TobyMac and Luke’s and John’s Churchy Jesus

A disclaimer is in order: First, I don’t think TobyMac is the Antichrist, a member of the Illuminati, or guilty of any other nefarious associations or behavior, and I think it is clearly helpful to the Christian movement worldwide that he won the Best Contemporary Christian Album at this year’s Grammy Awards.  I also find many of his lyrics to be on target spiritually.

 I must, however, take umbrage at one of his comments that shows up in interviews and was quoted in an article cited in Huffington Post.  I am referring to an article entitled “Christian Music Bounces Back With TobyMac, Chris Tomlin, Lecrae And More.”  According to this article, “Jesus didn’t hang out in the church,” the artist [TobyMac] said. “He hung out with the people, where they were. And that’s to me where Christian music should be.”  Since everyone knows there was no Christian church in existence in the days of Jesus’ earthly ministry, this statement is designed for its rhetorical impact, rather than its historical accuracy.  Sometimes, though, rhetorical statements have a life of their own, and hearers forget the limitations of rhetoric.  More probably the rhetoric of this statement was meant to emphasize the viewpoint that Jesus did not spend time associating with religious/Jewish organizations or hanging out in Jewish meeting places or chillaxing with the officialdom of Jewish religion.  A fact-check of this viewpoint led me to conclude that it did not represent the whole story of Jesus.

This anti-institutional view of Jesus has a long history, but it stands in stark contrast to the picture of Jesus given us by the major writer of the New Testament, Luke, and also by John the prophet.  Let’s look at a few facts.  There was a very small nucleus of Jewish people for whom God pulled back the curtain to allow them to see and understand the historic and spiritual realities associated with the nativity story.  This nucleus found in the birth narratives of Luke 1-2 includes:

1.  the priest and temple functionary, Zechariah, and his wife Elizabeth

2.  Simeon who was guided by the Holy Spirit into the Jewish Temple (the epicenter of Jewish officialdom and pious folk) rather than into a local tavern to encounter there Mary, Joseph, and Jesus

3.  and, finally, the prophetess Anna who would have only left the Temple if she were dragged out screaming and kicking (Lk. 2:37, “She never left the temple.”)

There were of course Jesus’ parents who had to be from the line of David and could not be priestly, but who seemingly went to the Temple at every ordained time.  It seems that none of those chosen by God to be insiders into the miracle of Jesus’ birth felt compromised or dragged down by “hanging out in church” in their own day.

Then, of course, there is the 12 year old Jesus (Lk. 2:41-48), who had clearly broken away from the typical obedient child model and who began to establish his own spiritual identity.  To establish his identity and mission early on, he chose to go to the center of Jewish formality and regulations. Since Jesus chose to be at the Temple discussing theology with Jewish teachers and theologians at the age of 12, he was about as churchy as a Jewish boy could be.  When the frustrated parents of Jesus finally discovered him and questioned him about his behavior he replied (Lk. 2:49, The Message), “Didn’t you know that I had to be here, dealing with the things of my Father?”  It would be difficult to construe this response into an anti-institutional statement by Jesus; in fact, it shows Jesus’ preference for hanging out at “Jewish church!”  The words recorded next in Scripture preserve the response of Jesus’ mom and dad, but they also could have come right out of the mouths of many modern Christians who have been persuaded by the hip/hop-pop picture of Jesus, “But they had no idea what he was talking about” (Lk. 2:50, The Message).

