What Does It Mean to Be a Follower of Jesus?
(A Vision for the Kind of Christianity I Could Identify With)


Christianity is named for the fact that its adherents claim to be followers of Jesus, whom they call the “Christ,” which literally means the messiah or “anointed one,” a term that signifies divine appointment to the status of leader or ruler or lord. So whatever else the Christian religion might be argued to entail, the one thing that it absolutely must include almost by definition is some concept of following Jesus. But what exactly does it mean, practically speaking, to be a follower of Jesus? After all, it’s not as though we can literally follow him around from town to town as a Jewish student would his rabbi or teacher, which is what Jesus was requesting of his original disciples when he asked them to follow him. So what is the most appropriate way to translate this notion of following Jesus into our own time? In this essay I present a progression of three possible answers to this question. While many variations on these broad answers could be discussed, I think this covers the spectrum well enough to show where I fit and why.

First Possible Answer: Believing in His Deity

The first possible answer, the one many traditional Christians would give, is that to be a follower of Jesus in our day means first and foremost to believe what orthodox Christianity came to assert about him, namely that he was (and is) God himself in human flesh. The important thing in this view is to acknowledge that Jesus rightfully has all power and authority in virtue of his deity, because only in acknowledging this are we truly believing in him as we should and accepting our proper place of absolute willing subjection to him, thus becoming his followers.

A common argument for this view is the so-called “Liar, Lunatic, or Lord” trilemma popularized by C. S. Lewis. It is irrational, Lewis thought, to consider Jesus a good person and a legitimate teacher without also believing in his deity, because nobody could have claimed divine status like Jesus did unless he were either a liar, a lunatic, or the Lord God himself in human flesh. The problem is that it is not at all clear that Jesus really ever claimed to have this divine status, however. Nothing Jesus is reported to have said in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) clearly sounds like such a claim. Virtually all of the purported examples of the claim are somewhat veiled and come from the gospel of John. But most scholars hold, for good reason in my opinion, that this gospel was written by later Christians rather than the original disciple named John, and that most of its dialogue is not a historical memory of the actual words of Jesus but rather a theologically-based fictional reconstruction even when based on real events. This does not mean the authors of John were being deceptive, any more than the screenwriter of a historical movie about someone like Mahatma Gandhi or Abraham Lincoln should be accused of being deceptive. We understand that most of the dialogue in such a movie would naturally have to be a fictional reconstruction even though based on real events, and it would be colored by the screenwriter’s personal assessment of the significance of his subject.

A more historically defensible (though still quite questionable) position is the idea that Jesus at least claimed to be God’s messiah even if he never claimed to be God himself. Precisely what such a claim would have meant in that day is open to debate, but at minimum it would have involved the notion that Jesus was chosen by God to become leader over the nation of Israel and rescue it from its problems. To be a loyal follower of Jesus would therefore involve acknowledging his authority as a future ruler appointed by God. The advantage of this view is that while it is debatable whether or not Jesus’ original disciples ever came to consider him God incarnate, it is fairly clear that they at least came to consider him God’s chosen messiah, and they might possibly have come to this conclusion even during his own lifetime on the basis of his own claims.

But does it really matter in a practical sense whether or not we share those original disciples’ conclusions about what Jesus’ role as messiah would involve for the future? What implications for our behavior today follow from the belief or disbelief that Jesus will one day reign as God’s chosen ruler or messiah? Even if we believe this process has already begun, as most Christians hold, meaning that Jesus is already actively “ruling” from heaven in some sense today, it’s not as though he is currently issuing commands that we can obey or not. The only way to “obey” his rule today is to follow the instructions he gave when he lived and taught in Israel. So practically speaking, this first answer to what it means to be a follower of Jesus really comes down to looking very much like the second possible answer, to which we now turn.

Second Possible Answer: Obeying His Teaching

The second possible answer is that the true essence of following Jesus involves regarding his recorded teaching as our absolute moral authority, whatever we might believe about his deity or his role as messiah. Believing in Jesus, some might hold, is being committed to the aim of obeying whatever he said about any particular moral issue. We base all of our assessments of right and wrong on his opinion, without questioning or disagreeing. His teaching is our law.

One problem with this position is that there is good reason to be skeptical of the idea that we have the actual words of Jesus recorded in the gospels. The synoptic gospels are almost certainly more historical than the gospel of John, but even the earliest of them (Mark) was probably not written until at least 30 to 40 years after Jesus’ death, and not by an eyewitness. We sometimes remember the gist of things we heard 30 or 40 years ago, but such recollections can hardly be expected to be word-for-word accurate, especially when related second-hand.

