Whoever is Not Against Us is For Us

“For whoever is not against us is for us” – Mark 9:40

When starting ministry in a new area, one of my favorite things to do is reach out to local pastors who have been serving within that community for a while. It’s great to talk to seasoned veterans of ministry. They know the lay of the land. They know the needs of the town, and can offer valuable insight and support to a new minister who doesn’t.

As someone who works within the realm of youth ministry, I also enjoy finding other ministers who might want to partner together to collaborate on future events. Planning a lock-in or a mission’s trip by myself is doable. Hosting a multi-church lock-in, or taking a trip with several ministries, is often easier. It’s also a lot more fun.

Yet, I have found that some churches don’t always play nice. Despite the insistence that we serve the same Lord, certain churches choose not to associate with other churches for a variety of reasons. Maybe it’s a modes of baptism issue. Maybe its an ordination of women issue. Maybe it’s a Bible translation issue. Maybe it’s a speaking in tongues issue. There are many churches out there that have a lot of issues with communities that aren’t their own.  

And, admittedly, I haven’t always been the best at this either.

I remember a time early on in my ministry career when I was enamored with a particular popular Christian author. I bought and read all of his books. I watched all the sermons of his that I could find online. And I was rather confused as to why other ministers that I knew didn’t enjoy him as much as I did. There were even some that wholeheartedly disagreed with his theology! To my mind at the time, those that disagreed with this author must not be as close to God as he (or I) were. They couldn’t be trusted. I shouldn’t partner with them.

I can think of another similarly embarrassing moment from around that same time, too. I was about a year into serving at my first church when a nearby pastor reached out to me. He asked if I want to sit down with him for coffee the next morning so that we could get to know each other better. I agreed. But then I eagerly spent the rest of that work day researching the theological differences between his denomination and mine so that I might be ready if our conversation turned combative.

I was not only ready for a fight, I wanted one.

When I think back to those early ministry days, Jesus’ words to his disciple John in Mark 9:38-41 are convicting to me –

“’Teacher,’ said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.” “Do not stop him,” Jesus said. “For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us. Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not lose their reward.”

But didn’t Jesus Also Say…

However, I do know that if someone attempted to quote that passage of scripture to me during my younger years, I would have been quick to respond with Jesus’ words in Matthew 12:30

“Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.”

Is Jesus contradicting himself?

No. Jesus’ words in Mark 9 and Matthew 12 are found within conversations of very different natures.

In Matthew 12, Jesus is refuting the claim that the miracles he is performing are fueled by demonic power. A group of Pharisees, after witnessing a crowd label Jesus the “Son of David” after He healed a man from demon possession, were upset that their fellow Jews used a Messianic title in reference to Jesus. They were not convinced that Jesus was the Christ and instead accuse Him of exorcising demons at Satan’s behest.

Jesus responds by pointing out the flaws in their line of thinking. Why would Satan wish to damage his own stronghold? Why would Satan, an enemy of God, be trying to bring about God’s rule upon the earth (Matthew 12:25-26)? But more, those who label God’s work through His Messiah as schemes of the devil are committing blasphemy against the Lord (Matthew 12:27-32). Jesus words quoted above are found in this context. Those that do not follow Jesus as their Lord and rightly see Him as the “Son of David,” but especially those that attribute Jesus’ word to Satan, are against Jesus and his kingdom.

Jesus’ words in Mark are a bit different.

Both Matthew and Marks’ conversations stem from questions regarding proper healing from demonic possession. But the question asked in Mark comes from one of Jesus’ disciples as opposed to a group of people already pitted against Christ.

John, one of Jesus’ disciples, had just witnessed a man casting out demons in Jesus’ name. This individual seems to not have been a part of the commissioned group (Mark 6:7-13) sent out earlier in Mark’s gospel and tasked to do so. So, John proudly explains to Jesus that he and the rest of the twelve made sure to put a stop to this person’s actions.

But Jesus points out that this person was performing this miracle “in Jesus’ name.” And, if he was doing so while invoking the name of Jesus, that person wouldn’t be able to speak anything bad about Him (Mark 9:39). That is, even though the disciples didn’t know who this individual was, that person must have been a genuine follower of Jesus. It was wrong for John and the rest to command them to stop because “whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40).

But There’s More!

