Jesus Creed

Jesus Creed


Worthy of Imitation 9

posted by Scot McKnight

Sheldon.jpgOne of the most popular slogans of the last two decades, showing up all over the world in bracelets, was “WWJD?” What would Jesus do? I don’t know how that got started with our youth and how it went “viral” (before viral meant viral), but I do know that the pastor who got the whole thing started was Charles Sheldon — and Chris Armstrong has a fascinating chapter about Sheldon in his new book: Patron Saints for Postmoderns: Ten from the Past Who Speak to Our Future.

Has anyone pondered “WWJD?” Anyone write a paper about it? Anyone done some thinking about it? What do you think of the theology of the WWJD slogan?
Sheldon belonged, if a moderate, to the social gospel trend of his day, but he seems not to have surrendered the evangelical gospel and the necessity of personal faith in his social gospel orientation. I appreciated this element of Armstrong’s sketch. I’ve heard too many dismiss Sheldon’s WWJD orientation as nothing but social gospel (where “social gospel” was assumed to be completely wrong).


Sheldon’s approach to ministry was whole person, and that in a nutshell tells us everything about his theology: he helped everyone in his parish in every way he could, including reading to kids and starting the first African American kindergarten west of the Mississippi, and working with the poor in slums, and you could go on. He was a classic liberal when it came to good works. He puts most of us to shame.

He used Sunday evening services to tell fictional stories that would embody the gospel and good works — and one of those series became the famous book that launched the WWJD phenomemon: In His Steps
.

How many of you have read In His Steps?

The social gospel, in the words of Armstrong as he describes those days: “As solutions to the various abuses of industrial capitalism, the social-gospel leaders posed a kind of public Jesus-ethic” (177). And in comparing the social gospelers to evangelicals, Armstrong once again: “… while the evangelicals tended to see the church as called to be a ‘herald’ of the gospel to the wider world, these social-gospel liberals saw the church as a ‘servant’ to the world” (178). But Armstrong shows that pre Civil War evangelicals were very social, and it was the “Great Reversal” (David Moberg) that flip flopped evangelical perception of the gospel: evangelicals distanced themselves from social gospelers on the basis of theology but in distancing themselves they abandoned a genuine gospel task: social compassion.
Can we bring them together again? That, I believe, will be the contribution of this entire “emerging” conversation. I have tried to do a bit of this combination in two of my books: Embracing Grace: A Gospel for All of Us
and A Community Called Atonement (Living Theology)
.


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RJS

posted September 25, 2009 at 6:41 am


I read “In His Steps” – many years ago.
While the two (evangelical theology and social compassion) have never been completely severed … this has certainly been a subject of deep conflict.
We need to bringing them together as a united whole. The ideal of the “Third Way.” Social compassion is not slippery slope to liberal theology.



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Gary Feister

posted September 25, 2009 at 8:11 am


I read the book many years ago. It was a good book. However, as I’ve grown in the Lord, I don’t agree with the theology of “What would Jesus do?” or “WWJD?”. The very question implies that the Lord is not present with us (“What would Jesus do…if He were here?). He is here! To say that He’s not would not be true, since He promised He always would be and since He lives in us.
It’s a good book; a bad theology.



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Scot McKnight

posted September 25, 2009 at 8:15 am


Gary, I’m not convinced the book assumes Jesus is not here as you describe it. Instead, I think the question is more along this line of thinking:
Too many Christians don’t even think of living a life that corresponds to how Jesus lived, esp pertaining to how he ministered to the poor.
So, it seems to me that the absence is not so much Jesus (in the WWJD slogan of Sheldon) but that of Christians thinking about how to respond to the world in compassion. Sheldon wanted to get Christians to think more concretely about compassion, and he wanted to give to them a slogan/question that would get them to thinking about the Christian life in every phase of life.
[This is not to say I'd defend Sheldon's theology at every point.]



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Pastor Joelle

posted September 25, 2009 at 8:47 am


Read “In His Steps” and I seem to remember a sequel when I was in high school and found it very inspiring.
I think it’s a worthy book but I am uncomfortable with the modern WWJD movement. Can get very legalistic and tends to forget that Jesus did something VERY important that I do not have to do, fought and triumphed over evil on the cross so that I can live a life of freedom and grace that empowers me to respond in love and compassion to my neighbor without constantly taking my temperature to make sure I’m really doing what Jesus would do.



