If you want to strike fear into the heart of a student just tell them that a class will include pop quizzes in the class grade. Few students other than Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter books like to walk into class and be surprised with an opportunity to prove that they have been reading the class texts and reviewing the class notes by answering the questions posed to them on a pop quiz. I know I always disliked them because they always they hit when I had four other things due on that same day. I was a good student and did my work but sooner or later a pop quiz would hit when I had something perfectly legitimate prevent me from finishing the reading so that everything was fresh in my head to do well on it. In fact my abnormal psychology professor had a uncanny ability to declare a surprise quiz on such days. Within a few weeks I just looked ahead and determined the worst possible day in my schedule for him to give a pop quiz and just started planning for it to happen on that day.
As much as I disliked them as a student, there is another side to the pop quiz and it’s a perspective that I have learned from being married to a college professor. Despite it being a recurring plot device of children’s fiction books, real world teachers do not take malicious delight in tormenting their students with pop quizzes. In fact, a teacher has good reasons for giving them. They help teach some valuable lessons. You never know when one might strike so if you are a student you should always be prepared. Work ahead if you have to. You don’t have to wait to the last minute to do your work. If you’re doing your work then there’s nothing to fear from a pop quiz. The ultimate goal of these quizzes is not fear and intimidation but to make sure that the student knows or is learning the material.
Regardless of how we feel about them, most of us know that quizzes continue long after we graduate from high school or college. We encounter them in a lot of places and in many of these places they serve a legitimate function.
However one place we don’t expect to encounter pop quizzes is at church. But increasingly Christians are encountering them there. These quizzes are posed by well-meaning or not-so-well meaning church members and staff who are trying to determine the doctrinal purity of a person or test someone’s theological integrity. If you ask a question that you already have an answer to see if the person agrees with you then you are quizzing them. In other words, they are fishing to see if the person believes the same things as them. Now if this was born out a genuine desire to get to know someone it might not be so upsetting but it is often coupled with an “are with me or against me” attitude that is looking to see if you are on their side. It is born of suspicion and distrust and does not assume good will on the part of the person being quizzed. It dwells on what divides people rather than what unites them.
In my reading, I came across a saying from Martin Buber that applies to this disturbing development. It says, “Rake the muck this way; rake the muck that way. It’s still muck. Meanwhile we could be stringing pearls for heaven.” A lot of American churches have settled for “raking the muck” as we have become increasingly polarized around a host of issues.
You see, in many Christian circles, people are not asking questions to genuinely acquire knowledge and improve their understanding, but to determine if someone is for or against them – and there are painful consequences if you are against them. If you answer their question the wrong way you are counted among the opposition which must be vanquished. Relationships within the church are being damaged or destroyed. Driving this desire to test the theological beliefs or doctrinal purity of a person is an attitude that places ideology or theology over people. When this happens we diminish the unity of our churches and we severely hinder our ability to work together for God’s purposes in the world. In the words of Buber we are increasingly content to rake the muck and therefore miss stringing pearls for heaven.
So how do we get back to stringing pearls for heaven and stop racking the muck? The answer is simple – we need to get back to the basics of what Jesus taught his followers in the Gospels. Doing so will allow us to rediscover what Jesus thought was most important when it comes to the life of faith.
From what I can discern in the teachings and actions of Jesus, he puts people above doctrine. He didn’t spend his time articulating orthodoxy. Instead he focused his teachings on how we treat one another. As a result I think he would be concerned when we hurt one another in the pursuit of winning a theological debate. The other day I sat down with the Gospel of Luke in hand and tried to find some passages where Jesus stresses mercy and compassion over correct belief or doctrine. Here are just a few that I discovered and I believe they reveal a pattern.
In Luke 5:17-25 Jesus heals a paralytic who is lowered down through the roof into the house where Jesus was teaching. Jesus forgives the man’s sins and the Pharisees immediately start complaining that Jesus has committed blasphemy by forgiving the man’s sins. Jesus is more concerned with caring for the paralytic than theological correctness and he pushes the issue even further by healing the man. On the sabbath Jesus heals a man with a withered hand knowing that the Pharisees are there to see if he will violate the Torah. Their theology said that healing was work and should not happen on the sabbath. Jesus decides to thumb his nose at their theology and heals the withered hand anyway.
A few verses later Jesus starts teaching the people on the plain and he shares with them the Beatitudes – a list of blessings as to who is rewarded and valued in the Kingdom of God. The poor, the hungry, the grieving will be blessed. Those who have been hurt and reviled in this life will experience the love and compassion of God in coming Kingdom. I find it interesting that there is nothing in the Beatitudes like “Blessed are the theologically correct or dogmatically pure for theirs in the kingdom of God.”
In Luke 7:1-10 Jesus is on his way to a Roman centurion’s house to heal the man’s servant when the centurion sends word to Jesus that he is not worthy to have Jesus in his home. Instead, he asks Jesus to just say the word and he is confident that his servant will be healed. Jesus is amazed at the Roman soldier’s faith and the servant is healed. Let’s pause for a moment and see what was so amazing about the centurion’s faith. Was it his doctrine or theology. That’s the way we typically define “faith” but that’s not how it is defined here. Here it is defined as trust. The Roman trusts that Jesus will heal his servant. It is his trust that amazes Jesus – not some doctrine.
