Last week I posted the trailer for the new book Selling Water by the River by Shane Hipps, former teaching pastor at Mars Hill Bible Church in Michigan. In the video (view it here), Hipps provocatively states that Jesus does not bind himself to any one religion—every religion erects its own sail, and Jesus, the wind, blows life into those sails indiscriminately (he “shows no favoritism or loyalty”). And although Christianity loudly and proudly paints the word “JESUS” on its sail, claiming him as its own, Jesus does not claim Christianity as his own.
Such claims are just false. Jesus did bind himself to religion—to a re-envisioned Judaism, which essentially became Christianity. Jesus is the Messiah whom God promised to Israel many centuries back, and he came to them as a rabbi who taught from the Torah but who also had some pretty radical interpretations that angered the Jewish authorities of his day. The message he preached—that God had sent him to bring salvation not just to Israel, but to the whole world, and that that salvation would come through his death on a cross and subsequent resurrection—confused his original hearers as much as it confuses people today.
To prep the world for this gift, Jesus chose twelve Jewish men; he spent three years with them, teaching them more about who God is, what his plan is for the world, and how they could become a part of that plan. Then he commissioned them to carry on his work and teachings: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20).
In other words, he established a church. A church built on himself—on the confession that he is “the Messiah [Christ], the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:13-19). This confession is unique to Christianity (and Messianic Judaism).
Hipps says that Christians have no greater claim on Jesus than people of other religions—that Jesus does not grant Christians any special favor. I disagree, even though it’s not PC to do so. One of the primary threads throughout Scripture is the theme of covenant, God’s initiative to connect with humanity: God made a covenant (a commitment, an oath, with mutual obligations) with Israel, to be their God, and they would be his people. Israel, however, continually turned away from God, rejecting his rule and his claims over their lives. Thus God created a new covenant to include non-Jews and also to remove the condemnation of the law through Christ (Jeremiah 31:31-34; Hebrews 8); under this new covenant, Jesus gives his Holy Spirit to those who confess him as their Lord and Savior (those who make such claims on him—who call him “mine”—are commended for their boldness of faith). Christians enjoy God’s special favor because all the favor Christ has—his right standing before the Father—is imparted to them.
In the Bible, Jesus clearly claims Christians as his own. He talks about his sheep, his bride. And he is their shepherd, their bridegroom. Although Jesus loves people of all religions, he has a special love and favor for his spouse, the church. And for the flock that has been entrusted to his care. But he is always looking for more people to join. And joining means reorienting yourself to his direction and giving him your total, exclusive devotion.
On the eve of his crucifixion, Jesus explicitly prayed for his disciples:
“I have revealed you to those whom you gave me out of the world. They were yours; you gave them to me and they have obeyed your word. Now they know that everything you have given me comes from you. For I gave them the words you gave me and they accepted them. They knew with certainty that I came from you, and they believed that you sent me. I pray for them. I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me, for they are yours. All I have is yours, and all you have is mine. And glory has come to me through them.” (John 17:6-10)
Now back to the sails analogy. I was with Hipps up until 0:58, when I realized that he was talking not just about denominations or divisions within Christianity, but entirely different religions. The analogy would have been more accurate if the sails represented different schools of Christian thought or branches of Christianity. Calvinists, six-day creationists, amillenialists, Baptists, Catholics, Emergents, those who ordain female ministers and those who don’t—Christians tend to section themselves off into these and other groups and claim that their group alone has it right, that those who disagree with them do not really understand the gospel or know Jesus. That all other schools are just limp flags, if you will, with no life in them. What a shame it is when Christians think in these terms about their fellow Christians. There are many ways to read, interpret, and live out Scripture, and I believe that most of us are trying our best to do that in a way that honors Christ.
Hipps’s analogy may be inspired in part by John 3:8, in which Jesus tells Nicodemus, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” You don’t have to understand everything about the wind to be moved by it and born of it. It may even catch the sails of those we would least expect it to.
I like the idea that Jesus, like the wind, blows throughout the whole world and cannot be contained. You can turn your back to the wind, but still it beats against you; or you can try to trap it, but you will have gotten only a small portion. Jesus is far vaster than we could ever conceive, far bigger than our theologies. And he moves in varying ways: sometimes obviously, powerfully, tornado-like, and sometimes he just whispers. Our interest should be in opening up to this wind and letting it move us where it wills.
I can kind of see what Hipps means when he says that Jesus and the religion that bears his name are not the same thing. Too often Christianity becomes so buried in the culture in which it is planted that it loses its distinctiveness. Today in the West, for instance, consumerism has turned churches into commodities that people buy into so that they can have their needs met, and if they’re disappointed, they’ll just swap it for a new one; this has led churches to compete for the hippest worship bands, the most impressive technologies, the best coffee and donuts. (Don’t believe me on that last one? See the photo below.) Postmodernism, too, has shaped Christian culture in the West, so that Christians are taught to question everything, especially the Bible’s absolute claims, and to be skeptical of authority. Christianity can certainly take on forms that Jesus does reject. That’s why it’s so important for us to return to the revelation of him that we have in the Scriptures, and measure ourselves up against it. Christianity should look like Jesus.
I have not read Selling Water by the River, so I am responding only to the trailer. I trust that Hipps thoroughly develops his thesis in the book and probably addresses some of the concerns I raised. But from my reading of Scripture, it’s clear that Jesus did establish and bind himself to the institution called the church, and it’s important that we Christians stop throwing the church under the bus and see that although she does sometimes (oftentimes, even) disappoint, she is still his bride, and he does and will continue to love her with a jealous love and work through her to accomplish his will on earth.