For Us or Against Us? A Question of Intentions and Purposes

I was listening to a presentation the other evening in which the speaker was extolling the values of the early church with respect to the concept of evangelism.  In the course of the talk, he began quoting a number of seemingly disjunct scriptures, one of which was Matthew 12.30:  “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.”  This is also found in Luke 11.23. 

Immediately, my mind went to the scene recorded in both Mark 9 and Luke 9 where the disciples are complaining to Jesus that they had rebuked a man who did not “follow with” them for casting out demons in Jesus’ name.  Consider both of these passages:

 Luke 9.“49 John answered, “Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us.”

50  But Jesus said to him, “Do not stop him, for the one who is not against you is for you.”

 Mark 9. “38 John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”

39  But Jesus said, “Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.  40  For the one who is not against us is for us.”

There is no denying that both diametrically opposed, seemingly inconsistent comments are recorded in the gospels.  However, Matthew/Luke 11’s incident heuristically contrasts with that of Mark/Luke 9.  In Matthew’s record, Jesus is responding to the attacks of his arch-detractors, the Pharisees.  Their purpose was to tear down what Jesus was building because it did not fit with their plan and vision. Jesus’ comment is pointed and definitive: if one is not unified in purpose with him, they are at cross-purposes, and in conscious, defiant opposition.   

In Mark and Luke, Jesus is responding to the complaint of his disciples about someone who appeared to be “stealing their thunder.”  This individual was casting out demons in the name of the Messiah, but was not specifically counted among the followers.  Perhaps this person was an admirer who saw the power and authority even the name of Jesus wielded.  Besides that, Jesus knew the heart and intent of the accused person in this case.  He knew that the intent was good, and the effect would be that Jesus’ reputation and message would be spread farther as a result of this man’s action.

I have heard many examples of preachers in the faith heritage with which I fellowship (and others of slightly different stripe) use Matthew’s report to emphasize the centrality of distinction and distinctiveness.  As I grew in my study of the Word, however, I came across Jesus’ comment in Mark and Luke 9, and I was puzzled by it.  I know I have heard very few if any preachers in my faith heritage relate the other message from Mark and Luke 9.  Why?  Perhaps it is because it contradicts the strict exclusivism to which we have adhered since our predecessors began splitting and dividing over minutiae, opinions and irrelevant distractions.  Perhaps it is because to admit that there are those who are not in lock step with us who are not outright condemned diminishes our message that we and only we are the only ones who have attained perfect knowledge and all others stand condemned and lost.

I subconsciously arrived at this thought before I started checking commentaries for clarification.  I usually like to focus on those commentaries that are more language and cultural tools rather than those that have a particular doctrinal angle to defend, whether of my own tribe or any other specific denomination.  However, I was struck by the comment by 19th century theologian, Albert Barnes, regarding Mark 9.39:

“Forbid him not – Do not prevent his doing good. If he can work a miracle in my name, it is sufficient proof of attachment to me, and he should not be prevented.

“Can lightly speak evil of me – The word here rendered “lightly” means quickly or “immediately.” The meaning of the passage is, that he to whom God gave the power of working a miracle, by that gave evidence that he could not be found among the enemies of Jesus. He ought not, therefore, to be prevented from doing it. There is no reason to think here that John had any improper designs in opposing the man. He thought that it was evidence that he could not be right, because he did not join them and follow the Saviour. Our Lord taught him differently. He opposed no one who gave evidence that he loved him. Wherever he might be or whatever his work, yet, if he did it in the name of Jesus and with the approbation of God, it was evidence sufficient that he was right. Christians should rejoice in good done by their brethren of any denomination. There are men calling themselves Christians who seem to look with doubt and suspicion on all that is done by those who do not walk with them. They undervalue their labors, and attempt to lessen the evidences of their success and to diminish their influence. True likeness to the Saviour would lead us to rejoice in all the good accomplished. by whomsoever it may be done – to rejoice that the kingdom of Christ is advanced, whether by a Presbyterian, an Episcopalian, a Baptist, or a Methodist.”

