By Bill Easum (2007)
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’ Mathew 25: 37-40
From everything I read in Scripture, even the writings of Paul, I get the strong impression that Christianity is more about behavior than belief. Or to put it another way, belief is important in direct proportion to how it profoundly affects a person’s behavior. Christianity is about doing things that make you a different person.
When I read Jesus’ words, I don’t see any reference to dogmatics or polemics of any kind. I don’t believe Jesus ever intended for us to develop a theology around him. I think his primary intention was to point us to the unfolding Kingdom of God within him, hoping that would change our behavior. Behavior modification was his goal. His greatest sermon, the Sermon on the Mount, was about the character of those who are within the Kingdom of God. Even Paul’s letters were mostly either about chastising churches for the immoral behavior or instructing individuals or congregations on how to live the Christian life.
In the first couple of centuries after Jesus, people had to go through a long period of preparation before they could officially be considered a member of the church. During this time, how they lived their life before others was more important than what they believed. In fact about all one had to believe was that Jesus was the son of God and that compassion toward one’s neighbor was at the heart of living the Christ-like life. Living in unity with other Christians was a high priority.
But somewhere along the line, early in its development, Christianity became a “What do you believe?” religion. Wars were fought over who had the correct belief. Denominations were spawned over who had the correct doctrine. Churches web pages usually share what the church believes rather than how they practice what they believe. I even remember teaching at one seminary where the moderates set on one side of the room and the conservatives on the other.
Here are some examples of how today we value belief over behavior.
- Job applications for clergy usually begin with academic degrees. Wouldn’t demonstrated credentialing make more sense?
- Most small groups are about Bible study rather than behavior modification. Wesley’s genius was his class meetings were more about behavior modification than indoctrination.
- In some denominations if you don’t have a degree you can’t pastor a church or you’re a second class citizen.
- Most sermons teach rather than seek to affect behavior. We are often surprised when someone actually does something as a result of our preaching.
But why are we more concerned about what someone believes when Jesus was more concerned over what one did? The answer is simple: it’s easier to believe something than to live out that belief.
What Might We Do to Begin Valuing Behavior More Than Belief?
Here are a few changes that might be made if we put more value on how a person’s belief affected how they lived.
- Before a person could join the church they would have to demonstrate a changed life.
- Before a person could hold an office in the church they would have to be respected for how they live.
- People who bully other people in the church would be asked to step down and give up membership privileges.
- We would evaluate everything we do on how well it changed people’s lives.
- Clergy would be selected based on their character instead of the academic credentials.
- Before a person could join the church they would have to sign a Covenant of Behavior.
I recently ran across a Covenant of Christian behavior that was written for a dysfunctional UCC congregation.[i] I think it says volumes to thousands of churches today. I think every church member ought to have to sign a covenant like this and be held accountable to it.
“We read the covenant responsively at each congregational meeting. We start each phrase with “relying on the grace of God”. Here it is.
Relying of the grace of God,
…we will do our best to live the fruits of the spirit… love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self control [Galatians 5:22-23a], remembering that…
This is Christ’s church
We are servants and stewards of His church
Our words and our behaviors communicate many things; what we see and hear passes through many filters… some include our faith, our fears, our visible and invisible loyalties, our sense of slef and our sense of others
…we will recognize the gifts and graces each of us bring to the table, remaining aware that healthy church leadership requires a variety of gifts and we have all been blessed in different ways [1st Corinthians 12]
…we will start off believing everyone is trying their best to have this church bring glory to God
…we will share our part in our mutual accountability for success, by actively participating in the discussion and decision-making process and actively supporting all leadership decisions
…we will listen to, invite and encourage other points of view
…we will ask questions only to clarify our understanding, not to put others down
…we will feel free to disagree with issues and methods but will restate what we are disagreeing with first, playing flat out and staying fully engaged – saying what’s on our minds – with no hidden agendas
…we will not knowingly participate in negative or derogatory conversations about others and will remind any brothers or sisters who try to engage us in these conversations that we don’t do that in the church [Galatians 5:19-21]
…we will try to avoid defensive reactions and will speak only for ourselves unless being asked to bring an issue to the leadership team on behalf of another person or group
…if we offend someone, or feel another has offended us, we will discuss it with them privately and not talk to anyone else about it unless we have agreed to ask a witness to be present, when we do make mistakes we will admit them and make amends [Matthew 5:21-24, Matthew 18:15-20]
…if it becomes evident that behaviors are non-productive, disruptive, unhealthy and/or destructive, we will address them.
So, what have you done lately as a result of your Christian faith?
Next month I will share with you the inner qualities of the best leaders I have met in my travels.
[i] The covenant of Christian Behavior was crafted by Rev. William Metzger, President of Renaissance Consulting.