But the purpose of theology is not just knowing about God and truth but knowing how God feels about and interacts with people. Over the years I have met many people who know far more theology than me. They are able to argue their case convincingly on any theological subject. They cross every “T” and dot every “I”. But something is missing. These same people are often harsh and unbending and they tend to lack grace. They put theology before people. Jesus turned this around – that’s why he was always in trouble with the religious authorities of his day.
In John chapter 5, Jesus comes across a man who had been an invalid for 37 years. Jesus healed him telling him “get up! Pick up your mat and walk.” It should have been a day of great rejoicing but those who saw theology as more important than people said, "It is the Sabbath; the law forbids you to carry your mat." What a bizarre response to a man who had just been healed of a 37-year disability.
Jesus was scathing of such people. On one occasion he said to them, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices – mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel” (Matt 23:23-24).
On another occasion Jesus and his disciples were eating with “tax collectors and sinners.” These were the most shunned people by the theologians of the day. In fact “sinners” were people who deliberately and persistently transgressed the requirements of the law. The religious leaders criticised Jesus for eating with such people. In response to this Jesus gave them some homework to do, “go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy not sacrifice.’” A few chapters later in Matthew 12 these same theologians are once again criticising Jesus and his followers. Jesus responded, “If you had known what these words mean, 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice,' you would not have condemned the innocent.” They hadn’t done their homework; they hadn’t learned to put people before theology.
And this has been a sad reality through much of church history. For hundreds of years many Christians, Jews and Muslims suffered at the hands of various Roman Catholic Popes. It’s estimated that somewhere around 100 million people died during these times. Those who were viewed at heretics were tortured, had property confiscated, received lengthy secret imprisonment, secret trials, and death by burning. The inquisitions and crusades are a massive blot on church history and amongst some of the worst examples of those who put theology before people.
But it wasn’t just Roman Catholics who were guilty of this. Many of the Protestant Reformers, including John Calvin and Martin Luther, called for corporal and capital punishment on those they deemed as heretics as well as against Jews.
Over the centuries theology has been used to justify racial discrimination, the slave trade, persecution of scientists, the subservience of non-white people, the subjugation of women, the prohibition of inter-racial marriages, the persecution of non-heterosexual people and the demonising of refugees and asylum seekers.
Just mentioning some of these things of course will unleash a stream of unkind and unchristian emails and blogs from those who are still guilty of putting theology before people, before compassion, before mercy. The religious fundamentalists still haven’t done the homework; still haven’t learned the lesson – and they probably never will.