If there is one thing that can be safely said about American evangelicalism today, it is that we largely do not care about doctrinal purity and truth. That isn’t to say there are not lovely pockets of resistance, to varying degrees, here and there. Nor is it to say that only five people in America are saved and poor God is hindered because nobody has good theology. (Such ideas ought to be anathema to any Calvinist.) But it is to say that the American church as a whole is increasingly, and stubbornly, atheological, culturally compromised, worldly, equally liberal and legalistic, and paralyzed by unbelief—and all of that is rooted in, and leads to, a disregard for sound and robust theology and obedience to it in life.
Everything I just wrote would be heartily amen-ed by our church and the people in our most similar theological circles. But this is not the entirety of the story. For it is those of us most concerned about doctrine and fidelity—perhaps especially in the face of a culture and a church that rather aggressively rejects both—who are most at risk for judgmentalism, sectarianism, hyper-separatism, name-calling, pugilistic tendencies, lovelessness, inability to listen, and plain old pride and arrogance, all in the name of defending and proclaiming truth. If anything, this is a far subtler sin than that of dismissing theological robustness and accuracy, and ought to be more forcefully rejected and preached against because it is in our own backyard. True preaching, after all, opposes sin and defends God’s glory—and that includes those attacks on His glory that are our respectable sins, rather than the more glaring ones of evangelicalism as a whole that we rightly (and far more easily) denounce.
Our study in Mark this week is a clarion call to maintain both unity and fellowship in truth, to love both truth and people, to realize that rejecting someone’s theology does not require withholding love from them. Pugilism is not a fruit of the Spirit. Mocking people is not a fruit of the Spirit. Acting self-righteous towards people who are clearly more stupid than you because they are on the “wrong” side of a given issue is not a fruit of the Spirit. It is sin. God hates it. Jesus died to take your punishment for it. And we will not have reformation and revival unless we deal with our sins, not just everyone else’s.
The text gives us four observations about, and how Christ responds to, misplaced zeal.
A. The Narrow-Mindedness of John (v. 38)
Recall that our Lord is privately training His disciples for the work they will have to carry on after He has ascended back into haven as victorious risen Lord. It is noteworthy that this lesson is among them, and even more noteworthy that it is one the Holy Spirit thought should be preserved for all time in our Bibles!
Perhaps on the way to Galilee, perhaps while within the town itself, John noticed a man casting out demons in Jesus’ name who was not part of the apostolic company (or, presumably, the seventy). Jesus has just taught them to humbly welcome and serve other believers and the world rather than insisting upon rights or personal greatness and pride of place. Perhaps feeling convicted by this John pulls the Lord aside and says what he saw—and what he did. John and the other apostles evidently attempted to prevent this man from doing his good work—repeatedly. The Greek text says they did this over and over, likely with more intensity and exasperation each time. Doubtless they were at least partially motivated by a desire to honor Christ and a recognition of the unique position the apostles held in the program of God. But just as likely is the reality that John and the other apostles also felt this man was somehow competing with them, or not as godly as them, or otherwise hindering God’s work simply because he was not in their group. And that, too, is why he tried to stop him.
The man was not once or twice but repeatedly casting out demons. He was helping and loving people, and even doing so in reliance upon and understanding of who Jesus was. In other words, he was ministering to people, and God blessed, authorized, and enabled that ministry by using the man as an instrument of His own divine power. The incarnate God, too, has delegated His kingly and divine authority to this man, to use for His glory.
But the Gr. text is emphatic—John hindered him because he was not with them. Who does this man think he is to cast out demons? Perhaps this was even motivated by jealous and embarrassment—recall that 9 of the apostles could not cast out a demon earlier in Mark, because of their unbelief expressed in lack of dependent, persevering prayer. Perhaps then John was miffed at the success and fruitfulness of a nobody compared to him. After all, he was an apostle. He was to sit beside Jesus in the kingdom. He was best friends with the Messiah! He deserved to have this kind of ministry, and some nobody who isn’t even in their group is used by God?
But Jesus saw things quite differently.
