“Now the way from the river was rough, and their feet (Christian and Hopeful) tender by reason of their travels; so the souls of the pilgrims were much discouraged because of the way. Wherefore still as they went on, they wished for a better way. Now a little before them there was on the left hand of the road a meadow and a stile to go over into it, and that meadow is called By-Path Meadow. Then said Christian to his fellow, if this Meadow lieth along by our way-side, let’s go over into it. Then he went to the stile to see, and behold a path lay along the way on the other side of the fence. ‘Tis according to my wish, said Christian; here is the easiest going; come, good Hopeful, and let us go over.” — John Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress.
A few years ago there was another resurgence of interest in Charles Sheldon’s book, In His Steps, and it’s ethic of the Christian considering his own conduct from the perspective of, “What would Jesus do?” The book was an inspiration to my own youthful passion for Christ back in 1977, and it inspired another generation of Christians from the late 1990s onward. It resulted in the ‘WWJD’ bracelets and some other fashionable ways of bringing the question to a believer. Unfortunately, I think that the fashionable, hip and trendy path has become a kind of threadbare and possibly deceptive ‘By-Path Meadow’ for many.
One of the considerations that led me to a much diminished consideration of the question, “What would Jesus do?” was the lack of scriptural support that I could find for that question being a guide to Christian conduct. Rather, as I read the gospels and the rest of the New Testament, I found a lot more explicit instructions on what Christ has done for us in his death and resurrection and living for him as Lord and Savior. Even more, I found that Jesus and the apostles were much more concerned about his people following his commands as Lord than in contemplating his example and following our speculation about what he would do in our situation. For example, the conclusion to the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew and the Sermon on the Plain in Luke represent what Jesus actually expected from his disciples: “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say? Everyone who comes to me and hears my words and does them – I will show you what such a person is like. He or she is like a man who is building a house who dug deep and placed the foundation upon the rock. When the flood came the torrent burst upon it but it was not able to shake it because it was well built. But the person who hears and does not do is like a man who had built a house without a foundation, which the torrent burst upon, and immediately it fell apart, and great was the ruin of that house” (Luke 6:46-49). So, it was passages like this that drew me more to consider and follow what the Bible actually taught rather than my own speculation about what Jesus might do.
This, then, is how the WWJD ethic can become a ‘By-Path Meadow’: if it leads at any point to anyone neglecting to learn, believe and follow the Word of God in its explicit teachings. Recently I heard a pastor of a church which I visited and which seems to have some connection to the ‘Emergent Church’ movement say something to the effect that it’s not really that necessary to seek to learn the Bible that well, and that he seemed to say that knowing some of the stories about Jesus – he mentioned the story about the woman at the well from John 4 and the rich young ruler – and following the WWJD ethic was enough to get by with as far as knowing the Bible. I pray that he reconsidered (or will reconsider) what he said and corrected it before his congregation at some point. The truth is that churches and denominations already went down that path at one point in the past. It was called Modernism and 19th century theological Liberalism, and it ruined many Christians, churches and denominations. It resulted in a preaching and teaching about a merely human Jesus who set some vaguely good example, a Bible treated as if it were error filled and thus ignored, a deadening of spiritual vitality, missionary service and evangelistic fervor and a severely dumbed down social ethic of following mere speculation about the example of Jesus.