‘Who’ Before ‘What’ (A review of ‘The Jesus Proposal’)

By Mark A. Matson

The unity of believers has been a central concern for the Stone-Campbell Movement from its beginning in the early 19th century. Faced with the scandal of highly partisan and sectarian divisions in the church on the one hand, and Jesus’ simple prayer in John 17 that his followers should be “one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you,” our reforming forefathers tried to imagine a way to bring believers together. For Thomas and Alexander Campbell, Barton Stone, and a host of others, the answer was found in a return to the simple gospel of our Lord. They rejected doctrinal creeds as man-made, and sought to rely on the Bible alone as a document for guiding faith and practice.

But as we all know, the desire for unity in the faith remained an elusive ideal. Instead of creating unity, this movement soon found itself subject to division—first between the instrumental churches and the noninstrumental churches, and then division based on a host of other distinctions: institutional structure, worship patterns, premillennialism, etc. The list of dividing issues is too long to include here; suffice it to say that unity has not been a hallmark of the Stone-Campbell churches, nor have we been able to bring all of Christianity to our perspective.

So what went wrong? Why have we been unable to bring about what was the central reason for our reformation?

Focus on Jesus
In their recent book The Jesus Proposal (2003, Leafwood Publishers), Rubel Shelly and John York, both preachers in the noninstrumental part of the Stone-Campbell Movement, propose a rather simple answer that has far-reaching implications for the way we think of church. Shelly and York suggest that the focus of much of the Stone-Campbell Movement’s efforts were misguided because it emphasized the “what” of Christianity rather than the “who.” Or, to put it another way, they argue that unity should be found not in doctrines or practices, but in following Jesus as a personal Savior and by establishing a relationship with Jesus that shapes and defines all other relationships. And following this logic, our choice of who we accept as brothers and sisters in faith—our definition of the limits of fellowship—should primarily rest on questions about the relationship that believers have with Jesus, not with how that faith is interpreted in doctrines or practices.

The approach the authors use to enter into this topic of unity is through a current philosophical argument about the approach toward knowledge and meaning itself. Here Shelly and York contrast modernism with postmodernism and argue that the postmodern approach has something important to offer us as a way through the vexing issues of fellowship and unity in the body of Christ.

Modernism describes a general way of thinking that emphasizes logical deductive reasoning and seeks to find “the” answer to a wide variety of issues—from science to history to theology. The modernist impulse, seen perhaps best by the scientific method that arose in the Enlightenment, emphasizes a certain objective distance from subjects examined.

In science one can see the value of such an objective stance: we want hard data, solid double-blind studies, verifiable and replicable results. Similarly, history is considered to be more valid if objectivity is demanded by the historian. “Just the facts” would be a shorthand slogan for such an approach. And such a deductive modernist approach concludes that there are solid “facts” and a “true picture” that we can reach if we apply enough mental power to sort out all the data.

In contrast, postmodernism is a catchall term that emphasizes the subjective nature language and culture bring to all our discussions. Often our conclusions say as much about our starting points as they do about our logical thought; our education, our culture, and our own set of values color the way we view the world. For the postmodern thinker, one can never truly achieve objectivity, but rather should acknowledge and struggle with the baggage each one brings to his or her view of the world. This does not mean the postmodern thinker is uncritical; but it does mean “truth” is not always clear or based on facts or events. How we interpret events makes them meaningful.

From this starting point, Shelley and York suggest that the postmodern approach, which emphasizes relationships and embraces subjectivity, is a better way for the church to approach its own life. That is to say, the modernist approach emphasized finding the “right answer” to a host of issues: how to worship, what was essential to believe, how to govern the church.

But the postmodern approach begins with the question of relationships and recognizes that some of the answers may depend on what questions we ask of the text, and even on what our own experiences have been before we approach the Bible. For Shelley and York, the postmodern approach is more true to the Bible’s main emphasis: the key issue is loving the Lord and being in relationship with him, not getting all the details correct.

A Family Model
This relational view of the essence of Christianity is the key to The Jesus Proposal. Shelly and York begin their proposal by using a family model. A family is defined by relationships that supercede differences. One is part of a family not based on a choice of ideas or similarity of views, but because of who one’s parents are.

