I KNEW JESUS BEFORE HE WAS A CHRISTIAN -- A Review
I KNEW JESUS BEFORE HE WAS A CHRISTIAN ... And I Liked Him Better Then. By Rubel Shelly. Abilene, TX: Leafwood Publishers, 2012. 223 pages.
If ever a title caught the eye, this is the occasion. This title expresses the growing conviction that if we could just remove Jesus from the Christian stranglehold seems to have over him, then not only would he be free from bad press, but he could change lives. The problem, as authors such as Diana Butler Bass make clear, is that Christianity has come to be defined by its institutions and its doctrines, but it is these very things that drive people away from the faith. They’re tired of partisanship and arguments, and seek to find community with God and with neighbor.
Although Rubel Shelly and Diana Butler Bass come from different theological perspectives, they are in agreement on this fact. Thus, with Bonhoeffer they seek to embrace a religionless Christianity, at least one in which thedeadening force of post-Constantinian institutionalism is overthrown, and a return to the message and practice of Jesus is offered.
Rubel Shelly has an interesting life story. He is deeply entrenched in the life of the Churches of Christ, a community that outsiders define by the absence of musical instruments in worship. He was born and bred in a very narrow, fundamentalist, legalist version of the Stone-Campbell tradition. Then, several decades ago, he broke out of that narrow circle and became the leader of movements to moderate and open up the Churches of Christ to the broader Christian world. He’s not a liberal, at least not in the sense of what one finds in Mainline Protestantism, but he is a person with an open mind and open heart. Over the past few years I’ve had the opportunity to get to know him in his guise as president of Rochester College. In the course of our encounters, I have come to see him as a friend and have invited him to preach for my congregation.
This is a book about Jesus and his church, and therefore this book has missional implications. Recognizing that the fastest growing religious grouping is the so-called “nones,” Rubel asks the important question – why are so many people repelled by the church? Is it Jesus? Is it theology? The answer to these questions is no. Rather it is the way in which Christians have embodied the message of Jesus, transforming it from an open and loving and compassionate message to one that is exclusionary, negative, divisive, and politicized. Shelly isn’t ant-church, but he is first and foremost pro-Jesus. Unfortunately, that Jesus rarely has the chance to shine forth from our world of Christendom. Rubel writes this about the distinction between the “pre-Christianized Jesus” and the Jesus that emerged from two-thousand years of history.
The pre-Christianized Jesus has morphed into the Jesus of White Anglo-Saxon Protestantism, the Jesus of denominational rivalry and political partisanship, the Jesus who tolerates the hypocrisy Lynn [an African American man whose story of conversion to Judaism is told early in the book] experienced in a family setting, the Jesus who is known for those he condemns to hell and judges unworthy of his company, the Jesus who defines people by their theology and church membership. (p. 19).
In the course of twelve readable and accessible chapters, Rubel offers his take on the current situation for the church and offers a path forward. He weaves into the book biblical interpretation, theological analysis, sociological analysis, and perhaps most important of all, numerous personal stories drawn from personal experience and conversation as well as from his readings of other authors.
The central threads of the book include his rejection of legalism, a critique of institutionalism, and an invitation to consider a vision of church that is ground up rather than top down hierarchicalism. There is a strong rejection of what he calls “religion as ‘gamesmanship.’” While churches engage in gamesmanship, trying to one up each other, people are looking for authenticity, something they believe the see in Jesus but not in his followers. In contrast to legalism and self-serving institutional religion, he offers a missional vision of the church, a vision expressed will in one chapter title: “Learning to Play Well on the Road.” As he reminds us, faith isn’t just something we do on Sunday or is done by clergy, rather, all of life is to be focused on serving God. Worship serves to form us spiritually for living the life of faith in the world. He writes that “missional Christians understand that Christ needs someone representing him in every place the members of their church are scattered throughout a community during the week – in offices, at medical clinics, in classrooms, during family outings at the beach, when someone’s care has broken down, or after a tragic death in the family three doors down the street” (p. 125).
The perspective that undergirds this message is rooted in the anti-clericalism of the Stone-Campbell movement – a movement that Rubel and I share in common. He envisions a church where titles and denominational machinery have less value, and that’s not surprising since the Churches of Christ don’t ordain nor do they see themselves as a denomination. In a chapter aptly entitled “The Ministry of Amateurs,” he speaks of ways in which we can reconnect with the Pauline vision of ministry rooted in gifts. Leadership is not to be authoritarian, but rather empowering. The focus isn’t on titles, but on function. Where Rubel’s more conservative background emerges, however, is in defining these roles. In only place do we really see this, and that is his discussion of the role of Elder, which he defines as a “mature, godly man whose character exhibited over time makes him a worthy example to other believers” (p. 163). The emphasis here is on the word “man,” which is a limiting force within the Churches of Christ. If we can replace the world man with person then we can have an even more egalitarian vision of congregational leadership.
Although Rubel’s Churches of Christ tradition is reflected in the book, he wears it lightly. It colors the way he sees the world, especially the idea of denominationalism. Part of the Churches of Christ ethos is the rejection of the denominational label, even though there is a common family connection that links this community of faith.
The primary target of Rubel’s analysis is the corrupting nature of Constantinianism within the church. He sees Constantine’s embrace of Christianity being the death knell of what had been the earlier non-institutional, non-hierarchical vision of the church. Now, the church comes to be part of the state, and thus titles and status are of increased importance. Buildings now become important, along with top-down structures. Hierarchy replaces the earlier egalitarian vision. This new understanding has affected the church’s existence into the present day, but clearly, that vision is collapsing.
Although the historian in me sees this hierarchical vision emerging much earlier in the history of the church – likely in the first century -- the point is well taken. Christendom is collapsing, and something new seems to be emerging. As we experience this time of change, perhaps Jesus’ earlier vision can return to the fore. That is the Jesus we knew before he became a Christian who blessed hierarchy and institutions over people and their encounter with God and with each other.
Whether or not you agree with everything here, and I know that some of my more liberal friends will see this as being too conservative in its theology, but I think that even my liberal friends will appreciate the opportunity Rubel gives us to re-envision what it means to be a follower of Jesus. That, I would suggest has tremendous missional implications.