Christianity in Crisis

Christianity in Crisis October 14, 2016

This article has been edited and now appears in my limited-edition Titan.

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  • Fernando Villegas

    I know this thread is long forgotten, but I feel compelled to clarify the point I believe Frank is trying to make. Mark, you ask the question: “Can you be a follower of Jesus and not follow his teaching?” Of course the answer is No, but that’s not what Frank is saying. HOWEVER, one CAN attempt to follow Jesus’ teachings without being a follower, and that is the issue Frank is speaking about. I think you and Rebecca have misunderstood. Frank is not saying that we should focus only on following Jesus and not worry about following his teachings, which is the premise of the question you asked. Frank is demonstrating the folly of trying to follow his teachings independent of the prerequisite relationship with Christ. If you happen to read this comment, I hope this clarifies things. I really think you and Rebecca are reading into Frank’s comments things he has no intention of saying.

  • Frank Viola

    Your comment reads way too much into what I’m saying and it misses my point by a considerable distance. My work has turned the sod on the evangelical view which makes Jesus all about “going to heaven” and shows that this view misses the mark. “From Eternity to Here” and “Jesus: A Theography” are landmark books on that score, along with “Jesus Manifesto.” I’m not at all suggesting the traditional evangelical view which knows little to nothing about God’s Eternal Purpose or living by Jesus Christ as our Life. A person can try to follow Jesus’ teaching without knowing Him and following HIM. A person can try to be “good” without encountering God, who IS Goodness. Our only righteousness is Jesus Christ, not our own. A person who follows Jesus WILL find that His teachings are being fleshed out in their lives because HE IS the teaching and He lives it out in and through the believer. This gets into living by the tree of the knowledge of good and evil or living by the tree of life, which is embodied in Jesus Christ.

    Jesus said, “As the Father has sent me and I LIVE BY THE FATHER, so he who consumes me SHALL LIVE BY ME.” That’s what it means to follow Jesus in our day. To live by His indwelling life. If a person doesn’t have the Spirit of God, Paul said in Romans, he doesn’t belong to Christ. There are many people who try to follow the teachings of Jesus externally as they would other great teachers. But Jesus points to HIMSELF and bids us to know HIM and take HIM as our life. He was quite clear about this and so was Paul of Tarsus and the other apostles.

  • Mark

    Rebecca, I couldn’t agree more. Frank, I don’t think the problem with the church is a lack of agreement about the Lordship of Jesus Christ. The problem is in defining what that means. Can you be a follower of Jesus and not follow his teaching? I think that idea would have been logically incoherent to his earliest followers, especially the Jewish ones. Inviting Jesus to come live in my heart is a way of saying “I invite the teachings of the “Master” into my life by following in his footsteps, literally. This meant that the student followed after the master, walking daily behind him as he taught, absorbing his words and their meaning. That is what he meant by “Follow me”! I would then be expected to take his teaching out, into the world and convert others to follow his way of thinking—making new students as I went—that is why it was called it “The Way”. Not the way to heaven, but, the way of the master, or as Jesus expressed it; the way to the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. As these ideas were rapidly translated into Greek from a colloquial Aramaic they took on a somewhat different meaning that reflected an increasingly gentile (Greek) view, and was expressed as such.

    It is my belief that the church has systematically spiritualized Jesus’ teaching, the result of reading the Bible anachronistically. Without some reasonable historical context we’re forced to replace reality with symbolism in order for it to be understandable. This leaves us with a Gospel that is no longer relevant except as a quick ticket into heaven, “defer this life for the next one and all will be well”!

    Frank, it isn’t that I don’t understand the traditional evangelical position; I was one for most of my life. Evangelicalism has, unfortunately, become as rife with rigid legalism and symbolism as anything our 1st century Jewish ancestors ever believed—and that is the problem for me—It was, I’m increasingly convinced, the problem for Jesus as well.

  • Frank Viola

    I don’t think I’m connecting here at all. There are two trees. The tree of LIFE and the tree of the knowledge of GOOD and evil. Living by the tree of the knowledge of GOOD and evil is not the same as living by the tree of LIFE. Merely accepting that Jesus was a great moral teacher worthy of emulation and bowing the knee to His lordship and receiving and living by His indwelling life are two very different things. “Living by the Indwelling Life of Christ” –

  • I would say that your example illustrates my point. Following jesus’ teachings takes us into hard places. They will strip us bare to see the reality about ourselves and our own limitations far better than simply aquiescing to theology which is what most people do when they “invite Jesus to come and live in their heart.” As you say, you cannot strip the Christ from his teachings. Ideally a person would both invite Jesus as Lord and follow his teachings, but a quick glance around makes it abundantly clear that this is rarely what happens. So if it’s going to be one or the other, I’d 100% say start with his teachings. In time, the Christ and your need for him will become clear. But as for your friend, I’m not sure what was motivating him to help the poor. If he thought he was earning brownie points, then sure – dead works although even still dead for him but not for those who he served in the least and that is enormously important in the sceme of things. But if he was motivated by love, a desire to serve and humility then he is DEAD wrong to call those dead works. I’m sure really meeting Christ brought a fullness he didn’t know before to his life, but no act of love is wasted in the Kingdom. It all belongs to God and is to his glory whether the person motivated by love knows it or not. Love does not exist apart from God regardless of a person’s standing in Christ. After all, our God “reaps where he does not sow and gathers where he did not scatter seed.”

