When I first started in youth ministry, I struggled because I didn’t want my students to believe that God would love them more if they followed rules or lived pure lives. This was their default mindset about God; it’s what many of them had heard in church and in their homes their entire lives. But this is not what Jesus ever taught and is bad Christian theology.
I was also shocked by the demands placed on students in every area of their lives. I was less than a decade older than many of them, yet their reality seemed completely different than the one I had experienced as a teen. Later, this experience was helpfully framed by the work of Chap Clark, whose thesis is that today’s young people are facing historically high expectations with a historically low level of adult support. We didn’t want our ministry to be one more voice lost in the crowd of voices screaming at them every day, and we for sure didn’t want them to see God in that crowd.
So, I overcorrected in response to both of these realities, and the way I taught from the Bible asked very little of my students.
On the one hand, this overcorrection felt pastorally appropriate and was likely needed during this season of their lives. On the other hand, incomplete theology is never a helpful response to bad theology.
Which rules should we follow, and when?
It was around this time that my wife and I were living in a shared housing community with two other couples. One of the couples was a retired pastor and his wife. He had recently started a project of trying to take literally and seriously the teachings of Jesus and the early church, and he spent several months scouring the New Testament for commands and exhortations. He invited me on this journey with him, and I spent many weeks reading and underlining every command.
I didn’t even make it to the Epistles before I was completely overwhelmed. People who say that “the Old Testament is about rules and the New Testament is about grace” haven’t read the New Testament carefully. Jesus and the Apostles have no problem dishing out commands and exhortations left and right. Their teachings were and are clearly asking something of us.
I realized that I needed to strike a better balance between teaching our students that God loves them just as they are and also loves them too much to allow them to stay that way.
I wanted them to know that nothing in life worth having is easy or comes without a cost, and that you can’t follow Jesus without it costing you something. Just the same, you can’t read the Bible without it asking something of you.
So, what might it look like for the pendulum to stop swinging and for us to engage the Bible’s instructions and commands in a healthy and honest way?
More simply, how do we know which commands to obey or how to live out these teachings?
Jesus reframes the agenda
In Matthew 22:34-40 the Pharisees ask Jesus, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” By asking this question, they were trying to lead Jesus into a theological minefield. Many religious teachers during this time period had their own ranking of the 613 commandments. Prioritizing laws was helpful because some of the rules could be contradictory depending on the context. As you can imagine, there was much disagreement over the order in which the commandments should be prioritized.
Jesus responds by linking Deuteronomy 6:4 with Leviticus 19:18 as #1 and #2 of 613, which wouldn’t have been an uncommon response to this question. It also reveals Jesus’ theological agenda.
You might be thinking, “It’s so hard for me to imagine a world where well-intentioned religious people argue and debate the meaning of the Bible and what obedience looks like.” Of course, I am being sarcastic. Differing interpretations have been around as long as Scripture, and there has never been a shortage of passionate people willing to jump into the conversation to debate these interpretations. Questions about specific traditions, denominations, and interpretations; the difference between timeless and temporal truths; and what faithfulness in your life looks like; these are age-old questions that can't be answered briefly here.
However, what we can acknowledge is that most often at the heart of these questions and debates resides a deep love for God and the Bible and a genuine desire to live faithful and obedient lives. In Acts 15:28 we read that even when engaging in an important and heated debate, the early church crafted their conclusion with the opening line, “It seemed good to us and to the Holy Spirit.” This posture requires significant humility and the recognition that the work of interpretation isn’t a prelude to obedience, but is actually part ofour obedience. Moses, Deborah, Mary, Jesus, Paul, and the early church participated in this sort of process, and so do we, whether we realize it or not. We are all part of a much larger conversation about how we read the Bible and put it into practice.
I have friends who love Jesus, and who have wholeheartedly devoted their lives to following all 613 commandments of the Torah.
I have friends who love Jesus and spend all of their time and energy emphasizing radical obedience to the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7.
One of my mentors, who loved Jesus more than anyone I know, consistently boiled everything in life down to “the Greatest Commandment” (Matthew 22:34-40). He believed that loving God and loving our neighbor was all that God specifically asks of us.
I have heard many other people say things like:
“A disciplined life is a godly life.”
“Our level of obedience displays our level of gratitude.”
“Our faithfulness to God is measured by our willingness to live righteous lives.”
Regardless of your tradition or how you hammer out the specifics, I am convinced that the Bible is asking something of you.
And it is asking something of our students as well.
Four questions to help students consider what the Bible is asking of them
Perhaps the best way to read the rules within the Bible is to allow the rules to move beyond reading our behaviorto reading our hearts.
I’ve often found in ministry that students fixate on the specifics of an obscure command or an adult’s rigid interpretation of it, which stirs in them a sense of rebellion. But if we can help them zoom out, their curiosity is usually provoked. In this process, the commands of the Bible become less of an external voice of judgment, and more of an internal voice of invitation for the students to consider who they really are and how these commands can shape who God might be calling them to be.
Here are four questions we can use with students to help get at what the Bible is asking of us and what sort of trajectory our lives are on as followers of Jesus.
- What kind of person are you today?
- How is that any different than if you weren’t following Jesus? [What kind of person are you today compared to who you used to be?]
- What kind of person is God asking you to become? [What is the trajectory of your story?]
- What role might you play in helping this community become the kind of community God is calling us to be together? [How does the trajectory of your story impact those around you?]
In our ministry, these questions became important companions for us as we read the Bible, and they began to work toward creating a culture among our volunteers and students where we not only took reading the Bible seriously, but also were saying, “We will read and we will obey.”
This transformation has less to do with “trying harder” or “getting all the rules right,” and more with having a heart that is willing to be transformed. This sort of heart moves us in the right direction on the path of growth, and takes us into another way to read the Bible. It is not just a book to be read; it is a book of commands to be obeyed.
Adapted from chapter 2 of How We Read the Bible: 8 Ways to Engage the Bible with our Students
If you’re not familiar with the phrase “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” I highly recommend reading Kenda Creasy Dean’s Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church.
Dr. Chap Clark’s Hurt 2.0: Inside the World of Today’s Teenagers completely changed how I practice youth ministry.
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