by Al Maxey

Issue #560 ------- January 9, 2013
No man is prejudiced in favor of a thing
knowing it to be wrong. He is attached to it
on the belief of its being right, and when he
sees it is not so, the prejudice will be gone.

Thomas Paine (1737-1809)

Prideful Partisan Narrowness
Reflective Study of Mark 9:38 & Luke 9:49

"The enemy is brownness and whiteness, maleness and femaleness. The enemy is our urgent need to stereotype and close off people, places, and events into isolated categories. Hatred, distrust, irresponsibility, unloving, classism, sexism, and racism, in their myriad forms, cloud our vision and isolate us. ... We close off avenues of communication and vision so that individual and communal trust, responsibility, loving, and knowing are impossible" [Andrea Canaan, from a piece titled "Brownness" in the larger work "This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color," p. 236]. Too frequently, we humans tend to think more highly of ourselves than we ought (the very thing Paul warned against in Rom. 12:3), and the tragic result is ruined relationships and shattered spirits. We separate from one another and slander one another; we vilify and eviscerate. Then we bemoan the lack of peace and harmony in the world around us. Yet we turn and do the same in the Family of God. We form ourselves into little legalistic parties and factions, condemning all who refuse to confine themselves within our party parameters. This is nothing less than prideful, petty partisan narrowness, and the Scriptures strongly condemn it.

In the wake of perceiving oneself to be superior comes the equally damning perception that all others are, by comparison, inferior. Jesus, in one of His parables, told of a Pharisee who prayed, "God, I thank Thee that I am not like other men ... and especially not like this tax-collector." We are informed that Jesus told this parable "to some who were confident in their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else" (Luke 18:9f). Arrogance is the first step to abuse, for when we think too highly of ourselves we will invariably think very little of others. Such thoughts quickly translate into actions. A good example of this was seen one day as Jesus and His disciples journeyed to Capernaum. When they arrived at their destination, Jesus turned and asked them, "What were you arguing about on the road?" His question was met with a deep silence, "for on the way they had argued about who was the greatest" (Mark 9:33-34; Luke 9:46). Yes, the disciples were human, and frequently showed it. Perhaps seeking to divert attention away from their poor behavior and incur once again the Lord's favor (a number of biblical scholars suggest this may well have been the motivation), John quickly brings up the following incident: "Master, we saw a man driving out demons in Your name and we tried to stop him, because he is not one of us" (Luke 9:49, NIV; cf. Mark 9:38). Rather than elevating their stature in the Lord's estimation, however, it only served to illustrate the inevitable consequence of their previous poor behavior. Regarding themselves as the "favored few," they lashed out at a man who was "not one of us." For this failing, Jesus again rebuked them. Yes, they had much to learn ... as do we, who too often make the same mistake.

The great theologian John Wesley (1703-1791), who, along with his brother Charles, is credited with founding the Wesleyan Tradition, asked, "How often is the same temper found in us? But how does that spirit become a disciple, much more a minister of the benevolent Jesus?!" [Wesley's Explanatory Notes on the Whole Bible, e-Sword]. And yet, "thousands, in every period of church history, have spent their lives in copying John's mistake. They have labored to stop every man who will not work for Christ in their way from working for Christ at all" [B. W. Johnson, The People's New Testament with Explanatory Notes, p. 194]. "To confine religion to them that follow us, is a narrowness of spirit which we should avoid and abhor" [John Wesley]. The spirit of religious partisanship, however, has ever been a threat to the unity and harmony of the universal Body of Christ Jesus; it is ever present and ever ready to exert its insidious influence with destructive results. Even among the closest companions of Jesus during His earthly ministry it was at work, and the Lord wasted no time in rebuking this evil spirit of arrogant exclusiveness; this "proud ecclesiastic scowl" upon all who dare to differ "with us" [Jamieson, Fausset & Brown, Commentary Practical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, p. 1002].

Such a spirit is not new, nor is it exclusive to Christendom. We find it even among the people of Israel in their early days. For example, during their time in the wilderness, when Moses was leading the people, there were two men whose names were Eldad and Medad who were "prophesying in the camp" of the Israelites. Some thought this was unacceptable, believing only Moses could "speak for God" to His people. "A young man ran and told Moses, 'Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.' Joshua son of Nun, who had been Moses' aide since youth, spoke up and said, 'Moses, my lord, stop them!' But Moses replied, 'Are you jealous for my sake? I wish that all the Lord's people were prophets and that the Lord would put His Spirit on them!'" (Numbers 11:26-29). Indeed, vs. 26 informs us that "the Spirit also rested on them." These two prophets may not have been within the "inner circle" of Moses, but they were nonetheless in relationship with and servants of Almighty God. Joshua, who would succeed Moses as leader of the people of Israel after their wilderness wanderings, sought to "stop" these two men, just as John, a major leader in the apostolic church, sought to "stop" the man casting out demons. Why? Because in both cases the persons in question were "not of us." Yet, in both cases the rebuke, though gently given, was the same: they don't have to walk with you, they only have to walk with Him. We limit our Lord when we narrow the parameters of His acceptance to our own personal or party prejudices.

