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Thoughts on “A Jesus Manifesto”

2009 June 25
by Julie Clawson

I have to say that I’m disappointed in Frank Viola’s and Len Sweet’s latest internet push “A Magna Carta for Restoring the Supremacy of Jesus Christ, a.k.a. A Jesus Manifesto for the 21st Century Church.” Besides the crazy presumptuous title and slight affront to (which Mark has addressed nicely), the document really seems to be a step backward for the church. In essence “A Jesus Manifesto” calls Christians back to a Christ-centered faith. Which, in general, is something I heartily support. And, in fact, there is much in the document that I completely agree with. But when they say stuff like “What is Christianity? It is Christ. Nothing more. Nothing less.”, I start to have problems.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for a Christ-centered faith. And unfortunately those of us who are uncomfortable with the document are now being accused of wanting to ignore Christ or question his divinity. So let me say upfront, that is not the case. Christ is central. Period. But the assertion that Christianity – the movement of the followers of Christ – is nothing more or less than the person of Christ just really seems to miss the point.

The attack and reason for the document springs from the talk about the Kingdom of God and social justice within emerging missional communities. Viola and Sweet insist that such talk turns Jesus into an abstraction and tempts us to ignore the person of Jesus. They say “Jesus Christ was not a social activist nor a moral philosopher. To pitch him that way is to drain his glory and dilute his excellence. Justice apart from Christ is a dead thing.” I’m sorry guys, but Jesus was both of those things. He can’t be reduced to those things, but that doesn’t mean that he didn’t embody those things as well. To say that is all he was would yes, drain his glory, but to say he wasn’t those things too denies reality. What is going on here is really a discussion of which image of Jesus we want to embrace – a niche Jesus of one extreme or another or the full Jesus.  More on that in a bit.

My main problem with the document lies in their assumption that those of us talking about justice and the kingdom are doing so apart from the person and power of Jesus. That’s just plain and simply not true. But it has become the favorite straw man argument for the opponents of the emerging missional community. I think in many ways it is based on a misunderstanding of us that projects the theology and history of the classic liberal social gospel movement onto the missional movement. Len Sweet even admitted that the document sprung in part from the lessons he’s learned from teaching a class on the history of the Social Gospel movement in early 20th century America. And while that movement was influenced by theological discussions that questioned the divinity of Christ and sought to find the “historical Jesus,” it is unfair and inappropriate to assume the same thing of the emerging missional movement.

I don’t know how many times we have to stand up and say that caring for the Kingdom, seeking justice, and loving others is all about choosing to focus more on Christ. As Christians we believe in him and follow him. He said, if you love me you will obey me. Not “if you love me, you will worship a ethereal, conceptualized version of me that is disembodied from action and the world I came to save.” When following Jesus becomes simply about doing works or simply about standing in awe of a divine person then we’ve got problems – and a Jesus that has nothing to do with the Jesus of the Bible. Those images of Christ are dangerous, but what I see the manifesto doing is attacking a (projected) incomplete image in favor of another incomplete image.

While Viola and Sweet may personally think that following the commands of Jesus is part of what it means to be a Christian (although they say it is just about Christ), to tell others that talking about the commands of Jesus takes the focus off of Jesus is unhelpful in the extreme. I grew up only hearing about the person of Jesus. Jesus is divine, he did miracles, I am to believe and worship (be in awe of) him. Nothing more. Ever. It is naive to believe that just by presenting this Jesus, people will start doing all that he commanded if those commands aren’t allowed to be talked about. For instance, my daughter attended one night of a neighborhood backyard bible club this week. Her lesson was on Jesus serving the poor and healing the sick. The takeaway was that Jesus did miracles so therefore we have to believe in him. No mention at all of the “go and do likewise” aspect of being a follower of Christ. At this same club, the leader presented the Wordless Book, but after doing the Gold (heaven), Dark (sin), Red (Jesus), White (substitutionary atonement) pages she turned to the Green page and couldn’t remember what it was for. (the green page, btw, is the grow in one’s faith page). It was the perfect representation of a faith that focuses on the need to believe in the person of Jesus to the exclusion of following Jesus. This is the faith I grew up with – one that cares a lot about the person of Jesus but which doesn’t even talk about following his commandments. An impotent faith that essentially tells Jesus that we don’t love him enough to obey his commands.

It is because I love Jesus that I talk about and pursue justice and the kingdom. Even Viola and Sweet mention that “the teachings of Jesus cannot be separated from Jesus himself.” I just wish they wouldn’t falsely accuse us of doing that. And I wish they wouldn’t encourage these dichtomized versions of Jesus by criticizing the actual following of his commands. It is a step backward into the faith my daughter witnessed the other night at the Bible club, and truly unhelpful to the church in the long run. I love Jesus, but I want nothing to do with a faith that is disembodied, disconnected, and impotent. I want to believe in, worship, and follow Christ (since those are all technically one and the same). I’m sorry, but a real Jesus Manifesto wouldn’t be about such a one-sided incomplete image of Jesus. No – it would present Jesus in the fullness of the gospels and not be afraid to tell Christians that following Christ involves a heck of a lot more than standing there slack-jawed in awe of him. I’d love that message to get out to the world, but this, “A Jesus Manifesto” was simply a disappointment in that regard.


