Followers of the Way

In the first century, Christians were called followers of the “the way”. Now whether this is a play on Jesus’ words that “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” I am not sure. What catches my eye in this phrase is the fact they were not known by their beliefs as much as their practice. They were “followers” of “the way”. This implies several things to me that I think are worth exploring in our day.

Christianity as a verb

The first thing that jumps out at me in this phrase is that Christians were known then (and now) by what they do more than by what they say. I think people of all times have understood the disconnect between what people say and what they do. Wisdom has always tested a person’s words by their actions and not the other way around. I suspect this phrase found it’s way into the scripture not just because it was a phrase that was in use, but also because these early believers took it as an unintended compliment of sorts. The story is often told how the term “Christian” was initially intended as a slur. But adopted by the believers themselves because they were honored to be recognized by the unbelieving world as little Christs.

It is all too common today to hear slander of the opposite sort. People saying they have no problem with Jesus it is Christians they hate. Now I know that most of these critics are so logically incoherent in their critiques that it is dangerous to take them too seriously. Nevertheless I find the contemporary church making one of two big mistakes far too often.

1. Following feeling over scripture and reason.

This is I think both a response to, and the fruit of, the current cultural lie that faith and reason are two completely unrelated things. Making people feel that they are forced to choose just one of them. And in light of such a choice believers often feel that they must obviously choose faith and therefore abandon reason. This seemingly small mistake has some pretty terrible children however. For example, without a strong connection to the scriptures through our Holy Spirit guided reason we have no metric with which to judge our feelings or more importantly, our actions. Leaving us in many cases with a “build your own adventure” style of Christianity that has little in common with true historical, biblical, Christianity.

So instead of being “followers of the Way” these believers are really followers of the feeling. And feelings can be brought about by a very many things, of which only one is the truth revealed by the Holy Spirit. And without the guidance of the Holy Spirit through scripture, history, reason, theology, and accountability to the body of Christ we have no way of judging the true from the false. However, to the one sold out to using feelings as the ultimate method of determining truth from error, another darker error begins to rear its ugly head. That is the feeling that those who disagree simply lack the same depth of experience in God. Therefore those that disagree simply do not understand. Since those that question are clearly living what is essentially a lower, less spiritual kind of existence. Those that disagree are seen as those that lack spiritual experience. Or worse yet, that they have possibly resisted the Spirit (who manifests himself in the kind of spiritual experiences they value). Truth becomes a secondary concern.

The end result? Spiritual pride.

2. Following reason over all

This is a response to current thinking as well. I think this approach is an effort to engage the unbelieving world and to free themselves from the capricious nature of feelings, which is admirable. However, in the process, they have often overlooked what I believe is the believers ultimate and possibly only weapon against unbelief, the Holy Spirit. 1John 16:7 Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. 8 And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: 9 concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; 10 concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; 11 concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.
John 7:17 If anyone’s will is to do God’s will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority.
John 15:26 “But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me. (ESV)

Our reason warped by sin is incapable by itself of finding its way back to God. Anyone that has tried to reason with an unbeliever knows that reason is quickly abandoned by anyone that refuses to submit to the witness of the Holy Spirit.

There are much darker consequences than ineffectiveness with this view however. This view quickly deceives one into believing that correctness of thought is the way of salvation. That achieving perfect doctrine is the way of Jesus. Even a quick read of the New Testament shows these ideas to be not only wrong but dangerously wrong. The pride that follows hard on the heels of this sort of thinking begins to slowly and perniciously shift a person’s reliance away from the all-sufficiency of Christ to our own abilities and efforts to discern the correct theology or philosophy of life. The door to heaven starts to look more and more like the door to the university. Evangelism becomes discourse and debate. Love is subordinated to truth, as if that is possible. And “rightness” is, in practice at least, too often held in higher esteem than the unmerited righteousness of Christ.

The end result? Pride.

The humility of following

Whether we value our experiences above all, or our intellect above all, we make the same mistake. We are trusting ourselves, our faculties, our experiences, our feelings, our understanding, rather than trusting Jesus and just following his instruction and example as we go. Trusting that love and truth, when acted on, will provide us with both the correct feelings and the correct thinking. But this is not a puzzle for us to solve, it is one that has already been solved by Jesus. When we walk in this way, each act of obedience is a statement of our eternal dependence on Jesus. Each act of love and service to others is our testimony that Jesus can be trusted and therefore followed and obeyed. We can give freely in faith, because we are safe in Jesus and already have all that we will ever need.