To be sure, the validity of Christian ministry is determined by the authenticity of its message and accompanying lifestyle and not by its location.  Bars and brothels are certainly within the purview of modern Christian ministry, but we need to be clear that this was not the fundamental approach used by Jesus.  Most of Jesus’ time was spent in synagogues, in travel through the Jewish countryside, and in Jewish homes.  It does not seem to have been an erratic choice when Jesus decided to give his inaugural teachings in synagogues (Lk. 4:14-15).  There were inns and taverns in the Roman world and apparently in the social knowledge of Jesus’ audiences (Lk. 10:34-35), but based upon the historical record preserved in the Gospels, it does not seem possible to place Jesus in them for the purpose of reconstructing his public ministry.  Moreover, many of the “outcasts” and “sinners” that Jesus encountered were in fact Jewish.  For example, we might remember Zacchaeus regarded as the “chief tax collector” and known by the crowd in Luke 19 as “one who is a sinner.”  Even though Zacchaeus was a tax collector and sinner, according to Jesus, Zacchaeus was “a son of Abraham” (Lk. 19:9).  From a Lukan theological perspective, this spiritual reclamation of Zacchaeus, the back-sliding “son of Abraham,” is seen as a clear  manifestation of Jesus’ missional identity as the “Son of Man who came to seek out and to save the lost” (Lk. 19:10).

For sake of space, let me encourage you to read through Luke’s second volume, Acts, to see whether most of the gentile converts came from religious settings and religious buildings or from the bars and brothels of the Roman world.  When Paul (if I may leave Acts of the Apostles for a moment) refers to saints in Corinth as former “fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, and robbers” (1 Cor. 6:9-10), there is no reason to exclude these converts out of paganism from the “outsiders or unbelievers” that would have heard the truth of God when they attended the church’s worship services in Corinth (1 Cor. 14:23-25).

Now let’s turn to Revelation.  Admittedly John is not concerned primarily with evangelism and outreach, but his view of Christ, believers, and the church seems to have a different flavor than the idea that “Jesus didn’t hang out in the church.”  In the mind of some, the statement that “Jesus didn’t hang out in the church” might leave the impression that one could love Jesus and ignore the church, for example.  That outlook would strike John as unacceptable, based upon what Jesus told him in the beginning of the book of Revelation.  For the seven congregations in Revelation the defining picture of Jesus was not, as many might expect, the sacrificial Lamb of God (which does not show up until chapter 5:6), but instead the Son of Man.  John’s message for his contemporary Christians did not focus on Jesus on the clouds (Rev. 1:7), contrary to the belief of some fundamentalist millenarians and evangelicals.  Rather, for the Christians of his own day, John the prophet’s focus was upon Jesus “in the midst of the lampstands” (Rev. 1:13), the very lampstands Jesus himself identifies as the seven churches to whom John wrote (Rev. 1:20).  For John the prophet, the Enthroned Christ lives and moves among the congregations of God.  As I noted in my commentary, (Seven Congregations in a Roman Crucible. A Commentary on Revelation 1-3, p. 89),

From first to last the Christ of Revelation is an ecclesiastical Jesus, a Jesus for the congregations of God. Whether seen under the rubric of the 144,000 sealed on their foreheads, or the Bride of the Lamb, or the city he loves, or the great multitude that no one can count, or the saints, or the witnesses of Jesus, or the New Jerusalem, the Jesus Christ that John knows and proclaims is one for the collective people of God, the congregations of Roman Asia. The prophet John’s identity is inseparably linked with congregations (ekklēsiai, ἐκκλησίαι, 1:4); the identity of Jesus is inseparably linked with seven congregations (epta ekklēsiai, ἑπτὰ ἐκκλησίαι, 1:11); and the significance of the book of Revelation is inseparably linked with congregations, “It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches” (epi tais ekklēsiais, ἐπὶ ταῖς ἐκκλησίαις, 22:16).

We contemporary believers just might need to reconsider whether we want to recapture apostolic belief by acknowledging and confessing “that Jesus is not a parachurch Messiah” (p. 89), but a churchy Jesus, notwithstanding all the abuses and heresies propagated by his ostensible followers, both past and present.  It cannot be doubted that Jesus of Nazareth, Luke, and John the prophet all knew very well the abuses and unspeakable atrocities engendered by God’s people over the centuries, but it never seemed a viable spiritual choice for them to dishonor God in response to the lamentable behavior of his people.

Now, go and watch the official music video for TobyMac’s “Eye on It.”

