“Jesus Was a Rebel”

“Jesus was a rebel” is a favorite slogan of Christian pastors and authors trying to “reach twentysomethings,” as they say. The logic? 1) Young people think Christianity is tired, boring, stale. 2) Young people are naturally rebellious and contrarian. THEREFORE… 3) Maybe Christianity will be fresh and exciting to them if it is framed in the context of subversion and rebellion.

But I’m not so sure that’s a sound syllogism.

It’s not a stretch to say that Jesus was a rebel. He was. He was bucking the system, turning over tables, and saying all sorts of subversive things in the days when he was walking the earth. It is perfectly appropriate, then, for Christians to call Jesus a rebel or a subversive. And it certainly fits neatly into any sort of a “Christianity is hip” PR ambition a church might be undertaking. Hipsters love rebels, and even if they loathe church or Christians, most of them still think Jesus is pretty dang cool.

When I asked Eric Bryant, a pastor at Mosaic in L.A., why Jesus is still considered cool in the eyes of young people, he said this:

They’re intrigued by Jesus. They look to him. He is real, authentic, relevant. He spoke with honesty. He was a man on a mission. He was a radical, a revolutionary, yet tender and kind and loving. He was doing things completely against the rules of the day. He was a mix of justice, kindness, judgment and grace.

But one’s man’s rebel is another man’s square. The phrase “Jesus was a rebel” means different things to different people. Some tend to play up the “judgment” side of things, imagining a warrior Jesus in the vein of Mark Driscoll’s infamous “Jesus is a prizefighter with a tattoo down His leg” portrait. Others, like the Shane Claibornes of the world, emphasize the “turn the other cheek” peace-love-and-harmony Jesus. Both types are subversive; both are rebellious. Thankfully, Jesus is dynamic enough of a figure to be an icon of rebellion/activism/subversion for pretty much any type of person or cause—whether you’re a hippie, a CEO, or an immigrant farmworker.

But there are dangers in getting too much mileage out of this rebel talk. Sure, Jesus was a rebel. Yes, Christianity is subversive. But that should not be the end goal of our faith. We shouldn’t be enlisting young hipsters to join the cause because they think Jesus is a Che-Guevera-esque revolutionary. They should be joining the cause because they need God’s grace, not because they want to take down some system or join some romantic revolutionary cause. A faith built upon rebellion is, at the end of the day, not going to be very sustainable. We can’t be a church primarily organized around fighting against things.

This is an idea that Donald Miller expressed in an article in the New York Times: that we have to be devoted followers of Christ first, and “rebels” second:

If you’re a Christian, you need to obey God. And if you obey God, you’re going to be seen as a rebel, both within American church culture and popular culture. But that’s not the point. The point is to obey God.

Indeed, of all the marketing tactics wannabe hip churches might be engaged in, “Jesus was a rebel” is one of the more legitimate, but it also can backfire in the worst ways. I’m not sure that making Jesus into the world’s most badass rebel is the best way to advance the cause of Christ. Will it really benefit the church to have an army of anarchists and anti-institutional young revolutionaries running around tipping over the tables of the world? Perhaps. But I’m certain that it will not benefit Christianity to make it primarily an exercise in rebellion. Especially since the reality of the situation is that Christ came to right the rebellion of man. All else but the Gospel is rebellion. The cause of Christ is the one obedient cause.


10 responses to ““Jesus Was a Rebel”

  1. Indeed, because if Jesus had been a fightin’ rebel, he woulda joined and led the gang of Jewish rebels fighting Rome. But no – in fact he spoke against them, spoke of simple repentance and commitment to God being much more important than their rebellion.

  2. Isn’t church marketing the problem? It’s true that Jesus was a rebel, but the church is missing the point in trying to market the fact.

  3. I’m glad the bulk of the Scriptures is not a bunch of proverbs. The context of story provides a much more convincing argument, and the story of Jesus a masterful display of his ability to bust ideology after ideology that attempt to eternally confine his transcendence.

    We must not pursue a shadow of Jesus, but the Light Himself.

  4. Great thoughts here, Brett. When I think of Jesus’s rebel status, I can’t get away from what he was about. In other words, he was always motivated toward something greater, purer, and more true when he did the things he did (even if people didn’t understand what he said or did).

    I guess what I’m saying is that I agree with you: making an idol out of rebellion totally misses the point. But being about things that are true and pure naturally creates a rebel-esque mystique because those things run counter to the status quo and ideologies rampant in the world about how to live and what to live for.

  5. Any study of hero-worship can quickly lend support to the case for the rebel-profile. After all, the protagonist is the one that almost always has something _done_to_him_ (and now slowly gaining equilibrium, _done_to_ her_).

    It is the antagonist that antagonizes, does something that makes the hero either stand up, hold true to principles, or lead the charge.

    There’s a real problem in giving Jesus too many hats. Once we start putting these hats on him, we are trying to fit him into our wish-list, our awesome-saviour-list (our getting-younger-people-into-church-list). He didn’t fit into the hat the Jews wanted to give him, or the Romans, or the disciples even for that matter. Personally, I don’t think he fits into the hats we try to give him today.

    If there is any group in society that is most antagonized, it would have to be the adolescent-to-twenty-somethings. They are constantly compared to peers, compared to celebrities, compared to older siblings, compared to parents, and also challenged daily to be creative, consumptive, competitive, accepted, in control…

    Is it possible to just let young people be? Is it possible to just let Jesus be?

  6. Jesus was only a rebel in the context of a nation/world that had rebelled against God. His actions and choices were in perfect obediance with the Father’s will. So I guess the question is: Is a rebellion against rebels really a rebellion or a recalibration to the correct position?

  7. I’m not sure of what usefulness such a question is, Luke– after all, every human structure/society/culture/institution is fallen and in rebellion against God. There isn’t another context in which Christ would not be considered a rebel, and , by extension (if it’s your intention to demonstrate such), the same applies to us.

  8. Just a rhetorical question, Tim.

    I knew I could count on your contrariety; it’s like clock-work, man.

  9. That’s fine. I was just wondering if you were trying to get at something that I was missing.

  10. I’m just going to keep this plain and simple, and I believe the whole of scripture backs this up:

    Jesus is not a rebel.
    We are the rebels.
    And more specifically, I am a rebel.

    Does the Bible have anything good to say about rebels/rebellion? Is it not all negative?
    Does it say anywhere that Jesus is a rebel?…and why would it? No…Jesus was not a rebel. It is we who are the rebels…and we who need to repent and turn away from our rebellion and obey GOD.

    It strikes me as blasphemy to call Jesus a rebel. (And it is just like us to want to make Him, who knew no sin, like us!!!) GOD forgive us!!!

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