Loving, as Jesus loves, is rare. That is, loving sensitively and sacrificially, is still the greatest evidence of the gospel and the most magnetic attraction to God’s truth.
When all our evangelistic presentations have been given, it is still the sheer goodness of a Christ-like life and character which exercises the most dynamic testimony to the grace of the Lord Jesus. Not surprisingly, what is true at the individual level is even more so at the level of our life together, whether as local churches or wider Christian fellowships. Heart unity among believers is paramount for effective witness, and yet it is found comparatively rarely and destroyed so very easily.
‘He doesn’t follow us’
Mark 9.38-41 is an instructive passage about this issue. John, the apostle, tells Jesus that he and some other disciples have encountered a man driving out demons, in Christ’s name, ‘and we told him to stop because he was not one of us’ (v.38). The literal translation is ‘he doesn’t follow us’, or ‘he isn’t part of our group’. Clearly, John and his colleagues were seeking Jesus’s approval, but instead they are rebuked. The man was successfully carrying out the work of Christ’s kingdom, trusting in the power of Jesus’s name. If the demons were being driven out (and clearly they were) this must mean that he had God’s approval, evidenced by the divine power at work. ‘No one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me’, Jesus concludes, ‘for whoever is not against us is for us’ (vv.39-40).
The preceding few verses throw some interesting contextual light on this incident. The disciples have been arguing about who was the greatest. So, to remind them of the upside-down nature of his kingdom, Jesus places a small child in their midst – in their culture, the least significant of human beings – to teach them that humility in service and loving care of those whom others disregard is the distinctive currency of the new community he has come to inaugurate. In this setting, it seems likely that though the disciples may profess zeal for the honour and glory of Christ, actually they are more concerned about their own status and prestige. Casting out demons is part of the exclusive apostolic commissioning they have received. This man is ‘not one of us’, so he must be stopped. Even if we assume charitably that this is zeal for Christ’s cause, it is still zeal without knowledge. It is their thinking which must be changed.
Triumph of the Spirit
And ours too – for their attitudes are endemic in sinful human nature. The same reaction was displayed by Joshua, when he discovered the elders, Eldad and Medad, prophesying in the Israelite camp, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, and appealed to Moses, ‘My lord, stop them!’. But Moses realised that jealousy was the motivation, instead of a desire to witness the multiplication of God’s work (Numbers 11. 27-28). The opposite is the case when Paul, in prison, hears of gospel preachers motivated by envy, rivalry and selfish ambition, who are trying to cause him yet more trouble and anguish. It is the triumph of the Spirit in the apostle’s godly life which leads him to conclude: ‘But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of that I rejoice’ (Philippians 1.18).
Criticism and controversy are part of the package in any Christian ministry. Along with every other servant of Christ, I have often been misunderstood or misrepresented. Doubtless, I have been equally guilty at times, in my own attitudes towards others. What we all need is a fresh recognition of Jesus’s attitude to those who are sincerely accomplishing the work of Christ, but are ‘not one of us’. It is so easy to want to write them off, to regard them with doubts and suspicions, because they do not adhere to our own particular sub-cultural norms. They may be ‘not quite what we want’. From there, it is a short and easy step to undervalue their labours, talk down their achievements, even to try to lessen the evidence of their fruitfulness or diminish their influence. Sadly, it is not only Westminster politicians who are adept at briefing against their ‘colleagues’. But, as Calvin puts it, ‘Christ declares that we ought to reckon as friends those who are not open enemies’.
No empire building please
What a difference that would make in evangelical circles! It would, of course, require a recognition that any empire building for my ministry, or our church, our network, our tribe, is fundamentally destructive of the values of the kingdom of heaven. It would mean renouncing all the power plays and jostling for position and influence so characteristic of worldly Christianity and embracing instead the role of the servant, whatever cross that might lead us to carry. It would mean repentance and renewed faith in Christ alone – his person and his work, not ours. But might that not also be the very response for which the Lord is waiting, before he will pour out his blessing on our parched churches and needy nation?
David Jackman is the past President of the Proclamation Trust and writes the ‘Notes to growing Christians’ column for EN.