Was Jesus ‘unchristian’?

I hope they, our children, will not be eccentric. Please, my beloved brethren, teach our children and youth to be humble even in their righteousness. May they never become “holier than thou” or speak their own goodness or outstanding qualities. We remember the two who went up into the temple to pray.

–      Spencer W. Kimball, “What I Hope You Will Teach My Grandchildren and All Others of the Youth of Zion,” (July 1966).

Beware the person who tells you how humble they are, how Christian, or how virtuous.

And, watch out for those who tell people with whom they disagree that they aren’t “doing what Jesus would do.” To be sure, this may well be true, after all.

Then again, who can ever be said to wholly do what Jesus would do? Everyone fails that test and standard. And, to reply by arguing that one really is doing what Jesus would do—even if true—is a losing proposition from the start, since Jesus never felt the need to insist upon his own righteousness.

This is something of a rhetorical nuclear option—when faced with it, one either:

a)      Becomes angry at the charge one is not behaving as a Christian—clearly an unchristian act, and an ironic self-fulfilling prophecy; or

b)      Becomes side-tracked in an effort to calmly demonstrate that the charge is false—again, almost certainly an unchristian response, always a losing battle because of our perpetual inadequacy in the face of Jesus’ perfection, and certainly a distraction from the real issue; or

c)       Refuses to be baited, and presses on with the important truth at issue.

Such a charge is, at any rate, hypocritical. If the one making it is a Christian (or has pretensions to be so) he or she ought to be exceedingly cautious, lest this blade cut him as he wields it.

If he or she is not a Christian, then this makes the critic particularly ill-suited to judge precisely what Jesus would do or require in the situation. Most people—especially most moderns, and particularly most modern non-Christians—have a gentled, somewhat anemic view of Jesus.

Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft put it this way:

Why have we reduced him to “meek and gentle Jesus”? Because we have reduced all the virtues to one, being kind; and we measure Jesus by our standards instead of measuring our standards by him. But why have we reduced all the virtues to being kind? Because we have reduced all the goods to one, the one that kindness ministers to: pleasure, comfort, contentment. We have reduced ourselves to pleasure-seeking animals. But why have we reduced ourselves to pleasure-seeking animals? Because we are implicit materialists. Our ethics are always rooted in our metaphysics, and modern ethics is rooted in modern metaphysics, the modern world view, which is the superstition that all that is objectively real is nature, which in turn we have reduced to matter.[1]

And, more often than not, the charge of being “unchristian” will turn around making someone uncomfortable—declaring an act to be wrong, declaring an opinion to be literal and absolute truth (rather than “one perspective among many”), or insisting that someone is mistaken. Such things are just not done in polite company.

Still, rather than this “gentle Jesus, meek and mild,” Jesus the Messiah in the Bible and Book of Mormon is both a rebuke and a terror to the complacent and self-satisfied—and so ought to be to us, most of the time. Jesus and his way of life—The Way, as the early old world Christians called it—can really only be understood in the living of it, or trying to do so.

To put the matter more personally: on the one hand, however loyal one judges oneself to be to Jesus, it is difficult to see how such loyalty is a mark of Christian thought if the Jesus so invoked is so domesticated and selectively constructed that he bears little relation to the Bible.[2]

Jesus’ is not a system of philosophy or a set of axioms that we can somehow simply assent to, and therefore grasp in the abstract. “The sweetly-attractive-human-Jesus is a product of 19th century skepticism,” noted C.S. Lewis, “produced by people who were ceasing to believe in His divinity but wanted to keep as much Christianity as they could.”[3] Instead,

…only discipleship—”follow me”—connects beliefs and behavior, focusing on what we are becoming as well as what we are thinking and doing. Thus, discipleship cannot be merely intellectual. Did not Jesus prescribe and describe this convergence by saying, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me?” (Matthew 11:29). Moreover, the deepest development of discipleship occurs only in this particular manner, small though our yokes may be compared to His.[4]

No one, then, who has not sought and borne that yoke can truly speak of what Jesus requires—because, quite frankly, he often requires things we would much rather not, and have hardly dared think. Small wonder we don’t always measure up fully.

And, none who have borne that yoke for even a few paces would then presume to use someone’s inadequacy as a verbal killing stroke.

Besides, Jesus himself was rarely appreciated for what he said. Just because someone does not violently disagree with us does not make us right or Christian—but, if no one is violently disagreeing, we are almost certainly failing to measure up. And, those who disagree are always most likely to be those most concerned with publicly demonstrating and publicly broadcasting their own rectitude, while quick to marginalize those who do not toe “the party line” to their satisfaction. They care what others think, especially those the world regards as important, impressive, or necessary to placate.

As a crowing irony in a life filled with ironies, I suspect that if Jesus were here today, many people would label him as “unchristian.”


[1] Peter Kreeft, Back to Virtue: Traditional Moral Wisdom for Modern Moral Confusion (Ignatius Press, 1992), 32.

[2] D.A. Carson, Christ and Culture Revisited (Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008), kindle location 799-804.

[3] C.S. Lewis to Mary Neylan, 26 March 1940; cited in Yours, Jack: Spiritual Direction from C.S. Lewis (HarperOne, 2008), 67; also in Neal A. Maxwell, Men and Women of Christ (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 1991), 35; citing Letters of C. S. Lewis (London: Geoffrey Bles, Ltd., 1966), 181.

[4] Neal A. Maxwell, Promise of Discipleship (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Co., 2001), preamble.

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