This attitude wasn't just within the heart of John alone, however. "John's use of 'we' shows that he is speaking for all the disciples" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 8, p. 707]. Yet, John (not Peter, surprisingly) was the impetuous one here; the one who thundered against others not within his circle of acceptance. It was John, remember, who, shortly after this very incident, desired to incinerate an entire Samaritan village for refusing to let them walk through it (Luke 9:54-55), which once again brought a rebuke from Jesus. John's evolution to "the disciple of love" clearly did not occur overnight. "His character was slowly forming" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 16: Luke, part 1, p. 243]. "John, gentle John, whose mildness and uniform charitableness has justly become proverbial, at this time was still a true 'son of thunder,' as Jesus had called him. His zeal and impetuosity was in danger of doing much more harm than good" [Dr. Paul E. Kretzmann, Popular Commentary of the Bible, the NT, vol. 1, p. 216]. Yes, John, and his fellow traveling companions, "were intolerant; they had a zeal for Jesus which was narrow and biased" [H. Leo Boles, A Commentary on the Gospel According to Luke, p. 207]. Let's be honest: how different are many of us today?! "We do the same today when we refuse to participate in worthy causes because (1) other people or groups are not affiliated with our denomination, (2) these projects do not involve the kind of people with whom we feel most comfortable, (3) others don't do things the way we are used to doing things" [Life Application Bible, p. 1753]. We are too willing to condemn those people and practices that are "not of us," and in so doing we deserve the same rebuke from Jesus as was received by John.

Dr. A. T. Robertson, in his classic work "Word Pictures in the New Testament," astutely observed, "One needs to know the difference between loyalty to Jesus and stickling over one's own narrow prejudices" [e-Sword]. What we witness in John, and in many today, "is a pitiful specimen of partisan narrowness and pride" [ibid]. The man John and the others sought to hinder or stop was, in fact, "doing the Master's work in the Master's name and with the Master's power" [ibid], and was also being successful in that work. The problem? "He did not run with the group of the Twelve" [ibid]. Too often we seek to run off (or hinder or defame) those who do not or will not run "with us." These are those who "wish to confine the work of the Lord within the limits of their own circle" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 16: Luke, part 1, p. 243]. "There are some who are so outrageously wedded to their own creed, and religious system, that they would rather let sinners perish than suffer those who differ from them to become the instruments of their salvation. This is vanity and an evil disease" [Adam Clarke, Clarke's Commentary, vol. 5, p. 319].

The Greek verb in our text which is translated "stop" is koluo, which means "to hinder, restrain, prevent." Both Mark and Luke place it in the Imperfect Tense, which suggests the actions of John and the others against this individual were ongoing (perhaps occurring repeatedly over a period of time). Some scholars feel this may have occurred during the time the Twelve were "sent out to preach the kingdom of God and to heal the sick" (Luke 9:1-2; cf. Mark 6:7f; Matt. 10:1f). Whatever the time and place, the "problem" with this man was, in the view of the apostles, that "he was not one of us" (NIV). Other translations read:

These are just a few examples, but you get the idea. The actual Greek word used here is akoloutheo, which means "to follow; to imitate." The term "acolyte" comes from this Greek word -- an "acolyte" being a devoted follower or fan; an attendant. John and the other apostles fell into the same trap many of us do today: we believe God only accepts those (and the work of those) who are "in our group." This is not only partisan narrowness, it is religious bigotry. "In the view of a bigot, one who does not work in his own way is censured and condemned as unfit to work for God at all" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 16: Mark, part 2, p. 16]. However, John needed to realize, as do we, that although the Shepherd has only one flock, He nevertheless has many folds! Not all of His sheep are within the parameters of our own little pen. This is a fact I brought out in one of my early Reflections (Issue #57 -- One Flock, Many Folds: Reflections on John 10:16), and to which I would refer the reader. The simple truth was "that the influence of our Lord Jesus was wider than was known by His own immediate friends, and that His work was, even during His lifetime, advancing in directions of which they were not aware" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 16: Mark, part 2, p. 16]. One is reminded of Elijah, who lamented, "I am the only one of the Lord's prophets left" (1 Kings 18:22; cf. 19:10), and who had to be reminded by God that there were 7000 more of whom he was not personally aware (19:18). We sometimes become so self-absorbed that we fail to see God's other children who daily surround us, and who are faithfully serving Him, but who may not be "in our group."

