The popular Christian imperative WWJD (What Would Jesus Do) is based on a 19th century book by Charles M. Sheldon, In His Steps. The book is actually the story about a preacher who challenges members of his congregation to ask themselves the question about what Jesus would do before taking actions in various situations. Given that limited scope, such an exercise is a worthy endeavor. Unfortunately, like many movements that begin with legitimate motivations, they eventually take on a life of their own, gathering the baggage of unintended consequences.
In the Gospels, Jesus was asked about the greatest commandment, which he said was two-fold. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. All the law and prophetic teaching were summarized in these two edicts. But Jesus did not claim that these two commandments superseded the moral law, rather, he inferred that observing these two commandments faithfully, embodied all the moral requirements.
Today, “Love your neighbor” has become the mantra that implies we ought to support and affirm anyone in their quest for personal autonomy, giving our imprimatur to their behaviors regardless of what they are. Pious platitudes promoting personal preferences.
Any parent who “loved their Children’ by allowing them to do whatever they desired would be guilty of child abuse. In the best case scenario, they would have raised a spoiled child unprepared for a world in which they often don’t get their own way. At worst, they would have created a monstrous sociopath who is devoid of empathy.
When activities and behaviors that have been contrary to the created order since ancient Israel was a nation suddenly become championed by people holding WWJD placards, something is terribly dysfunctional.
In the Bible, Jesus forgives a woman caught in adultery, sending her on her way with the admonition "Go and sin no more.” Of course today, everyone talks about the need for love and forgiveness, but there is no repentance and people are offended by the very notion that anything was done for which forgiveness is required.
Jesus certainly welcomed tax collectors and prostitutes in his time. But they were contrite and never had to be told what they were doing was wrong. The tax collectors stopped cheating people and the prostitutes no longer plied their trade. They changed their behaviors because their hearts were melted by Jesus’ love and concern for them. In no sense did Jesus ever affirm them in their wrong behaviors.
Too often the WWJD theme is abused and distorted to morph Christianity into humanism garrisoned under a religious banner.
A second part of this rickety scaffolding is built on the phrase “Jesus never said…”
In the Gospels, Jesus addresses Roman occupied Israel existing for centuries under the moral convictions of Mosaic law, thus Jesus primarily addresses moral infractions by the Pharisees, who in keeping the letter of the law strayed from the spirit of the law. In the Epistles, Paul chiefly addresses Gentile converts to Christianity, who are steeped in pagan practices of Greco-Roman culture, thus requiring significant doctrinal and moral correction. This explains why “Jesus never said anything about…” on a host of moral issues, whereas Paul spoke of a desisting from a variety of offenses. Ancient Israel would never have needed reminding about moral requirements that were for centuries codified in their social order.
“Red-Letter Christians” emphasize the red print in the Gospels to amplify social justice themes while deemphasizing the moral instruction found in the Pauline epistles. This is an illicit gambit, essentially pitting Jesus against Paul, because it fails to recognize that different audiences are being addressed in the two different portions of scripture. The idea that Paul’s revelation is subordinate to Jesus’ teaching is not a valid interpretive principle and was never a historically normative position.
People who identify with this sort of thinking also display an interesting dichotomy when it comes to Christian influence in government. On the one hand, they insist that the First Amendment forbids Christian moral precepts from influencing social policies, despite an abundance of contrary historical evidence. Then in the next breath they are impugning the legislature or some public official for advocating economic policies inconsistent with the Sermon on the Mount. In one case they want separation between God and government. In the next case they fail to recognize the jurisdictional and functional differences between the institutions of church and state. This disconnection was epitomized in a bumper sticker I saw during the Iraq war that asked, “Who would Jesus Bomb?” The assumption was that any president identifying himself as a Christian is guilty of hypocrisy if not governing as an unqualified pacifist.
Unfortunately, for the WWJD movement, it has become customary to take one facet of the character of Christ and amplify it as though it reflected the totality of Christ, when it actually presents a false, truncated Christ. If one carefully studies the Gospel accounts depicting the ministry of Jesus Christ, they will see contrasting elements. He was humble and he was bold. He was encouraging, yet critical. He was mild, yet sometimes harsh. He healed the sick while allowing a friend to die of illness. He championed the plight of the poor, yet used a parable where a servant exercising poor stewardship had his stipend taken away and given to a wealthier servant. On one occasion, Jesus told his followers to buy a sword if they lacked it, but later chastised the Apostle Peter for using a sword in defense against those trying to seize Jesus himself. The remarkable aspect of these observations is that Jesus always exhibited the correct response at the appropriate time.
If we are going to be thorough in asking the question WWJD, it is important to remember, Jesus didn’t just give everyone a pat on the back. Jesus spoke of eternal punishment more than any biblical figure. Christian eschatology teaches that the next time Jesus returns to the earth, it isn’t as a sacrifice, but rather in judgment.