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Jesus Did Not Teach Ethical Behavior

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Paul teaches that love is not rude (1 Corinthians 13:4–5). If we forget that the New Testament is about the new life given us in Jesus Christ, we easily misinterpret this passage to be an ethical injunction. We read it saying, “Thou shall not be rude.” So in sincere obedience we set about doing our best to avoid being rude. We will tend to feel good about ourselves when we are avoiding rudeness, and we will feel bad about ourselves when we find we are rude.

Of course, it is not always easy to differentiate between having healthy personal boundaries that sometimes tell people to go away, on the one hand, and actual rudeness, on the other. So to fulfill this ethical mandate, we may have to think and debate on what exactly constitutes rudeness and the specific conditions under which a behavior might look rude but not actually be rude. If there are situations in which people disagree, we might find ourselves putting ourselves on one side of the debate or the other. Indeed, if it is important enough to us, our posturing could result in factions of Christians arguing with one another – often very rudely!

Now we must notice in this scenario that we are entirely focused on our behavior, centered on ourselves, and living out of our knowledge of good and evil. We’re living out of our heads, filtering everything through what we think we know about rudeness. Most significantly, we have entirely missed the point of Paul’s teaching. For Paul’s point was not that we should try hard to avoid rudeness but that we must live in love. If you are living out of the love of God, you won’t be rude. Indeed you will fulfill all the law. Conversely, you can strive to obey a hundred rules you’ve created to define rudeness in particular situations but be completely devoid of love.

Paul’s purpose was not to get us to act different; his goal was to help us be different. And in telling us love is not rude, for example, Paul was giving us a flag to help us notice when we are acting out of love and when we are not — that is, when we are acting out of the old self and when we are acting out of the new. Paul’s behavioral injunctions are not things we are supposed to strive to perform, nor are they new universal ethical rules by which we are to try to motivate all people to live. They are evidences that disciples are participating in the abundant life Jesus came to give.

Jesus did the same thing throughout his ministry. He was not calling people to a new ethical system; he was calling people to life. When someone wanted him to settle an inheritance dispute with a brother, for instance, he responded, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” (Luke 12:14). He was telling the man that he did not come to give definitive answers to our many difficult ethical questions. He rather came to offer an alternative way of living to all ethical systems. Hence, he simply reminded the man that “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15). Jesus was offering this man, and all people, real life. Life from God. Possessing such life would not resolve this man’s ethical dilemma, but it would put it into a new perspective.

The New Testament is not about ethical behavior; it’s about a radical new way of living. It’s about a life lived in surrendered union to God through faith in Jesus Christ. It is about experiencing the transforming power of God’s love flowing into and through a person. It demands a form of holiness that is far more exacting then any ethical system. It demands a holiness of the heart that does not feed the fallen self by distancing itself from sinners but rather sacrifices itself to unite with sinners.

This kind of holiness can never be achieved through behavior. It has to be received by grace. Jesus’ ministry and the whole New Testament undermine our ethics in order to position us to humbly receive this empowering and life transforming grace.

—Adapted from Repenting of Religion, pages 93-96.

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