32 Responses leave one →
  1. June 25, 2009

    Well stated. I agree – most of the times we put a firm stand on “this is the way it is”, we’ve labeled and belittled a thing. By going the way they’ve gone, they’ve done what they set out to stop. I do that, too, and have to catch myself and pull back. Thanks for posting and taking a bigger stance/perspective on it.

  2. June 25, 2009

    Thanks for this, Julie. Well said.

  3. June 25, 2009

    Thanks for posting this – and what a great analogy with your daughter’s experience with the Bible club where the leader forgot what green meant. It’s frustrating to hear the message “Jesus freed and healed you!” as though the gospel didn’t also include the message “…now go live in freedom, bringing healing to the world.” On a quick read of the Manifesto, it seems like there are some genuinely good intentions behind the somewhat grandiose language. But the language certainly isn’t helpful. For as “incarnational” as they are seeking to be, they sure seem to want to avoid anything other than “spiritual” language.

    Thanks for making the distinction, too, between the early-20th-century Social Gospel folks and the emerging missional movement. They definately are (ought to be) different in some significant ways.

    And is it just me, or is this not a very full-fledged view of the Trinity? (Why, for example, is “Spirit” in quotation marks at one point?)

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post!

  4. June 25, 2009

    Interesting. I saw this “manifesto,” gave a 30-second skim-over, and dismissed it immediately because of the “Christ alone” thing, which is a silly reductionism.

    While you and I might not always agree on the best course for social justice (I’m a little to the right of you), there is no doubt that every good deed represents Messiah in the world even if the one doing the deed does not know it. The only good deeds God condemns are those done by religious hypocrites who should know better and who perform rituals instead of justice (a la Isaiah 1 and many other passages). I can’t think of a single scripture condemning helping a thirsty/naked/poor person anywhere.

    Messiah is about repairing the world and all who join in that task move closer to God.

    Derek Leman

  5. June 25, 2009

    I’m right with you on your critique. However, I think the following is not quite on:

    “The attack and reason for the document springs from the talk about the Kingdom of God and social justice within emerging missional communities.”

    At least with Viola, I know he has been speaking this language for a long time – before Emergent was anything people were talking about. I think Viola is critiquing ALL of Christianity. I think he is even critiquing those who are Jesus-centered. I would venture to say that he believes the vast majority of Christianity has completely missed the point. I think his critique leads to a hyper-spiritualized Christianity that can be paralyzing in regards to action.

    Disclaimer: I was heavily influenced by Viola, and have read all of his books (up until his most recent two). I was also part of a community heavily influenced by Viola and Watchman Nee and T. Austin Sparks (Nee and Sparks are probably the biggest influences on Viola’s Jesusy theology). In my personal experience I found Viola’s theology (along with Nee and Sparks) to be damaging. Ever since Viola started moving into emerging conversations, I’ve been waiting for this stuff to come up, because I think it really contradicts much of what people think of when they think of emerging/emergent.

    With all that being said, I don’t desire to demonize Viola. In fact, he has influenced me in many positive ways, particularly in regards to his view of church, etc. Also, I think Viola is working to bridge the gap in his theology between Jesus and the Kingdom. But I’m still concerned about this document.

  6. June 25, 2009

    I agree with your take, and am surprised by Len’s agreement with this ‘manifesto’. It reads like Frank’s writing and Len just signed off on it…

    This is my greatest struggle/problem with how we do church in America. Why do we feel the need to brainwash our kids into a belief system that distorts who Christ was and is? His ministry, his life, his divinity, and his church is about practicing God’s love. We as believers must proclaim this same love, and more importantly follow his lead with actions and practices, not propositional belief systems.

  7. June 25, 2009

    Julie, I agree 100% with you.

  8. June 25, 2009

    thanks for this julie. i haven’t had a chance to read the manifesto but it’ll be interesting to read it – in light of your thoughts.

  9. June 25, 2009

    In Frank’s latest book, I felt there was an unnecessary dichotomy drawn between missional thought and the centrality of Christ. I attempted to address this issue with him in this post.

    I would challenge Frank to give missional authors and speakers the benefit of the doubt that they likewise embrace the centrality of Christ and understand the importance of all missional activity being deeply rooted in the indwelling love and life of Christ.

    Maybe I just don’t get it, but I have not run across very many people in the emerging/missional conversation who are not already deeply abiding in Christ and loving others as an expression of His life in them.

