The temptation to make Christianity a club is nothing new. Indeed, it is the natural behaviour of any group of friends and Jesus’ group of friends was no exception. But Jesus himself would have none of it:
John said to him, “Teacher, we saw a man casting out demons in your name, and we forbade him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not forbid him; for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon after to speak evil of me. For he that is not against us is for us. (Mk 9:38–40).
In John’s view, the exorcist “was not following us” – he was not in the Inner Ring, not part of The Club. He was, like countless people at that time, somebody who had heard of Jesus and perhaps had seen him preach or teach or work a sign, but who was not associated with the circle of followers, disciples, and apostles in Jesus’ company. This exorcist appears to have picked up on Jesus’ works of demonic deliverance and gotten wind of his promises that demons could be cast out in his Name. And he appears to have successfully acted on that promise. But even though he had worked deliverance by the power of Jesus’ Name, his status as a supposed Outsider meant to John only that he was violating copyright, treading on apostolic turf, threatening the monopoly of access John thought he had. So instead of welcoming him, John tried to shut him down and (just as importantly) shut him out.
Jesus would have none of it. The exorcist was somebody trying to follow Jesus in sincerity, albeit imperfectly. Yeah, he didn’t seem to have heard that stuff about Jesus giving the apostles twelve thrones or the whole, “He who listens to you listens to me” business (cf. Luke 10:16). He was outside the institutional chain of command. But he meant well and was doing his best to follow Jesus according to the light he had. So why shut him out? Welcome him!
In short, Jesus welcomes anybody with trust in him to approach him and encourages his disciples to help those with some light to find more light. And that meant the apostles and disciples need to make their faith intelligible to every Tom, Dick, and Harry.
To their credit, his disciples learned their lesson. You can see this, for instance, in the book of Acts:
Now a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was an eloquent man, well-versed in the Scriptures. He had been instructed in the way of the Lord; and being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John. He began to speak boldly in the synagogue; but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him and expounded to him the way of God more accurately. And when he wished to cross to Achaia, the brethren encouraged him, and wrote to the disciples to receive him. When he arrived, he greatly helped those who through grace had believed, for he powerfully confuted the Jews in public, showing by the Scriptures that the Christ was Jesus. (Acts 18:24–28)
Here, instead of writing off Apollos as a heretic or an outsider for only knowing part of the gospel, Aquila and Priscilla welcome the glass half empty and help to fill it. Result: Apollos matures into a great evangelist.
Aquila and Priscilla could do this because they knew what they believed and had a coherent way to express it to Apollos. We require the same thing if we are to bear witness to our faith. That is why we need to understand why ‘religious’ things like creeds are necessary. Next time, I want to talk about a little of my own faith journey and how words like ‘religion’ sound to the postmodern ear.