Regarding Luke 9.49,50, Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown explain,

“John answered, etc. — The link of connection here with the foregoing context lies in the words “in My name” (Luk_9:48). “Oh, as to that,” said John, young, warm, but not sufficiently apprehending Christ’s teaching in these things, “we saw one casting out devils in Thy name, and we forbade him: Were we wrong?” “Ye were wrong.” “But we did because he followeth not us,’” “No matter. For (1) There is no man which shall do a miracle in My name that can lightly [soon] speak evil of Me’ [Mar_9:39]. And (2) If such a person cannot be supposed to be ‘against us,’ you are to consider him ‘for us.’” Two principles of immense importance. Christ does not say this man should not have followed “with them,” but simply teaches how he was to be regarded though he did not – as a reverer of His name and a promoter of His cause. Surely this condemns not only those horrible attempts by force to shut up all within one visible pale of discipleship, which have deluged Christendom with blood in Christ’s name, but the same spirit in its milder form of proud ecclesiastic scowl upon all who “after the form which they call a sect (as the word signifies, Act_24:14), do so worship the God of their fathers.” Visible unity in Christ’s Church is devoutly to be sought, but this is not the way to it.”

In his commentary on Luke, Leon Morris wrote:

“49…John and whoever else is included in his we told him to stop (the imperfect may mean ‘we tried to stop him’ or ‘we kept stopping him’) because he does not follow with us.  Luke does not say that the man claimed to be a disciple, only that he cast out demons in Jesus’ name. But for these disciples it was not enough that he should be able to do in the name of Jesus what they had so recently and so conspicuously failed to do (40).  He had to follow with them.  This has been the error of Christians in every age and it is interesting to see it in the very first generation of Jesus’ followers.

“50.  But the Master would have none of it.  Do not forbid him, he said, and added the important rule, he that is not against you is for you.  There can be no neutrality in the war against evil.  Anyone who opposes demons in Jesus’ name in to be welcomed, not opposed.  He is on the right side.”

Paul wrote about the same sort of thing to the Philippians. In the first chapter of that letter, Paul wrote, “14  And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear. 15  Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. 16  The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. 17  The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. 18  What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice. Yes, and I will rejoice….”

Paul knew that some people were preaching Christ in an attempt to discredit him.  If they were proclaiming the same message, it is hard to imagine how one could be discredited.  But Paul reasoned that no matter what, no matter the motive or rationale of the proclaimer, the message of Jesus was being broadcast to people who needed to hear it.

There will always be differences among people who claim to be followers of Christ whether among fellowships, or within a fellowship or even within a congregation.  It is an unfortunate result of imperfect understanding and the distinctly human nature possessed of us all.  However, we have the directive to discern motives and intentions and rise above partisan bickering where good is being done in Jesus’ name.  If good is being done and attributed to the cause of Christ to change lives and to the advancement of his power to accomplish just that, then we must not condemn.

If military history teaches anything, it is the value of coordinated action. An army that only holds the line can expect little more than to fight to a draw.  In order to win, it must advance, gain ground, and end the conflict in victory.  The Allied victory in Europe would not have been possible without the efforts of Americans, British, Canadians, and others.  When there was in-fighting among the commanders, the progress toward victory stalled.  When there was unity, peace became the attainable prize.

Too often, the people that are most likely to condemn the actions of those who “do not follow with us” are the ones most likely to do nothing.  I often return to the image of the one talent man, who buried the money entrusted to him in the dirt so that he would not lose it, so that he would be able to return it to his master, unchanged.  But his failure was not in losing the money.  It was in the fearful failure to gainfully invest.  If we look down on the efforts of others to accomplish good, we must be ready to do twice as much to see that more good is done.  Otherwise, all we have to show for our lack of effort is a dirty shovel.  We can—no, we must—do far better than that.  

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