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Jim Hampton

posted September 25, 2009 at 8:53 am


Thanks, Scott. As one who teaches YM at the graduate level, I have done a bit of looking at this phenomenon. It seems to me that one of the things we have to consider is what does it mean to be in a
?cultured? Church. As to the case in point you’ve referenced here, current North American cultural influences often put youth ministry ?at risk? due to the danger of commercialization, even in the church. Perhaps no better example exists than the tale of WWJD. WWJD (What Would Jesus Do) originally surfaced, as you document, as a powerful example of youth initiating social change, envisioned by Charles M. Sheldon?s (1896) masterpiece In His Steps. Through endeavor societies, similar to the Christian Endeavor Societies that served as the forerunner to the modern youth group, youth would tackle poverty, addictions, education living out WWJD. By 1989 an evangelical renewal of WWJD surfaced (CT 1997) as an authentic wrist band strategy of a local Michigan youth group. Unfortunately by the turn of the new century, the movement seemed destined for Christian bookstore discount aisles as WWJD became a clich? due to over-marketing: from ties, to coffee cups? to pet rocks (Ball 2002).
Seems to me that the concept was and is valid, but as often happens, evangelicals take the best of something and so overmarket it that it not only loses its power, but makes it a laughingstock instead.



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Travis Greene

posted September 25, 2009 at 9:23 am


Pastor Joelle @ 4 “Jesus did something VERY important that I do not have to do”
True, we can never replicate or repeat Jesus’ unique atoning task…but are we not still called to emulate it? Take up your cross and follow me?
Jim @ 5,
The worst thing about the commercialization of WWJD was when I was in high school and everybody was wearing those, without even knowing what it meant at all. I overheard somebody claiming it was some website.



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Michael Cline

posted September 25, 2009 at 11:02 am


My relationship with Sheldon has changed a few times over the years. I sported the “WWJD” bracelet growing up in youth group, knowing that it meant “What Would Jesus Do,” but being completley unaware of who Sheldon was.
Somewhere in undergrad, I was told that Sheldon was a “liberal.” Not only was he enamored with the “social gospel” to the detriment of
“personal conversion”, but I was somehow convinced that he didn’t believe in the divinity of Jesus. I actually think a professor implied this idea. Not sure where he got it from. Anyone got any ideas?
But as in the last few years, I’ve seen a shift in my own thinking and in the thinking of my colleagues who came through similar channels. WWJD is back. We may not use the acronym (and thank God we don’t wear all the gear), but our personal and communal ethic has begun to drift back that direction. I think a renewed focus on Ethics in general (especially Anabaptist) is at the root of the cause.



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Michael Cline

posted September 25, 2009 at 11:06 am


(Sorry, just a few more comments…)
But there is a troubling hermeneutical side to WWJD — mainly, that we ask the question “What Would Jesus Do?” often times assuming the asnwer. And yet, the more I read Scripture, the more I’m convinced that I have no idea what Jesus is going to do next. When we assume the answer to WWJD, the hard work of spiritual formation can get short-circuited. Not to mention that different groups who sport the bracelet (either literally or metaphorically) can diverge so widely in their own ethical stances, that it would seem Jesus is schizophrenic.



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Chris Armstrong

posted September 25, 2009 at 11:27 am


Mike [7, 8]:
As for the idea that Sheldon didn’t believe the divinity of Christ: this is possible. In the opening chapter of In His Steps, pastor Maxwell is preparing a sermon on the moral influence theory of the atonement. But I’m not sure he denied the divinity; perhaps just focused more on the imitatio christi.
As for the problem you mention in [8], Sheldon was very clear: Pastor Maxwell wanted his people, when they came to a crucial juncture in their lives that required an important decision, to pray and listen for the voice of the Spirit. “What Jesus would do” was NOT to be determined by one’s own prejudgments or assumptions. It was to be discerned spiritually through a process of devotion and prayer. I have to say: I know of no better process for determining one’s actions as a Christian in areas where there is no explicit Scriptural mandate. Of course, we would want to add the additional “checks” of communal discernment and making sure that what you think you are hearing actually lines up with Scripture–and I know Sheldon would have wholeheartedly affirmed both of those.