  10. June 25, 2009

    An interesting reflection. It seems to me that, while it is certainly true that this boils down to what definition of “Jesus” is accepted as being “the real thing” (with apologies to Coke), I find it more than ironic that, in an effort to proclaim the centrality of Jesus to “true” Christianity (complete with the criticism that Christians have added too much that isn’t essential), these folks seem to be criticizing a group that has actually been trying to do the same thing (if, arguably, less argumentatively so).

  11. June 25, 2009

    The thing is, its hard to do both. Its hard to be a community that holds equally The Message (KOG) and The Messenger (Jesus). I agree that any time we Lift one up at the expense of the other we end up with something worse then incomplete — but still, its hard.

  12. June 25, 2009

    Good thoughts, Julie. I agree. I fear that this well only swing the pendulum back in the other direction creating a weird binary between Jesus and the Kingdom. We need both of course, but it seem like this only exacerbates the problem of splitting them up. We should be about unification, not bifurcation.

  13. June 25, 2009

    If I could offer an observation – I think the big difference between the Social Gospel movement of a century ago, and the emerging/missional movement now, is that the former thought it had to reject the divinity of Christ and the historicity of the gospels in order to gain a socially transformative message. Emerging/missional folks, on the other hand, following scholars like Tom Wright and Jimmy Dunn for instance, are taking a both/and approach – claiming that the historical AND divine Jesus actually did preach a message that includes (but is not limited to) social transformation. We are looking for a bigger gospel that includes both. This document by Viola/Sweet just seems like a big step backwards in that quest.

  14. June 26, 2009

    It should not be a surprise that Viola’s theology, which is nothing more than neo-Restorationism, leads to a narrowing, rather than a broadening of the gospel.

  15. June 26, 2009

    I agree Rich. From what I’ve experienced of Frank’s work to this point, his usual MO seems to be to take good insights just a bit too far, and to deal too much in extremes and “either/or” rather than “both/and”.

  16. June 26, 2009

    Julie, thanks for the post. I like some of what Sweet and Viola have done (although I couldn’t get through From Eternity to Here–it was too much like reading a collection of sermons and I could see where he was going with each point a mile away and it was the same point being made over and over…) and I respect them, but I agree with what you said. I like Viola’s blog awhile back about the things missing from our Gospel. I think he got that right and I even preached about it. But the idea that talking about justice or the kingdom is somehow slighting Jesus…that’s absurd. It sounds like this is their opening salvo in the “Is Emergent dead?” battle and they want to shape the movement, or at least stay relevant and in the conversation. I’m sorry, but the whole thing came off like a publicity stunt to me. They did mention both of their latest books…

  17. June 26, 2009

    My biggest problem with separating Jesus from so-called “social justice” issues is this:

    For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, so that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the wild animals may eat. You shall do the same with your vineyard, and with your olive orchard.

    – Exodus 23:10-11

    That’s just one jot of the mass of Old Testament evidence that the Godhead is entirely concerned with the least of these before the incarnation of Christ. Why wouldn’t She still be?

    I don’t see how anyone could follow Christ, have Jesus at the center of their life and NOT be concerned with social justice. One is truly being transformed into the character and nature of Jesus, one will continually caring more and more for widows, orphans, prisoners, lame and the blind. Jesus came to set those people free (Luke 4).

  18. Pippin permalink
    June 26, 2009

    God is love and if we do not demonstrate that kind of love in action, then we are missing out on the greatest commandment of all, and hiding our light under a bushel. We can’t separate spiritual wellbeing from general wellbeing on this earth since we are physical beings who cry, feel pain and bleed. Blithely telling someone in pain “I’ll pray for you” while ignoring the fact that we could probably do something to lessen this person’s pain is well, cheap. So yes, while I think the faith/works dichotomy is false, I think though there is a significant fundamental difference between what drives faith + works in the emerging community and what drives faith + works in more evangelical types. The emerging church (as I understand it– please correct me if I’m dead wrong) believes that the establishment of God’s Kingdom is right here on earth and involves bringing about social transformation through changing societal structures and fighting systemic oppression.
    The evangelicals (at least in the context of my own experience– as I may have mentioned before, I’m from Southeast Asia where Christianity is thriving but is almost uniformly evangelical in theology) has a decidedly more open-ended view of what constitutes “works”, which can very well include, but does not specifically emphasise, the transforming of societal structures or fighting systemic oppression. The goal is not to necessarily bring utopia to to the world– since we are “fallen” creatures, we have both good and bad within us and no matter what changes we bring to existing societal structures, there will always be dysfunctional relationships and family dynamics, prejudice, injustice and oppression– which may not occur on macro level systemic levels as we know them but on a more personal level; hurt, pain and suffering. The goal then is to be a light in the darkness, living witnesses, and hold up whatever is good and true, beautiful and praiseworthy; demonstrating faith in action that takes care of people in the here and now, that points to a truth beyond the here and now.
    Not arguing for the veracity of either side, just my observations. Thoughts?