This kind of lifestyle will be noticed, just as it was in the first century. We will be increasingly seen, not as teachers of the truth, but as followers of the truth. Followers of the way. Which is what I believe to be the proper context for understanding the words of Jesus to his disciples when he warned them not to be teachers.2Matt 23:8 But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. 9And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. 10 Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. 11The greatest among you shall be your servant. 12Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. (ESV)

Doing something, will always be more powerful than saying something. And what we are to do is follow Jesus. In this sense he is collectively our only teacher.

The persuasive nature of following

When we approach the way of Jesus as a follower and not a teacher, I think we will become far more persuasive to the unbelieving world. Why? Because, we are not functioning in a loud, obnoxious, often inconsistent, and declarative fashion. But rather, we are simply following hard after the way of Christ. Inconsistencies in our behavior will then reflect more on our failure to follow the way, than any failure of the way itself.

If we present the gospel as the only possible truth and tell people they are wrong, we immediately throw down the gauntlet of challenge. They will resist by reflex and demand some tangible proof. At that point, any failure in any Christian anywhere will be considered a defeater of the argument.

However, if we demonstrate through obedience and love that we are all wrong, and with all our might, try to follow the way of truth, our failure is not a defeater of the truth, but actually a reinforcement of the truth of the gospel. Namely that we can not by our own efforts save ourselves, we need Jesus. We are in effect inviting people to follow the way of Jesus with us, not simply trying to prove that we are smarter than they are.

Those that wish to take the road of validation by feelings or mystical experience alone fall into a similar trap. Rather than a battle to prove you are the smartest, most logical, or theologically correct, it becomes a “my experience is better than your experience” contest. Equally flawed since it once again hinges on us rather than Jesus.

Now clearly, I have put this in extreme terms, but I have done so to illustrate a point. These two mistakes are common and they are subtle, especially to the one making them. However, these mistakes rather than being subtle are quite obvious to the outside observer. Therefore, our only hope of staying free of these mistakes is accountability to the of body of Christ, the ongoing instruction of the Holy Spirit through the word of God, and the various gifts of the Spirit given to the body of Christ.

In a word – humility.

Humility is very persuasive.

The theology of following

Now if this article is your only frame of reference there are many unanswered issues in what I have said so far. Am I saying for instance that theology does not matter? Absolutely not. Am I saying that learning and even teaching plays no role in the Christian church? No, I am after all writing an article designed to teach right now.

So how does this “following” lifestyle of obedience and love interact with theology and correct doctrine? After all, Jude does tell us to “contend for the faith”. Peter also tells us to be prepared to offer a defense for the hope that is in us. Paul warns Timothy to teach sound doctrine, and he tells Titus to silence false teachers. Jesus in the great commission commands us all to “go and to teach all nations”, but he adds a twist. Jesus goes on to say we are to teach them to obey all the things I have commanded you. This last bit I think best illustrates the thought that drove me to write this article.

How do we teach the world to obey all that Jesus commands? Is this an academic exercise? Is this a mystical, experiential exercise? Or are we like Jesus to invite people to follow along with us as we follow Jesus. Demonstrating what it looks like to obey what Jesus commands. And like the disciples in the gospels share both our triumphs and our failures with the unbelieving world.

The embarrassment of the Gospels

Think of the gospel writers for a moment. They did not just report on the teaching and miracles of Jesus. Nor did they simply report on the way Jesus silenced his detractors. The message was far more than a report of his triumph at the cross. They often reported with great candor and detail the embarrassing and frequent failures of the disciples. Why? I think it was to combat the very errors I am attempting to illustrate in this article.

The gospels were written to invite anyone that is willing to follow along on the road of discipleship with Jesus. It is a road pock marked with the failures of every disciple, but illuminated by the triumph and teachings of Jesus. This is a road that can be walked by any fallen, inadequate, and completely ordinary person. But it is a road that ultimately leads to eternal life in Jesus.

This life of faith, love, and hope in obedience to Jesus I would submit, is the highest form of theology and the most bullet proof apologetic of the faith.

Ideas and beliefs vs Living Faith

Any idea or belief therefore is only as good as it’s outworking. In other words we need to be able to say like James. Show me your faith apart from works and I will show you my faith by my works. This according to James is living faith. And it is the difference between the knowledge and beliefs of demons and the true life giving faith of the children of God. Faith follows. Faith obeys. Faith loves. Faith works. Faith is the way. And that way involves steps along the path. It is not a philosophy, it is not an idea, it is a path, it is a way. And Jesus is that way, that truth, and he is the very life we seek.

We must stop acting like we have arrived and start acting like disciples following our master and teacher on the way to eternal life. To invite the world to join us as we give up on our own efforts and put our faith fully in the completed work of Christ. Walking in love every day on the road to sanctification encouraging each other on the way. Because Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life.

Jesus is, the source of, the door to, and the path to – life eternal.

the road through a forest

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