A few days ago, I wrote that Christian people, evangelicals included, have developed the terribly unfortunate habit of misreading the Gospels.
It goes beyond unintentionally cultivated habits. I think that reading the Gospels for what they’re really saying threatens to upset and destabilize our church community dynamics that have become predictable and comfortable. Contemporary Christians—evangelicals included—are too threatened by the Gospels to read them for what they’re actually saying.
Resistance to the Gospels takes many forms and happens for various reasons. We’ve noted in the comments some of the forms resistance takes over the last few days (e.g., older premillennial dispensationalism, some forms of a Law/Gospel contrast).
Here are a few more.
I can recall our Gospels-resistance reading strategies from Bible studies in high school and college. We would encounter a challenging statement of Jesus, such as that in Luke 14:12-15:
Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
Realizing that Jesus very clearly says to invite the poor and those of shameful social status, we would fall silent and then ask, “what do you think Jesus means by this?”
Inevitably, someone would say, “I think Jesus is referring to our hearts—that we should have willing hearts in case we’re ever called to serve.”
This is a familiar strategy, one I’ve encountered (and used myself) many times. We stare at the clear words of Jesus that challenge our well-established social patterns and community dynamics, and we flinch. We relegate Jesus’ commands to motive-purification, ignoring that he’s calling for purposeful transformation of actual social practices.
N. T. Wright is dead-on when he says that evangelicals are Bultmannian when it comes to the Gospels (How God Became King, pp. 22-23). Bultmann sought to strip away the “husk” of the historical details of the Gospels in order to get to the “kernel” of theological truth the Gospels writers were really communicating.
We strip away the “husk” of Jesus’ clear words to find the spiritual “kernel” that we apply to our hearts and motives.
This is a reading strategy whereby we keep Jesus safely tucked away in our hearts, self-satisfied with our piety. But we intentionally avoid doing what he says with our bodies, social practices, and community dynamics.
It’s too threatening. If we actually did the things Jesus says to do, we’d have to change, and we just don’t want to.
Another example, not so much of why Gospel-resistance happens, but how. Several years ago, a senior colleague confronted me angrily about something I had written. He quoted to me the following passage from a paper I had presented on racial reconciliation:
[The gospel is] the announcement of the arrival of the long-awaited kingdom of God—the announcement that God has come in Jesus to begin his work of reclaiming and redeeming the world, which begins with a redeemed people—a holy people who will manifest, in their social practices, the very life of God on earth.
He demanded to know where I could have gotten such a statement. I thought he was joking. He wasn’t.
I told him I got it from reading the Gospels. He brushed that aside, insisting that this was a sign that I was “emergent.”
I’ve had a number of conversations like that more recently. I spoke to one person about the church embodying Kingdom life through transforming corporate practices. He told me that was the “social gospel,” a distraction from the mission of the church.
I said to another that based on a certain text in Mark, Jesus calls the church to take uncomfortable steps of faith—to go beyond what is familiar—in order to enact the Kingdom of God. He asked me for a few examples, so I suggested that he and a few of his friends initiate a church-based urban mentoring program, looking after some junior high boys who don’t have fathers.
He told me that “sounded emergent.”
I asked him if he thought a more effective demonstration of faith would be getting together with his friends and praying for impossible things. He nodded.
After a brief pause, he smiled and said that he may have been speaking out of his theological conditioning, admitting that he doesn’t want to be pushed out of his comfort zone.
We could go on for quite some time giving examples from a variety of theological perspectives and Christian traditions of ways we manage to resist hearing what the Gospels are saying. My sense is that many of us feel deep-down that there’s too much at stake–our comfort, the predictability of our church community life, our positions of influence, our entrenched interests.
All of those are threatened by taking the Gospels seriously and letting them radically sift, reorder, and transform the community dynamics and social patterns of our churches.
It’s easier to relegate their clear message to the “safe zone” of our hearts and label calls to actually obey them as “liberal,” “emergent,” or “social gospel.”
Or, here’s a new one: “That’s something N. T. Wright would say.”