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Illustration by Krieg Barrie

On being respectable

Jesus went to all the wrong parties

Issue: "The Haiti quake," Feb. 13, 2010

In 1788 Elias Smith was such an impressive itinerant preacher in rural New Hampshire that he was promoted to a wealthy pastorate on the outskirts of Boston and groomed for leadership: "They dressed me in black from head to foot; and on some occasions a part of my dress was silk with a large three-cornered hat and cloak of the best. I built a house there; kept a horse and carriage. . . . Being so respectable I began to write my sermons [rather than preach extemporaneously] . . . as I lived near the metropolis, it would make me appear respectable; and besides . . . it would show that [I was] an ordained minister" (Isaac Backus, William G. McLoughlin).

In the 1820s, to be "a clergyman earning a good living" was the aim of Mr. Mueller in sending his son George to seminary. But the newly converted Mueller cut off his own support because he knew he would disappoint his dad: He was about to embark on a very unrespectable life (The Autobiography of George Mueller). He was about to become "like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things" (1 Corinthians 4:13).

The lust for respectability is formed early. When I was in the seventh grade, my parents came back from a trip to Holland with a present-a leather schoolbag with handles and buckles. I lugged it daily with the greatest dread; it was totally non-­regulation in the jury of my peers-about as respectable as eating haggis in the cafeteria.

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Charles Finney recounts the comic aspect of himself in a law office as a young seeker after Christ: "I kept my Bible out of sight as much as I could. If I was reading it when anybody came in, I would throw my law books on top of it to create the impression that I had not had it in my hands." And when he would steal away from the office to pray outdoors, "still my pride showed itself. As I went over the hill, it occurred to me that someone might see me and suppose that I was going away to pray. . . . So great was my pride, and so much was I possessed with the fear of man, that I skulked along the fence. . . . I then made my way into the woods nearly a quarter of a mile" (Charles Finney, Holy Spirit Revivals).

John Wesley and his Methodists invented the camp meeting-those rousing field preaching events of the 1700s. You know what issue finally split the Methodists and produced the "Primitive Methodists" sect? Camp meetings. Methodism had started as a poor man's movement in England-but when people believe the gospel they tend to clean up their lives, and the next thing you know they get middle-class respectability-and outdoor preaching-fests begin to look uncouth.

William Wilberforce launched a Christian reform of England; he led the battle to end the slave trade and was instrumental in beginning missionary and Bible societies-and did all in the name of Jesus. His two sons, Samuel and Robert Isaac, both clergymen but embarrassed by their father's evangelicalism, wrote a whitewash of a biography, The Life of William Wilberforce, toning down Christ to make their father's great parliamentary work "respectable."

Martyn Lloyd-Jones reflected on respectability: "How utterly ridiculous it has been for the last hundred years for us to put all our emphasis upon academic teaching and learning, as if that is the thing that is most essential to make a preacher . . . suddenly we all became so respectable and so learned" (Joy Unspeakable).

Jesus went to all the wrong parties (Luke 15:2) and missed all the right funerals (Matthew 8:22). He ate when He was supposed to fast (Mark 2:18), came to dinner with unwashed hands (Mark 7:2-3), and once at table gave His attention to all the wrong people (Luke 7:36-50). He let His men eat free-standing grain with abandon, in broad daylight on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:1). He made a scene in the temple. His own mother was embarrassed (Mark 3:20-21).

I want to be like the blind man on Jericho road, who was told by the crowd to shut up, and who kept crying out to Jesus anyway, because he was too desperate to be ashamed.
If you have a question or comment for Andrée Seu, send it to aseu@worldmag.com.
To hear commentaries by Andrée Seu, click here.

Andrée Seu
Andrée Seu

Andrée is the author of three books: Won't Let You Go Unless You Bless Me, Normal Kingdom Business, and We Shall Have Spring Again. Follow Andrée on Twitter @Andreespeterson.

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