Saturday, July 07, 2012

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.  

8 comments:

John said...

Interesting that he construed Jesus as anti-hierarchical when the first thing Jesus did at the outset of his ministry was to appoint an apostolic council of twelve to serve as his 'followers-in-chief', a leadership team that became know quite early as "the Twelve." The claim of anti-institutionalism is I think a post-modern Protestant gloss on the life and story of Jesus, one easliy called into question by the texts.

Rather than rejecting hierarchy, I see Jesus as rejecting doctrine in favor of compassion as the divinely prescribed 'way' of living one's faith. I see Jesus rejecting the meaninglessness of maintaining doctrinal purity as per the Pharisees, in favor of the life of active compassion - radical inclusion, radical forgiveness, physical and spiritual healing, fellowship, prayer, and sharing the good news of the immanence of the Kingdom - instructing us that God prefers mercy and compassion over doctrine and sacrifice.

And Jesus' conversations with syro-Phoenician woman, the Samarian woman at the well, and his appearance to Mary at the tomb as all the evidence one could ever ask for regarding the qualification of women to witness to the will and work of the Lord in the world.

Robert Cornwall said...

John, I don't think that Rubel would agree with your assessment of the Twelve as a hierarchy. He believes that leadership isn't about hierarchy but service.

Rubel would agree that the issue here isn't doctrine but one of grace.

I don't think you would find him to be in disagreement with you.

On women, he's supportive of women preachers, but I don't think he's worked through the elders situation. That's more a matter of the tradition than anything.

John said...

Yes, Jesus chastised the Twelve about leadership as service, but in doing so he acknowledged that they were in fact leaders. That they were instituted as a hierarchy by Jesus in what may be deemed his own first act of ministerial leadership cannot be ignored. Jesus clearly thought it important that a leadership core be appointed and maintained. And within that cadre there were pillars, Peter, John and James, to whom the others were subordinate.

I am no big supporter of control by institutional hierarchy, but I think it cannot be seriously argued from the text that Jesus rejected such, given that he personally created a hierarchy and took great pains to personally guide their development both as nascent Christians and as servant leaders - but leaders nonetheless. Certainly Jesus taught that leadership is about service, and humility, but he first established the leadership core, the hierarchy.

Moreover, the Twelve saw themselves as a self-perpetuating leadership core and that's why they replaced Judas as their first official act, and they did so long before Constantine co-opted the church as an institution as a tool of the state.

Finally, the writings of Paul are repleat with his own struggles seeking acceptance into the leadership hierarchy.

I have no disagreement that Jesus taught that the 'how' of Christian leadership is through service, but before that Jesus taught that the normative 'structure' of Christian leadership is in some sense necessarily hierarchical.

And, even at his initial organizational level, Twelve seems to be a significant number for the leadership core.

I am not wedded to the notion of a hierarchical leadership in the chruch, though I feel no resistance to it as a general proposition. And while I can think my way around hierarchies as institutional dead-ends and perhaps as culturally rooted rather than divinely compelled, I think the life and teachings of Jesus provide little support for a doctrinal stance rejecting the notion of hierarchies - indeed, quite the opposite.

Jeff said...

John, are you expressing something akin to apostolic succession -not so much in transmission but authority within the church?

I posit the authority within the community of believers -a kingdom of priests. The church is not built on Peter as an apostle, but his confession of faith which we all share.

One chief characteristics of the first Gospel is how clueless the disciples really are especially Peter, and as relaying his story it is as if it it saying "Don't look to us, look to Jesus." Which makes it fitting that Judas' replacement met the criteria of having been a witness since the beginning. A replacement I see as a statement of wholeness and healing not hierarchy.

John said...

Jeff,

No, not apostolic succession, though I am not uncomfortable with the idea.

I am just saying that if you are going to argue against and otherwise reject the validity of any internal hierarchy in the Christian Church, the New Testament is a poor source of support, because the New Testament documents not only a church hierarchy but shows Jesus himself establishing such a structure from the very beginning of his personal ministry. Such rejection, which may in fact be valid, must be based on other grounds, prudential rather than Scriptural.

Shelley's book seems flawed in its very premise of seeking support from the Jesus 'before Christianity,' a Jesus which Scripture documents as beginning his ministry by choosing an inner core of servant leaders.

Jeff said...

I see the disciples as having understood themselves to be living near the end times and as acting as witnesses to the gospel. I'm not sure that a perpetual leadership is what is being established. Further, there are diffrent models of organizing the church apparent in the New Testament, and we also have those who were exorcists outside the fellowship using Jesus name to do their work -both of these seem to me to be working against the idea of a human central leadership as being neccesary especially after Pentecost. Why should we ask for a king for ourselves when we have the Lord?

John said...

I am not sure that the early Church's appreciation of the end times affects the issue of leadership. I also do not see the apparent autonomy of extraordinarily gifted individuals such as exorcists, healers, and prophets (Didache) as an argument against the apparent normative practice of an institutional leadership.

Finally, the leadership style exemplified in the New Testament is not that of King/Pope but the council of Twelve and/or that presented in the Jerusalem council, under the supervision of the Holy Spirit. Alternatively, the New Testament speaks of local leadership by elders and bishops who are selected by qualification and who are accountable and who themselves lead in council rather than individually.

I think what is outstanding about the early church is the lack of doctrinal homogeneity and the seeming disinterest in the early church leaders to impose doctrinal statements and creeds. The Jerusalem council is intentionally very self limiting on its pronouncements, and those pronouncements have only to do with practices and not with beliefs. Paul, for the most part, while asserting doctrinal positions, usually 'argues' for them in the face of arguably lesser alternatives rather than dictating them as non-negotiables. And even when Paul asserts a non-negotiable doctrinal position, his very assertion presumes that an alternative position has been promoted by someone of equal authority in the Church.

So for me the issue for the contemporary Church is not the presence or absence of hierarchical leadership in the early Church, it is clearly present, but instead the ramificarions of the self-imposed limitations the early Church leadership observed in the expression of doctrinal authority and the degree of doctrinal heterogeneity which it openly tolerated.

Jeff said...

John,

That is much clearer. You kept saying servant leaders, but so does the Pope; who does not act as if he has the limitations to precedent you've decribed. Mine was the first generation to have no pre-Watergate memories and are generally disinclined to institutional leadership as it relates to an abuse of power. It is difficult not to read that into even the most beneign use of the term "leader". That having been said those acting out of the normative structure to my mind does challenge those vested with authority -and that is a good thing.