A few chapters later, Jesus enters into a Q&A session with a lawyer who comes to Jesus asking what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus points him to the Torah and the lawyer answers correctly but when the man pushes Jesus by asking who his neighbor is, the Lord tells the story of the good samaritan. It’s a passage most of us are familiar with. We know the priest and the Levite pass by the wounded man and that the Samaritan is the one who stops to help. Scholars tell us that the priest and Levite refuse to help out of a concern for theological correctness and ritual purity. The hero of the parable is the Samaritan who shows compassion. Once again mercy trumps doctrine.
In the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15, the compassion of the father supersedes any teaching of the law or societal custom that might have required him to punish the wayward son. The father throws a celebration because the son has returned home. While he would have been theologically correct to punish the wayward son, the father chooses to show him love and mercy instead. While Jesus does not explicitly say so, it is clear that the father in the story represents God. Jesus’ and God’s priorities seems to be people and compassion first and theology and doctrine second.
To make sure we have our priorities straight, Jesus gives us the criteria by which we shall be judged in Matthew 25. He tells us that the Son of Man will come at the end of age and there will be an accounting and the sheep will be separated from the goats. The sheep will be with Jesus. The goats – well let’s just say that they won’t be so fortunate. It sounds a little harsh but the good news is that Jesus tells us exactly how we can be counted among the sheep. Those wishing to be on the right hand of the Son of Man will feed the hungry, give refreshment to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick and visit the prisoner. Those that fail to do so, either deliberately or unintentionally, will be counted among the goats. We should note that all these things are acts of kindness and mercy. There’s nothing in there about correct dogma or theology purity or holding the right opinions.
We are not told to assent to a twelve point belief system or possess a certain amount of biblical knowledge if we want to be a sheep. Instead we are to show mercy and compassion. Notice too that the text says that Son of Man is going to do the sorting. Not us. Jesus – the son of man – will do the judging. He is the one qualified. Anyone else is a pretender. Sadly that doesn’t stop us from putting ourselves in the judgement seat and deciding who is in and who is out. And unfortunately, we are far less compassionate and merciful than Jesus. His words a powerful reminder that the job is already taken and the criteria already set.
All this seems to suggest that maybe Jesus wasn’t so concerned with dogma and theological purity and was more concerned with compassionate living. If that is the case then we really have our priorities wrong in the modern church. Fortunately, this is something that Methodism gets right. We’ve never been a dogmatic church. We don’t require assent to creeds before you can join. No doctrinal statements to sign. This goes back to our founder John Wesley who focused on practical divinity instead of theological speculation. He was most concerned about how we can live a life transformed by God’s grace that bears fruit in our actions. I dug out my collection of John Wesley’s sermons and writings and came across a couple of gems that seemed to make this clear:
“Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences.” 
Beware you are not a fiery, persecuting enthusiast. … Never dream of forcing men into the ways of God. Think yourself, and let think. Use no constraint in matters of religion. Even those who are farthest out of the way, never compel to come in by any other means than reason, truth, and love. 
And then one of my favorites, “Do all the good you can, in all the ways you can, to all the souls you can, in every place you can, at all the times you can, with all the zeal you can, as long as ever you can.” 
For John Wesley, as with Jesus, the priority is on compassionate living rather than theological purity.
Now I am confident that in response to what I’ve just said, some would direct our attention to the concern for correct doctrine evident in the latter New Testament epistles. And it is true that they express a concern for correct teaching and sound doctrine – providing admonitions to cling to them, coupled with warnings to avoid false teachers. They knew, like we do, that not all ideas are created equal. Some are helpful to faith and some are destructive.
But before we can use them as a license to treat people however we want in the name of theological correctness, we need to remember that Jesus held compassion and love above such concerns. This was not lost on the writers of the latter NT epistles. 1 John 4:7 and following states, “7 Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love….10 In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” So before we say that some things are right and we have to stick by what is right no matter what, we need to remember that if God stuck by what was right none of us could stand before him in his presence. God’s mercy trumps his justice.
I am a pretty orthodox guy when it comes to church teaching and theology. I am a product of Duke Divinity School which prides itself on teaching sound theology so I am not saying that such things are unimportant. Dangerous beliefs can lead to hurtful actions. What I am saying is that a zeal for correct doctrine must be tempered by a regard for the way we treat the people around us and our ability to be in relationship with them. We have missed something important and essential to being a follower of Jesus if we hurt another person or act without compassion in the name of maintaining theological correctness. The end does not justify the means.
The goal of the church is not the enforcement of correct doctrine; it is to love each other and the world as Jesus would while we work for his Kingdom to come in its glory. If a cause or an ideology becomes more important than a person or people then we have missed something of Jesus.
That said, I’m not suggesting that holding hands and singing “Kumbaya” together will solve all our problems. Of course, honest disagreements will arise among people of faith and they need to be resolved – but not by shouting each other down or making those with whom we disagree foes to be vanquished. We are facing profound issues as local churches, denominations and as the worldwide Body of Christ and because God created us with minds that will reach different conclusion and hearts that will feel different feelings, we will necessarily reach different conclusions about how to solve these issues. However, we must remember that all of us love Christ and are loved by him. Each person is a child of god and possesses sacred worth. Rather we should engage them with compassion and take the more difficult path. But it will mean that we have to be more concerned with loving the other person than being correct.
1. Sermon 39 “Catholic Spirit” from the 1872 edition of Wesley’s Complete Works – Thomas Jackson, editor
2. From John Wesley – “The Nature of Enthusiasm” Sermons on Several Occasions (1771)
3. Statement commonly known as “John Wesley’s Rule”