Jesus, the Pretext — 1/31/12

January 31st, 2012 by BEBlogger

Contemporary man finds it fashionable to ask “What would Jesus do?”  This catchphrase finds its source in the subtitle of Charles Sheldon’s 1897 novel In His Steps.  I have never read the book, and cannot comment on it.  I understand Sheldon was a socialist who, as a professing Christian, proclaimed the social gospel.  The more pressing need of the moment, say those who are so theologically inclined, is to feed and cloth the marginalized rather than preach salvation to lost souls.  From my study of the New Testament, the two cannot be divorced one from another, so in a sense I’m not sure what the debate is all about.  Clearly Jesus preached the gospel of the Kingdom, calling men to devote themselves to Him, all the while performing works of healing and compassion to show the long promised Kingdom had arrived.  The point of the miracles was to demonstrate that He was King, and that salvation was embodied in Him.

In another sense, I know exactly what the debate is about.  The social gospel is a product of “enlightened” Christianity, which didn’t really believe in things like miracles, sin, and the need for salvation.  Man is perfectible, and we need only fix our social ills so that we can all reach our potential as demi-gods.  Stories about virgin births, turning water to wine, casting out demons, and most of all resurrections from the dead, are quite beneath our modern, enlightened minds.  Once we demythologize the Scriptures and get past all the pre-scientific relics of a more primitive age, we can get down to the real business at hand:  doing good works.

Such a view of course gutted the gospel, or to use another metaphor, pulled its teeth.  Starvation, disease, and death are symptoms of sin.  If Jesus only came to show us we need to feed the hungry and tend to the sick, then he treated the symptoms while leaving the disease intact.  Morphine makes a great pain killer, but does nothing to set the broken bone.  The social gospel preached that man will set his own broken bones as we continue to make “evolutionary moral progress.”  One-hundred-plus years later, there are more broken bones than ever.  Besides, in removing the “husk” from the “kernel” of Jesus’ teaching, the theological liberal undermines Jesus in toto.  This is so because Jesus’ good deeds and theological message go hand in hand.  Proof of this is found in John 6, where Jesus feeds the five thousand in order to illustrate that He is Christ, the King, to whom men must turn in faith.  In other words, Jesus feeding the five thousand was not an example to encourage mere philanthropy, but was a “sign” that in Him salvation and eternal life are found.  More on this later.

In reaction to this affront to the gospel, theological conservatives downplayed the social aspect of Jesus’ ministry so as to not be identified with theological liberalism.  Conservatives felt emphasizing man’s sinfulness and the grace of God in Christ was the more pertinent issue. This is something of an overstatement, because they certainly never denied the need to care for the poor, unlike the liberals who denied (and still deny) the need for a Savior who literally died and rose again.  “What would Jesus do?” in terms of guiding us in social policy was – and remains to be – enough for too many.

To me it seems “What would Jesus do?” cannot be answered until more fundamental questions are answered:  “What did Jesus do?” or perhaps “What did Jesus say?”  Without answers to these questions we cannot rightly apply Jesus to our modern context.  In other words, how can we possibly know what Jesus would do today, if we are ignorant of what in fact he did do and say then.

As it turns out much of what we “know” Jesus would do is in fact a reading into the Bible what is not there, or taking a smattering of verses to prove a point, without taking into account everything Jesus said and did.  Sometimes this is called “proof texting.”  In some cases it also can be regarded as “pretexting:” using Jesus in particular or the Bible in general as a means to advance an agenda, though we really couldn’t care less about what Jesus or the Bible says.

How this plays out is easily illustrated.  For example, those on the political left talk about “social justice,” a rather imprecise phrase that is rarely, if ever defined.  I take it to mean in in its most naked form, the redistribution of wealth from the rich to the poor by means of a socialist, or quasi-socialist State.  Those seeking to advance such a State will quote Jesus, pointing out how He called for us to “care for the least of these among us,” or remind us of the parable of the Good Samaritan.

This is at best inconsistent, or at worst blatant hypocrisy.  Talk to the average leftist, and we find that when conservatives invoke Jesus in support of social policy, such an idea is “a violation of the separation of Church and State.”  But when the sober-browed, but otherwise godless leftist does so, it is considered compassionate and grounds for the Welfare State.

