Is it possible to be a Christian without following Jesus? Mark Galli, senior managing editor of Christianity Today, had some thoughts on that question in an editorial he wrote a few years back titled “Why I Don’t Imitate Christ.”
In the course of his remarks, Galli mused over the many pitfalls of imitating Jesus. He noted how in our market-driven culture, following Jesus is often trivialized into nothing more than religious fluff.
He cited as an example a diet-and-exercise book called “What Would Jesus Eat: The Ultimate Program for Eating Well, Feeling Great and Living Longer.” In fact, he was pretty critical of all commercial endeavors that began with “What would Jesus …”
Of course, he was also critical of the other extreme in following Jesus. Galli recalled an ancient group of ascetics who believed the path to holiness meant sitting naked on top of tall poles. In light of these excesses, Galli concluded “unseemly things happen when the culture gets a hankering to be like Jesus.”
What are we to do if following Jesus is unseemly? Well, Galli offered a very practical solution. Find something that is yours to do, and do that. He offered several examples.
You might be called to be an ascetic and live in the desert. Or you might be called to fight a war. Someone else might be called to wage peace. In other words, since we are all different, Christianity will take different forms in each of our lives. The implication being that Christianity is mainly about helping us find our place in the world.
There’s a certain truth in what he had to say. Obviously people have different gifts and abilities. But I fear his position leaves too much out – like the teachings of the founder, for example.
There’s a troubling downside to removing Jesus as the standard by which Christians measure their lives. If we follow Galli’s logic, it becomes possible for someone to have as a so-called Christian calling something Jesus expressly said not to do.
Galli’s example of being called to wage war is a case in point. No one who takes Jesus seriously would ever try to make war a Christian act. War is a festering symptom of our fallen humanity. It stands as a perennial reminder of what Jesus seeks to heal in us.
In the end, Galli is guilty of offering his own version of discipleship excess. His is not an excess of asceticism or commercialism – his is an excess of self-gratification. He doesn’t mind Jesus being his Savior, just not his mentor. The result, however, is that by ignoring Jesus as the standard for all who claim his name, Galli makes Jesus irrelevant to the Christian faith.
It’s completely understandable why someone would be uncomfortable around Jesus. His radical ethic of love, his call to nonviolence, his message about sharing with the poor and practicing forgiveness did not play well in his own violent culture. What makes us think he would fit into ours?
For that I suppose we should commend Galli. At least he is honest enough to admit his unwillingness to make Jesus the standard. I just wonder if it is appropriate to continue using the word Christian to describe a faith without Jesus. It’s sort of like taking his name in vain.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.