While conservative evangelical Christians often insist that the teachings of Jesus recorded in the gospels are absolutely accurate in spite of this argument, having this fundamentalist view of the Bible can hardly be thought of as a necessary prerequisite for following Jesus. Furthermore, in practice even conservative Christians recognize the need to make allowances. A case in point is where Jesus is reported to have said it is a sin to marry a divorced woman (Matt. 5:32, Luke 16:18). Although no exceptions were given, very few Christians would insist on treating this statement as an absolute moral law. We might plausibly argue instead that taking this statement at face value misrepresents Jesus’ true intent, perhaps because Jesus was speaking hyperbolically or intended his remark only to apply in certain situations, such as when a man tempts a woman to get a divorce from her current husband so she can marry him instead. We can legitimately hope, at least, that this was more clear in the original context of Jesus’ teaching.

What this shows is how general and unspecific the theory that Jesus’ teaching is our absolute law really amounts to being in practice. There are not many instances in the gospels where Jesus issued pronouncements on very specific moral issues to begin with, and even when he did, his pronouncements can always be seen as open to interpretation as the above example illustrates. So if we want to base our moral opinions on the authority of Jesus, it looks like we will have to be content with the basic core or essence of his moral teaching rather than with a detailed list of specific pronouncements.

What was the basic core or essence of Jesus’ moral teaching? It was really nothing revolutionary. He simply agreed with the most respected Jewish teachers of his time that we should love God and love our neighbors. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Jesus regarded this “Golden Rule” as the core message of the law and prophets (Matt. 7:12), and he wasn’t afraid to criticize the parts of the law that seemed inconsistent with that core message (e.g., Matt. 5:38). He didn’t just pay lip service to the Golden Rule; he gave it serious thought and tried to work out its practical implications. For example, it means love even your enemies. Don’t hate. Don’t take revenge. Be generous, not greedy. Be faithful, not lustful. Be honest, not a hypocrite. Don’t judge others by standards that you wouldn’t want to be judged by yourself. Don’t focus on the speck-sized faults in others as you ignore the log-sized faults in yourself. Many other implications can similarly be drawn but are usually not, especially by those who take pride in their righteousness because of their strict adherence to religious rules. Jesus was an expert at pricking the consciences of such people in a memorable way, sometimes in the form of poignant parables like the Good Samaritan, the religious heretic who proved by his caring attitude toward strangers to be more righteous than the spokespersons of orthodoxy were.

I would hope everyone could agree that this core essence of Jesus’ teaching is a good standard to live by, of course, even though probably none of us do it as well as we’d like to think. But we don’t have to call Jesus our absolute moral authority in order to recognize the goodness of this basic principle and to see that he had a knack for drawing out its implications in a masterful way. Practically speaking, holding that Jesus’ every word is our absolute law can’t be a requirement for being his followers in this sense, because that belief is not what will make a significant impact on how we live. The significant impact comes simply from sharing Jesus’ basic commitment to thinking out the implications of the Golden Rule. And this brings us to the third possible answer to what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

Third Possible Answer: Building on His Program

We have seen that following Jesus in a practical sense today starts with the aim to live by the principle of the Golden Rule. This is what it really comes down to in terms of our behavior even if in terms of our dogma we start with the more traditional view that we must acknowledge his deity or his absolute authority. The Golden Rule is admittedly a very general principle, but it is hard to find any more specific precept to live by that following Jesus necessarily involves. But can we say anything further about what it might mean to be a follower of Jesus in a practical way?

The third possible answer to the question is that there is something more to be said, and this involves drawing inspiration from Jesus’ attitude, especially inspiration to build on the program of radical reformation he set in motion by his approach. The story of Jesus is not that he taught any fundamentally new ideas we need to believe. It is rather that he took the basic ideas of love for God and neighbor so seriously that he was able to see beyond the culture and religion of his day. He dared to tell people they need not worry about what the priests and rabbis said. In a time when serious physical maladies were assumed to be evidence of God’s punishment for sin, he assured the sufferers that their sins were forgiven, not on the basis of their orthodox beliefs but simply on the authority of his own supremely confident trust in the loving character of God. He called everyone else, including Gentiles and Samaritans, to also exercise this same attitude of faith and trust in God’s love for all people, and that was enough; he didn’t ask them to convert to Judaism. He sometimes warned people they were heading the wrong way if they were living for self instead of for God and for one another, but his criticism was always on the basis of how their behavior affected others, not on a strict application of the laws of his Jewish religion. Nor did he let those laws of his religion stop him from doing good, whether by touching lepers or helping people on the Sabbath. Nor did he fear what others might think of him, not even the chief priests who condemned him to death as a heretic and false messiah. All this seems to be what the gospel writers’ sources remembered of his attitude and approach, at any rate, even if there are reasons to doubt the strict historicity of particular incidents.