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MatthewS

posted September 25, 2009 at 12:41 pm


It left a mark on me as a young teenager. I didn’t accept that the story was a likely actual outcome but I interpreted the core question to be something like “would you be willing to simply ask God what he wants you to do? If he answered you, would you do it?” Very challenging.
I find the political use of WWJD repulsive. People use it as a rhetorical device to invalidate disagreement and with their preferred answer clearly implied.
I have thought about it on and off and sometimes am more amenable than others. The problem is that Jesus was creator. So WWJD? He would create wine, create a diversion, ask an impossible question, make a statement about someone’s character only he would know, or reveal some part of God’s plan that has a ring of truth but that we never saw before. Nobody stood behind Jesus at the Sermon on the Mount, for example, nodding vigorously, and saying “That’s just what I’ve been trying to say!” Jesus managed to make everyone uncomfortable. WWJD? As creator God, he would do something creative.
Still, I use earthly heroes as inspiration. I am inspired by characters in history (and myth). I am inspired by some profs, authors, and subject matter experts. I want my work to reflect some of the qualities of these people. So with Jesus, I want my life to reflect his humility yet confidence, his selflessness, servant’s heart, dedication, zeal, care for the downtrodden. Maybe it’s better to ask “How can I be like Jesus in this situation?” That’s dangerous, too. If your mental image of yourself is the Messiah, you may become impervious to reasonable criticism. Well, it’s a challenging question. I guess I still don’t have a good answer.



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Chris Armstrong

posted September 25, 2009 at 3:32 pm


Matthew,
Yes yes yes. That really is the limit of the liberal “moral influence” view of Christ’s work on earth, isn’t it? And Sheldon was certainly heir to that limitation.
But what fascinates me is just how evangelical some folks in church history have managed to be, after they set out to “imitate Christ.” Francis of Assisi, Thomas a Kempis, the Anabaptists, and their ilk somehow managed to capture the spirit of the gospel despite what may seem a “theological dangerous” emphasis on works.
Or another way to put this: the principle of imitation certainly has its limits, but it also seems to contain a hidden power.
Great reflection on the “Messiah complex” too: spiritual pride lurks under all attempts to get our shoulders behind wheels of sanctification, compassionate ministry, and so forth. But I don’t think that exempts us from doing those things.
I think some of this is covered by John 7:17: “If anyone chooses to do God’s will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own” [NIV]. The “doing,” which surely sometimes does involve doing things in imitation of the “qualities” of Jesus and of other Jesus-followers (as you helpfully put it), issues in fruit not just of sanctification and charity, but also of cognitive understanding of and confidence in that deeper, unique message Jesus preached about himself–the “non-imitable” stuff.
I know that was a bit convoluted–it’s mid-afternoon and my biorhythms are crashing–but hopefully my meaning comes through.
http://gratefultothedead.wordpress.com/



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nathan

posted September 25, 2009 at 4:22 pm


all i can remember right now is the time i sat in a man’s backyard while he waxed eloquent about himself, singing the praises of how great a Christian he was and then showed me his gold plated WWJD engraved ID bracelet with a 4 carat diamond inset….on the same hand that already had a multiple carat diamond pinky ring.
his christian integrity consisted, by his own account, of his bible study leadership and knowledge…
and all i could think of was the irony of a gold plated diamond inset WWJD bracelet and that gigantor ring in light of global poverty, child homelessness rates just in the USA alone, and dirty water.
maybe i need to read In His Steps. Sounds like it might redeem what has become anathema for me…



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Gary Feister

posted September 25, 2009 at 5:01 pm


Scot, I just read your response. Thanks for the background on Sheldon’s intent with the question, “What would Jesus do?” I’ve never doubted his sincerity, only the outcome of the question.
Also, and this is only my opinion, I think more often than not the question tends to produce “self-effort” Christianity, which ultimately leads to disappointment and/or despair. Not all the time, though.



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Randy

posted September 25, 2009 at 8:45 pm


I remember starkly September 12, 2001. We had just gathered in Goshen, Indiana for my wife’s grandmother’s funeral. She had died of natural causes on September 11. I remember the pastor who officiated our wedding the previous October asking “How many people do you think will observe WWJD now?”
Randy



