Blessed are the pure in doctrine?

January 8th, 2016

When’s the last time you read the Sermon on the Mount?

I’m sure you’ve heard snippets of it preached here and there recently, but if it’s been a while since you sat down and read the whole thing, find some time, grab your Bible and read it again. It won’t take you very long, probably less time than it would take to rewatch an old episode of The Office — which, incidentally, you also should do because Michael Scott is a gift from God.

But if you can, do find the time because it’s well worth the read, particularly in these tumultuous times of ours; not simply because it so beautifully captures the heart of Jesus’ teaching and not just because it speaks to so many challenges facing the Church today, but because if you read it carefully, you’ll notice something missing, something most of us couldn’t imagine leaving out if we were trying to craft the perfect Christian sermon.

I’m talking about doctrine.

Of course, there are verses in the Sermon on the Mount that support later doctrinal formulation, but the closest thing you’ll find to the sort of thing we would typically label doctrine today are the handful of theological claims which begin the Lord’s Prayer. Outside of Jesus’ description of God as our Father who dwells in heaven, the Sermon on the Mount doesn’t seem to be particularly concerned with the doctrinal minutia.

Instead of a call to orthodoxy, what we find is an almost exclusive emphasis on orthopraxy.

It’s strange; instead of catching one moment in time, Matthew probably collected the things Jesus most often taught about and brought them together in one easy-to-digest message that focuses on the heart of his ministry. And yet there is virtually nothing in there about any particular list of doctrines Jesus’ followers must affirm if they want to call themselves his disciples.

Rather than harping on what his followers should believe, Jesus spends his time talking about how they should live. In fact, he even seems to go out of his way to make it clear to his listeners that orthodoxy isn’t a guaranteed ticket to heaven.

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’”

I say the absence of traditional doctrine in the Sermon on the Mount is strange because given how much emphasis we place on doctrinal orthodoxy in the Church today, you would expect Jesus to value doctrinal purity as much as we do. And yet, strangely, “Blessed are the pure in doctrine, for they shall be given the keys to heaven,” is nowhere to be found in the Beatitudes.

It’s almost as if we care too much about the wrong things and not enough about the right ones.

But if the saga of Wheaton College professor Larycia Hawkins is any sort of sign of the times (and I think it is), then we’ve done our part to help correct Jesus’ tragic oversight.

Whether formally or not, we’ve made doctrinal purity the litmus test of true discipleship and the boundary which we must plant ourselves firmly inside, lest we be cast out into utter darkness. From the fiasco at Wheaton College, to Jerry Falwell Jr.’s calling for the death of our enemies, to a collective disdain for immigrants and refuges, our actions and responses have made it clear that living like Jesus has become far less important than affirming a particular list of right beliefs.

Take Prof. Hawkins’ story, for example. When judged merely by her public actions, a case could be made that she has, in recent days, been an exemplar of the Sermon on the Mount in general and the Beatitudes in particular. She’s shown love for those she was told are her enemies, hungered and thirsted for the righteous found in authentic Christian discipleship, and sought to make peace with those others are eager to bomb back to the Stone Age, all the while being persecuted for righteousness’ sake.

But none of it has been enough to keep Prof. Hawkins from facing termination at an ostensibly Christian university.

It’s almost as if the leadership at Wheaton College cares little if anything about how well their faculty embodies the life and teaching of Jesus, so long as they properly indoctrinate their students.

I hope that’s not the case, but their recent actions make it hard to believe otherwise.

That’s not to say our beliefs are irrelevant. They’re not. What we believe is important, particularly to the extent that it shapes how we live our lives.

But that’s the thing about all of this.

The cruciform shape of Prof. Hawkins life has made it clear her actions flow directly from her faith in Jesus. Or, you might say, from her “right beliefs.” Prof. Hawkins wore what she wore, said what she said and posted what she posted not because she is some sort of reckless heretic, but because she is utterly and particularly committed to following Jesus.

If the leadership of Wheaton College needs a litmus test for her orthodoxy, it need only look at her orthopraxy. For that is ultimately where our identity as Christians is to be found: not in how well we articulate our faith, but how we go about living like the Jesus we say we believe in.

That’s a lesson all of us would do well to remember.

Because according to Christ himself, when we finally come to the end of all things, Jesus won’t be standing at the pearly gates asking, “Do you affirm the virgin birth?” “What are thoughts on the inner life of God?” or even “Did you ever post anything positive about Muslims on Facebook?”

Instead, he’ll look at each of us and say, “I was hungry. Did you feed me? I was thirsty. Did you give me something to drink? I was a stranger. Did you welcome me? I was naked. Did you clothe me? I was sick and in prison. Did you come and care for me?”

This is of ultimate concern for Jesus — a particular way of life defined by love and care for the least of these. Therefore, this is what must be of ultimate concern for us.

This particular and peculiar way of life — not doctrinal purity — is what ultimately defines our identity as true followers of Christ.

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