The Barnabas Ministry
Book Review

The Jesus Proposal: A Theological Framework for Maintaining the Unity of the Body of Christ
By Rubel Shelly and John York (Leafwood Publishers, Siloam Springs, AR 2003). 219 pages.

The Jesus Proposal by Rubel Shelly and John York discusses the theological origins of divisions among professing Christians in our day and age, and offers an intriguing approach to the future. In their preface, Shelly and York state:

     The unity of the body of Christ is not a desirable option. It is a divine mandate. It is also a practical necessity for leading the world to believe in Jesus.
     But the world has just passed through a 200-year period during which oneness among Christians has been practically impossible. It was not theology so much as culture which created that impossibility. Or, stated more precisely, the Enlightenment culture generated a divisive approach to theology that kept Christians apart.
     Modernity, the name we have fixed to that culture, demanded fixed, rational, and clear marked boundaries. It formulated categories for classification purposes. It labeled and assigned. It judged and excluded. It fostered and furthered division.
     Now there has been a major paradigm shift to what is called--for the lack of a better term-- Postmodernity. It acknowledges and embraces a degree of ambiguity that Modernity could not tolerate. It sees fuzzy rather than fixed boundaries. It resists rigid categories, judgmentalism, and exclusion; it affirms inclusion, association, and flexibility. In its extreme forms, Postmodernity is as dangerous for its "fuzziness" as Modernity was for its rigidity.
     The "proposal" of The Jesus Proposal is that Christians from all denominations can benefit from this cultural shift. In the Postmodern  atmosphere of the twenty-first century, we can experience relational unity in Christ-- unity greater and more important than theological agreement, ecclesiological structure, and institutional loyalty.
     Jesus Christ should mean more than denomination or theological tradition or method of interpreting the Bible. (pp. 9-10)

The philosophy of Modernism-- the idea that we can and will find the right doctrines and practices on all things Christian-- once held great promise for Christians seeking the ancient paths of the early church in confused times. The Restoration Movement was heavily influenced by this sort of thinking, embarking on the journey to identify "the ancient order of things." It seemed like the logical outgrowth of such Biblical commands as "watch your life and doctrine closely" (1 Timothy 4:16). But as time went on and Western Christians pursued that vision-- divisions arose, in part if not primarily because people of good faith, morals and intelligence had different perspectives and understandings about certain things. A story I recently ran across illustrates the problem well:

    I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump off. So I ran over and said, 'Stop! Don't do it!" "Why shouldn't I?" he said. I said, "Well, there's so much to live for!' He said, "Like what?" I said, "Well, are you religious or atheist?" He said, 'Religious." I said, "Me too! Are you Christian or Buddhist?" He said, "Christian.' I said, "Me too! Are you Catholic or Protestant?" He said, "Protestant." I said, "Me too! Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?" He said, 'Baptist!" I said, "Wow! Me too! Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord?' He said, "Baptist Church of God!" I said, "Me too! Are you Original Baptist Church of God or are you Reformed Baptist Church of God?" He said, 'Reformed Baptist Church of God!" I said, 'Me too! Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915?" He said, "Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915!' I said, "Die, heretic scum!" and pushed him off.

As the story illustrates, we tend to regard our opponents in the most recent religious battle as "heretics" no matter how much we agree on other things.  Each little group tries to be united within itself, all the while ignoring the larger question of disunity among professing Christians. This problem of disunity is "handled" by denying the legitimacy of these other Christians. But this is a little silly-- of course there won't be any disunity if you disregard all of the people who disagree with you! And ultimately this approach to unity (deny the legitimacy of your opponents) is applied to those who disagree within their own group, providing another group that will call itself "the remnant" and another group of "heretics."

Unity based upon such an approach is as unstable as the weather-- if you're unified with other Christians, just wait for the next issue to come along, and you'll likely be divided. Taken to its logical end, you'll be in a church all by yourself.  In their more introspective moments, professing Christians in their varied traditions and organizations wonder if this is what Jesus had in mind in his prayer for unity (John 17). And the world looks at the division among professing Christians and rightly questions the legitimacy of Christianity.

But the problem isn't the Bible, or even the people reading the Bible per se. According to Shelly and York, the problem is Modernism. We can't figure everything out, even though Modernism promised we could. We found that some doctrines are more clear than others, some are more important than others, and that Christianity resists being analyzed and dissected the way we Western Modernists want to do it. 

