A Decade ago the band “Downhere” asked the question: “Can anybody show me the real Jesus?” Not only have we not found Him, we have made Him even more unrecognizable.
Jonathan David Faulkner
I have written before about the historical fallacy called Presentism: the practice of reading modern ideas back into history. Recently I had the occasion to think through the fact that while we encourage historians to avoid this practice, we encourage theologians to do so. For instance, Jesus and the Apostles would have known nothing of our modern idea of complementarianism, it did not exist, but we are quick to pigeonhole verses into this modern philosophy and then make bold statements such as “Paul was a Complementarian, see! His verse backs up my philosophy.” Or we look at specific stories and try to apply them to modern philosophical constructs that did not exist in the ancient world. It does not matter how and ancient church applies biblical texts, the church fathers could not have been _______ because they had no concept of ______.
The place on the left this often happens is the claim that Jesus was a Socialist or would support a form of socialist government over and against the capitalism that marks our modern economic system in America. Because Jesus was a Socialist, they argue, we should have a forced socialistic society. Both the right and the left have made the same error or turning to use the government to enforce their views of Jesus onto a secular society. Not only are we presenting onto Jesus our modern understanding of socialism, we are demanding that the agency which should carry that socialism out is the federal government. The right turns to the government to enforce religious morality which largely fails to be Christian morality, though based loosely on scripture or conservative philosophy. Both sides are looking to the wrong place both for their worldview and for the application of their worldview. The secular world wants nothing to do with Christian Morality and government forced proselytizing has only failed Christianity. The same is true in the history of pure socialism or communism. Forced collectivization has only ever benefited those at the top, usually the totalitarians leaders who have forced the collectivization. Even Democratic Socialist countries often run into the same issues of delay of services. In these countries’ collectivization revolves around a few services but is not voluntary and those services can be (but are not always) of lower quality than in non-democratic socialist countries.
Neither of these categories, capitalistic or democratic socialist, capture life in ancient Mesopotamia for the Early Christians. And for the Early Christians, our tendency to look to modern government, left or right, to fulfill our agenda would seem to be anathema. Yes, there were Christians in government positions, but until Constantine, proselytizing through government would have gotten them killed for denying the Pagan god’s of Rome. The point being, Christians should not turn to government to advance the kingdom of heaven because the secular governments of man are 1. In rebellion against God the Father, which means we should not make kings as Christians (see 1st Samuel 8:7) and 2. Are secular and therefore apposed to the very foundations of Christianity, Jesus Christ himself. When Christians turn to a political strong man to advance an agenda through government we actually do damage to our witness, especially when that strong man is extremely immoral and does not reflect the character which we have long insisted that Leaders, Christian or not, embody.
And yet, here we are. Both sides, let and right, within the church have turned to government to fulfill their agenda and they both look back to Jesus as their authority. The problem is Jesus does not fit either side of the debate, he is completely and utterly unique and His kingdom requires a greater amount of loyalty than any man-made kingdom ever. Jesus is neither the left-leaning hippie of the left, or the heavenly gift-giver who makes us more moral people if we want to, otherwise, no change is necessary. Nor will I make the claim that Jesus was a centrist, not because I do not think he was likely in the center on all these issues, holding a perfect balance because He was the perfect Son of God who had been from the beginning and will be to the end. But because calling Him a centrist would be yet another attempt to make Jesus into my own political mascot, something I am writing against in this piece. It would also continue to perpetuate presentism because once again, centrism is a modern American Political position, not something the early Christian would have identified himself as.
If you do want to describe Jesus and the early Church, I think a combination of two words used by Howard I Marshall in his commentary on Acts and Joseph Hellerman in his book “When the Church was a Family.” “Voluntary Collectivists.” Hellerman is right in his assertion that the Early Christians came from a primarily collectivist culture, most cultures around the world are still collectivist at the grass roots level. There is a sharing and caring involved among the people and family is valued above all else but at the same time this wasn’t forced, the government was not making people share their belongings. If anything in Isaiah the Government is hindering this kind of care for neighbor as the elites horded wealth and neglected the poor and the foreigner. Since it wasn’t a forced collectivism it had to be a voluntary one, stemming out of the genuine love that God had shown the people, the outpouring of which resulted in a natural caring and need meeting among the alternate family of the Church. Nor does it seem that the Apostles demanded that people sell their possessions and then redistribute them as the need arose, but that people, seeing a need, would sell possessions and give the proceeds to the church who would then meet the need. Unlike the Collectivism of Russia under Stalin’s five year plan, no one was forcing the early Christians to give up goods against their will and under pain of death, but out of the gladness and humility that came through fellowship with Christ and through one another. This would follow the teachings of Jesus of Self-Denial and Self-Denunciation. One had to choose to follow these teachings, deny themselves and follow Christ. Interestingly enough, in this strong group society, it was the voluntary nature of the collective that made the early church so attractive despite how offensive the message of the Gospel was even to a Roman World that was also collectivist in thinking.
Now, in modern America, both left and right-wing circles, any kind of collectivism is considered evil because it tramples on the radical individualism we value so much. We have been taught and conditioned that the accumulation of things (consumerism) is what is required for the ultimate happiness of the individual. That the happiness of the individual is the chief end of life and so we should do everything we can to attain for ourselves the ultimate happiness and anyone who gets in our way or who points out those we have trampled on is in our way. But this also plays out in today’s tribalism which advances the claim that an individual’s self-disclosed identity, even harmful ones, are paramount. The accumulation of stuff has not made us happy as individuals, so now we must form an identity based on “our truth” Jesus, once again, gets co-opted, just as He did with consumerism, into his usual role, not as God incarnate, but as therapist, and not a very good one, who sees whatever cognitive distortion the individual has bought into and affirms it.