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Doug Allen

posted September 25, 2009 at 8:45 pm


Scot, this post really brings into relief some of the reservations I’ve developed about the Jesus Creed blog. I have a pretty good idea where you’re coming from because I got here by reading the “Jesus Creed,” and I’ve been here for about 3 years and read some of your other books. Again this past year, I’ve found your writing to be fair, often educational, and sometimes inspirational, but the discussions too often depressing and alienating. I used to have soul mates, or so I felt, like Julie. Before the blog moved to BeliefNet, there was more a sense of community. I remember individuals bearing their souls and finding loving support here. It was very moving and felt very nurturing. Now, I find I have little in common with so many that post here. My posts are usually ignored if not criticized. Because I am theologically liberal and politically center left, I find myself alone. Not only Julie, but most of the other, mainly women, and I could name quite a few, are no longer here. For me, the social gospel is following Jesus’ example. And WWJD brings to mind, before anything else, a mission to Mexico where I was about 12 years ago, to help the poor and we stayed up late at night, many nights, talking about and praying on the “what” od WWJD. But here, typical comments like “self-effort Christianity,” “…spiritual pride lurks under all attempts to get our shoulders behind…compassionate ministry,” and “when we assume the answer to WWJD, the hard work of spiritual transformation can get short-circuited,” depress me. I think the hard work of spititual transformation both is and comes from loving God and loving our fellow man. And WWJD, like the Jesus Creed itself, is the touchstone that informs any and every other question about theology, morality or spirituality. However, here, more and more, I am reading things that seem more like the unJesus Creed. So often now, I find those here that make me upset, whom I struggle (and I prayerfully do) to love. They seem to be the majority now. T in “The Acts of the Apostles” post above asks how many read the passages and studies. I do Scot, and I’m very grateful for the learning you have provided and the community and civility you try to provide. Before continuing my spiitual journney elsewhere (and I’m excited about that!), I will end with one of the verses from the Gospel of James that you taught and I so enjoyed reading last spring. “What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? Can faith save him?”
Farewell and Godspeed to all,
Doug Allen



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Andy Cornett

posted September 26, 2009 at 6:58 am


Hey friends,
I am late to the discussion, but still enjoyed the posts and comments. Thanks especially to Chris for weighing in with some thoughts. I simply wanted to say that I Read Sheldon’s IHS as a young person growing up in central, reread it, and it still haunts me in some ways. Now that I have worked in a church for the last 12 years, I know of almost no other question more inspiring, provocative, and creative than to ask What would Jesus do? Even though I reject much of what passed as WWJD in the last decade, the question constantly drives me back to the gospels and the letters, coming to grips with his person, his work, and the brilliance of his life. For those with an ear, John Caputo’s reread of Sheldon – called “What Would Jesus Deconstruct – is a brilliant, sharply-written take on the good news of postmodernism to a church that wants to follow in the way of Jesus. Though I cannot agree to some of his conclusions, the book has stimulated and convicted me in so many ways. I highly recommend it.
grace and peace –
Andy



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Derek Bickerton

posted September 26, 2009 at 5:29 pm


I note that a comment by me that connected WWJD with the Pew Torture Poll has been suppressed, and that simultaneously my bookmark for this page has become non-functional (coincidence, doubtless!). Since there was nothing in that comment that could conceivably have violated any sane editorial policy, and from the rarity of any expressions of shock and outrage by the Christian community (with one or two honorable exceptions like David Gushee) I can only conclude that when torture is ordered by leaders of a Christian nation, Christians not only pass by on the other side,but seek to silence the Samaritan. Remember–if you pass by on the other side…you ARE the other side.



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RJS

posted September 26, 2009 at 5:56 pm


Derek,
Don’t jump to conclusions. Did you have any links? These will often, but not always, get a comment held or sent to spam.



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Derek Bickerton

posted September 26, 2009 at 7:30 pm


Sorry, RJS. I had no idea that links could do that, and the body of my message did contain a link, so I guess that’s what happened. My sincerest apologies for my paranoid suspicions!
I didn’t keep a copy of the message but here’s its substance. I wanted to link three things, WWJD, the torture poll, and the social gospel. About WWJD and torture, there can be only one answer, and it shocks me deeply that a majority in all denominations would support torture, and even more deeply that there was so little outrage in the Christian community–most responses I saw were attempts to casuistically weasel out of it, saying “It wasn’t really torture” or it was justified for “homeland security”. The first is nonsense–waterboarding was a favorite of the Spanish Inquisition, and I’ve read (I don’t know if it’s true) that after WWII we executed Japanese officers who had waterboarded American prisoners of war. The second represents a sickening obeisance to the power of the state.
And that’s what I was really getting it–a social gospel is seriously incomplete if it doesn’t contain a clear understanding of what is owed to Caesar and what is owed to God. And that is something nobody seems anxious to examine nowadays. I can understand why, but I think we have to grapple with it. The people who took it most seriously were the Desert Fathers, who were quite radical in their insistence that God’s law took precedence over man’s law. Their interactions with the official church, as represented by Theophilus, Patriarch of Alexandria, and his cohorts, make a fascinating story, which I try to tell in my novel “The Desert and the City” (it was the link to this that presumably sank my original post, but that link is the one that should be in my header). One of the main themes in this novel is precisely that–the often conflicting nature of the demands of God and those of the state and/or organized church, and if it helps to start a dialog over this, it will have achieved at least one of its goals (the other was to write a Christian novel that could be read and enjoyed by unbelievers, and, who knows, even convert one or two!)



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