I believe that a fresh reading of Scripture points to some startling questions—frequently enigmatic issues—particularly for believers in the West and in those places where Western thinking has gained influence. Calling at once for commitment to truth and understanding (both in Jesus’s encounters in Gospels and in the Epistles), the Scriptures provide us with countless illustrations of what appear to be exceptions to our expectations.
In this article I point to a sample of apparently enigmatic events and practices to help challenge our thinking as to “best practices” in ministry. I primarily raise questions. In a sense it is deliberately provocative. I trust readers will consider the implications for ministry. I welcome the thoughts and feedback of readers.
In my years in journalism, as a consultant/adviser in communications, and as a leader of major collaborative initiatives, I have experienced and lived through countless major and minor controversies related to these issues.
The bigger picture
The issues raised here have much wider implications for our communication of the Gospel. Every pastor, ministry leader, or ordinary layperson seeking to represent Christ makes decisions every day regarding whom they will associate with, what strategies they will employ, and what the most appropriate approach is to those outside the faith. Who is fit to participate in church life, and how should we communicate the Good News to those who are in very different social, cultural, or economic circumstances?
Clearly, we need truth as expressed in the Scripture, the anchor for our faith and hope and reflected in daily life. One has only to reflect on Acts 17:10–12, where we read that the church in Berea examined the Scriptures day and night to see whether Paul and Silas were teaching the truth. Truth is important! (To appreciate the high-drama potential of falsehood masquerading as truth, consider nineteenth-century Russian author Vladimir Solovyov, who writes in his short story “The Antichrist” about the antichrist having received an honorary doctorate in theology from the University of Tübingen!)
Though the phrase is now well-worn, still one cannot but ask, “What would Jesus do?” If Jesus were to minister today in a community of Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, or secular Western culture, what would he say, and what would he do? To whom and why? And with whom would he associate? And again, why?
Here I wish to encourage readers to explore the seemingly enigmatic action, statements, and associations of Jesus. Then consider how these issues may shed light on what he wants us to be and do today.
Membership: Who’s in and who’s out—and why?
It does seem remarkable that Jesus placed much more emphasis on personal faith and personal demonstration of a changed heart than he did on fidelity to a set of rules or theological statements. And beginning in Acts 15, there is a growing amount of content in the disciples’ teaching that addresses public and private implications of a Christ-changed life. There clearly needs to be a difference between dark-filled and light-filled lives. Passages such as “If you know that he is righteous, you know that everyone who does what is right has been born of him” (1 John 2:29) make this point abundantly clear.
Belief without evident transformation of mind and action is no real belief. However, one wonders to what extent the impact of rationalism on evangelical thinking has in fact severely atrophied a full spiritual encounter with Christ and his place in the world? Instead, how often have we substituted rules, formulas, and regulations about faith and practice?
And one wonders whether much of the debate about inclusion/exclusion, faith and practice by followers of Jesus has taken on such a shrill tone because, again in the West particularly, we are patrons of near-term, visible results? The notion that the process of God-fearing types coming into increasing light, growing maturity, understanding, and changing lifestyles and potentially changing identities may be an extended journey seems a difficult idea for our impatient heads to accept.
Reflect on Abraham’s exchange with King Abimelech in Genesis 20. Abimelech asked Abraham, “What was your reason for doing this?” Abraham replied, “I said to myself, ‘There is surely no fear of God in this place’” (Gen. 20:10–11a).
Abimelech had no chance to know Christ, of course. Yet, he clearly had a heart that was receptive and responsive. It is a sobering thought that it was God’s grace that rescued Abimelech. God saw Abimelech’s heart, acknowledged Abimelech’s innocence, and carried out his night visitation as a means of escape for Abimelech. God did all this because of action taken by the patriarch, who in this situation lacked both faith and honesty. What are the implications for today as we seek to communicate with millions of God-fearers? And then seek to call all these into an active, intimate relationship with Christ?
Is it possible that a priori we place a burden of performance or of knowledge on the inquiring or emerging believer that is too great to bear? Consider the seemingly extraordinary defection of the disciples during Jesus’s arrest. They had been chosen by Jesus. And this falling away was after walking, talking, sleeping, and eating with, as well as having been taught in word and deed by the Second Person of the Trinity for three years! If we were watching these events play out, what might have been our assessment of the disciples’ understanding and commitment?
In his pleading prayer of brokenness, a pivot point in David’s lament was his understanding and dependence on God’s ability to look at the inside: “My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise” (Ps. 51:17). How many in our personal or ministry “audiences” have such a heart?
