News Flash: You Are Not Jesus!

Recently, several Christian writers I follow have made the point that we are not Jesus. Probably we Christians should have figured this out several thousand years ago, but apparently we are slow learners.

Here’s why this little bit of truth is so important, particularly in this era of rampant Internet trollery and culture wars and lots of folks getting fed up with a religion that claims to be centered on love and forgiveness but instead appears to be obsessed with judgment, division, and figuring out who is “in” and who is “out.” (And also, sex.)

When Christians decide that it is up to us to tell other people that they are sinful, we are overstepping our bounds. This is true even if we strive to “love the sinner, hate the sin,” and witness to what we believe is God’s truth in a gentle, loving way. (Is that even possible? I don’t think so. I think the minute we start telling other people that what they are doing is wrong in God’s eyes, we are separating from and elevating ourselves above them. Effective conversation 101 is that you use “I” statements when talking about someone else’s behavior, not “you” statements. You have every right to talk about how someone else’s behavior hurts you. But when you start making pronouncements about someone’s behavior that has nothing to do with you? That’s just trouble.)

But back to the Jesus thing. Christians think we have a right…a duty…to call other people’s sin out. Why? Because that’s what Jesus did! But we are not Jesus, are we?? We are supposed to follow Jesus, not be him. When we read scripture, we’re playing around with a massive superiority complex if we identify ourselves with Jesus. You know who we should identify ourselves with? The bumbling idiots and royal screw-ups, the sick people who need healing and the lost people who need finding.

I’ve been pondering this idea thanks to several things I’ve read and watched recently, which I commend to you. First, there’s this video called Put Down the Stone, in which Glennon Melton talks about identifying with the folks ready to stone anyone who violates the rules that we see as inviolable. (Remember what Jesus said about throwing stones? Yeah.) Then there’s this terrific post by Laura Ortberg Turner specifically about the ways that Christians mistreat each other online, justifying name-calling if it’s done in the name of Jesus. Laura writes,

[T]here are some Christian people who get a kick out of being guardians of the faith, drawing doctrinal lines in the sand that leave them square in the middle of ecclesial correctness and exclude everyone else. And it may come from a sense of duty, from a love of getting a rise out of other people, or from a really sincere heart about the importance of orthodoxy–but it is doing immense damage.

This is not to say that Christians ought never speak out and work against injustice. Christians have a powerful history of working for justice and peace, which requires naming and working against sins such as slavery, oppression, and poverty. We also, of course, have a shameful history of failing to speak out against injustices, or even of actively supporting injustices, such as when Christians openly opposed abolition and desegregation. This shameful history is one reason that we ought to be careful about claiming that we are privy to and absolutely certain of God’s will.

But there are some differences between Christians naming corporate greed or sex trafficking or racism as sins, and then working toward justice for those sinned against, and Christians going around, online or in person, calling other believers sinners because of our positions on hot-button issues, such as homosexuality. Many of our fraught and impolite latter conversations are focused on determining who is in and who is out, who can be ordained or married or even who can bear the label “Christian” based on perceived sins. Jesus was never about creating that kind of division; he was always calling people back to community, back into the fold. Jesus’s instructions to his followers focused on good news and finding and inviting and feeding, not figuring out who can belong and who can’t. There are other differences, not least that there is a long Biblical precedent of corporate action and prophetic witness on behalf of the poor and oppressed, and not so much around the issues of sexuality and gender and reproduction that inspire modern Christians to say unkind things to and about one another. Finally, and perhaps most important, there is a difference in emphasis. Our job, as redeemed sinners beloved of God, is always to name that same belovedness in all people, to err on the side of invitation and inclusion. When we name the sin of racism, for example, we are calling people who exhibit racism to recognize and repent of sin. But we are also and fundamentally witnessing to God’s reckless love* for all of humanity. We are engaged in a positive witness built upon the wideness of God’s mercy. We are speaking out against sin, yes, but more important, we are speaking out for people to know that they are created by and beloved of a God who wants them to be free to flourish.

I don’t see that positive witness in so much of the vitriol spread in Jesus’s name these days. Mostly, I see meanness and exclusion, all in the name of defending orthodoxy by calling out the sins of others. But that’s not our job. We are not Jesus.

What do you think? I’m especially interested in further exploring the difference between Christians engaging in prophetic witness on behalf of the poor and oppressed (which requires naming other people’s, and our own, sin) and the kind of divisive naming of other people’s sin that has us doing Jesus’s job instead of our own. Are these two different things, or one and the same? Are both okay, or neither? 

*Credit goes to my friend and pastor Curtis Farr for the phrase “reckless love,” which he used so eloquently in his sermon yesterday. Reckless is one of my favorite words, and I think this is the best use of it I’ve heard.

About Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer focusing on faith, parenting, family, disability, and ethics. She is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Faith, and Parenthood in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Visit her web site at http://ellenpainterdollar.com for more on her writing and speaking, and to sign up for a (very) occasional email newsletter.

  • Y. A. Warren

    Thank you, Ellen, for some of the best writing on being a follower of Jesus as The Christ that I have ever read. We must become angry with the money changers in the temples, and powerful politicians masquerading as examples of the way of Jesus, who continue to pervert the example of life in The Sacred Spirit exemplified by the joyful Jewish Jesus.

    No truer words were ever spoken than these:

    “Effective conversation 101 is that you use “I” statements when talking about someone else’s behavior, not “you” statements. You have every right to talk about how someone else’s behavior hurts you. But when you start making pronouncements about someone’s behavior that has nothing to do with you? That’s just trouble.)”
    I have often written that the Ten Commandments should be written as the “Ten Commitments.”

