The April 9, 2012 cover of Newsweek magazine boldly proclaims, “Forget the Church, Follow Jesus” and features a hip, very white Jesus standing in Times Square. The author of the article, Andrew Sullivan lobbies for Christians to detach themselves from secular, particularly political, pursuits and follow a Jeffersonian Jesus who, without miracles, shows kindness and grace to fellow human beings. Thomas Jefferson created the famous Jefferson Bible by removing the supernatural elements surrounding the story of Jesus and preserving his “ethical” teachings.
When this process was finished both Andrew Sullivan and Thomas Jefferson found a Jesus they could live with. Dr. Sullivan laments the way Christians, and particularly Roman Catholic and evangelical Christians, have aligned themselves with political parties and movements in ways that bring religious passions into the political arena. Of course, any student of history, especially of European and Middle Eastern history, knows how unleashing religious fervor in the service of political and/or nationalistic agendas can unleash horrific nightmares. So, at least part of Dr. Sullivan’s concerns must be received as a cautionary tale.
But does that mean that people of faith cannot be politically passionate about issues raised by the very faith they want to define all of their lives? Like Andrew Sullivan most Christians want to see followers of Jesus loving, serving and changing the world in the grace and spirit of Christ. Does that have to mean that our faith must go in a box, individually or institutionally, when we enter the public arena? How can we ever trust Christians of any stripe, not to confuse the building of the Kingdom of God with the improving of their earthly state or community?
The answer seems to be found in Jesus’ approach to the “parties” of His day? We forget that just like we have Republicans, Democrats and others, the Palestinian Jews of Jesus’ day had Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians, Zealots and Essenes. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day even expected Jesus to join them and later became His bitter enemies when he didn’t. So which “party” did Jesus join? The same party/parties He would join today—none of them.
Jesus didn’t join the parties of His day for the same reason He would not join the parties of today—He stood above them as Lord over them—Lord of all in fact. Jesus would judge the flaws and inconsistencies of our parties today just like He judged those of first century Judea and Galilee. Of course this doesn’t mean that His followers can’t join or align with a party today, but it does shape how we should do so.
In all of our earthly alignments, Jesus must stand above them as our first loyalty and priority. Never should we be more passionate about a political cause in our community, state or nation than we are about Our Lord and His Kingdom. That would address the legitimate historical concern that political conflict not become too infused and confused with religious passion.
So what about the church? Why is it that Andrew Sullivan can make such a strong distinction between Jesus and the church? Those of us who love the church will probably not like the answer. The truth is, Jesus probably wouldn’t join any of our churches for the same reason he wouldn’t join any of our parties. It is just as dangerous to confuse loyalty to our church or denomination with loyalty to Jesus as it is to make some political party the cause of Christ. It isn’t that we can’t be loyal to a denomination or congregation. It does mean that, in all things, following Jesus must be a higher priority than anything else, even our churches.
The real test of a church is not whether or not it follows a specific political agenda or avoids political agendas altogether. The real test is whether or not it helps people find and follow Jesus.
So, don’t give up on the church, but, by all means, do follow Jesus.