Besides being inconsistent, such a stand reveals a shallow understanding of Jesus’ teaching on compassion.  Jesus showed in His own actions that compassion is to be personal, hands on, and self-sacrificial.  The parable of the Good Samaritan illustrates this, since the Samaritan used his own time, money, and resources to aid the crime victim (Luke 10:25-37).  Jesus concluded the parable by saying “Go and do likewise.”  Thus, compassion is not voting for politicians to redistribute wealth from A to B, but in getting personally involved with those in need.  Even the English word “compassion” finds its root in Latin:  “to suffer with” or “together.”  Jesus did not call us to manage an abstract herd of beasts by formulating policy and writing checks from a distance, but to actually minister to flesh and blood people.

But these are asides, not my main point, which is that often those who quote Jesus as support for their social causes really don’t care what Jesus thought at all.  Rather respect for Jesus is a pretext, a pragmatic hammer to drive the nails of social policy or salve a guilty conscience, to be discarded when He doesn’t fit our agenda.

A classic example of pretexting is seen in pro-homosexual theologian Robert Williams.  In his book Just As I Am – A Practical Guide to Being Out, Proud, and Christian, Williams re-interprets Romans 1:18-27.  According to Williams, the Apostle Paul is not condemning homosexuality at all, but unnatural sex.  To Paul, sex between men and women who were of unequal social status is natural.  Thus he only condemns “unnatural” sex, i.e. between social equals.  But lo and behold, after re-interpreting the passage, Williams makes an interesting concession:

“Perhaps Paul is condemning homosexuality in this passage, or at least labeling it as “unnatural” (which is not exactly the same thing as calling it sinful).  But the bottom line for you is:  So what?  Paul was wrong about a number of other things, too.  Why should you take him any more seriously than you take Jerry Falwell or Anita Bryant or Cardinal O’Connor? (emphasis in original)”

I find it somewhat odd that a man who takes such pains to give the “proper” interpretation of a Bible passage, ends up saying what Paul says is irrelevant.  If the bottom line is we may reject Paul’s teaching, then why bother telling us what Paul “really” thought?  The answer is that Williams is free to reject the Bible because he doesn’t believe it.  But if he can get those who do believe it to think it teaches something (or at least allows something) he favors, then he wins a political battle in the culture wars.  Sure his respect for the Bible is a pretext, but as long as it gets him what he wants that’s all that concerns him, and in an ethic guided by pragmatism that’s all that matters.

“Well,” the pretexter might say, “I was only quoting those words of Jesus which all of us agree with.  After all I could quote any number of wise men like Gandhi or the Buddha, Socrates or Abraham Lincoln, to support my claim.”  “Fair enough,” one might respond, “so why didn’t you quote Gandhi or Socrates?  Why did you instead quote Jesus?”  The reason of course is that the pretexter invokes authorities others trust, and appeals to Gandhi would fall on deaf ears among conservative Christians.  As noted above quoting Jesus is a better tactic to garner support for one’s pet social policies.  This alone is a disingenuous ploy.  But there is more to pretexting that renders it out of bounds.

Jesus is not just a wise man, to whom we can appeal for a quick retort in a social policy debate, whose authority is no more impressive or binding than any other famous person referenced in a quote book.  Jesus spoke with absolute Divine authority, claimed absolute infallibility, and demanded absolute obedience.  Thus if we invoke Jesus in one place, we are bound to submit to Him everywhere. Mere men may or may not merit quoting.  From their quotes we may pick and choose depending on their wisdom regarding a particular issue.  With Jesus however, it is all or nothing.  A closer look at John 6 mentioned above illustrates this.

At the beginning of the chapter, Jesus feeds the five thousand (vs. 1-14).  After this, Jesus crosses the Sea of Galilee by walking on the water and reaches the other side.  The crowds He’d fed earlier find him, and inquire as to how He got there when they realized He’d not taken a boat (vs. 15-25).  Jesus’ answer is blunt and to the point:  “Truly, truly, I say to you, you seek Me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate the loaves and were filled” (vs. 26).  In other words, “You don’t care that I performed a sign for you, you only care that you got a free lunch.” Jesus then speaks with the crowd, calling them to believe in Him, that the sign the previous day was to illustrate that He was the Bread of Life, who if “eaten” provides eternal life (vs. 27-58).  Many of these supposed disciples turn away because of the “difficulty” of this teaching, and refuse to follow Him anymore (vs. 59-66).

In short, the crowd thought Jesus was great – until He told them their devotion was superficial and called them to complete submission and belief.  Informed that He was more than a free lunch, and hearing Jesus’ demand for radical commitment, they abandoned Him.  As long as Jesus fit their agenda, they were willing to use Him.  When Jesus announced that their agenda was wrong and He refused to be used, their shallow faith vanished like a six-pack of cheap beer at a college frat party.  On the other hand, Peter and the rest of the twelve (Judas Iscariot excepted, vs. 70-71) understood that Jesus was more than a convenient miracle worker able to provide freebies, but was indeed the Son of God to whom we must turn for eternal life.