  19. June 26, 2009

    Great article! Well said. You covered many of the same thoughts I’ve been having about this whole Jesus Manifesto. While I respect and have gleaned much from Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola, their efforts to nail a theological treatise to the door of an ongoing cultural conversation seems ant-social or at least painfully blunt.

    I’m actually rethinking my efforts to create my own manifesto now. I have a project I’m working on that, while it might benefit from a revolutionary summary of sorts, feels all wrong to me now.

    Sometimes it just seems we burn bridges of potential conversation and mutual understanding by making simplified, concentrated theological declarations. It also doesn’t help to make such statements when you’re trying to sell books.

    Nonetheless, I still appreciate everyone involved and I think we are all still just trying to figure out how to be real Jesus people.

    I’ll probably make the same mistakes when I get famous 😉


  20. Joel permalink
    June 27, 2009

    I could be wrong, but this could be a step backwards for Sweet as well. He was singing the praises of both/and thinking in his preface to the “Church in Emerging Culture: Five Perspectives” book. Bleh.

  21. June 28, 2009

    I’ve heard Sweet denounce the social transformation side of the emerging church conversation more than a few times in recent years (I’m recalling an interview in Relevant magazine from a while back in particular). I get the impression that it was a direction he wasn’t really interested in going, and perhaps he wants to “reclaim” the conversation back towards whatever his main emphasis is (I don’t personally know what that is since I’ve never read a Sweet book all the way through – just don’t care for his style, too many obscure and slightly-cheezy metaphors).

  22. June 30, 2009

    I decided to comment on the jesus manifesto blog because I wanted to share my critique more directly, rather than through other blogs.

    Unfortunately my comment was deleted. Not exactly sure why…kind of surprised. It wasn’t an angry or inappropriate comment, just a critical response.

  23. July 2, 2009

    Great post!

    One of the things I love most about Jesus is the FACT that He is a revolutionist.

    I’ve heard several times over the years from an impotent church that it’s wrong for individuals to step outside the church to start ministry in their community; in other words para-church ministries are in rebellion to church leadership. Jesus’ season of ministry was the most powerful “para-synagogue” ministry that ever invaded the earth!

  24. wondering... permalink
    July 2, 2009

    Why so self-focused on emergent church?

    this manifesto sounds like it speaks against emergent missional people, sure, but also against many other followers of Christ in general who are seeking Christ’s shalom and Kingdom on this earth.

    i just dont get it why everything is emergent and why emergent is everything

  25. July 2, 2009

    Adam – they say they will delete any comment that isn’t edifying – so I guess they’re part of that group that thinks anyone disagreeing with them isn’t appropriate.

    wondering – emergent isn’t everything. but when you are part of a group and get attacked, one responds from within that group.

  26. Eric permalink
    July 2, 2009

    I had several reactions to Len Sweet and Frank Viola’s recently released Jesus Manifesto for the 21st Century, but I’ll restrict my comments here to just one point.

    Although the manifesto claims that its Christocentric focus is the only thing that will heal the rifts within the church–rifts over social issues like abortion and homosexuality, but about other things as well–it fails to recognize the narrowness of the unity it wants to establish. The manifesto proclaims that Christianity=Christ; in this way it makes clear its Christocentrism. It then proceeds to develop a very high christological understanding of Jesus. For the authors of the manifesto, these are foundational, non-negotiable positions.

    My problem with this is that the manifesto’s christocentrism and high christology effectively bar anyone with a lower christological view from participating in the unity they earnestly desire. As a result, the manifesto feels strangely parochial. It purports to be a unfiying device but it simultaneously performs the role of gatekeeper, admitting those who share its high christological and christocentric positions and turning away those who don’t. Ironically, none of the first century followers of Jesus would have passed Sweet’s and Viola’s litmus test.

  27. July 3, 2009

    At the risk of simply repeating was others have said, I must say I agree with you, and you have said it very well.

  28. BILL BRADLEY permalink
    February 16, 2010

    I think when Jesus is your life that all these missing
    elements you believe are missing in the Jesus Manifesto
    will come into play. You can’t be in love with Jesus
    Christ and not want to help people, love people etc.
    It is impossible.

    I have been struggling with the Church System and I am
    an Elder at a Church. I see our Church and many others
    trusting in programs, buildings and increasing membership,
    but we many times miss our Father ,because we trust in ourselves
    not in Jesus

    Bill Bradley

  29. April 1, 2014

    It has now been almost five years since you wrote the original post. What thoughts do you have now on the Jesus Manifesto? What would you say has been the history of the document?

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