You may have seen it in a tweet, brought up in a Facebook post, or simply heard it thrown out in a verbal exchange. Let’s call it the really bad Jesus argument. Here’s how it goes: Pick a contentious cultural topic like homoerotic behavior, and someone will say, “But Jesus never mentioned it.”
“No, but it is discussed in Deuteronomy, Romans and… (interruption)”
“But Jesus never talked about it.”
Ever heard a version of this attempt at being dismissive of something, purely on the basis that there is no record that Jesus addressed the matter? The retort is simply, “But Jesus said absolutely nothing about it” as if that ends that. If Jesus is silent, either it’s an issue we can decide for ourselves, or the assumption is made that He was giving a tacit endorsement through His silence.
This is a terribly disingenuous argument for several reasons. First, it reduces the canon of Scripture to the red letters of the four gospels of the New Testament. Jesus Himself rejected this through His full-throated endorsement of the Old Testament Scriptures that were in existence during His teaching ministry (cf. Matthew 5:18, Mark 12:36, John 10:35).
Second, the argument narrowly suggests that the teaching ministry of Jesus was meant to be exhaustive—if He didn’t address it, it was not meant to be addressed. Again, Jesus Himself pointed out how limited His teaching had been when He made it clear that the coming of the Holy Spirit would involve an ongoing teaching component (John 14:26), evidenced largely through the coming inspiration of the New Testament (John 16:13-14).
Third, the argument is weak because it assumes that because Jesus didn’t mention it, it must not have been important. In truth, there were any number of terribly important things Jesus never taught on. Not because they weren’t important, but because they were not a matter of debate. Going to our example of homosexuality, this simply was not a matter of contention within first century Jewish life. For this reason, you also do not have record of Jesus teaching on pedophilia, incest or bestiality. Everyone knew this was wrong, and it wasn’t needed for Jesus (or any other Jewish leader) to delineate in large-group settings where He was putting forward the broad contours of the Gospel.
Fourth, the argument can be turned back against its users on any number of fronts. If, for example, you want to make the case that homoerotic behavior is acceptable because Jesus never mentioned it, then you can make a case for any number of things being acceptable because Jesus never mentioned it. As mentioned, He didn’t teach on pedophilia, either. Anyone want to make a case for that based on His lack of teaching?
Of course, it isn’t just those outside of the Christian faith who want a “red-letter” version of the Christian faith, particularly on major cultural issues facing our day to which the Bible as a whole, as well as the history of the Christian church, speaks with one voice.
To be sure, Jesus is the heart of the Christian faith. We read the entire Bible at face value and in light of its immediate context, but also through the lens of His life and teaching. Bibles have put the words of Jesus in “red” for a very significant reason: they are the words of our Lord. But to lift those words out, note every topical omission, and then consider those omissions themselves a form of teaching or statement?
That is called making it up on your own.
James Emery White
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His forthcoming bookAfter “I Believe” is now available for preorder on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @JamesEmeryWhite.