In a well-known passage, Samuel, charged by God to anoint Israel’s next king, is warned not to look at the obvious but to trust that there was something inside that made all the difference. And in the end was it not qualities quite contrary to Samuel’s traditional expectations that made for success? It was Samuel’s listening spirit that allowed him to hear God’s anointing voice as David was picked (1 Sam. 16:7).
A particularly pointed exchange between Jesus’s perspective and that of the disciple John is recorded in Mark 9. Here John proceeded to draw the lines of exclusion and inclusion very clearly. He reported to Jesus that, on the previous day, he and his colleagues had seen others casting out demons in Jesus’s name and had rebuked them, told them to stop it. John reported that they did so because “they are not part of our group.” Jesus’s response has been ringing in the ears of the church ever since, “He who is not against us is for us” (vv. 38–40).
What are we to make of this comment, coming as it did from the one who clearly stated, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No man comes to the Father but by me” (John 14:6). And “They look at the outward appearance, but I at the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7).
Consider Jesus’s well-known encounter with Zacchaeus in Luke 19:1–9. Zacchaeus, a cheat and an opportunist, was perceived by the righteous of the day as an outcast. There could hardly be a more striking contrast regarding ministry as to who is in and who is out. The first view (v. 7): “All the people who saw it started grumbling, ‘This man has gone as a guest to the home of a sinner!’” Then Jesus’s response (vv. 9–10): “Salvation has come to this house today, for this man, also, is a descendant of Abraham. The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” Apparently, despite what the religious leaders thought, Zacchaeus was a bona fide God-fearer.
And then there was the man who wrote the first book of the New Testament, Levi (Matthew), yet another tax collector and outcast. Luke chronicles the judgment of the religious leaders and Jesus’s response: “The Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples, ‘Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?’ Jesus answered them, ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance’” (Luke 5:30–32).
James 2:1–13 contains a lengthy, ringing warning to us as to how we judge who is in and who is out. It concludes with “Mercy triumphs over judgment.”
What do these texts suggest for today?
Of course, it was not just tax collectors whom Jesus engaged or spent time with. Consider the outcasts such as the lepers and the woman taken in adultery. What do we make of Jesus’s words to the latter woman?
Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
“ No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”
And what about the following faith-based “proxy” healings?
- the centurion and his servant (Matt. 8:5–13)
- the Cannanite (Syrophoenician) woman and her daughter (Mark 7:24–30)
- the official and his son (John 4:43–53).
A nagging question remains: Will we see these people in heaven—the ones who demonstrated faith and their beneficiaries?
Passages such as Psalm 24:6, Psalm 15, and Philippians 2:6–9 suggest that “knowing” Christ is not first a matter of the mind but a matter of the heart—of faith.
Mastery: How much do we need to know?
In his nonfiction book Outliers: The Story of Success,, Malcolm Gladwell, developed the concept of the “10,000 Hour Rule” for explaining mastery or extraordinary performance—from world-class chess to Olympic gold-medal performances to virtuoso piano-playing.
It is certainly true that the riches of Christ are unsearchable (Eph. 3:8). But after admitting the impossibility of exhaustive mastery, how much does a person actually need to know to be a genuine disciple? And reflecting on the stories of individuals in the previous section, what is going on? Has our perception of the essentials of the Gospel been led astray?
An old Southern evangelist in the United States once said when advising on Christian doctrine, “Just ask, what do they do with Jesus?” But what about the similar question Jesus asked his own disciples? “When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say the Son of Man is?’” (Mark 8:27–30). The variety of answers from the disciples finally culminated in Peter’s word, which accurately reflected the truth. This incident suggests several things: even a legion of devout followers is not always aware of “the details,” particularly in the early going of discipleship. The variety of responses reflected the disciples’ own lack of clarity.
Jesus appears to have been perfectly comfortable with the diversity and limited nature of his audience’s understanding. Closely associated with this event is the exchange in John 14 during Jesus’s final hours when, over the last dinner together, Philip asks Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.” Jesus answered: ”Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time?” (John 14:9–11).
Having spent the better part of three years with these disciples, Jesus demonstrates a generous understanding and sympathy with the disciples’ spiritual journey and limited understanding. Was it really possible to walk, talk, eat, sleep, and spend countless hours over three years with the Second Person of the Trinity and still not have full understanding? What are the implications regarding our understanding today of the essentials of entry into his kingdom?
Consider the following exchange between John the Baptist and those in his audience in Luke 3:10–14:
The people asked him, “What are we to do, then?”
