Better Off Drowned

Part two in a mini-series reflecting on some of the secretly scariest passages of the synoptic gospels.


Jesus’ warning not to cause even a single child to stumble is a lot scarier than we give it credit for—and should lead most of us to be a lot more cautious about how we respond to politicians.

Executive Director Rick Barry continues our miniseries of personal reflections on the most intimidating passages of the gospels.

In this episode…
  • Rick Barry is Executive Director of Center for Christian Civics, where he helps ministry leaders and faith communities develop missional approaches to their local public squares. He has worked on campaigns for local, state and federal office, is a former writer and editor for Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City and oversaw communications for the Grace DC church network. He and his wife live in Washington, DC.

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Who might be causing you to stumble? Who have you seen causing people you know and love to stumble? Pray for them by name when you read through this prayer.


RICK BARRY: Today we’re looking at Mark 9:33–50. It’s a passage that we often tend to forget is a single story. It’s one of those sections of the gospels where we tend to turn it into a collection of aphorisms, and forget that these well-known sayings are actually all part of the same story, the same episode:

They came to Capernaum; and when He was in the house, He began to question them, “What were you discussing on the way?” But they kept silent, for on the way they had discussed with one another which of them was the greatest. Sitting down, He called the twelve and said to them, “If anyone wants to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all.” Taking a child, He set him before them, and taking him in His arms, He said to them, “Whoever receives one child like this in My name receives Me; and whoever receives Me does not receive Me, but Him who sent Me.” [Now, this is the scary part:] “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe to stumble, it would be better for him if, with a heavy millstone hung around his neck, he had been cast into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life crippled, than, having your two hands, to go into hell, into the unquenchable fire. If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame, than, having your two feet, to be cast into hell. If your eye causes you to stumble, throw it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, than, having two eyes, to be cast into hell, where THEIR WORM DOES NOT DIE, AND THE FIRE IS NOT QUENCHED. …be at peace with one another.”

These are the words of our Lord and I want to zoom in specifically today on verse 42: whoever causes one of these little ones who believe to stumble it would be better for him if with a heavy millstone hung around his neck he had been cast into the sea. This is obviously not the only warning in scripture about what a big responsibility it is to teach other people about Christ and to take on the responsibility of helping them grow in the faith. But it is maybe one of the bluntest? The verse about the first being last, and the verse about the millstone, and the verses about cutting off the body parts are each pretty well-known on their own, but when I remember that Jesus says all this in response to the disciples arguing about which of them is the greatest, when I think about the fact that these verses are all part of Jesus building up to telling these guys to be at peace with one another, when you take this passage together like that, these verses start to mean something different than they might have meant on their own, if they were just proverbs being delivered without any kind of context. “Jesus, we were just wondering which of us is the greatest?” “Don’t worry about that. Worry about serving other people, and not leading them astray. Anyone or anything that leads other people astray, you’re better off without—whether that’s someone on our team, or someone who isn’t in our club, or even a part of our own body. Humble yourselves and worry about not causing people to stumble instead of worrying about making yourself great.” And, look, that’s obviously scary to me: I’m someone who likes to talk. I think out loud, a lot. And I’m leading a nonprofit that does a lot of its work through teaching classes and is increasingly doing more of its work online—on social media, through this podcast. The idea that I deserve for the body of Christ to pluck me out and cast me away if I say something that turns out to be off base, or if I give bad advice? That’s a really scary proposition to me. The stuff we work on at the Center for Christian Civics is shaped by people of sincere faith, who are well-informed and who are each coming at this question of faith and politics from a very different perspective from one another, so we try to check one another’s blind spots, but Jesus knew how to get a point across, and this one gets across to me. And it’s not just me. I know pastors, small group leaders, plenty of people who have cited this verse as something that makes them really nervous, gives them pause. Plenty of people who are taking this seriously, who are being careful, who want to live up to our responsibilities as ambassadors of the King of Grace, who want to hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” and who actively seek out correction and act with restraint—they still think about this verse. And we should be nervous. This passage should give us pause. In an era when so many of the questions we are facing about what it means to live faithfully are pretty complicated, it’s really, really easy to treat our own best wisdom as though it were a universal gospel truth. It’s really, really important that we only preach Christ and him crucified—and that we’re very clear that everything else downstream from that is an invitation to reason together about how we live in light of that truth. And, yeah, this passage should make us nervous. But it should also make *everyone* in the church really, really cautious. Because American politics is absolutely full of people who try to shape our faith for political gain. Our public life is absolutely full of people using the language and the motions of the Christian faith in order to get us to support their politics with the same kind of energy and commitment we want to put into our relationship with Christ. When I read this passage again recently, I couldn’t help but think of the introduction to the book Onward by Dr. Russell Moore. He opens the book by talking about how surprised he was in college when an atheist friend of his who he’d had a lot of debates with came up to him and asked him to recommend a good church. I’m going to read some excerpts from the introduction now:

