A recent disagreement within the Evangelical community, highlighted by a Christianity Today editorial, caught my attention as it became very public just before the turn of the year. The argument had heavy political content, but at its base was an age old theological question concerning the nature of Christian mission and ethics. It is an issue that goes back to the earliest days of Jesus’ ministry. It represents a theological question which affects all who would follow Jesus. It would later come to be called Machiavellianism, named after a Renaissance writer, whose political philosophy popularized the notion that “the end justifies the means.” At its worst it allows that in order to accomplish one’s goals (even “good” ones) evil or immoral means are acceptable. The temptation to “success” regardless of cost is present in every human undertaking, including in the Church, when sometimes a noble and even holy endeavor is deemed so worthy that anything may be done to accomplish it, even employing actions which are contrary to confessed values or beliefs. And so we have been and are always tempted to turn “Christian” from a noun to an adjective. We are tempted to become Christian Machiavellians doing whatever the hell it takes to advance the coming of the kingdom of heaven.
Admittedly this can seem a prudent way to accomplish a good thing. Except that by Jesus’ example we know that this way is not open to his followers. Shortly after his baptism Jesus spent time in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11). Perhaps, among other things, he contemplated how he would approach his mission to proclaim the Good News that the “kingdom of God is at hand.” The devil offered to help. If Jesus would simply fall down and worship him the devil would give Jesus power and authority over all the kingdoms of the world. Power over all the kingdoms! What a way to kick start a ministry! This was undoubtedly a deal that Machiavelli would have snatched up in a New York minute. However, Jesus refused to accomplish a holy end through unholy means, saying “you should serve God alone.” Satan then left him (for the time being).