“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” John 13:34-35
Question: For Jesus-followers is correct doctrine, the ‘right’ belief, aka: proper theology, more important than Christ-like behavior?
My encounters with believers at every level informs me that dogma generally trumps behavior — that checking all the correct boxes in the doctrinal inventory guarantees an E-ticket into The Kingdom more surely than how we treat (love) our fellow man. Yup, the Pharisees beat the heck out of the Samaritans in every annual Faith Bowl. At least that’s how I’ve perceived believers around me talking and behaving — not just in person but in books and blogs as well. Seems to me there are far more “hearers” of the word than there are “doers” (James 1:22).
For me the chasm between belief and behavior was highlighted about two years ago following a split in my home church. It started innocently enough. One of the members in our men’s group threw out a question for discussion: What is the Gospel? His intent seemed to be for each of us to share what we personally thought was the essence of God’s good news.
Some thought it was strictly the forgiveness of sins — that Christ died for our sins. Others took a broader view. They maintained that the good news was also inclusion in God’s Kingdom and gradually being conformed to being more like Jesus, etc. They did not disagree that that forgiveness of sins was majorly important but just maintained that there was even more to the good news.
Anyway, what ensued were several heated debates followed by a plethora of back and forth emails featuring dueling scriptures — each backing up their points from the Bible. Most of the participants in this debate have a better command of scripture than I, and so in some sense it was enlightening. However, I followed this back and forth till my eyes glazed over and my interest waned. For me it made about as much sense as arguing the merits of the Porterhouse vs. the Maine lobster when the Surf and Turf was a ready option. It was plain to me that the debate was solving nothing and that the rancor was creating hurt feelings and ill will. However, the controversy did cause me to somewhat rethink what was essential about the gospel for me personally.
The doctrinal debate left pain and anger all around — and in spite of sincere apologies for hurt feelings four families eventually dropped out of the church. Their rationale seemed to be that worshiping and having fellowship with possible apostates or heretics was in some way hazardous to their salvation — and to their wives and children’s salvation as well.
Witnessing the re-enacting of the schisms that have haunted Christ’s Body for the past two millennia was interesting in some clinical sense but personally very painful and discouraging. Some of the folks I no longer have fellowship with I care about. In some sense we remain friends but we do not meet together to honor Christ. The five hundred pound gorilla in the room that we dare not acknowledge are the fine points of doctrinal divergence.
For the past month I have been slowly rereading my favorite book of the NT: the Gospel of John. In chapters 13–17 Jesus both demonstrates and narrates His will for us personally and for The Church. In washing the disciples feet He gives us the supreme example of serving (loving) others, and in Chapter 17 He prays for his disciples and for us:
“I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be ONE, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one — I in them and you in me — so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and I have loved them even as you have loved me.” v. 20-23
What Jesus didn’t say is that we should debate endlessly about the fine points of something Moses or Paul wrote instead of sharing God’s love. Earlier in His ministry He affirmed the apostate Samaritan “woman at the well” (John 4) and He told a story about the “Good” Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). The important point is that Samaritans were looked down on by Jews and fellowship with them was forbidden. That did not seem to bother Jesus — and without endorsing their theology He affirmed them in love.
He didn’t say that we have to have the correct theology and recite the right scriptures in the right sequence for God to be in his heaven and everything right with the world. He told the Samaritan woman that the time was coming when they would worship the Father in both the Spirit and in truth — and that he (Jesus) was the fount of “living water.” His witness was direct and positive — He was the ultimate Truth, and presumably she was a changed person after her encounter with Jesus.
It is apparent from the chapters of John 13-17 called the “Farewell Discourse” that Jesus’ supreme wish is for us to be both united in love and to share His love with the world thru acts of service. And when Jesus speaks about love He’s not talking about a warm feeling. He’s talking about loving behavior — like washing the the dirty and weary feet of another. Also, within the same context of the meeting in the upper room Jesus institutes the holy sacrament by which we are to remember Him: communing with Him and other parts of His Body in partaking bread and wine.
It is readily apparent from the Farewell Discourse that love and service should always trump any focus on dogma or doctrine. And John reaffirms Jesus’ wish for us in his epistles: “Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” (1 John 3:18) and in his second letter: “As you have heard from the beginning, His command is that you walk in love.” 2 John 6 And this is insight from the man who knew Jesus better than any other human.
It is personally painful for me to hear Jesus’ words in Chapter 17, and in John’s letters, in the knowledge of how Christ’s Body has been fractured again and again thru focusing on dogma and doctrine to the detriment of Christ-like behavior. We have observed it for two thousand years and many of us have experienced it up close and personal. I believe that in every gathering of believers Chapter 17 of John should be read aloud at least once a month. I believe a solemn restating of Jesus’ supreme will for us, His Church, is far more important than another upbeat praise song. The Lord’s Prayer is a part of many liturgies and services. It tells us how to pray — John 17 tells us how we are to act as brothers and sisters in our Lord and Savior.