Thieves and Robbers (John 10:1; Acts 7:51;I Pet. 2:23)

by Ronald Goetz

Dr. Goetz, a Century editor at large, holds the Niebuhr distinguished chair of theology and ethics at Elmhurst College in Elmhurst, Illinois.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, April 25, 1990, p. 427, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


How dependent we are upon the Holy Spirit to get anything right.

"Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way is a thief and a robber."

"You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your forebears did, so do you."

"When reviled, he did not revile in return; when suffering, he did not threaten; but he trusted to the one who judges justly ."

These texts seem to be marching in two different directions at the same time. Jesus himself provides us with a strident example of "reviling" as he denounces false messiahs as thieves and robbers. And Stephen calls his fellow Jews "stiff-necked" and "uncircumcised in heart and ears," although Peter insists that Jesus’ forgiveness and love is the living paradigm for Christian ethics. Surely we can’t resolve this conflict by arguing that Christians must indeed suffer abuse unless that abuse is directed at our religious belief, whereby we are obliged by Scripture to have at it with a vengeance. That way lies fanaticism.

Virtually anything (and its opposite) can be proved from the Bible. The resolute proof-texter can find justification for both genocide (Deut. 20:16-18) and pacifism (Matt. 5:38-41) , homophobia (Rom. 1:26-27) and a CIA-like collusion between spies and prostitutes (Josh. 2:1 -21) , pagan mythology (Gen. 6:1-4) and radically exclusive monotheism (Isa. 45:18-23) The Bible is such a mixed bag of texts that no one could pretend to subject himself or herself to the authority of every chapter and verse without becoming hopelessly schizophrenic.

When the radical tensions within the, Bible are compounded with the enormous time gap between biblical times and today, it is small wonder that many texts simply leave us cold. Sometimes the problem may be our own coldness of heart, but often it is the flintiness of the given text. For example, in light of the self-humbling fulfillment of both law and prophecy in Jesus Christ, biblically sanctioned religious persecution or genocide can never again be even remotely conceived as an answer to religious and racial diversity.

The ancient heretic Marcian would solve the problem of difficult or odious texts by re-editing the Bible. Although we have many modern Marcians, I don’t think we can utilize such high-handed censoring of the past. Christians stand in a historical line from ancient Israel to Jesus Christ. We can’t absolve ourselves from the onus that may be on Israel, for example, for its ruthless invasion of ancient Canaan by trying to explain it away, any more than we can absolve ourselves from the catalog of horrors that have resulted from the theocratic pretensions of the church. Nor can American Christians be absolved from the systematic slaughter and exile of Native Americans that parallels the invasion of Canaan, or of slavery and its seemingly intractable aftermath. Neither revisionist analyses nor liberal breast-beating exempts us from collective responsibility.

The Bible offers us many answers to society’s evils, but no pat answers. Apart from the sheer diversity of its oracles and laws, the Bible never reads the same from age to age or from day to day. Our faithful response to Scripture is governed by the unsystematizable relativities of history and the supremely unsystematizable freedom of the Holy Spirit. Thus, a text that may strike us as an irrelevant throwback may, in a given situation, burn suddenly with new power.

In the liberal era, for example, theological openness and cultural tolerance appeared to be self-evident Christian theological virtues. How else could the Christian faith be correlated with each new wave of human spirituality? To the enlightened, to "revile" someone over doctrinal niceties seemed hardly Christian. But all this was put to the test when Hitler’s new Aryan spirituality, his pagan religion of blood and soil, was foisted on the church as the latest and highest manifestation of the human spirit. It was in the context of Germany 1934 that the Confessing Church in its Barmen Declaration rallied around the utter exclusivism of our Johanine text and that other unyielding Johanine claim, "I am the way, the truth and the life: no one comes to the Father, but by me" (John 14:6) . He who enters the door by any other way is a thief and a robber. How could one be a Christian and not so revile Hitler or the mounting list of such fiends spawned in our era?

On the other hand, John 10:1 or Acts 7:51 would never work as imperatives for Christians in interfaith dialogue. Christians engaged in such dialogue need to be led by universalistic themes in Scripture. The Scripture is not a club by which to drive away all but the most rabidly committed. It is the proclamation of good news. It is good news both that all is not merely relative, that there is authority to call the Hitlers of the world what they are (thieves and robbers) , and that Jesus Christ, the one door, is the door of salvation for all.

How dependent we are upon the promptings of the Holy Spirit to get anything right. So much of the history of the Christian church is the history of theological overkill or underkill, of a brutish wielding of the totalitarian potentialities of an uncircumspect monotheism on the one hand or the weak capitulation of the strong word of Scripture to human preference and prejudice on the other.

There exists no such thing as the perfect sermon, a text preached so that it will seem liberating and redeeming to all and enslaving and alienating to none. Similarly, the various contributions of the many saints and seers, storytellers and casuists of Scripture can only be, as T. S. Eliot put it, "reconciled in the stars." Yet this is but another way of recognizing that while we are being saved we have not yet seen the manifest reign of God where diversity enriches all and divides none.