If you can identify with the scenario I'm describing, The Jesus Proposal  is for you. The authors, with strong restoration movement ties (Woodmont Hills Church of Christ, David Lipscomb University), develop this theological alternative to the arbitrary, divisive and man-made mandates of Modernism. Along the way, they deal with many of the implications of the alternative they propose. I'll offer some citations from the book to illustrate some of the key elements:
    The goal of this book is to address only one of the many issues raised by this Modern-to-Postmodern shift-- the possibility for meaningful unity among those who make an orthodox confession of Jesus Christ as the Son of God (p. 20).

    Just get us humans more interested in our divisions and distinctions than in our common ground and similarities in Christ, and the church remains the devil's playground (p. 30).

     At the beginning of the twenty-first century, we seem to be faced with a difficult dichotomy. If we choose unity, we must sacrifice the need to be right-- which in the end is experienced as a violation of conscience. If we choose unity, we must sacrifice our commitments to the Lord's Supper or to a cappella music or to baptism. On the other hand, if we choose our to be right on every point of doctrine, we sacrifice unity and are accused of being sectarian (p. 42, italics in original).

    My thesis is that certain types of division are wrong and offensive to Jesus Christ. His followers cannot have spiritual fellowship with those who do not confess him as their crucified and risen Lord, but those who make that common confession must begin to honor him by looking for ways to include rather than exclude one another. For the sake of a common witness against unbelief, we must learn to stand together in Christ.
    In the experience of my youth in the Churches of Christ, the appeal for people to "stand together in Christ" ultimately got around to an appeal for everyone else to leave their denominations, disavow understandings of biblical texts different than ours, and repudiate doctrines, worship elements, or polities different from ours. We were right, and unity would be achieved when everyone else recognized and admitted it. We would be united when they came where we were theologically, embracd [sic] the same worship forms we practiced, and gave up their false ways  (pp. 54-55).

    The gospel is made believable by the life of a healthy community of Christ's disciples; it is discredited and made less palatable by the sorry exhibition of unprincipled behavior, anxiety, and division among people claiming to follow him (p. 61).

    If we follow the analogy of physical birth for this process of spiritual birth, which makes more sense: To protect and nurture as new life from the earliest moment or only from the later ones? To wait for fuller development before regarding her as a Christian? Or to claim, nurture, and protect from the very earliest point of faith in and love for Christ? "The Lord knows those who are his" (2 Tim 2:19b), and I am willing to leave all judgment to him. So, while granting God alone the right to answer the question about those who are his own, I prefer to run the risk of extending my acceptance, encouragement, and love to those who only may be "near" the kingdom than to exclude even one whom he has accepted (p. 138).

    Every Christian church embraces one or more doctrinal beliefs beyond faith in Jesus as Lord that makes it distinct from other associations of believers. Should people in these various groups not be allowed the freedom to follow Scripture according to their good-faith attempts at interpretation and according to the liberty of their own consciences? Yet the history of the church shows that we have generally made distinctive understanding into a new ground for division from brothers and sisters in Christ. Can we be distinctive without being divisive (p. 148)?

    What biblical text points us directly to a theological anchor point for believers concerned with preserving the unity of the church? Surely it is the core message of the gospel, what Paul said was "of first importance" to those he had led to Christ .... (1 Cor 15:1-4) (p. 152, italics in original).

    Our purpose is to ... make the point that godly Christians draw different conclusions on important matters and need to be able to acknowledge one another as brothers and sisters in spite of those differences, treat one another with respect and love, and set an example before a watching world of how life is supposed to work in the family of God (p. 192).

    That churches tend to value peace, sameness and harmony is why so may of them are irrelevant, uninspiring and dead. If you want peace in its ultimate form, go to a cemetery. If you want the life of Christ coursing through yourself, your fellows and your surroundings, welcome the gospel-- and brace yourself (p. 204)!

    We believe that the unity of the Body of Christ in recent times has been rendered impossible because of the failure of Christians to distinguish the first-order truth of the gospel from less significant issues of denominational background, distinctive interpretations of biblical texts, and personal taste. It is the central story of Christ's death, burial and resurrection for us that is "of first importance" (1 Cor 15:3ff). We have allowed lesser matters, even trivia, to distract us from what is genuinely central to Christianity (p. 210, italics in original).

Shelly and York don't claim to have it all figured out. Surely there are legimate concerns to protect the gospel from those who would make it fuzzy, and the authors do not advocate a fuzzy gospel. But it also seems clear to me that peripheral issues have often "trumped" the gospel and brought about senseless hurt and division in the past, and that Modernism (and all that goes with it) is not all it is cracked up to be.

It is hard to do justice to The Jesus Proposal in a short review. But for those who have traveled as far in their faith and experience as Modernism can take them and wonder what is amiss, The Jesus Proposal offers a thought-provoking and helpful thesis to consider as the next leg of the journey begins.

Copyright © 2004 John Engler. All rights reserved.

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