Christ Jesus, however, "rebuked His disciples for discouraging one that honored Him and served Him, but was not of their communion. ... He rebuked them for vilifying all but themselves" [Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible, e-Sword]. The great reality is: "The communion of God with men is always wider than the communion of men with God. ... Beware of identifying the bestowment of spiritual grace with adherence to any particular company of believers. It is not for any to forbid another 'because he followeth not with us.' ... Christ, not any man or any system, is the Truth" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 16: Luke, part 1, p. 251]. "The Master's reply contained a broad and far-reaching truth. No earthly society, however holy, would be able exclusively to claim the divine powers inseparably connected with a true and faithful use of His name. This is the grand and massive answer which stretches over a history of eighteen centuries, and which will possibly extend over many yet to come; the answer which gives an ample reason why noble Christian work is done whether emanating from churches bearing the name of Protestant, or Roman, or Greek" [ibid, p. 243]. "People don't have to be just like us to be following Jesus with us. ... His followers will not all resemble each other or belong to the same groups" [Life Application Bible, p. 1753]. Thus, we must learn to "share Jesus' open-arms attitude to Christian workers outside our group" [ibid, p. 1819].

"Jesus' reply shows that He did not have as restrictive a view of who could legitimately participate in His mission as His disciples did" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 8, p. 707]. And this has been the problem ever since that day almost 2000 years ago! Sadly, our Lord is far more accepting than His people. Perhaps part of the reason is -- "The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart" (1 Sam. 16:7). We are so enamored with outward traditions, and following them precisely according to our party patterns, that we frequently perceive all who are outside of our sectarian walls as lost and bound for hell. Even though such persons may profess a deep faith in and devotion to Jesus, and even though they may be serving Him daily in their lives, they are viewed as "apostates" simply because they are not "of us." Such a spirit "is cruel, foolish, and emphatically unchristian. Rather let us rejoice that there are found so many who, while not feeling it right to connect themselves with our organization, are yet loving the same Lord and serving the same cause. These are not our enemies; they are our allies" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 16: Luke, part 1, p. 262]. Yes, in our text, Jesus "condemns the narrowness that refused to tolerate want of uniformity, and commends forbearance towards all who in reality serve the same Master and seek the same object: the glory of God, even though their forms may be diverse, their modes of worship different, and their creeds divergent in expression. ... Conformity to the same religious standards is not an indispensable condition of Christianity, rather cordiality in embracing Christ and espousing His cause is of its very essence" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 16: Mark, part 2, p. 58]. John and the other apostles eventually perceived this truth -- You don't have to be my twin to be my brother. And you don't have to dwell in my house (or be in my group) to be one of His children (followers). May God help each of us to perceive this same truth ... and to practice it!

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Readers' Reflections

From a Reader in Arkansas:

I really enjoyed your recent article titled "Breaking Free of Fear" (Reflections #556). I sent a copy of it to my brother, with the comment, "In my view, Al Maxey hits the proverbial nail on the head." He replied, "Wow!! That article totally resonated with me! Al Maxey penned in perfect words many things I have felt, but have never been able to express with such cogent description." Keep up the good work, brother!

From a Reader in Connecticut:

Al, your letter (at the end of the Readers' Reflections section of Reflections #559) in response to a reader wanting to know how to reach someone scarred by legalism is PROFOUND!! I think it is the most concise, direct and perfect answer I have ever heard! You captured in just a few words what it has taken me years to painfully learn. Although I knew and felt these things in my heart, I was too frustrated, broken and scared to know how to express it all in words. Al, you were the FIRST Christian I ever met who actually demonstrated these principles, and you were the FIRST Christian who showed these toward my family and me. Your advice in that letter is priceless! This subject surely deserves an issue of Reflections all its own.

From a Minister in Alabama:

Brother Al, If you have time, please check out the new blog site I have started in order to help our people within the Churches of Christ overcome their legalisms. An endorsement from you would be powerful. Thanks!

From a Reader in Texas:

I just listened to your sermon ("A Christmas Message from John One") on the Sermons Page of your congregation's web site. It was great -- not the usual Christmas sermon one hears in the Churches of Christ. I just wish my late husband could have heard your lessons. He might have had a very different impression of the church. All he and my sons heard was legalistic preaching; nothing about grace. I just wasn't smart enough to leave back then. I have had some real emotional problems caused by hearing this kind of teaching. I knew that a lot of it was erroneous, but I didn't trust myself enough to leave it behind. Unfortunately, my sons will now have nothing to do with the Churches of Christ because of that legalistic teaching and preaching. I just wish I could go back and have a second chance.

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