Mary, in her exultant "song" about her call to be the mother of the Lord, declare that what God was doing in it was bringing down rulers, lifting up the humble, filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich away empty?

I confess that I always found some discomfort in reading the gospels, because these things didn't make sense to me - and as I recall, we didn't read the synoptic gospels much at all, and tended to stay in the gospel of John and even more in the epistles, where specific instructions for individuals were more prominent.

It was only later that I learned to see that what Jesus continually talked about was the kingdom of God, and that what he said, and even more, what he did, was about the advance of God's kingdom through him.

When he spoke about being "anointed" at the beginning of his ministry, it was about being anointed King: God's kingdom, his church, was not just a convenient way for all those individual saved people to enjoy one another's company, but it is the whole idea: the kingdom of God is God's people together, and together they are to continue his work - to continue the advance of God's kingdom, in which the poor are blessed, being "set free" is the order of the day for all kinds of bondage: physical, spiritual, financial, social.

Thus we read such stories as the healing of the woman with the issue of blood: her bondage was not just physical, it was also social, and so Jesus set her free from her ailment, but also in a public healing set her free from the ostracism it had brought.

The king is coming back - not just to destroy the earth and rescue the saved, but instead to establish his kingdom in "the new heavens and the new earth," in which the brokenness of the world will be set right.

But is that "social justice"?
OK, fine, but what does that have to do with the "social justice" gospel that Glenn Beck derides and is now getting evangelicals to stand up with him about?

The king is coming, true - but Jesus established the kingdom of God for now, in the church. We are here to do his work - and the kingdom of God, as it advances, sets free. The Bible's view is that the problems of the world are directly linked to the fallenness of the world.

The key word, something we've lost, is "shalom" - in both Hebrew and Greek, the word we translate "peace" means much more: it means wholeness, harmony, well-being. Within the kingdom of God, because of Jesus' coming, death and resurrection, there is supposed to be shalom, the quality of life in the "garden," in paradise - as it was before everything fell. That's what 1 Corinthians 13 is about; that's what all those exhortations in Colossians are about; that's what the Sermon on the Mount is about.

But how can such a "body of Christ" exist within our communities, without reaching out to touch the broken world in which it exists?

Thus Jesus reached out beyond the boundaries of the Jewish community in which he walked, outraging some, by healing and touching Samaritans, gentiles and Roman soldiers. In the same way, Jesus violated the boundaries everyone "knew" about "sinners" - the broken people in their midst who were assumed to have deserved whatever they struggled with; the out-and-out rebellious like the woman caught in adultery and the tax collectors who collaborated with Israel's occupiers. The kingdom of God sets things right - the world will know us by our love. The invasion of the kingdom of God heals and sets free.

OK, but even if that's true, Glenn Beck and I should have no argument with each other, really, right? After all, what he's really concerned about is "government reach" - he denounces social justice because he wants to deride churches who think government programs are good. He really doesn't care if I preach that the church is the point, that individual faith by itself is not enough, or that Christians acting in concert through the church ought to be impacting the brokenness of the world.

The argument is about policy, so let's keep it there
Instead, the real discussion ought to be about democracy. The real question is not about churches but about Americans. And the specific decisions have to do with government's role.

How do Americans want to live together? Do we want to help one another when trouble strikes? Do we want to work together so that when recession comes, there aren't stark winners and losers? When illness strikes, will we help one another? Or do we prefer to live in a community where our ability to survive or thrive when we are on the receiving end of trouble is relative to our connections: if we have family, or church, or enough money, we'll be okay, but if not, well....

What we have inherited from the generations before us are national policies that provide the much heralded and derided "safety net" - there are some fundamental protections in place for all of us, paid for by those of us who can, through the channel of a government of our own making.

Social security, Medicare, Medicaid, disability insurance, unemployment insurance, etc., were policy decisions made by the people Americans voted for to do our business, and because of those things many people who would live in abject poverty do not; many people who would have died prematurely, didn't.

These are not specifically Christian decisions; they were American ones.

And there are two kinds of American arguments going on now about them.

