This is the third part of a short series on how we as Christians reveal the love of God in Christ in a religiously plural world. In my first post, I discussed the necessity of examining the Christian story thoroughly enough that we feel like we can communicate its essence to others. In the second post, I dealt with the importance of listening to other people and their thoughts on faith and life. In this post I discuss an important third characteristic, namely, modeling the life of Jesus in our own personal ethic.
One of the great tragedies of the past fifty years or so—in the Roman Catholic Church, in Protestant denominations, and in many nondenominational churches—has been the abuse of church members by clergy. Virtually every denomination has hundreds of examples of priests, pastors, church employees, and laity abusing their power through having inappropriate relationships, often sexual, with church members, stealing of money, etc. Recently two nuns from Los Angeles admitted to stealing over $500,000 from their parish school to fund gambling trips to Las Vegas!
The hard truth is that every Christian is, to some degree, a hypocrite. We all fail to perfectly model the life Christ calls us to. But some of our hypocrisy is more public and has more painful results than others.
Most Christians I’ve known through the years really do want to live like Jesus. Sometimes we do so in magnificent ways, but we often fall short. Even when our failings aren’t public, they are well known to ourselves. And there should be no doubt, such failings negatively affect our witness. Gandhi, a man whose outer life so closely resembled Jesus in compassion, once discussed Christians and the Christ they follow. His thought was simple and disturbing: “I like your Christ; I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
Christians aren’t alone in their failure to model the ethics of their founders. Virtually every religious tradition (including Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and even Buddhist) have examples in their history of abuse and terror. And the same can be said about many political groups and non-religious communities. But religious traditions that encourage public witness, and invite others to join their communities, especially Christians and Muslims, are held to a higher standard. We must demonstrate with our lives that the faith we proclaim is believable and actionable.
In order to combat a history of poor ethical witness, some Christians argue we should live lives that bear witness in every way but speaking. Hence the appeal of the phrase errantly attributed to St. Francis: “Everywhere you go preach the gospel. If necessary, use words.” St. Francis almost certainly never uttered this phrase. In fact, he and the Franciscan Order are known first and foremost as preachers. Their preaching was taken even more seriously, however, because they modeled what they preached, especially their poverty and love for all creatures. Their lives demonstrated to the public at large that their faith was authentic. They did not give up proclamation but rather knew that ethics strengthened their verbal witness.
Modeling Jesus in our personal ethics has been understood as critical to an authentic faith since the church’s inception. The earliest Christians were known for taking into their community the neediest, including abandoned children. Later Christians so sought to model Jesus that Christians have made The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis one of the most printed books in history, perhaps the second most printed book behind the Bible itself.
Early Methodists continued this tradition of encouraging Christians to model in their lives the Jesus they proclaimed. They took Jesus’s words to serve those in prison, orphans, and widows seriously. Like the early church and the Franciscans, early Methodists believed a Christian’s faith was authenticated in ethical practices that resembled Jesus’s life.
As Christians seek to give witness to their faith in a multireligious world, there should be no doubt that our actions must model those of Christ if we want our words about him to be taken seriously. But our ethics alone do not announce the gospel. Rather, our ethic demonstrates we believe the words we proclaim about Jesus. Ethical behaviors alone do not articulate the story that motivates them and therefore cannot be considered an act of sharing faith, be that faith Christian or otherwise. And this leads to my next segment of this series on evangelism, which is the imperative to specifically articulate, or announce, the story of God in Christ.