In the last few months, I have faced several situations in which people are questioning my beliefs. Directly asking, “Do you believe . . . ? What do you believe about . . .?” These have not been friendly conversations, but rather confrontations that are meant to determine whether or not I am “orthodox,” and ultimately whether or not I will be invited to speak to their church or class. Some have been face to face, some have been a written contract I was asked to sign, agreeing that “I believe” a list of statements. One even felt like an inquisition, in which my answers were to be discussed amongst a group of “elders” who would make a determination to uninvite me from a previously scheduled event.
These encounters have each felt intimidating to me and carried with them an aggressive energy, intent on determining whether I am “in” or “out.” No one wants to be “out.” (Isn’t it interesting that the ones deciding who is “out” are always the ones who are “in”?’) No one wants to be “uninvited” or excluded from the group. Think back to the captain choosing dodge ball teammates. We all fear rejection. I wish I didn’t. I wish I was over that need for approval, but sadly I am not.
I have felt frustrated by these confrontations, and of course I have felt hurt by some of the determinations that I am not “in.” I found myself thinking lately: since when did what a person believes decide whether or not they are in? When did what one believes become the determination of heaven or hell? Believing some information decides whether or not a person is saved?
If believing the right things is the determining factor, then what about my mentally ill friends? What about my friends who have Down Syndrome? I know, the response is that there is grace for them. They can’t help it. But isn’t that the point! There is grace for everyone! Everyone.
How did we get here? In 313 C.E., Constantine decided that the Disciples of Jesus had gained too much traction. They had turned the world upside down by following the Jesus Way. They were loving one another. They were caring for the poor. They were turning the other cheek. Choosing to love their enemies. They were refusing to fight his wars. And their little faction kept growing despite any persecution he could throw at them. Constantine decided, “If ya can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” He saw an energy, a force that he could use for his own power—for Empire.
Under Constantine, councils were held. Powerful people laid down the rules. They created a list of beliefs that determined orthodoxy, and decided which books and letters would be considered Canon. It was at this time in history that the Way of Jesus became a religion. It became Christianity. (Interestingly, some of the “orthodox beliefs” and the “included books” laid down by this original council would be unrecognizable to most of today’s Evangelical Christians.)
This was also the point in history when adherence to Christian Orthodoxy kept one safe. Heretics were burned at the stake, hung by their neck, or at the very least shunned and exiled from the community, so that they might not poison the group with their influence.
This Christianity looked almost nothing like the Way that Jesus taught. Constantine took the sign of the cross (a symbol of sacrificial martyrdom) and turned it into a symbol of war, claiming Jesus as the new deity that not only sanctioned killing, conquering and enslaving, but blessed and empowered the Romans in their conquest. Jesus became nothing more than a new tribal deity, and if you believed the right things, then you could be in his tribe.
But this is not the real Jesus. This is not the Jesus who came to show us how to live—how to love one another as much as we love ourselves. Jesus came into a culture where a similar religion of power, oppression and exclusion ruled the day, and he taught a different way—a Better Way.
Jesus had been teaching the crowd to “Love Your Neighbor,” and an expert in the law asked, “Well, who is my neighbor?” He was an expert. He knew how to be right. So Jesus tells a story about two religious jerks. (You might remember it by a different title.)
There was a guy walking down the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. Some robbers jumped out, and they beat him up. They took all his stuff and left him bleeding on the side of the road. You remember the story. Two very religious men crossed the road and looked the other way as they pass by. They acted like they didn’t even see the man. However, Jesus tells of a Samaritan who stopped and with his own hands, out of his own means, he took care of the dying man on the side of the road.
We clearly hear the call to care for our broken and hurting neighbors on the side of the road. But, when Jesus finishes the story, he asks the man, “Which of these men was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” Sneaky Jesus! Double meaning. Yes, the guy on the ground is our neighbor, but Jesus also calls the Samaritan the “neighbor.”
The Jews hadn’t just randomly decided that this other group of people were to be hated. There was good reason. Samaritans believed the wrong things! They worshipped on the wrong mountain. They had started a different temple. They had mixed pagan beliefs together with the worship of the One True God. They were not “orthodox.” And Jesus says, “This guy—this Samaritan guy—is the good guy.” And he is the guy Jesus calls the “neighbor.”
Jesus is saying that what we believe is not the point. Love is the point. Love is the whole deal. The kit-and-kaboodle. He had already said it: love your neighbor as yourself.
I get it. I want to be right. It’s deep in my personality—ingrained in my breeding even. But Jesus says that the only thing that makes us right, is how we treat one another.
Yes, I know about the verses that say, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved.” Our problem is our definition of “believe.” The Greek word that we translate as “believe,” includes so much more than some information that we agree is truth. It includes the connotation of trust.
A child who jumps off the side of the pool into her daddy’s arms “believes” in her dad. She doesn’t know that he was the top of his graduating class at such and such university. She doesn’t know that he is the Vice President of such and such bank. Nor does she know that he paid the electric bill yesterday, so that her house would be warm. She simply knows that if she jumps, he will catch her because he is her dad.
Interestingly, the title, “Believer,” is only in the Bible twice. “Christian” is only there three times. Two of those are titles given to Jesus’ followers by other people, and one in reference to persecution they are enduring for being known as “Christians.” (Acts 11:26; 26:28 and 1 Pet. 4:16) It’s not a bad title, in that it means, “little Christ.” If Christians were known as “Little Jesuses,” that would be pretty cool. Of course, that would mean that Christians would be known for doing the stuff Jesus did.
The title “Disciple” or “Follower” is used 269 times in Scripture. A disciple is one who follows the teaching of his teacher. In Jewish religion/culture, religious teachers are called rabbis. In India, they’re called gurus. The disciples of a particular rabbi or guru listen to and learn the wisdom of their teacher. They believe in their teacher and trust that his wisdom is good, that it is beneficial, that it is even the truth, and they become committed to following the way of their teacher.
So here’’s what I’m thinking. You can ask me what I believe, and I will do my best to answer. You might then decide that I am “out,” but you also need to know that my beliefs continue to change—to evolve—as I receive new information. New facts, new awareness, cause me to reconsider things I have thought I believed before, and will likely change what I think again.
If this feels too wishy-washy for some, here is my declaration:
I believe in Jesus. I truly believe in the Way of Love that he not only taught, but that he showed us. I am determined to live his Way of Love, and I’ll keep inviting more and more people to join me, because I believe it saves the world.
“Go and make disciples . . . teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded.” —Jesus