The Evolving Ethic of Jesus

The name of Jesus has power, though not always in the way I expect. Like salt, it adds season to whatever it’s sprinkled on; a spice of gravity and goodness that can apparently brighten almost anything.

I saw the spice of Jesus used the other day by a political figure. This “deeply religious person” declared the idea of closing abortion clinics to be not only “unconscionable” but “un-Christian”. Well, not to be tedious, but the actual Christ (you know – the one who claimed to be God) held a much different view of children and may be entitled to say what is “Christian”.

But it is the same in the church. We love the name of Jesus, though we find his words a bit awkward. We trimmed away a few unfashionable ideas, thinking it would be enough, but problems continue to arise, and so we keep trimming. Every year, what we used to call the “authority” of the Christian Bible grows smaller. Every year, the authority of culture grows larger. As a church, we are saying very different things than we used to say, but we still say them in Jesus’ name.

Another political figure is in the news, a fellow who – in this age of rancor – enjoyed a remarkably good reputation until suddenly he didn’t. A lone accuser rises. An ugly story is told. The pit of hell bursts open before us and at least one person will be thrown in. Perhaps an innocent woman has been injured. Perhaps an innocent man will be destroyed.

What do we say about this crisis, especially we “Christians” who sanctify our opinions by sprinkling over them the sacred name of Jesus? I disagreed with a Christian leader this week who publicly declared of the accused, with no evidence that the accusation was true, “his past is coming back to haunt him”. This statement faithfully reflects the fervor and impatience in our culture, but it does not reflect the Bible’s concern for justice and protection from false accusations*.

In a related conversation, a woman made this comment about sexual integrity at Christian writers’ conferences: “The code of conduct should apply to everyone – male and female… Don’t wear suggestive clothing!” While that’s a pretty standard expression of the Christian idea of modesty, this poor soul was confronted by 20 (presumably “Christian”) responses, most along the lines of this one: “Please tell me you’re kidding. What a sad, victim-shaming comment. Please rethink it.”

As a church, we’re saying very different things than we used to say, but we still say them in Jesus’ name, and that should be a little scary. The name of Jesus is not magic; it has power because it belongs to an immense person with clear ideas – ideas that do not evolve to accommodate culture.
By Jesus’ own account in Matthew 7, it is possible to honor – and even to do miracles – in his name while surrendering some of his ideas, but the story is not a happy one. In the end, calling on his name is not enough. Even miracles are not enough. Certainly, following the currents of culture is not enough. The ideas of Jesus matter after all and it is those who stubbornly hold to and follow them – those who “do the will of My Father in Heaven” – who survive his examination.

*(e.g., “A lone witness is not sufficient to establish wrongdoing.” Cf. Matthew 18:16, John 7:51, John 8:17, 2 Corinthians 13:1, 1 Timothy 5:19, Hebrews 10:28, Numbers 35:30, Deuteronomy 19:15.)

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