Joe Namath has just been questioned about his appearance. With an air of presumption, he ingratiatingly informs an unenlightened reporter that “the coolest man who ever lived wore long hair and a beard.”
A young student rebel justifies his iconoclastic defiance of all established authorities with the assertion that “I learned it from Jesus Christ.”
A self-indulgent hippie explains his flouting of traditional mores by citing as precedent for his behavior the life of “the world’s first hippie, Jesus Christ.”
Whenever anyone mentions Christ as the bellwether of civil disobedience, bandwagons of revolutionaries rise to snap him intellectual salutes. It seems that when Jesus plucked corn and healed a man on the Sabbath, he became the author of secular rebellion. Somewhere along the line, Christ the revolutionary has been disfigured and tailored to somebody’s illusions of individuality.
True, Christ was a revolutionary, but not in the traditional sense. His revolution did not invade the domains of civil institutions, political structures, or social customs. He never intentionally incited a riot, participated in a sit-in, or led a demonstration. Even when he was rebuking certain man-made traditions, he was the epitome of compassion, never defiance.
Jesus lived in an occupied country that was scourged by the presence of a military power ruling by coercion. Yet he obediently paid taxes to that power, healed a Roman officer’s servant, and enjoined his disciples to go the extra mile with Roman mail-carriers.
As a Jew, Christ was subject to the law of Moses, a law couched in the negative and prohibitive. Nonetheless he kept it to the letter, though ultimately he would be its abrogator.
In many areas Christ was the embodiment of model conformity. He was the perfect example of Paul’s admonition in Romans 13:7 to render “custom to whom custom, … honor to whom honor” is due.
If Christ favored the wearing of long hair, the reason was that this was the custom of the time. He did not wear long hair as a symbol of non-conformity. His individuality did not reside in external forms: it was not a growth on his chin, a medallion around his neck, or a picket sign waved above his head. Christ’s purpose was not to winnow away the chaff of custom. There was nothing conspicuous about his personage. It was his message that was revolutionary.
It is travesty, however well intentioned and sincere, to attempt to justify rebellion against social, political, and economic structures by using Christ as an example. His message is independent of such considerations.
The soil in which Christ planted his seeds of reform was the sanctity of the individual heart. The germinating essence of Christian individuality is organic; it is wrought, not of compulsion, but of inward persuasion. And it does not find its essence in the actions of masses of people who would abolish all unchristian institutions. After all, the Roman government was a consolidation of nefarious institutions that carried out the most heinous crimes. Yet Christ did not lead campaigns to abolish these institutions; rather, he introduced a new spirit to motivate the Christian in his relationships with them.
Paul, in his letter to Philemon concerning the slave Onesimus, does not attack the institution of slavery. Philemon is not ordered to set Onesimus free but—what is more difficult—is urged to love him. And it is love, not contempt, that is the gadfly of the Christ-centered revolution.
A Christ-centered revolution does not draw attention to itself with clamorous orgies of self-gratification. It is a quiet, inscrutable wonder that is analogous to the influence of a bit of yeast in a loaf of bread.
The apostles spread the Gospel to their known world without instigating marches or fomenting strife. They were building invisible kingdoms within the individual personality that were influenced neither by the governments of their time nor by reform movements against those governments.
Christian individuality is not concerned with destroying institutions. Destruction serves no remedial function. Rather, Christian individuality is concerned with reconstructing the inner spirit of the individual personalities behind those institutions. This is done with the milk of human kindness, not with the fiery brew of bitter scorn.
The glorious thing about the Christian revolution is that it can invade a prison cell, a POW camp in Siberia, or a native hut in Borneo. It is not bound by the strait jacket of a mere temporal existence but is a transcendent spirit that can elevate a man to inner happiness regardless of his environment.
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