    “We are supposed to follow Jesus, not be him. When we read scripture, we’re playing around with a massive superiority complex if identify ourselves with Jesus. You know who we should identify ourselves with? The bumbling idiots and royal screw-ups, the sick people who need healing and the lost people who need finding.”
    Peter, not Paul?

    “Jesus’s instructions to his followers focused on good news and finding and inviting and feeding, not figuring out who can belong and who can’t.”

    Mothers traditionally feed families faith, along with their real food. They are also the ones who give both body and blood to bring new life onto our earth. I can’t tell you how ill the sterilization of Mary and Joseph, and of the body and blood of Jesus makes me.

  • Seabass

    While I do agree we shouldn’t “exclude” and such, the Word does instruct us to point out peoples sins, but as brothers would, in a loving way. (Though I do recall it says to isolate those of false doctrine and to shun them, but in a loving way :/) “Get up and sin no more,” Jesus said, and Paul points out sins various times. We as Christians should not continue to sin, and when we see people sinning, we should tell them what the Bible says, because that’s what we’re told to do! But not in that condescending, “love the sinner hate the sin,” you aren’t a true Christian, way. We have to be careful not to judge them while informing them of their sins, because then we’d be the ones needing to be pushed! It’s a very difficult concept for me, but then again, the Word of God is a very difficult book to understand.

    • JenellYB

      Seabass, where do you derive your authority over another in any of these things you write of here, to know more than another what the nature of their sins are, whether they hold a doctrine that is false (maybe it is yours that is false? Whose the judge?) And how is it possible to ‘shun’ someone ‘in a loving way?’ That you seem to mean for just thinking they believe something differently than you do, aren’t you the one actually committing an act of offense toward them, who have done nothing wrong to you or others? Sin means to miss the mark, a failing weakness. To address offensive act that hurt or harms you or others is not only biblically granted, but by common sense, socially acceptable as well. to speak to another about personal failings and weaknesses calls for a personally intimate relationship, not merely an opinion from a bible verse.

      • Seabass

        I don’t have any authority over others for judgment, that is for the Almighty. I am sinful and therefore I have no right to cast the stone. I’m pretty sure there’s a verse in 1 Corinthians that actually gives us permission to judge believers, but I’m going off of memory here, and I can’t be too sure. It’s not something I make a point to do, anyway.

        The judge is God and his Word. Compare a doctrine to what is written in the Bible, and if it matches up, it’s probably correct doctrine. If not, it’s false and shouldn’t be held. Check out 2 Thessalonians chapter 3. I don’t know how to shun somebody in a loving way, but it’s how it’s worded. A very simple way to live but a very correct way to live is this: If the Bible tells us to do it, do it. If it says not to do something, don’t do it. I’ve evaluated doctrines I hold, and I strive to find true religion, I’ve even had to, begrudgingly, change my doctrines because they were what I thought, and not what was talked about in the Word.

        Sin is different than merely causing harm to others, it’s offending God.

        We are brothers, share a body, and are engaged to the same Man, how much more intimate could we be?! This is strictly talking about other members of The Way, though. It’s not my place to speak with non-believers about these things, so if you claim to be a Christian, I feel biblically granted to point out sins and talk about them, in a loving way, mind you. I suffered from a terrible addiction years ago, and I kept making excuses for myself, until finally a brother in Christ I barely knew told me what I was doing was wrong and against the Bible. If you don’t proclaim to be a Christian, though, I have no right to do anything like that. If the verse is blatantly forbidding an act, I don’t think it’s an “opinion” anymore. My opinion doesn’t matter, it’s God’s opinion.

  • David Hilfiker

    I don’t have any profound answer to your question about prophetic witness, but, when I’m in my prophetic role, I have no compunction pointing to the oppressive structures of our society that do violence to the dispossessed. But I rarely, if ever, call out (ie judge) individuals. And I would hope especially that I would never express a judgment of another person except in private with that individual where we both have a real chance to share with each other our realities. I know people, for instance, who work in violent and oppressive institutions, which I have no compunction in judging. But I cannot t know enough about that individual who works there to name her a sinner. Jesus, it seems to me, does not call us to that kind of judgment … ever.
    I may not remember my Bible well enough, but I don’t remember Jesus naming INDIVIDUALS as sinners. When he called out the Pharisees and Scribes, it seems to me he was calling them out as representatives of institutions, not judging this particular Pharisee.

    • http://ellenpainterdollar.com/ Ellen Painter Dollar

      That makes a lot of sense to me, David. Thanks for that distinction.

  • http://www.trochia.org/ Leslie Brogdon

    As a younger Christian I did this all the time. I believed that people would not continue in sin if they knew what they were doing was wrong. As an adult, I’m horrified by the way I responded to people in that stage of my journey.

    In my early twenties I was talking to someone who referenced the verse about the speck and the log. She said that when God has removed the log from our eye we know the brokenness and pain we experienced. Her thought was that unless we can respond to someone else with the same kind of gentleness, in which God responded to us, then we should not point out any kind of sin. Now, I find that if my attitude is judgmental then it’s likely something that I should not confront. I have a background in counseling and often find that the opportunity to confront sin presents, but it is more wise to be socratic and patient and let God lead individuals in their awareness of any kind of sin.

    • http://ellenpainterdollar.com/ Ellen Painter Dollar

      Lovely and wise. Thank you.

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