I know it’s hip and cool say you don’t like the church but you love Jesus, except I always feel the need to ask: Which Jesus do you mean? How do you determine what he was/is like? I see two basic ways to answer this question. One, you can take the Bible at face value and decide that whatever it says about him must be true, no matter how self-contradictory it seems to be. Or two, you can decide that the Bible contains a mixture of wheat and chaff, and set out to determine for yourself which Jesus stories are legit. In all honesty, I see problems with both approaches. I’ll begin with the assumption that he really said all the things the Bible says he said and explain why any healthy person should reject this character without losing much sleep.
If we take the Bible at face value, then Jesus did not “focus on the family.” In fact, Jesus was against his followers prioritizing family life, and he modeled this very thing in his own life. “If anyone comes to me and does not hate [his] father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters,” he told his listeners, “such a person cannot be my disciple.” In one gospel, he prefaced this announcement by saying, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.” Hoping to put a positive spin on these unsavory words, people today warn that we must view these exhortations as peculiar to their context, as if they only applied to people forced to forsake a competing religion in order to follow Jesus.
But there are at least three reasons why these statements cannot be explained away so easily. First, if we can believe Jesus’ words when he said he didn’t come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it, then it won’t do to call Judaism a competing religion. That was the religion of his original audience. Second, we see a bit more what he meant when a couple of his disciples informed him that certain family obligations limited their availability for travel with him. He scolded them, saying, “Let the dead bury their own dead,” and “No one who puts his hand to the plow and then looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” He made it clear on multiple occasions that ministry takes priority over family, and that anyone who couldn’t handle that didn’t belong in his company. If these first two reasons don’t drive the point home, then consider the third: When he spoke of those whom you should “hate” for his sake, he included wife and children in his list. That’s significant because in a patriarchal society like the one in which he lived, the man is the head of the household, which means that he determines the religious loyalties of the family. This isn’t like telling a young adult that he may have to endure his parents’ rejection for forsaking the religion of his upbringing (besides, see reason #1). This is telling a man that following Jesus requires prioritizing loyalty to him over loyalty to his family (notice it wasn’t addressed to women, telling them to “hate” their husbands, for such would have been unthinkable). Evidently Jesus envisioned scenarios in which a man must choose between devotion to him and devotion to family. “No way!” people often tell me, “Jesus would never put us in such a position!” Then why did he even say this at all? It seems to me that the Bible says otherwise. What’s more, he modeled this principle in his own life as well. Once when his mother and brothers sought an audience with him, he responded rather callously that his real mother and brothers weren’t those related by blood, but “those who do the will of my father in heaven.” I see a consistent pattern here.
His followers seem to have gotten the point. After Jesus, the most influential figure in Christian history was the apostle Paul, who like Jesus preferred the single life. Paul echoed Jesus’ disdain for family obligations when he argued the following:
“From now on those who have wives should live as if they do not…I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife— and his interests are divided…I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord” (1 Cor. 7:32-35).
Like Jesus, Paul saw the inherent conflict of interest between family life and ministry, and he preferred that people avoid family entanglements if at all possible. Devotion to Jesus means putting ministry above family.
Lest we think Paul was alone in taking Jesus’ words to heart, consider again Maggie’s Story from the other day. When Maggie lost her faith, her husband consulted a Christian marriage therapist who at one point recommended a book which suggests separation or divorce as an evangelistic tool to “win back” the heart of the apostate spouse. Believe it or not, both Josh and his therapist would bristle at the fundamentalist label. They consider themselves evangelicals, which goes to show how indistinguishable these two camps are at their core (please note I am speaking of the American variety of evangelicalism, not the European blend). Both groups are simply “following Jesus” and are taking the Bible as their final arbiter in all matters of faith and practice. The ideological world they both inhabit sees faith and non-faith as incompatible enemies. As Jesus himself said, “Whoever is not with me is against me.” Or as Paul put it , “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers, for…what fellowship has light with darkness?” This is the direction you must go if you subscribe to biblical inerrancy. It produces a relational model which is exclusionary, even to the dividing of the family unit for Jesus’ sake. Incidentally, this turns my stomach.
But perhaps the Bible gets it wrong sometimes. Perhaps some of the things the Bible says Jesus said and did were made up by people later on. Perhaps his followers put words in his mouth, making him a mouthpiece for their own biases. That’s certainly an option. Frankly, considering all the internal inconsistencies within the story of Jesus’ ministry, this option seems the most likely to be true. It also would be the only way that I could find any way to like the historical Jesus (and yes, unlike many of my skeptic friends, I’m convinced the man really existed). As often as I’ve denounced the notion of eternal conscious torment, no one is more responsible for passing this concept along to us today than Jesus himself. The Bible portrays him speaking more words about this horrific idea than anyone else, which is a real problem for anyone seeking to present him as a loving, merciful person. Some have argued that Jesus was only co-opting a concept which was popular in his day in order to make certain points. If that’s the case, it’s unfortunate that for most of church history, Jesus’ followers have totally missed that detail. If we weren’t supposed to believe he was really teaching such a place exists, perhaps God could have made his communications about that a bit more clear. Just sayin’.
If we do like Thomas Jefferson and remove all of the unsavory elements of the stories about Jesus, removing also the stories of levitation, tissue regeneration, dinner multiplication, and miraculous resuscitation, what we are left with is a man who said some pretty good stuff. To whatever extent his teachings track with modern secular humanism, I’d have to say Jesus was right on the money. Perhaps he was even ahead of his time (not including the golden rule, which predated both Jesus and Judaism by at least a thousand years). But I have yet to hear anything from this version of Jesus which can’t be extracted from most other world religions. To be honest, I’ll take the words of Robert Ingersoll over the words of Jesus anyday, for there isn’t a thing the latter said which wasn’t said better by the former—and without all the business about self-crucifixion to weed through in the process.
So why is it again we’re supposed to love Jesus?