By Addison Hodges Hart
Wm. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Mich. 166 pages
reviewed by Mary Harris Todd
Dallas Willard said, “Most problems in contemporary churches can be explained by the fact that members have not yet decided to follow Christ.” “In Taking Jesus at His Word,” Addison Hodges Hart wholeheartedly agrees. He puts it this way: “Either we follow Jesus, or we do not. … If one seeks to follow Jesus, then the words of Jesus must stand above church, Bible and Ten Commandments.”
Setting the context, Hart notes that the Sermon on the Mount follows Jesus’ call to “repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand, and follow me,” and is itself a call to metanoia — changing the way we live. In contrast to the Roman Empire, the kingdom of heaven is an upside down “un-kingdom” made visible in people’s lives. If we want to be citizens of this kingdom, we cannot dismiss the demands of the Sermon on the Mount as “unrealistic.” Jesus means what he says. Hart then systematically works his way through each pericope from the Beatitudes to the tale of the two houses, drawing out many implications for personal discipleship.
He also states that the Sermon is a handbook for a community that lives according to these demands, but it is clear that in his experience, the institutional church has often not been that kind of community. He has a critical word for all those of the right, left and center who place theological systems, beliefs, ecclesiastical structures and rules, and even the Bible itself, above Jesus himself. For example, Hart sees the divisions among churches that exist at the Lord’s Table as nothing less than shameful. The Sermon on the Mount clearly calls us to be reconciled before we approach the altar, but ecclesiastical authorities have “dared to make such lack of reconciliation part of their official policies and doctrines.” Hart sums up his critique of the church this way: “If we don’t honor Jesus’ words above all else, then the rest of the church’s furniture and formularies aren’t really worth a dime.”
Noting that crumbling ecclesiastical structures provide an opportunity to form new communities of faith, Hart says that he dreams of small, experimental communities of disciples who “learn directly from Jesus, so to speak.” I wonder what these Jesus-directed communities would actually look like. How will they practice communal discipleship? Hart leaves the task of fleshing that out largely to others, though he does drop some tantalizing hints. For example, in his discussion of what it means to cast pearls before swine, Hart calls for careful testing of those who say they want to join the community of faith. People of a “swinish” disposition — i.e. closed, resistant, not committed to Jesus’ teachings — should not be invited into the community of disciples until they have a change of heart.
Whatever forms communities of disciples take, they need to declare individually and together, “We have decided to follow Jesus,” and mean it.
MARY HARRIS TODD is pastor of the Morton Presbyterian Church in Rocky Mount, N.C. Visit with her at maryharristodd.wordpress.com.