I recently read an excellent post by Chuck Queen; Faithfulness Is More Important Than Veneration (Back to the Future with the Jewish Jesus). At first I was a little bummed because I was working on a similar post and Queen’s version was way better then mine. But, with Queen’s permission, I decided to spin off of what he wrote and expand on it, so I’d encourage you to read his post before continuing on with mine.
In my previous post, I stated that any interpretation of scripture that causing others to be harmed, marginalized, or oppressed is the wrong interpretation, no matter how traditional, historical, or exegetical it may be. I want to clarify that statement here, by saying that God is far more concerned about how we treat others then in what theology of doctrine about Him we subscribe to. As Queen puts it, “Jesus is far more interested in our faithfulness to the way of Jesus than our worship of Jesus or veneration of his deity. Having the faith of Jesus is more important than what we believe about Jesus.”
Current church culture often dictates that what you believe is what defines you as a “true Christian”. It’s my opinion that one’s beliefs are simply a compass that points one in the right direction in life. Queen echoes this by saying that, Our beliefs are mere pointers; our human way of trying to grasp and explain what is beyond our comprehension. Whereas beliefs tend to divide us, a living faith unites us.” This is not to say that one’s beliefs aren’t important. Queen states, “What we truly believe in the core of our being impacts how we live, or at least how we want to live.” It would seem that for many however, rather than beliefs simply pointing one in the right direction, they have become the journey itself; the goal and the emphasis of what defines faith. It has also been my experience that most people of faith hold and defend their belief system with such vigor that it’s hard not to see them as idols. These “idols” very often can lead to wrong and destructive positions in regards to such topics as LGBTs, women, immigrants, poverty, other religions, capital punishment, violence, and so on.
There is a perpetual fear amongst many Christians that if they don’t follow what the Bible says to do (or more accurately, what the church/religious leaders say to do), then they will incur the wrath of God and/or lose their salvation. Without diving into the error of this sort of fear-based faith system, I hope to show scripturally that God’s primary concern is with our actions towards others, not with how closely we follow religious dogma.
When asked what the underlining theme of the Old Testament prophets’ message to Israel was, most would say that it was to stop worshiping idols- and they would be correct. But the other common message found throughout the prophetic books is God’s anger at Israel for its neglect of the poor and marginalized.
In Isaiah 1, God tells Israel that he is tired of their offerings and their feasts, and He will no longer hear their worship or listen to their prayers until they get themselves right with Him. What must they do to get right?
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause. (Isaiah 1:16-17)
Again, in Isaiah 58, we see that despite seeking God daily and delighting to know his ways, and be a righteous nation, it’s not enough. What does God want from them?
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? (Isaiah 58:6-7)
Amos continues in the theme of Isaiah with God once again being displeased with Israel’s feasts, offerings, and songs. In a verse made famous by MLK, God demands:
But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:24)
In my ESV Bible, the heading above verse 6 of Micah 6 is titled: What Does the Lord Require? We find the answer in verse 8:
He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)
Go ahead and read the verses that proceed this one. What does God require? Not offerings or sacrifices, but justice, kindness, and humility.
You see this word “justice” come up a lot. Justice usually evokes images or ideas regarding a courtroom or the law, but in broader terms, justice is the quality of being fair, just, or impartial. It is “a principle or ideal of just dealing or right actions” according to Webster. Frank Schaeffer makes the point that “tribalism and excluding classes of people is the enemy of justice.”
The writers of the New Testament were equally concerned about matter of social justice. James writes that:
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. (James 1:27)
James goes on to show that faith and kind sentiments are meaningless unless they lead to actions which help others:
What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. (James 2:14-17)
John echos this sentiment by saying:
But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth. (1 John 3:17-18)
Peter tells us:
Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. (1 Peter 4:8)
I find it ironic that the apostle Paul, whose words are all-too-often used as justification for the oppression and marginalizing of others, was so outspoken of the fact that religious traditions accounting for little in God’s eyes; only love. In his letter to the church of Galatia, he writes:
For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love. (Galatians 5:6)
Again, in his famous passage on love, Paul writes:
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)
If you’re wondering why I skipped over the Gospels, rest assured; I saved the best for last. Jesus, more then anyone else in the Bible, taught and demonstrated that caring for others is more important then devotion to scriptural law of religious traditions.
Despite the assertion by most that Jesus was “without sin”, I would argue that this is a relative claim. In whose eyes are we talking about? Because certainly in the eyes of the dominant religion and it’s leaders of the time, Jesus “sinned” frequently and unashamedly. In modern language, he would be accused of “living in sin”.
Jesus broke purity laws by touching lepers, dead people, a women on her period, handicapped, and the demon possessed. He hung out with prostitutes. He broke the Sabbath. He associated with Samaritans. He dined with “sinners”. He disregarding fasting laws. He pardoned people of their sins. He was irreverent when speaking about God and taught his disciples to do the same.
Jesus seemed to have little regard for the “inerrancy” of the Torah, either. In fact, Jesus frequently undercut scripture, stating the, “The Law says this, but I say…” Can you imagine if an Evangelical pastor got up some Sunday and said to the congregation, “The Bible says this, but I say forget all that, listen to what I’m saying now!” He would be fired before he even finished his sermon.
And what about the parable of the Good Samaritan? Who was considered the good neighbor towards the beaten man? Not the priest or the Levite, but the Samaritan bandaged him, cared for him, and offered to pay for all his medical expenses.
Finally, in the most telling example of love trumping law, in Matthew 25 we read about the final judgement and how people what people will be judged on:
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ (Matthew 25:31-40)
No mention of correct theology. No word about sound doctrine. Nothing about standing up for “Christian values”. Not a thing about defending “truth”. Just caring for the “least of these”. That is what living as a follower of Christ is all about.
Are ones beliefs important? Yes, but only in so far as they are used to love and care for others. If certain beliefs cause others harm, it’s time to drop them, or at the very least reevaluate them.
“Who someone is and what they do is all that matters” says Frank Schaeffer
In closing I would like to offer a modern interpretation of Paul’s words to the church of Corinth. We’ll call it “Rob’s Letter to the Church of America”:
If you have vibrant, Spirit-filled worship services, but exclude outsiders from joining in, it’s all just a bunch of noise. If you have the most exegetical and theologically-sound teachings, but use them to harm or marginalize others, it is all just useless words. If your own beliefs are more important then serving your neighbor, then your faith is meaningless. If you give all that you have to help build your own church, but ignore the poor and the hungry, you are throwing your money away.