  • Jim

    well done article. Guess we just figured out why Newsweek is going out of business. First of all, does Andrew Sullivan and his editors really think this is a headline story? What a joke……well done analysis… how you discerned from all the “fog” —seperating the Church from Christ? Huh? — labeling Christ as an ethics professor? —to the writers biased and real agenda —namely the Church should stop talking about sex, marriage, and would assume love— which is pretty funny because God IS love, Mr. Sullivan….DOH! Just a horribly inept, and amateurish article… low Newsweek has fallen…this magazine can’t close down fast enough and lucky for us Christians who believe in one primary thing…Jesus Christ is the Son of God, not a great rabbi, or teacher, or ethics instructor….the Son of God……but how luckty we are that Newsweek has just a lousy reporter that this magazine’s shutdown can only pick up speed!

  • Frank Viola

    Let me try to give you an example of what I’m talking about. I knew a man once who was dedicated to helping the poor. He said he was doing it because he was “following Jesus’ teachings.” He also tried to be a “good person.” However, he didn’t know Christ. Nor did he submit His life to Him . . . nor receive Him as Savior. Until years later. When he finally met the Lord, he discovered the secret of having Jesus live His life through him. He looked back on how he tried to live before and said that what he was doing was “dead works” (to quote Hebrews). And it was him doing it and not the Lord. I hope that helps you to see the difference. It’s huge. If not, you may want to read “Jesus Manifesto” as we go in depth on this. It’s an important book in that it takes dead aim at a real problem today that we’re discussing right now. I think you will find it to be challenging and a help.

    No time for more, unfortunately. Thanks for your comment.

  • But since the man and his teachings are so inextricably entwined, is it really possible to follow his teachings without growing in relationship, attachment and devotion to the Christ? It seems to me that starting with a supposed devotion to the Christ while never really embracing his teachings is easy and common enough. However, I’m not sure that you could start with his teachings and not be lead into devotion to the Christ as his teachings demand more and more from you. When you are suffering for having followed Jesus’ teachings, won’t it be almost impossible not to look at the cross and resurrection as you do so. There’s a reason, it seems to me, that the early Christians called their religion “The Way”. The emphasis really was on living, walking and being in relationship according to Christ’ teachings. Living according to Jesus’ teachings will change a person in a way that simply believing just doesn’t, imo. If someone came to me and said they liked Jesus’ teachings but weren’t so sure about all the theological stuff, I would strongly encourage them to simply start following his teachings. I may or may not tell them, but my full expectation woulod be that the truth of all the theological stuff would reveal itself in the process.

  • Frank Viola

    We cannot properly following His teachings without knowing Him and having Him live in us. Jesus said this clearly, “without me you can do nothing” and so did Paul “not I but Christ lives in me.” Jesus lives the teachings out in His followers.

    Many take Jesus as a moral teacher and try to follow His teachings on their own without submitting to His lordship and trusting Him as Savior. That’s what I’m speaking of on that point. I trust you see the difference. In “Jesus Manifesto,” Len and I go into great detail on this point.

  • If following Jesus the man/savior/God-made-flesh means following his teachings and that the teachings cannot be seperated from the one who gave them, then why do you say that following his teachings is inadequate? If a person says “I’m going to follow his teachings”, won’t they come away more devoted to and with a deeper understanding of the Christ than the person who has checked off all the right boxes on the theology quiz and may or may not actually act out his teachings? I think that starting with the teachings is a good deal better than the way it’s usually done. Do you really think that Jesus is more pleased by radical, sacrificial love or by the mental assent to his status as God made man? In my estimation, crediting the name of Jesus is simply a declaration of whose teachings one will follow. But for many people crediting the name of Jesus has become the whole point. I can’t help but think that Jesus would rather we act on his teachings – a behavior which marks us as true believers – than do what most Christians do.

  • How would you expect to find community while you intentionally withdraw from it at some point? The disobedient cannot believe; only the obedient believe. Two Kingdoms is his problem it is fatal to obedience/faith it seems popular to fall into that trap with those that say: “Did God really say…” oh and by the way keep your faith personal (on th inside of your porch) not in public – or you should be ashamed to think that way in public.
    Maybe it is time for us here in the US to join with the U.K. church with a “Not Ashamed” reminder about our faith in this world. Action Steps: Ancient faith…costly faith…real relationship (one-another and Father)…take a cleansing breath and ponder… Not Ashamed anymore… Not hero worship, but intimacy (in-to-me-see) with Father… investing in “time …the most valuable thing that we have, because it is the most irrevocable.”(D.B.)…busyness is not faithfulness…largeness or smallness is not success to Father – but being a faithful disciple is who understands living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In so doing, “we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God.”

    So, when the Son of Man comes He will find faith… I don’t know about you but that is the real question for us, will He find faith? It is up to us to answer it and the Church – in its various forms is the voice into the world and always has been till He comes again and ask us all the question.