Those who use Jesus in this way apply him to those who really want nothing to do with His message of “come and die to yourself.” We are apposed to his ideas of self-denunciation because they require to give up the idea that we have our own truth and to look beyond ourselves to find this truth. We are opposed to this because not only is it uncomfortable, it goes against the foundation of radical individualism.
In Voluntary Collectives, people have a natural bent towards working together for the good of the community, not the good of the individual though the good of the individual may be what is best for the community. In Voluntary Strong Group Societies, we still find to this day what is described in Acts 2:42-47. A group committed to one another and following their leaders who taught and ministered to their needs and arbitrated fights between them and none of it is forced, it comes from a natural love for one another and in the case of the early church, the outpouring of the Love of God for them.
The closest instance in our time we can look at to display this sort of voluntary collective would be the Moravians at Herrnhut who sparked the first protestant missions under Nicolas Von Zinzendorf in the 18th century. The Moravians, descendants of John Hus, practiced what was called “Communitarianism” adapted from Peter Walpot’s “The Yieldedness and the Christian Community of Goods” written in 1577. As a theological descendant of John Calvin and Martin Luther it might seem strange for me to support an anabaptist idea, but this is the one instance when I think the anabaptists got it right. The argument was that because God has given much to us, we should then share with one another so that no one lacks anything. Walpot himself said: “The more possessions one has the more one wants, whoever wants much, whoever wants feels the lack of much, whoever covets much feels left wanting much. That is the most poverty-stricken and dissatisfying life kind of life on Earth. And Christ, at those who walk at home in the true sabbath, Pentacost and Easter will have none of it.” Walpot has no problem with someone owning goods, but goods were not to be an end, but a means to ensure the security of neighbor. Basically a direct application of the “They had everything in common” of Acts 2:42. Again, this was not forced, the Moravians, who adopted Communitarianism, applied it willingly and only enforced it when their second community because practicing excesses and had to be reminded by Zinzendorf the basic tenants of their voluntary collective.
The historical fact is that when the Moravians launched their mission’s movement to St. Thomas in the 1730’s it was this idea of “Communitarianism,” this voluntary collective, that made them effective missionaries both among the slaves and among the merchants. They lived within their means, started business and became self-sustaining missionaries. To this day, the Moravian Church is strong in the Caribbean because of its willingness to get down alongside the people and work alongside them.
Contrast the Moravians with other cultures approaches to Missions, either coming in and destroying the local culture or acting as a colonizing force for the government. I have written before that every missions movement in history that is based on these two systems has failed. They are also based on doctrines like “The Discovery Doctrine” that are extremely sinful and harmful, hindering the spread of the Gospel in the same way the marriage between Evangelical Populism and Nationalism (Christian Nationalism) are today. Dominion theologies are destructive whereas the Moravians built something, learned the language, contributed to the local and aided the people as neutral parties during the many wars that spread through the region in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Communitarianism was the closes thing we could get to Jesus in our time, yet he is not one of those either. Nor can we go so far, the other way, as some have, and call him a capitalist. Capitalist Jesus is just as deadly as Socialist Jesus. No, Jesus formed a voluntary collective of Brothers and Sisters that formed a voluntary collective built on mutual love and understanding, love for one another and their neighbor. They were defined by their radical care and that radical care put them in good standing with all the people outside the faith, even though the Gospel message was offensive.
We need to stop appropriating Jesus for our own pet causes, especially those that cause us to live in the direct opposite manner as He has put before us to live. Jesus is not the ultimate affirmer of our own personal truth, He is, though the Holy Spirit and the Word of God in agreement, the arbiter of truth and the one who imparts it to us. I cannot say that Christians need to reclaim the total and utter distinctiveness of Jesus because it is a universal and absolute reality, instead, I can say we need to embrace and insist upon His distinctiveness in a biblical manner that makes us again a voluntary collective that is defined by mutual love and understanding. The early Church was meant first and foremost to be a family of believers, and it was until it came to power under Constantine. It was Jesus, the real Jesus, who made that ragtag group of fisherman and tax collectors into a family with fathers and mothers and sisters and brothers. An alternative family to the ones that Jesus said His Gospel would divide.
A decade ago Canadian Ministry Music Group Downhere asked the question: “Can anyone show me the real Jesus?” in the song they listed all the places Jesus appears and how He gets used for everything under the sun. The song was the first time I ever considered the reality that “Jesus isn’t white,” something that has stuck with me this last decade. The point of the song is that Jesus is the opposite of all society makes Him out to be simply because He is God incarnate. The bridge sings like this: “If anybody walks behind the Good Shepherd, If anybody holds the hands that heal lepers, And if you recognize the eyes that see forever, please…”
Jesus, the one who is not a socialist or a capitalist, democrat and republican, the one we have not presented our modern ideas onto, can only be found in the pages of scripture, the Old and New Testament in their entirety. You want to find the real Jesus? You have to approach His word and do so by laying down all your modern ideas and philosophy’s. Come with the mind of a child, and the heart of a ten-month-old hugging her father tightly. Lay down your preconceived ideas and culturally informed ideas about scripture and read it, and if you feel so inclined, read about it. Learn about what God has left us, the culture into which it spoke, the people whom it spoke too and how it affected and impacted their lives and the way they live. Then, to the bewilderment of the world, do what you can to live like they did, those who saw, heard and reacted to the Real Jesus.
.\Jonathan David Faulkner is a Graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary holding Masters in Divinity and Church History, a Pastor, Musician and Writer. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Christian Education & Administration with a concentration in Urban Ministry. He lives with his wife Rachel and daughter Erin in Buffalo Center Iowa and seeks to be a part of the project of reconciliation in the local and international church. He is currently serving as the Pastor of First Congregational Church of Buffalo Center.