B. Jesus’ Prohibition (v. 39)
In this verse, the Lord affirms the man’s ministry and salvation, saying he is doing this “in My name.” This is not the false “in Your name” of the unregenerate in Matthew 7, who perform their “miracles” apart from a transformed life born of faith and love for Christ. Rather, this is a genuine believer with a genuine, God-blessed ministry, for Jesus (1) commands John not to hinder Him (one cannot imagine the Jesus who excoriated the Pharisees for leading people to Hell would have been unconcerned with a false prophet deceiving people with fake miracles) and (2) adds that no one can perform such a miracle and soon after blaspheme Him. In other words, a genuine miracle-worker has that power because they use it to glorify and honor Christ, whose power they express. True miracles come from people who love and reverence Jesus, not people whose lives and lips deny Him with disobedience, false teaching, or demonic deception. In other words, such false wonders are, in Jesus’ mind, not even real miracles, for those who manifest them all sooner or later vilify Him. But Jesus places His stamp upon this man, even though He is not one of the Twelve. He has no sympathies with a harsh, judgmental exclusivity.
C. The Principle (v. 40)
Here, Jesus teaches a principle that undergirds what He has just counseled and commanded. The reason John is not to hinder this man, the reason no one can perform a genuine miracle and then vilify or blaspheme Jesus, is because whoever is not against Jesus is for Him. Our Lord repeats the same idea in Matthew 12:30, from the opposite standpoint (not with = against). In both places Jesus is bluntly saying there is no neutral ground with Him. Either you are with Him by repentant faith, however imperfectly and inconsistency you express that (thank God there is a very low bar, in a sense, for following Christ!), or, by disobedience, false teaching, or affiliation with demons—or most subtle of all, neutrality—you are against Him. Those are your only options. Of course, Jesus can say that even neutrality is opposition because we are all born as God-hating rebels, so our default state is already one of opposition. Additionally, to disbelieve Jesus, however politely or sincerely or reticently, is to disobey the command of the God of the universe, who demands that everyone repent and trust in Jesus (Acts 17:30).
Here’s how this connects: This man was serving Christ, even though he was not part pf the apostles’ approved in-group. We know nothing of his theology or precise understanding of Jesus’ identity, though both are likely to have been muddled. But we do know that genuine service of Christ marked him as a follower of Jesus, who despite his flaws (real or perceived) was not to be hindered in the areas where he was genuinely serving and obeying the Lord. He is for Jesus, and not against Him, so He is with Him—and by extension with the apostles as well!
Paul expresses the same idea in Philippians 1. Imprisoned for the gospel, he had received reports of some believers who resented him using his lack of freedom to exalt their own ministries and prominence by proclaiming the gospel. What ugly, self-serving motives! And yet, Paul exhibits such grace by saying that even in pretense, Christ was proclaimed, and in that he rejoiced (v. 18).
None of this should be taken to say that truth does not matter; that doctrine is unimportant; that ecumenism (in a Christ-denying, gospel-demeaning sense) is a legitimate option for Christians; or real threats to the gospel and satanic distractions from genuine ministry do not need to be opposed; or that fellowship should not be limited between Christians who have differing understandings of faith and practice. Fellowship is within the truth. Some errors are so grievous and deadly that they must be given full-throated condemnation, and names must be named.
BUT this does not mean that everything we disagree with or dislike is a gospel-denying issue. It does not mean we have the right to demean or make fun of people who are serving the Lord but who are not in our group or who have real differences with us theologically or practically. Most of all, it does not justify not listening to someone and not understanding their position before vilifying them, calling them a false convert or a heretic or a threat to the church, or devaluing the good that they have done for the Lord even though they are wrong in one or several areas. How terrifying to have not listened to or dismissed a fellow believer who is serving the Lord and may even be “righter” than you are—and have to stand before Jesus someday! O that we would be humble! O that we would be slow to speak! O that we would not have a critical, fault-finding, nitpicking, censorious, contentious spirit! O that we would do the right thing imperfectly rather than do nothing but find fault perfectly!
O that we would have the grace and patience of Jesus, who is Himself perfect grace and truth.
D. The Illustration (v. 41)
Finally, the Lord illustrates His point. Those who genuinely love and serve Christ and His Church, however imperfect the theology or what group they are in, will be honored and rewarded by Him. Those who do something a simple as give a cup of water to someone, because they bear the name of Christ and because the giver loves that name, will be rewarded. Far from rejecting or dismissing them, the Lord Jesus says He will lavishly welcome and reward anything any believer does for Him! While not denying the need to have fellowship in truth, Jesus also says we must reject a selfish, judgmental, sinfully divisive spirit. God can use people who are wrong, even if that wrong is “they aren’t in my church/denomination/ecclesiology/whatever.”
In closing, I am reminded of the wise counsel of Kevin Bauder: Let us fellowship where we can. Let us separate when we must. Let us love one another withal.