By Mark A. Taylor
I once knew a young woman with a colorful way of describing those whose inadequate intellect didn’t match their handsome appearance: “Nice cage, no bird,” she’d say, and everybody would laugh.
It’s funny, partly because our society seems enchanted with externals. A pretty face before a sterling character, a charismatic politician before a principled candidate in situation after situation, style trumps substance.
Even in the church we’re tempted to yield to this pressure. So many “church shoppers,” for example, seem influenced first if not most by the externals. Did my kids have fun? Was the music good? Did the minister seem like a guy I can relate to? And by the way, how much trouble did I have finding a parking space?
Our heritage in the Restoration Movement has been to concentrate first, or maybe exclusively, on what we’ve called the substance. We are a “people of the Book,” and at times we have delivered its precepts with no style at all. “These are the facts. This is the truth. Believe it, accept it, and agree with us about it or you’re probably going to Hell.”
Rubel Shelly and John York’s message in The Jesus Proposal is much more winsome. And because of that because their book talks about a relationship with Jesus before anything else we might fear or dismiss their proposition. We should do neither.
These two preacher scholars say that a person’s path is more important than his location, that the direction of his journey tells more about his spiritual state than his current position. In other words, the sinner with a messy life who is earnestly looking to Jesus for redemption may be in a better situation than a self righteous church officer who, although baptized years ago, demonstrates nothing of grace, sacrifice, or holiness.
But as Mark Matson’s review of their book makes clear, Shelly and York agree that the right search doesn’t replace the right conclusion. An emphasis on relationship works only when it is built on a commitment to scriptural truth. But focusing on commands without falling in love with the gracious Lord who gave them leads to a repulsive legalism that deters seekers and discourages believers.
Their book is not an example of style versus substance, but it is a plea for us to redefine what the substance is. Our relationship with Jesus himself is at the very core of our faith. Getting this right will drive us to Scripture and prod us toward obedience. But concentrating on precepts and rules alone leads to an empty shell of a faith a cage without a bird.
York and Shelly have challenged us anew to discover love with obedience, rules and relationship. In our hearts, all of us know we need both.