Can you find me a good Southern Baptist church? He asked, but one that’s not too, you know, Southern Baptist-y.

Surprised, I stammered that I didn’t even know that he had become a Christian.

He rolled his eyes.

“I don’t believe any of that stuff, he said, but I want to go into politics and I’m never going to be elected to anything in this state. If I’m not a church member. And I’ve looked at the numbers. There are more Southern Baptists around here than anything else, so sign me up.”

I was stunned into momentary silence as he stopped to check out a girl walking past our table. My atheist friend unusually honest, but I don’t think he was honestly all that unusual.

Atheism, he realized, isn’t just about what one believes or doesn’t believe. It’s a tribal marker, one that made him something of an exile in the culture of the Christ-haunted South. He was willing to strike a deal with an innocuous form of Christianity in order to get what he wanted out of real life. Church membership would protect him from cultural marginalization, which was to him, scarier than hell. Finding Jesus was his way of asking America into his heart as his personal Lord and savior.

He was one of many those who recognize that to be at home in [this corner of] America, one needed to be a Christian. This Christianity didn’t require one to carry across. Just say a prayer and agree to certain values and norms.

That form of Christianity that Dr. Moore describes, that syncretism between faith and culture, some people in our public life engage in it deliberately. There’s Dr. Moore’s friend in the story, for example. They position themselves as Christians, or associate themselves and their values or goals with Christianity, and as they do that, whether we realize it or not, they end up introducing a little bit of confusion, bit by bit, year by year, into our minds and into our hearts about what’s Christianity and what’s…politics. We start reacting to politics we agree with as though it were Christianity, and we start reacting to politics we don’t agree with as though it were heresy.

And once we do that, it’s really, really easy to start treating the parts of Christianity that challenge us the same way we treat people who challenge our politics.

And while, yes, there are people in US politics who engage in that kind of behavior in bad faith, there are also plenty of people in our public life who practice that kind of Christianity and never know that about themselves. If that’s the environment we grew up in, if that’s the only model of what it means to be the church that we have access to, then even if we have a sincere conversion, that warped model of the Christian life is still the Christian life we’re going to be raised in, trained up in—and it’s going to be what we end up teaching others. And those of us who were raised in that kind of faith and now have some kind of public influence, or some kind of leadership in other peoples’ lives, are maybe the brothers and sisters who need prayer for wisdom and discernment and humility most of all.

Whether we do it on purpose or whether it’s an honest mistake, when anyone tries to draw a direct line between the idea of Christian faith and the action of supporting the judgment of specific people, and imply that that line can’t be questioned, when someone speaks and acts like supporting this fallen person or this imperfect policy is a do-or-die proxy for the validity of our faith, that malforms us. It malforms us spiritually. It encourages us to cease testing everything. It encourages us to forget that the kingdom of God is not found in the kingdoms of the world. It encourages us to assume that some people need Jesus less than other people. It makes it harder for us to see the world the way Christ sees it. It makes it harder for us to live now in ways that actually anticipate the kingdom that’s coming.

And the idea of ever being on the hook for that to other people is really, really scary to me.

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