Similarly, the church is defined fundamentally by believers’ relationships with Jesus. This overarching feature trumps all the various differences. Rather than defining a person’s relationship to the church in terms of a set of beliefs or practices that are deduced from either Scripture or tradition, Shelly and York argue that the single big questions are, “Do you believe in and love Jesus Christ?” and “Are you attempting to move closer to a way of life that is in agreement with that primary relationship?”

This relational approach contrasts with the institutional model of the church, which tends to define “church” and church “membership” in terms of adherence to sets of beliefs and practices that are secondary to the primary relationship with Jesus. Thus, individual churches and denominations have used various tests to determine if they can have fellowship with individuals and other congregations or denominations based on these beliefs and practices. This results in lines of “in” and “out,” of “us” and “them.” In contrast, Shelly and York suggest a different model, which is pictured in this diagram (from The Jesus Proposal, p. 81):

In this model, the key issue is whether a person is aligned toward Jesus (represented by the cross) or aligned away from him. A person far from perfection (a sinner, as in Arrow C) who desires to live closer to Jesus’ teaching has a more vital relationship than the person who is in the church (i.e. a church deacon, as in Arrow B) but who exhibits a lack of concern for kingdom life and is turned away from spiritual growth.

This relational approach has some significant implications. One of these is that instead of a simple checklist that defines one as “in” or “out,” one’s relationship with Christ is seen in terms of orientation and movement. Or, to put it another way, it suggests that salvation itself is a process—one of moving toward Jesus, of aligning one’s life around Jesus’ teaching. And this certainly agrees with the Scriptures that suggest repentance is the key to salvation and sinners are welcomed by Jesus on the basis of their changed attitude. Another implication is that instead of being concerned primarily with right thinking in terms of doctrines and practices, we should be concerned with right thinking in terms of our personal desire to grow toward Jesus in faith and practice.

Surely some will object to the authors’ proposal. Let me anticipate some possible objections.

But What About Doctrine?
Some will ask, “What role does doctrine play in our individual lives and in the life of the church? Is doctrine unimportant?” Shelly and York do not suggest that doctrine or practices are unimportant, just that these should not be the defining hallmarks of the Christian, either as individuals or as worshiping communities.

They do, for instance, argue that the commitment to and pursuit of doctrinal purity (defined as the will of God as seen in Scripture) is important for the church. And furthermore, the pursuit of such doctrinal purity will help the church in its development of unity.

Thus the study of Scripture, and the attempt to put the results of this study into use in the life of individuals and churches, is a central task in aligning oneself with Jesus. Indeed, they suggest a key role of communities of believers is to study together, and to seek to understand in common as communities, what God’s will is for them as individuals in community.

Others will ask, “Does this proposal not open the church up to all manner of ideas that will dilute the truth of Scripture? Should we accept all ideas as valid?” This objection is based on a false assumption that the primary role of the church is to define valid teaching. This, I think, is the key issue that Shelly and York want to take issue with.

They strongly assert that this definition of the church’s primary role has been mistaken. The role of the church is to encourage growth in believers’ faith and help them as a community move toward kingdom life. If a church is actively doing that work, and studying Scripture in a vital way, then the truth of Scripture will be manifest in new and vital ways, and false ideas will be tested within the community.

A Consistent Approach
Shelly and York have written a powerful book that questions some fundamental ways we look at church. But it is in keeping with the spirit of our movement’s fathers’ approach toward unity (see for instance Thomas Campbell’s Declaration and Address), and the Scripture’s own testimony about faith and church life. This book will surely be a lightning rod for argument, especially within the noninstrumental segment of our brotherhood. But it contains a message that needs to be heard.

While I am not sure the modernist/postmodernist language is the best way to describe the desired shift in perspective, I do think that Shelly and York have identified a central problem within our thinking about church, and indeed the thinking in most denominations and church movements. Instead of the “what” of doctrine and practice, we should spend a lot more time thinking about the “who” (Jesus), and how we relate to him and to our brothers and sisters in the Lord.

Mark A. Matson is vice president for academic affairs and dean of Milligan College in Tennessee.

The Jesus Proposal by Rubel Shelly and John York, is available for $13.99 from Leafwood Publishers at http://www.leafwoodpublishers.com/eco/store.asp?SID=4&Item=39or by calling (877) 634-6004.

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