“When the disciples saw him they worshipped him, but some of them doubted.” That’s how the disciples responded to the risen Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew (28:17).
So what were these disciples doubting? Nothing less than the resurrection of Jesus.
In my experience, this would be a deal breaker for most modern churches. Belief in the resurrection is a non-negotiable. Yet how does Jesus respond to these sceptics?
“Depart from me you doubters for you have no place in the kingdom of God!” Nope. Not even close. Jesus calls them into ministry.
Jesus gathers both the worshippers and the doubters together and sends them out as spiritual coaches to the world. Jesus charges them all with what we call the Great Commission, to go into the world and make disciples. In sending both doubters and worshippers to minister, Jesus is implying that doubts don’t disqualify them for ministry in the kingdom of God.
Now I think it’s obvious all the apostles eventually believed Jesus rose from the dead and were empowered to risk their lives and face martyrdom because of their unshakable confidence in the resurrection. There’s no question the resurrection of Jesus was foundational for the early church. In fact, Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthians that Christians are fools if there is no resurrection: “If Christ has not been raised, then your faith is useless . . . if our hope in Christ is only for this life, we are more to be pitied than anyone in the world” (5:17-19).
Yet Jesus doesn’t make doubting the resurrection a deal breaker for following him and serving in the kingdom of God. So what did Jesus make a deal breaker?
- If you don’t forgive others their sins, God will not forgive you.
- If you judge others, you will be judged. If you condemn others, you will be condemned.
- No one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of the Spirit.
- “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of God.”
These are some of Jesus’ non-negotiables in the gospels. What a strange salvation doctrine Jesus seems to have. Beliefs don’t even make his Top 10 list.
So where did the church’s hyperactive focus on beliefs come from, if not from Jesus? That’s a huge question that would take more than a short article to address. Some would point to Paul, others to the “Constantinian shift” of Christianity in the fourth century, and some would say the Protestant Reformation with its narrow emphasis on grace and “right beliefs” for salvation.
Regardless of how and when this shift occurred, it seems clear to me that Jesus had a different focus than the Christianity I was raised with. I really resonate with the Apostle Paul and his mystical, logical, philosophical faith. Yet I’ve found the teachings in the Book of James, whose author is believed to be the brother of Jesus, to be more consistent with Jesus’ teachings than the writings of Paul. I’m not the first to notice this, of course. The Book of James seemed so inconsistent with the rest of the epistles and the Protestant Reformation that Martin Luther called it a “book of straw” and tried to remove it from the Protestant version of the Bible.
For example, in James 2:13 we read, “There will be no mercy for those who have not shown mercy to others. But if you have been merciful, God will be merciful when he judges you.” Is James saying that if you show mercy to others, but don’t believe the “right Christian things,” God will be merciful to you on Judgment Day? Or even more heretical, if someone believes the “right Christian doctrine” but doesn’t show mercy to others, God won’t be merciful to that person on Judgment Day?
Of course James is also the one who proclaimed, “Faith without works is dead” (2:20). James understood the difference between faith and beliefs. In fact, James gets sarcastic towards those who think beliefs are what makes someone a follower of Jesus: “So you believe . . . good for you! Even the demons believe and tremble. How foolish!” (2:19-20).
It’s not that beliefs are unimportant. It’s just that faith is different than believing and much more important than believing the “right things.”
Troy Watson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is pastor of Avon Mennonite Church in Stratford, Ont.
--Posted Nov. 19, 2014
See others in the series:
Part 1 (Oct. 27, 2014)
Part 3 (Jan. 5, 2015)
Part 4 (Feb. 2, 2015)