He answered, “Whoever has two shirts must give one to the man who has none, and whoever has food must share it.”
Some tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what are we to do?”
“Don’t collect more than is legal,” he told them.
Some soldiers also asked him, “What about us? What are we to do?”
He said to them, “Don’t take money from anyone by force or accuse anyone falsely. Be content with your pay.”
So, for God-fearing individuals; how much or what do you have to know or say to stand righteous before God?
The Gospels’ documentation of Jesus’s one-on-one encounters with the individuals of his day yields a striking picture. In the Gospels, twenty-one or twenty-two people encounter Jesus one-on-one. Of this number, only 11 or 12 percent came to him about religious or explicitly spiritually related issues (Nicodemus, the ‘“rich young ruler.” and the religious teacher in Luke 10); the other 88 or 89 percent came to him with the ordinary stuff of life: broken bodies, tormented minds, or children, servants, and other family members who were in a bad way. Examining these encounters, one is struck with at least two observations. First, Jesus asked few questions (such as “What’s the problem?” or “Do you think I can do something about this?”). But there were no tests—neither regarding theology nor even about his own identity. Second, it may be more troubling that the only postencounter instructions were either compliance with Jewish law, as with the ten lepers healed, or “Go and sin no more,” as with the lame man at the pool of Bethsaida and the woman caught in adultery.
Considering this evident lack of post-encounter instructions, today’s evangelicals might be stumped by some obvious questions, such as, Will we see the centurion of Matthew 8 or “blind Bartimaeus” of Matthew 10 in heaven? What about Jairus (Mark 5), the Syrophoenician woman (Matt. 15), the weeping mother at Nain (Luke 7), and the woman with the “issue of blood” (Luke 8)? And while particularly the Epistles make it clear that a believer must go beyond milk to meat, what qualifies an encounter with Jesus as sufficient, and to what extent does our answer affect our guidelines for understanding who is in and who is out of the community of faith?
In its early stages the electrifying story of Lazarus has the remarkable dialogue between Jesus and Martha in which she displays great insight into the nature of life, death, and the resurrection (John 11:1–27). That part of the story ends with Jesus remarking, “I am the resurrection and the life. He that believes in me will live even after dying.” It seems stunning that he puts no other conditions on eternal life with him. To what extent does the profound simplicity of Martha’s faith and Jesus’s definition of hope for the future raise questions about contemporary rules associated with what is thought to be essential knowledge for belief and salvation?
Violent criminals have generally not been known for their depth of spiritual understanding. It is particularly striking, then, that the final personal encounter Jesus has with a searching soul occurs on the cross, in which one of criminals crucified alongside Jesus pleads, “Lord, remember me when you come into your Kingdom” (Luke 23:42). He is rewarded with Jesus’s powerfully reassuring words, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” It was the desperate 11:59:59 moment in the life cycle for the criminal. There was no time for theological examination or apparent spiritual growth. One wonders what level of desperation exists in some of the individuals whom we meet every day? And what might be the implications of our sharing the Good News!?
The passage in Luke 10 preceding the well-known story of the Good Samaritan contains an exchange by Jesus with a teacher of the law in which Jesus is asked, “What should I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus responds by asking the teacher what Moses had written, to which the teacher responds, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength, and all your mind. And, Love your neighbor as yourself.” Considering modern-day formulations as to the knowledge and action necessary for salvation, Jesus’s response seems disarmingly simple yet potentially all-encompassing when he responds, “Do this and you will live.”
Did Jesus really mean that? And if he did, what are the implications for our message to “outsiders” today? How does it inform our expectations regarding the daily life of the disciple—the one who “follows hard” after Jesus?
Method: How should we share the Good News?
The account of John the Baptist’s disciples and Jesus in Matthew 11:2–19 provides pause for reflection and careful consideration of inclusion and exclusion—in method. Jesus’s response to John’s disciples (vv. 4–6) was unsettling enough. However, for current-day evangelicals, possibly more problematic are Jesus’s remarks to the crowd present after John’s disciples left. After suggesting to the crowd that there had been no one greater in the galaxy of biblical notables than John the Baptist, Jesus proceeds to compare John’s “style” and message with his own.
He points out how the two of them expressed the truth of God’s message, how they comported themselves, and where and with whom they did so. In his comparison Jesus seems to make it quite clear that both had a godly mandate. Both were true to their call; both were obedient and pleasing to God in how they conducted themselves. Yet Jesus pointed out the profoundly different visible styles or approaches to carrying out their call were true to the Father’s demands. Common commitment yet very sharply different communication and lifestyles. This case is particularly interesting in that the cultural time frame was identical for two radically different approaches, both of which Jesus validates. What is one to make of this? Different approaches to different audiences in different cultures at different times one could readily understand, if not expect. But both expressions were in the same culture with the same audience at the same time, and yet both were validated by Jesus himself. Is there a “one right way” to share Christ or live out his commands?
