Is following Jesus more a matter of assent or allegiance?
By assent I mean agreeing with certain specific ideas and beliefs. I affirm the “content” of the Apostles’ or Nicene Creeds; I believe that the Bible is God’s Word, that Jesus is Lord, that God is triune. I agree with, or assent to, these things—but I cannot draw any connecting lines between these ideas and how I live day to day. “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth”—and therefore I do ___ and ___ and ___.”
Much evangelism has tended to aim at persuading people to change how they think, change what they “believe.” They see Jesus as a great moral teacher; we want them to know that he is the Son of God. They see him as just a human; we want them to understand that he is God-with-us, God incarnate. They think of God as the Supreme Being or a Force or the Guy Upstairs; we want them to know the one God who is Father, Son and Spirit, an eternal communion of love. We may have some success in seeing people move to assent; and the process stops there.
As a result, we live divided lives, thinking or believing one thing in our heads, but living our lives from a different place and a different source. We may have different religious ideas from our neighbors, but it’s hard to see that we live all that differently from them.
Allegiance means things like loyalty, fidelity, trustworthiness with a task, commitment to a purpose, and a willingness to embrace the costs associated with such an allegiance. Because my country is “one nation, with liberty and justice for all,” when I pledge my allegiance to my flag and country, I am committed to naming our many instances of bondage and injustice, and actively doing what I can to redress those wrongs. Because Jesus is Lord, every aspect of my life—how I spend my money and my time, how I speak and think, what I desire and avoid, how I specifically and practically love God, how I love my neighbors.
I am not equating allegiance to a country with allegiance to Jesus. Quite the contrary: allegiance to Jesus will relativize my allegiance to country. Because Jesus is Lord, my life is not available to any other lords; I cannot pledge allegiance to two masters, two purposes, two visions.
Is the Pledge of Allegiance generally more a matter of assent than actual allegiance?
Is my confession of the Creed generally more an expression of assent than allegiance?
Allegiance embraces assent, but assent by itself does not automatically become allegiance. Allegiance requires and is even built upon assent: I agree with an animating vision or fundamental purpose, I am captured by an idea, I experience an “aha!” moment that changes how I see things. I assent, I agree with, I even believe and commit …
… but something gets short-circuited. My head says certain things, but the rest of me is heading in a different direction. Often, many different directions.
Assent needs consent in order to become allegiance. I need to consent to being changed by that to which I give my assent. My consent must be cooperative, it needs to become a process in which I am personally invested, and personally participating. It is an active consent. If my consent takes the form of, “If God wants to change me, he knows my address,” it isn’t really consenting to anything; my consent needs to say something along the lines of, “Here I am, Lord; send me. Work in me, work through me; change me.”
Our lives in fact give expression to our allegiances; our allegiances flow from what we have assented to, and what we have consented to. The problem is that our actual allegiances, assents and consents differ from what we think and say that they are. For example, a man may have assented to the idea that men and women are of equal value and worth, but regularly views porn. I may believe I have pledged my allegiance to Jesus, but still find myself as consumed by anxiety and consumerism as my neighbor. A person may know that she drinks too much or eats too much, but nevertheless actually gives her consent to her current habits and patterns. We may “believe in the power of peace,” but our thoughts, words and actions remain coercive, manipulative, self-dealing and even violent.
I give my assent from my head, my consent with my heart and my life. And I live from my heart, not my head.
It gets more challenging still: it is possible, it is likely—in fact, it is my default mode—to give my assent, consent and allegiance to that which is false, that which is death-dealing rather than life-giving, that which is superficial and cheap rather than deep and trustworthy. But that’s a subject for another day.
Assent becomes allegiance by consent: I consent to being changed, to being formed and shaped, by that to which my heart has pledged its first and deepest allegiance.