There’s even more going on in Mark 9:38-50 than that.  

First, the Greek text behind 9:38 is actually a bit more on the nose that most English translations render it. The NIV translates 38c as: “because he was not one of us.” In its original language,[1] however, the force of its meaning is something more like: “because he was not following us.”

John and the rest were assuming that they alone were on Jesus’ side and that all others who were not contained within their group weren’t. They had created a hierarchy, put themselves at the top, and deemed all others, even those who were performing miracles in Jesus’ name, as lesser and inferior. Again, Jesus responds to their exclusivity by reminding them that “whoever is not against us is for us.”

But right after, Jesus turns the tables on His disciples. He describes them as ones who are needy and are being served through the hospitality of other faithful followers (Mark 9:41). Jesus recognizes that His disciples have made an unnecessary hierarchy and puts them in their place by labeling them as outsiders who are served and welcomed, not the other way around. John and the rest aren’t at the center of God’s kingdom. They aren’t the ones dispensing God’s blessing or approval as they see fit. No, they too are equals will all others under the lordship of Christ.[2] They need to be careful not to act in a way that undermines or contorts this fact.

Jesus then follows all of that up with a rather alarming warning, as seen in Mark 9:42-50

“If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where “‘the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched.’

Everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again? Have salt among yourselves, and be at peace with each other.”

It’s tempting to read Jesus’ words here as unconnected from His previous conversation with John. I think that would be a mistake. While Jesus does talk about the dangers of not taking private sin seriously elsewhere, it seems that He is referencing communal sin in this context. That is, Jesus disciples, and all Christian communities for that matter, need to be careful not to trample over “little ones” in their battles with other groups over matters of loyalty and exclusivity. It is a serious, serious offense.

Or, to quote the Mark commentary in the Story of God series:

“When powerful people built up their followings and criticize other groups in order to shore up group loyalty, young Christians or those turned off by controversy and division may lose heart or grow disillusioned. They may turn away from the faith, losing interest in following Jesus. Jesus’ warning is breathtaking. In effect he says, ‘If anyone causes one of these little ones to become a casualty in quests for personal glory that result in drawing boundaries to define group loyalty, it would be better for them to be killed in the most horrifying way possible than to face God’s judgement.”[3]

Stories of children and teenagers eaten up by infighting and rival factions created by church splits aren’t hard to find. I know of several students personally who have given up the faith because of the sins of the community they once called home. This text in Mark 9 should serve as a warning to us about how seriously God takes such sin.

Whoever is Not Against Us is For Us

As I mentioned in the opening portion of this blog post, I am still learning. And one of the things that I’m learning is that it is best to not focus too heavily on the matters that divide us from other believers but instead on that which unites us.

That pastor or church community down the street? They are no less a disciple of Jesus than we are. Just because they might differ from us on doctrinal matters doesn’t make them farther down some made up hierarchical ladder. God’s kingdom is comprised completely of equals under Christ. When we attempt to position ourselves above another person for whatever reason, we are making a move that Jesus hasn’t.

Too often we attempt to judge fellow believers using Jesus’ language in Matthew 12. We are often ready to label others as against Jesus, and ones who will be scattered in judgement, for whatever reason. And there are times when such a thing is nessecary. But it’s absolutely paramount that we prayerfully discern our own motivation behind such a label before we speak it into existence.

For example, do you –

  • have something personally against an individual or group; and, because of it, are tempted to speak badly about them?
  • want to make yourself look better, or hope to elevate your status in the eyes of your peers, and are tempted to do so by belittling others (or their beliefs)?
  • believe that it might be possible that you’ve given into the allure to cultivate wrathful argumentation and conflict as opposed to the desire to promote love and unity?
  • just not completely understand the argument or side of the person or group you are reacting to, and might be lashing out at them in fear?
  • feel that you are so committed to your own reading of scripture that any different interpretation than your own deserves condescension or condemnation?

If you can affirm any of the above bullet points, it might be best to hold back your judgement.

Like Jesus says after his warning involving heavy millstones, it’s best to work towards peace lest we lose our saltiness.

[1] ὅτι οὐκ ἠκολούθει ἡμῖν

[2] Timothy Gombis, Mark, The Story of God Bible Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2021), 333.

[3] Gombis, Mark, The Story of God Bible Commentary, 333-334.

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