The early Christians were called followers of “the Way” (Acts 9:2; 19:9,23; 24:14,22) . The word in Greek is όδου (hodos). Literally it means a road or a journey or travelling. More metaphorically it can mean a program or method of conduct, a way of thinking, feeling or deciding.
Christians can embrace both senses of the meaning. The Christian life has long been understood to be a journey, or a pilgrimage. And of course, our conduct, our way of thinking should be modeled on Jesus.
I suppose all cultures have some sort of understanding that life requires us to make decisions, to choose our path, morally and ethically about how we live. We might make certain blanket statements; it’s wrong to steal or cheat or lie- it’s good to be trustworthy, honest, and kind; that we believe are always true and correct. Values and beliefs that guide us along the way. But it also seems to me that the way is, to a certain extent, culturally dependent. Different cultures prioritize values differently. One culture might value loyalty above kindness. Another might value cooperation over personal achievement.
As individuals we might have to make choices between values we believe in. Perhaps I find myself in a situation where I can cooperate and be loyal to the people around me, or I can be honest. But I can’t do both.
I’m not saying there are no moral absolutes. I am not arguing for moral relativism. But I am suggesting that we, as individuals and societies, make choices about how we live. Sometimes the choices stand clearly before us. Sometimes, we let others make the choice for us. Sometimes we don’t even recognize we have made a choice.
Christians also, as individuals and as communities, have to make choices also. What does it mean to be a follower of the Way in these days? That’s a question followers of the Way struggled with right from the beginning. If the first Christians had understood perfectly, followed perfectly, Paul wouldn’t have had to write all those letters. One of the reasons the gospels were written was to encourage and support Christian communities, helping them to make good choices by reminding them who Jesus is and what he did.
The Bible is one of the ways we discern, as people and communities, that we are following the Way faithfully. We certainly have Scripture to guide us, but it’s not a roadmap, or a rule book. The idea that we simply need to do what the Bible says is problematic, because the Bible doesn’t pronounce rules as much as it tells a story.
It’s the story to which we must attend. It’s the story in which we find our way.
That’ s why Bible study is so important. Not that we learn the “rules” but that we know the story. And know it deeply and intimately. When we know God’s story, then we can find our place in it.
N.T. Wright has suggested that we think about the story found in the Bible as a five act play. Creation, Fall, Israel, Jesus, and Church. We find our part of the story in the final act, the church.
Like most metaphors, this story metaphor has its limits. While the Biblical “big picture” story exists, there are many, many smaller stories- sub plots,and more than one faithful way to play our part in the big story. Likewise there are many ways to misread, get confused, and wander off down the wrong road.
Of course, the Biblical story isn’t the only story being told. There are competing stories in our world, stories that can drown out the Biblical story. If we are not careful we’ll find ourselves deeply immersed in the wrong story.
Competing stories can confuse us, particularly if we don’t know the Biblical story well. Plenty of nations and people have confused Christianity and nationalism over the centuries. Plenty of us have been lured into placing our faith in economic systems or government systems. Part of the difficulty is that we can’t avoid participation in economic systems, governments and nations. They have stories to tell also. We need wisdom to discern between competing stories.
I’d like to spend some time thinking together about the various stories we hear and how we discern among them.
If you are a college student in the Grand Rapids MI area you are invited to a True North Campus Ministry discussion about this topic. Details are here. For the rest of you, I hope we can discuss via comments. Because I’d like to know, what do you think?
You can read about the Bible as a five act play in N.T. Wright’s The Last Word and in shorter form here. Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen in The True Story of the Whole World suggest a six act structure but the idea is similar.