This question brings us to another ongoing issue: what is the right message for which audience? In his book Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World, acclaimed writer Henri J. M. Nouwen shares with remarkable honesty that he had set out to write a book that would speak effectively about Jesus to his unbelieving friends in the often-harsh world of business. Yet, he says that when he had completed the manuscript on which he had labored so hard, his genuine, long-lasting yet unbelieving friends said they simply didn’t understand the book.
Completely dispirited, Nouwen waited some time and finally sent the manuscript to two or three trusted Christian friends. In contrast to the group for whom Nouwen had intended the book, these friends applauded the manuscript and urged him to publish it! This contrast raises a haunting question: Is it not much easier to craft a message for an exclusive, already-convinced audience than it is for an inclusive, nonbelieving one? Among exclusive audiences, typically there is an agreed-on, accustomed vocabulary and code language that we assume the audience understands. Among outsiders, not so.
I readily admit that when I am relating to an audience of “the convinced,” it is always easier to prepare my presentation or write my article. “Outsider” audiences, no matter what the topic, are always more challenging.
One can hardly see a more graphic example of the insider-outsider communication challenge and the perceptions of others regarding our action than the particularly pointed exchange between Jesus and the religious establishment found in Mark 2:16–18. This well-known passage suggests that our personal style, language, vocabulary, and readiness to exclude or include will likely always be controversial. Particularly so to those most comfortable with well-defined rules as to who is in and who is out. It seems clear that one of the defining reasons for the Pharisees’ animosity to Jesus was his inclusivity. At least on the surface, Jesus’s inclusivity was one of the cardinal reasons he went to the cross. Other passages also speak of the same critical divide between Jesus’s mission and what others thought it should be if he really wanted to be consistent with godliness (see Matt. 9:13 and Luke 5:32).
The clash of two cultures and what constituted valid practice of a believer created a crisis for one of the most outspoken of the apostles—Peter, in Acts 10. In God’s grace the angelic vision of Cornelius clashed head on with Peter’s Jewish interpretation of who was in and who was out. And it took another remarkable God-intervention in Peter’s trance encounter with the sheet let down from heaven to break through sufficiently for the full manifestation of God’s grace to flow into Cornelius’s life. The exchange between the two men in Acts 10:24–35 is one of the most remarkable in all Scripture.
When he returned to Jerusalem, Peter of course paid dearly for having listened to God in the criticism he received at the hands of the Jewish believers (Acts11:1–3). Peter was obliged to tell the whole radical story, which, in this case, was thankfully received as fresh insight and a valid expression of God’s grace and inclusivity by the Jewish believers.
In his book The Man Nobody Knows, Bruce Barton, cofounder of one of the world’s largest ad agencies, suggests that communicating the Gospel is much like trying to get on a moving train. One must come alongside and approximate the speed of the train in order to get on. Possibly the most striking example of this right message for the audience is demonstrated in Paul’s strategy in Acts: first in Athens (17:16–31), and then with Agrippa (26:1–26). These two cases start “the story” in radically different ways, yet they conclude in the same place. Were these two incidents two different examples of contextualization? What does it take to validate an approach in a given situation (validation from God or other believers) to confirm the truth of a means for carrying the truth to the open-hearted?
I recall a great debate in a multimedia evangelism strategy in an Islamic country. It was asked, “Is it legitimate for us to begin each of the radio programs [one of several media involved] with a reading from the Psalms, done in the style of the quranic call to prayer?” Thinking back to our earlier discussion about those who “fear God” or those who have a “broken and contrite heart,” we could ask, What exactly is the right place or the right way is to share the Good News?
Finally, there was the generosity of those in the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) when asked to arbitrate on the validity of conduct and belief between the Gentile and Jewish believers. The considerable debate around complex issues was among those who had been closest to Jesus. In the context of prayer, the simplicity of their requirements of the new Gentile believers can be quite troubling as we consider the global debates today regarding contextualization, “essentials” on how The Story is told. And with that debate such profound implications for the advance of the Gospel: “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things” (Acts 15:5–31).
Finally, one is reminded of Augustine’s recommendation: “In essentials, unity. in nonessentials, liberty. In all things, charity.” And that of the apostle Paul, “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13:12–13).