This illustrates pretexting.  We’ll use Jesus if it gets us what WE want, but reject him when we’re commanded to give Him what HE wants. We’ll believe what we WANT to hear, but dismiss what we DON’T WANT to hear.  But regardless of the issue, whether it’s the welfare state, homosexuality, capital punishment, abortion, or any other number of concerns, Jesus shows us in John 6 how pretexting is easily exposed.  Once Jesus in particular or the Bible in general is invoked to support a policy or justify a certain behavior, one need only quote Jesus in other areas to see our opponent’s response.  If he cites Jesus’ authority in one area then rejects it in another area, he is pretexting.

What would one say who is advocating a particular social policy, and buttressing his argument with a quote from Jesus, if in response we cited John 14:6 – “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through me.”?  Surely such an exclusivist claim – that Jesus is the only way – sounds “unfair” and “intolerant” in our pluralistic world.  But there it is, right out of Jesus’ mouth, and as clear as a sunny Rocky Mountain morning.  Our tolerant opponent would most likely reject Jesus’ claim, which of course undermines his use of Jesus in defense of his pet social policy.  Remember, Jesus demands absolute devotion to his infallible word.

Or how about Matthew 4:4?  When tempted by the devil, Jesus quoted Deuteronomy 8:3, saying “It is written, ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God’.”  Here we have a “twofer:” Jesus not only undermines two assumptions of modern politics and social science (neo-Marxist materialism and Skinnerian behaviorism), but also affirms man’s need for biblical and theological instruction.  If one is a pretexter, he certainly will never reject the first, and never embrace the second.  To do so would be to admit both man’s philosophical and moral failure and need for a Savior.  That ain’t gonna happen (Psalm 2:1-3).

In John 8:11, Jesus tells the woman taken in adultery, “Go and sin no more.”  Not only does Jesus implicitly affirm she committed adultery, He considers it a sin.  Such a comment would fly like an anvil among those who see “judgmentalism” and “intolerance” as the only vices.  But to reject Jesus’ words in John 8:11 undermines the pretexter who invokes Jesus to remind us that “love your neighbor” means we should be “non-judgmental” regarding sexual ethics.  After all, why is Jesus’ “love your neighbor” any more authoritative than His “go and [commit adultery] no more?”

In Matthew 22:21, Jesus says “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s” (emphasis mine).  I’ve heard pretexters use the first half of this verse to justify liberal tax policy and the welfare state, but they are strangely silent on the second half.  The reason is, they have no intention of giving God anything.  But again, the pretexter’s object is to use Jesus, not obey Him.

There are many other arrows in my quiver, but just a few more in brief.  Jesus also predicted His own resurrection in space and time, predicted His return to earth, and told people they were going to hell if they did not turn to Him in faith and repentance.  If one invokes Jesus to support one activity, but rejects His words regarding His resurrection, second coming, and the reality of hell, then he’s a disingenuous pretexter.

Certainly, using Jesus as a pretext is a façade to cover ulterior motives.  But disingenuousness is not the pretexter’s greatest sin.  When we quote Jesus or reject Him based on our notions of right and wrong, we travel the road of self-deification.  What I think is ultimate, not what the Son of God thinks (of course, the deity of Christ is another teaching the pretexter rejects). The question becomes “Whose thoughts are primary: mine or those of an objective authority?”  When the pretexter rejects Jesus’ words, this is tacit admission that his own authority is sufficient for truth, and a tacit denial of God’s authority.  Thus the pretexter is not only disingenuous; he breaks the first Commandment.

Closely related to this, we may also note pretexting is blasphemy, since it uses God for one’s own ends.  To use a metaphor employed earlier, when Jesus becomes a pragmatic hammer to drive the nails of our agenda, we cheapen and insult Him.  We are the craftsmen, He is the tool.  We are the masters, He is the slave. Pretexting is morally and theologically akin to swearing by God to tell the truth, then lying on the witness stand.  Whereas the pretexter uses God to feign reverence for Jesus’ words, the perjurer uses God to cover a lie.  Both are dishonest, but worse, both see God as a pawn which may be sacrificed to save the King:  Me.   As John 6 reveals, Jesus will not stand for it.

Wisdom dictates that before we quote Jesus to buttress our notions on right and wrong, social policy, or truth claims, we’d better be prepared to bow to Him in everything He said.  If we aren’t so prepared, we are better off not quoting Him at all.