The first generation of Christians built on this program by showing a radical willingness to reform their religion within the guidelines of Jesus’ core principles. Their confidence was based on their conviction that God had exalted Jesus after his death, showing that Jesus was completely approved by God even though he was considered an evil blasphemer by the religious leaders. In consequence, these first Christians soon left behind their long-established sense of Jewish privilege and started associating with Gentiles. This was not an easy transition. Many at first insisted that the Gentile converts had to be circumcised and taught to keep the Jewish law. But through the efforts of Paul and others, the early Christian church came to the decision that this would not be required. Paul argued that the Jewish religion looked forward all along to a blessed day when righteousness would come to the whole world so that the law would no longer be necessary, and he said this pointed to Jesus because following Jesus was bringing it to pass, at least in an initial way. (See especially Galatians 3 for Paul’s flow of thought on this.) The other New Testament authors adopted the same basic position. Their bold program of reinterpreting the Jewish scriptures to make them support Christianity was not always faithful to the original meaning. We realize today that many of the passages they claimed Jesus “fulfilled” were not originally intended to be about a future messiah at all, for example. But although this program was based on many false assumptions, it nevertheless built on the attitude and approach of Jesus in the sense that it saw beyond the legalism and exclusivism of the Jewish scriptures and refused to let those features of the old religion stand in its way.

Most conservative evangelical Christians would completely disagree with this assessment, of course. They hold that Jesus and the apostles had the highest possible view of the Jewish scriptures, and also that God revealed to them the correct interpretation of these scriptures to base their opinion on. But although it is true that Jesus probably assumed the scriptures to be more accurate than many of us can accept today with the wealth of contrary evidence now at our disposal, I think their role in his thinking was nevertheless comparatively minor. I see Jesus as regularly subordinating the “letter of the law” of scripture to a thoughtful application of the higher standard of the Golden Rule. Furthermore, I see no evidence that the original disciples of Jesus instructed their converts to adopt a rigid acceptance of everything in the Old Testament or expected them to put together a New Testament to infallibly supplement it. These ideas were foreign to the first Christians. Such structures and dogmas that came about later in the Christian religion therefore cannot reasonably be advanced as the essence of what Jesus’ program (and that of his first followers) was originally all about.

I think the program of the original Christian movement, building on the approach of Jesus, was much more about seeing beyond and removing the existing structures and dogmas of religion than about erecting new ones. The apostles did adopt new beliefs, to be sure, including primarily the idea that Jesus was risen from the dead and was therefore God’s chosen representative or messiah or lord to be followed. But their proclamation of Jesus was not in essence a list of new doctrines people had to adopt in order to be Christians. Jesus rather functioned for them as God’s vehicle to lead people out of their traditional ways and into the freedom of simple trust in God in solidarity with him. His example emboldened them to say here is a new attitude and approach to life that God approves, so he must not require all that old baggage we previously assumed. This means it doesn’t matter what the Jewish religious leaders say we need to do or believe; it doesn’t really even matter what Moses said or believed; the example of Jesus shows that all we really need is to trust in God’s goodness and love for all people and let that faith work itself out into the loving, good actions that it naturally produces. In this way it gave the apostles the confidence to go against their own religion where necessary and reform it into something that was more purely based on the principle of loving God and one another. This is how they built on the program of Jesus and considered themselves his followers.

How does this translate to today? I think it means we should similarly be emboldened to say it doesn’t matter what Christian and other religious leaders say we are to do or believe; it doesn’t really even matter what the original apostles said or believed; all we really need is to trust in God’s goodness and love for all people and let that faith work itself out into the loving, good actions that it naturally produces. This should give us the confidence to go against our religion where necessary and reform it into something that is more purely based on the principle of loving God and one another. This is how we can build on the program of Jesus and his apostles. This is what it means to follow Jesus.

As someone who is skeptical of most of the dogmas of traditional Christianity, including its conception of who Jesus was as discussed in the first answer to the question of this essay, I have no desire to be called a Christian in the traditional sense of the word. But when being a Christian or a follower of Jesus is conceived of as living by the Golden Rule and trying to build on the program set in motion by Jesus’ fearless attitude and reformist approach as discussed in this third answer, I’m all for it. I’ll take being a follower of Jesus in this sense.

This page copyright © 2014 Edward A. Morris.  Created September 7, 2014.  Last updated September 8, 2014.

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