Who Defines?     (by Jon Shuler​​)

Alice in Wonderland faced the statement of the Red Queen: “Whenever I use a word it means exactly what I want it to mean.” Previous generations have always understood that statement to be a recipe for error, if not for tyranny. No community can flourish if words are constantly changing their meaning. But who defines? Modern publishers are changing the words printed in their dictionaries on an almost weekly basis, and it is contributing to the collapse of Western (Christian) Civilization. Is the church different?

From the first moment men and women followed Jesus they were taught, by those appointed by him to lead in the church, that his word must be obeyed. Centuries later C.S. Lewis taught that “obedience is the golden key to discipleship,” and he was surely right. If that is so, and for any true Christian it must be so, then how do we know what we are to obey?

Every member of the Lord’s church knows that he said to his first followers: “Follow me.” There is a sense in which this is the universal word that he speaks to each of us when we are conscious that he is calling us. We begin to follow Jesus. But then what? Who helps us know what following him means? Who clarifies for us his distinctive voice? His unique word?

There are basically only two answers: the church teaches us in her own language and traditions, or the church leads us to the Holy Scripture, to the Word of God, to teach us. The former answer is that of the Roman Catholic Church, and the latter is that of the Protestant Church at her best. Now it is indisputable that both great divisions think of themselves as on the right path. Each of them, when faithful, want to bring their people into the presence of the Lord Jesus for eternity. But though their methods may differ, both generally produce the same results. The vast majority of their people know “what the church teaches” with very little reference to what Jesus teaches. What if instead we let the Lord Jesus define what it means to be his disciple?

The question is so simple, but applying the answer is so difficult. That is unless we say:  “Of course we must let the Lord Jesus define it for us.” Why is that so rarely the case? It is most assuredly because we have erected church systems and preserved church traditions that are far removed from what the Lord himself taught. We long ago, perhaps unconsciously (?), accepted that much of what he taught is unrealistic or culturally dated or just wrong. We would never say that out loud, of course, but it is how we sometimes live. In practice we have often become servants of other masters, while we say we have only one. Our lives frequently show that we sometimes serve our systems and traditions more faithfully than we serve the Lord. Are we willing to repent of that?

A starting point on the journey of repentance and return, if we say “Yes”,  would be to reexamine the precise words of Jesus. What did he actually say that could give us clarity about what he means if we are his disciples?

Next Week: Only Nine Verses

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