When John the Baptist proclaimed and lived out his message, people responded by saying, “He has a demon” (Mathew 11:18). When Jesus proclaimed and lived out his gospel, people said, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Matthew 11:19). Additional responses to Jesus included yet fiercer denunciations; even in the case of his closest disciples, we read that they “did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him” (Mark 9:32). Such responses to a great prophet and to our only Savior can give some perspective to pastors serving in a politically and theologically divisive time. We can feel anxious about how our congregation will receive our messages. We can wonder if they will view us as too political or as not political enough. By his Word and Spirit, our Lord can give us courage and wisdom as we seek to shepherd congregations in the right paths to which our Good Shepherd calls us. For example, reflecting on Jesus in dialogue with John the Baptist can help us to seek not so much to uproot every weed as to nurture good fruit for God’s final harvest.
In Matthew 3, John the Baptist pictures an ax “lying at the root of the trees” (Matthew 3:10). John expects the coming Messiah to cut down and burn every tree that does not bear good fruit, and he prophesies a Messiah who “will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:12). However, after hearing Jesus promise “to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15), John suffers unrighteous imprisonment; understandably, he seems disappointed in Jesus’ ministry. Therefore, John sends some of his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Matthew 11:3).
Jesus responds to John with both words and actions. He describes his works of healing and his help for the poor, while adding, “And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me” (Matthew 11:6). In other words, Jesus is doing works of justice that fulfill the line of prophets in which John stands. Jesus is making the world right, but not in the way John expected. Instead of wielding an ax and immediately uprooting every wrong-doer, Jesus “will not break a bruised reed or quench a smoldering wick until he brings justice to victory” (Matthew 12:20, quoting from Isaiah 42). When zealous servants of the Lord, like John, want to rip every weed out of their Master’s field, Jesus, through a parable, tells them not to pull out weeds in a way that will involve uprooting the wheat as well. Instead, Jesus teaches, “Let both of them grow together until the harvest” (Matthew 13:30). Jesus comes “not to condemn but to save” (John 3:17), and therefore hungering and thirsting for justice includes practicing patience and wisdom. It also entails a non-judgmentalism that allows the Lord’s angels to carry out His ultimate divide at the final judgment (Matthew 13:41). For pastors, seeking Christ-like righteousness directs not so much to uproot as to plant. Jesus’ way of the cross calls us to preach prophetically not to condemn but “so that the church may be built up” (1st Corinthians 14:5).
Many other dialogues with Jesus can guide us toward encouraging healthy dialogues in our congregations. One that seems fitting to mention here comes in Mark 10. There, as Jesus makes his way to the cross, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, come to Jesus with an audacious request. The brothers say, “Teacher, we want you to do whatever we ask of you” (Mark 10:35). When Jesus indicates a willingness to listen, James and John say, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory” (Mark 10:37). Jesus responds by telling his disciples, “You do not know what you are asking” (Mark 10:38), and then he states further that assigning such positions is not his to grant; instead, “it is for those for whom it has been prepared”—that is, by Jesus’ Father (Mark 10:40 cf. Matthew 20:23).
For pastors, all church members, and every citizen, the humble realism of Jesus’ response offers a fountain of wisdom. When we ask to share in our Lord’s authority and glory by insisting on our own way, do we know what we are asking? And if Jesus defers decisions to his Father, what does deference to the Ruler of rulers look like in our lives? Such questions do not provide excuses for us to evade our responsibilities. They do help us speak and act with humility. With respect to church life—including church unity, Paul helps us operate with biblical perspective when he writes, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God gives the growth” (1st Corinthians 3:6-7). With respect to common life in general—from the most personal to the most political—James, as paraphrased by Eugene Peterson, helps us cultivate good fruit when he writes, “Lead with your ears, follow up with your tongue, and let anger straggle along in the rear. God’s righteousness doesn’t grow from human anger. So throw all spoiled virtue and cancerous evil in the garbage. In simple humility, let our gardener, God, landscape you with the Word, making a salvation-garden of your life” (James 1:19-21, as paraphrased in The Message).
As we seek pastoral discernment, we can learn patience, humility, wisdom, and other virtues not only from the Scriptures but also from the history of Christianity. For example, we can look at church divides over the centuries, and we can ask: What do those divides say to us as we feel threatened by (or tempted toward) dismemberment today? About fifteen hundred years ago, the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church divided over the way to understand how Christ Jesus is one person with two natures. About one thousand years ago, the eastern and western branches of the one church divided over how the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. About five hundred years ago, Roman and Reformational Catholics divided over how to formulate teachings about justification, and then Lutheran and Calvinist Christians divided regarding how to describe Jesus’ real presence in the Lord’s Supper.
In a brilliant collection of essays called Taking the Long View: Christian Theology in Historical Perspective, David C. Steinmetz, my mentor in studying the history of Christianity, makes the point that with teachings about Christ, the Holy Spirit, justification, and the Eucharist, ideas do matter. Yet when “faced with the limitations of human reasoning about God … the intellectual as well as the moral life of Christians needs to be justified by faith” (p. 126). For the Apostle Paul, justification by faith included different parties in the body of Christ living out their beliefs passionately, with no party despising another or passing judgement on those with whom they disagree.
With teachings that seem urgently applicable to our differences today, Paul writes: “Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of God. For it is written:
‘As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me,
and every tongue shall give praise to God.’
So then, each of us will be accountable to God” (Romans 14:10-12). As we consider with reverence and awe our accountability to God regarding the divisions in our time, we can seek to live out the inspired, apostle’s grace filled teaching: “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Romans 15:7).