14 thoughts on “TobyMac and Luke’s and John’s Churchy Jesus

  1. This is even more excellent than usual! I am glad you addressed this issue, as it seems to be popping up more recently.

  2. I agree that TobyMac, and others with a similar rhetoric, word this poorly. I think the point he means to make, or at least the one I would make, is that Jesus is well known for being around people and places of dubious purity in the minds of the Pharisees. The Pharisees often take umbrage with the folks that are milling around Jesus and disapprove of various practices he (or at least his disciples) has vis-a-vis Levitical purity. He enters homes he should not enter. Jesus seems utterly unconcerned with the rumors that fly around him, including the one that he was a drunk and a glutton.

    I think this emphasis is important, because many Christians (particularly ministers) struggle to have relationships outside of the church walls. I know for me, after 8 years of theological education (with wonderful professors like Dr. Oster) I was completely unequipped to engage with the non-Christian world. Its the dreaded “church bubble.” Far too often ministers see themselves (consciously or not) as cruise activity directors on the good ship Christendom. Many of the folks in our pews are almost scared of non-Christians. If the youth minister and his wife actually were good friends with some prostitutes, wouldn’t that really freak people out?

    I think that we have to guard against anti-ecclesiastical thought in the church. That said, I think our problem in practice is the opposite. We far too often label lost people with some sort of neo-Christian-impurity and as a result aren’t engaged with the lost for fear of spooking the 99. I’m guessing our prostitute to Pharisee friend ratio looks different than that of Jesus. I would hope that is what TobyMac might mean, even if he expressed it poorly.

    1. Caleb, Thanks for your comments, reflections, and insights. I know Jesus had a good sense of his roots in the historical people of God, but I am not sure that is always the case in the broad Christian world today. It seems that more and more is being done by para-church rather than church, and there are some significant consequences arising from that, perhaps not always intended consequences. From one perspective organized Christianity deserves all the grief and desertion it has experienced in the past 40 years or so, but God’s vision for his people is suffering tremendously.

      I personally feel much more comfortable with TobyMac’s statements from the perspective of soteriology than from ecclesiology [Eph. 3:10; I imagine TobyMac would not have a clue about what I just said 🙂 ]

  3. Dr. Oster, this is one of the best posts on your blog so far. I do agree with what Caleb is saying, too. TobyMac’s point was poorly made. The church needs to be the people who are doing the type of “hanging out with the people” he and Caleb both describe. Both church and lost, not either or.

  4. [I’m still trying to come to grips with the fact that Dr. Oster wrote “chillaxing” in a blog post. It’s just so… relevant. ;)]

    Good post here. As is the case in many things, some like to throw the baby out with the bathwater and it becomes it’s own animal. Like this: Upset at Pharisaic and “bubble” mindset at church (i.e. the institution)? Well Jesus was not Pharisaic and he did live His life outside the “bubble” in a way – so that must mean Jesus does not like institutions. Except, as this post showed, that isn’t true. It’s a non-sequitur.

    So this is where we teachers and preachers and all disciples note the valid issues inside the Body and address them in love. Instead of taking the “escapism” route and defend it with logical and unbiblical fallacies, we go to the Scriptures and reform from within through our teaching and our own lives. Come what may. To God be the glory.

  5. Wow I’ve learned a number of things here. 1) The importance of the community of faith 2) Dr Oster quoted from The Message and 3) and knows Toby! 🙂 I would point out that in the Gospel of John, Jesus is portrayed as one who attends frequently the historic religious festivals of the Jews. He was completely integrated into the communal life of Israel.

  6. I couldn’t find the orginal artice on what Toby Mac said, so I can’t be sure on this question I am going to ask, but wouldn’t it appear that Toby was just stating that Christians need to do more then fill a pew?

  7. Absolutely a great post! You cut to the chase and help us all re-vision what church is supposed to be and as ministers what we are supposed to be. Thanks.

    Also, thanks overcoming all the obstacles and seeing your way through to publish your new book. I just ordered mine (through your Amazon link, of course) and am eager to receive it. Blessings.

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