One discussion has to do with pragmatics - costs, structure, taxes, waste and fraud. These arguments have to do with implementing such things well.

But the other argument is about doing these things together at all. Into this argument come voices who proclaim "personal responsibility": those who are in need of these programs have failed to provide properly for themselves, and it is not the responsibility of other Americans to provide for them.

This argument is the radical individualist one, the libertarian one - each of us has radical freedom to make our own choices, and our own mistakes...but if they make us poor or sick, we get what we get. It's no one else's job to save us.

My rejoinder (as an American) is that the pure application of that position would leave us in a world most of us really don't want to live in. In fact, I'd argue that most of those who make that argument are banking on what they perceive to be their own assets - family, community, money, property (even, truth be told, race) - so that if the wolves were at the door, once they ran out of their own assets, they wouldn't be on their own at all.

I suspect that what they really mean is that they are tired to paying the bills for "them" - the people not of their own community or family, the "others" who seem to be sucking up all the resources. It (mostly) goes unsaid, and that way people can picture whatever "them" seems most threatening, whether illegal immigrants, city dwellers, those of other races or ethnicities, or old people.

In the argument in the public square, I'd like to say that the policies enacted in the past - the safety net - makes life much more liveable for all of us, and even provides us with enough security as a culture so that individuals can take the entrepreneurial risks that enrich all of us. I don't want to live in a society without protections that make for softer landings when trouble comes, nor do I want to live in a society where we refuse to care for one another outside of our own little community.

That's the way it looks to me; others, including other Christians, may validly argue another point of view that has to do with policy: better ways to do things as a society.

Those are policy decisions on which we argue, campaign and vote, and our democratic process provides ways for us resolve and implement these issues fairly. Of course, not everyone will get their way, and those who don't, get to campaign another day to capture pubic opinion and see their views implemented.

But you can't draft Jesus into the individualist argument.
But the introduction of an individualist brand of Christianity, which is unbiblical, into the debate which is then fused to individualist politics, must be countered.

There is no Jesus argument against taxes - Jesus paid them, even though there were others in his culture arguing against paying them. Paul specifically enjoins us in Romans to pay them, and honor the emperor, too! One's argument for or against tax increases must be made on policy (because in our form of government, 'we' are the emperor - "of, by and for the people"), not on Bible verses.

There is no Jesus argument against a nation's social decision together to care for all its elderly citizens through a tax - there just isn't, and to counter that if we didn't have social security, the church could do it through charity and thereby bring everyone to Christ, is just silly. That's not a biblical idea, either: it seems to me that what is really being proposed in that argument is that the church will take care of its own elderly (not likely, either) and triumphally declare that it is better than the world around it by doing so.

Do those who argue this way really believe that God is more pleased by their willing abandonment of elderly neighbors than he would be with their joining in a simple tax to care for all our elderly?

And there certainly is no Jesus argument for withdrawing from social programs to care for Americans, so as to keep our money and only care for "our own," however we define that. Jesus throughout the gospels deliberately crossed social lines to demonstrate that God's love didn't obey such boundaries. There is no way that God is pleased with "Christian" arguments that are based on a fear of others.

There is no "them" for the kingdom of God - our enemies are NOT flesh and blood , say the scriptures - when we begin to think they are, we have become useless to the kingdom.

We need to take to heart that old question, "what would Jesus do?" If we call ourselves Jesus-followers, that needs to be the standard. There were many fights going on in the culture of Jesus' day but he refused to be drawn into them, because he, the King of a new kingdom, was already there, and his purpose was being acted out as he healed and set free, and declared the good news of reconciliation with God. That is not to say that we shouldn't be involved politically - again, in our form of government, 'we' are the emperor, and Christians certainly should be represented in that 'we.'

But what we do, even as we participate, needs to look like Jesus. Much of what is being said in the name of Jesus these days in the public square, does not.


  1. Sue, thank you for this timely, well-articulated piece. May I have permission to reproduce it on my blog, with some additional comments, and link back to your blog? There are several people I know who might benefit from it.

    Blessings in Christ,


  2. Thank you. I will share this with someone I love who needs to read it, as I did.