In Defense of Guru Jesus

For evangelical kids like me, the worst thing anyone could ever say about Jesus was that he was “just a teacher.” That was a tactic of liberals and academic types and secularists to keep Jesus human, to prop him up as a guru but not a savior. As a result, Jesus’ teaching was relegated to a lesser status and his “saving work” on the cross was amplified. Proto-fundamentalists like Moody and Scofield went so far as to place the sayings of Jesus into a closed “dispensation” wherein they no longer applied to the church. We didn’t go that far, but we emphasized some of Jesus’ words and all but ignored others. We believed that Jesus taught good things, and with authority, but what he really came to do was die for my sins. We could read Jesus’ words for inspiration, and especially for handy predictions of his death and resurrection, but dwelling too much on the stuff about “peace and love” was a distraction from what really mattered. This was and is a huge mistake! 

We make a drastic error when we separate Jesus’ teaching from his passion and assign it a secondary status. This error has had at least two very negative effects: 1) We have diluted and forsaken the real message that defined the context for the life and death of Jesus, and 2) we’ve allowed other voices to fill the void and act as teacher and master in Jesus’ absence. We have missed how Jesus’ message of repentance, nonviolence, and empathy was tragically fulfilled in his victimization at the hands of religion and empire, and how his radical conception of God as a forgiving and loving Father was beautifully vindicated at Easter. Meanwhile, we have taken our marching orders from Moses, David, Solomon, Peter, Paul, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Moody, Graham, Robertson, Dobson, Osteen, Piper, Warren, and countless others instead of the rabbi whose disciples we claim to be.

What if followers of Jesus devoted ourselves to his teaching instead of dogma, the Bible, or some other figure or object of religious allegiance? What if our beliefs about Jesus prompted us not to devalue his teachings but to cherish and believe in them? What if Good Friday, Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost are all about realizing and experiencing the message of Jesus instead of relativizing it?


  1. Our God and universe would be bigger and better and more generous and inclusive.
  2. Our work would be oriented around forgiveness and justice instead of moral posturing and culture wars.
  3. Our neighbors would be the beneficiaries of our service and partners in reconciliation instead of opponents or “unbelievers.”
  4. Our life together as a community would be characterized by openness and egalitarian love instead of hierarchy, conformity, suspicion, and exclusivity.

Are there Christians and Christian communities which already reflect these values? Of course! Catholics, Protestants, Evangelicals, we all live into these values in our best moments. But every tradition also has its blind spots – areas where we have allowed other concerns and interests (even “biblical” ones!) to obscure and mitigate the pure ethos of Jesus. For my tribe, it is our lust for power and certainty, our refusal to give up our concept of an angry and punitive God, and our addiction to cultural privilege and exclusivity that have kept us from fully entering into the spiritual reality that Jesus called the “kingdom of God.” We trust Jesus to make us right and to get us to heaven, but we prefer systematic theology and doctrine to the challenges of the sermon on the mount. In fact, it’s not just that the teachings of Jesus are less than essential, they can actually become a liability.

“You Can’t Save Yourself!”

The biggest evangelical objection to embracing Jesus as a teacher or philosopher is that we might accidentally think, even for a moment, that we can “save ourselves” from our sins by becoming better people. If you believe in the cross, you will be forgiven and “saved.” But if you try to follow the moral teaching of Jesus, you will inevitably fail and pay the price. It actually becomes too risky and inexpedient to obey our master! As a result we emphasize conversion and contrition over ethics and discipleship. You’ll never be a good person, but if you believe hard enough you might get forgiven. This betrays a deep misunderstanding of Jesus’ message, in fact it gets it all backwards! Jesus declared the free forgiveness of sins as a sign of the kingdom’s arrival, not as the goal of a religious program. You are already forgiven because God is better than you imagined, so what are you going to do with your life?


Jesus did not conceptualize sin as a legal problem to be solved through belief in the efficacy of a sacrifice. He understood sin as a problem of human perception and relationship. Our insecurity and self-interest causes us to devalue our neighbor, which leads to anger, or lust, or anxiety, or retaliation, or any of the human failures that keep us from seeing God’s kingdom. And so, empathy, selflessness, and forgiveness are THE solutions to sin. They are the stuff of salvation, and they are the reason we need Jesus! (They are also the reason Jesus “had to die,” which we will explore in an upcoming series of posts…)

Jesus announced himself to the world, lived, and died as a teacher and prophet. To believe incredible facts about him while relativizing or ignoring his moral and ethical challenge is absurd and counterintuitive. And if we actually believe that he rose again, and that he sits “at the Father’s right hand,” then how could anything be more true or urgent than the things he taught us? We need to reconfigure our priorities. We have to rethink what it means to follow Jesus. We must stop using Jesus as a celebrity endorsement for bad ideas and theology. Because humanity doesn’t need the church’s message about Jesus, it needs Jesus’ message about the kingdom.