Hypocrites and Moral Code: What Would Jesus Do?

by Roger Barrier

Dear Roger,

Recently I saw a bumper sticker with the letters, “WWJD” [“What Would Jesus Do?” I haven’t worn my bracelet in a long time and I am thinking about putting it back on. I remember that you mentioned the WWJD bracelets in a sermon and why you didn’t wear one. Refresh my memory, please.

Sincerely, Susan


Dear Susan,

I don’t really remember the sermon, but I do remember the reason that I didn’t wear one. It was not such a good reason. I wish now that I had never said what I said. I whole heartedly endorse them.


The idea for WWJD bracelets comes from the book, “In His Steps,” by Charles Sheldon which he wrote in 1896. Sheldon the pastor of a Congregationalist church in Topeka, Kansas. Sheldon’s theology was shaped by personal commitment to what we might term today as Christian Socialism. He believed that Jesus was every bit as much of a moral example as He was a Savior figure! In other words, a Christian who failed at meeting the needs of the poor and down trodden wasn’t if he was one at all! It is not at all unfair to describe Sheldon as the “Father” of the social gospel as we know it in America today.


The ethos of Sheldon’s approach to the Christian life was expressed by his phrase “What Would Jesus Do?” His novel is now translated in over twenty different languages.


The premise of the book revolves around Rev. Henry Maxwell’s encounter with a homeless man who challenges the good Reverend to take seriously the teachings of Christ. The unfortunate individual has a hard time understanding how so many Christians can ignore the poor? In the early pages of the book the incongruence is clearly laid out before the reader:


It seems to me there’s an awful lot of trouble in the world that somehow wouldn’t exist if all the people who sing such songs [referring to Christian hymns-Ed.] went and lived them out. I suppose I don’t understand. But what would Jesus do? Is that what you mean by following His steps? It seems to me sometimes as if the people in the big churches had good clothes and nice houses to live in, and money to spend for luxuries, and could go away on summer vacations and all that, while the people outside the churches, thousands of them, I mean, die in tenements, and walk the streets for jobs, and never have a piano or a picture in the house, and grow up in misery and drunkenness and sin [Sheldon, C. (1896) In His Steps, p. 10].


Throughout the book the characters continually ask, “What would Jesus do?” in a variety of situations. As a result, many embraced Christianity as it was taught by Jesus and many find themselves living out the life of Christ.


Variations of this behavioral phrase have been used by Christians for centuries. In most recent history Thomas à Kempis (ca. 1380-1471) popularize the concept in his devotional classic, “The Imitation of Christ.”


The phrase “What would Jesus do?” is a personal reminder that the life and example of Jesus is to guide behavior in every facet of life. By the way, WWJD has an alternative meaning, “Walk with Jesus daily”.


Dan Seaborn who lived in Michigan organized in the early 1990s the grassroots phenomenon of wearing bracelets with the WWJD initials. With amazing speed the initialized bracelets were worn in every state in the nation.


The WWJD philoshopy has given guidance in a multitude of areas, some humorous. For example, “What Would Jesus buy?” or “What Would Jesus Listen To?”


Stupidly, I refrained from actively supporting WWJD. First, I arrogantly pointed out in the New Testament that Jesus constantly surprised people with what He would do. I didn’t think that we would do a good job of figuring out what He really wanted. I was wrong. The New Testament quite clearly demonstrates what He would do. For example, He declared in Luke 4:18-19:


“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,

because he has anointed me

to preach good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners

and recovery of sight for the blind,

to release the oppressed,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”


In most every situation we encounter, we can find in the Bible an example of what Jesus did in that very situation.


Secondly, I was afraid of the bad reputation Christianity would get from seeming hypocrites who wore the bracelets and then acted in anything but a Christ-like manner. I was wrong. While some would embarrass Christianity, the good done by the ones truly seeking to live out WWJD would far outweigh any negative connotations.



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