How far should we be willing to go in personally identifying with the people whom we want to come to Christ? And what should such empathetic efforts look like in an America set ablaze by social and political unrest? Ever mindful that godly intentions can be led astray into ungodly places of gospel compromise, how does God's word guide us in principled, practical ministry to and within our powder-keg culture?
Christians must always evaluate the world and our work within it from the standpoint of Christian liberty. Christian liberty walks a biblical path between compromising gospel truth in our efforts at empathy and wrongly avoiding deep and nuanced social engagement in the name of gospel integrity. The ministry of the Apostle Paul gives us both principle and precedent; his words and work teach us much about what does and does not count as gospel compromise in ministry and therefore the lengths to which we’re free to go in serving Christ as well as the boundaries which we must never cross. We American Christians need to pay especially close attention to Paul, because the gospel compromises to which we’re most vulnerable might not be what we hear about most among Christians rightly concerned to preserve the purity of the gospel, and who see political freedom as a means of that protection.
Let’s consider one example of how far Paul and his pastoral protege Timothy went to be able to minister the gospel in the midst of the theological, philosophical, social, and political upheavals of their day. In Acts 16:3, we’re told oh so briefly, but oh so significantly, that Paul circumcised Timothy so that the latter could work with him among the Jews. Think of that!
As we track Paul’s gospel work through Acts 16, we see that prominent Jewish leaders were teaching what would calcify as the particular false gospel that made the Apostle go apoplectic in his letter to the Galatians. In Galatians 1, Paul pronounces damnation on anyone, even angels from heaven, who’d dare to preach an unfaithful understanding of Christ’s saving work. Paul anathematized false teachers, warned Christians against vain philosophy in general (Colossians 2), and taught that circumcision avails nothing for salvation (Galatians 5) or even law keeping (1 Corinthians 7). Paul participated in a major church council on the Judaizing of the gospel, after having vehemently and personally opposed some teachers who were promoting it (Acts 15). For his troubles, Paul was trolled from town to town by some from “the party of the circumcision” (Titus 1) who slandered him and incited potentially lethal riots against him and his co-laborers (Acts 17). So think of it (again!). In the midst of the propagation of a false gospel, in a religious, social, and political ethos of persecution by the avowed enemies of Jesus the Christ, Paul had Timothy permanently marked with what became the defining, recognized religious symbol of an essentially, self-consciously, sometimes riotously and always purposefully and directly anti-Jesus theology (!!).
Christians, let’s let that example really, deeply, sink into our hearts as we contemplate the principles of our personal and cultural conduct, and as we survey the stands being taken in the name of Christ during our time of civic and social unrest. Are our stands against this particular slogan or that particular mandate really matters of gospel integrity? Or are they so much posturing which looks the part, gains applause among our own ilk, and costs us nothing in the process…except perhaps some of the church’s credibility in engaging the traumas of our times and the opportunity to personally engage hurting people for the healing Savior?
Let’s consider Paul’s example with regard to:
What words we’ll use, or refuse to use, in ministering Christ to those currently hurting from perennial, painful injustice in our culture.
What we consider to be a true violation of religious freedom and true government overreach in general. Don’t get me wrong, I believe there have not only been overreaches, but hubris-laden, hypocritical power-grabs by political leaders from both major parties. But I don’t find much of it in the stuff that gets the most attention and seems to stoke the most (social) media fire among Christians claiming to draw a line in the sand for Christ and personal, religious liberty. It’s almost impossible to imagine, and it seems actually impossible to find in Scripture, Paul or the other Apostles and disciples reacting to governmental strictures in the same manner as those who claim their mantle as they call for ostensibly Christian civil disobedience in our day. Just read and think upon the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) wherein our Lord commands, “…and if someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles…” Compare the mentality Jesus mandates for his disciples to the perspective evident in popular Christian outrage in our day. The contrast is staggering, and it’s instructive.
In the stress we feel as Christians in a changing (and changed) culture, it's easy to aggrandize our struggles, to fancy ourselves modern-day Reformers battling the oppressive religious power of the state as we vie for freedom to worship God. But when measured against biblical precept and precedent, perhaps what we're most upset about is that our rather suburbanized, materialistic customs and comforts are being taken away. Ironically, Christians who’ve faced real persecution often downplay its severity, similar in ways to war veterans who just don’t want to talk about their combat experience. Their minds are always on those who’ve suffered worse, or who didn’t survive. At the very least, truly persecuted Christians are typically more eager to talk about Christ's glory and their joy that he uses their trials for the advance of his gospel than they are to talk about their personal pain endured for his sake. Talking to such Christians can help us understand what it really means to suffer for Christ and how to respond in a godly way to persecutors. Their example should shame us away from sensationalizing situations that are not as serious as simplistic analyses suggest; their counsel can help us to spot the actual societal signals that true persecution may be coming and in some cases is already here. We need such calming, clarifying perspective. When we pull the spiritual fire alarm every time the ideological temperature goes up in our culture, we lose the ability to recognize and respond biblically to the true emergencies. It’s to be feared that in sounding the alarm so quickly and frequently about what unbelievers are trying to do to the church, we’ve overlooked some true spiritual fires, blatant compromises of the gospel started within and blazing among our own Christian camp.
It is so easy as American Christians to confuse legitimate political freedom with autonomy; it is so tempting, when we feel the political power this compromise provides, to fight for the latter in the name of the former. We Americans seem to be chronically if not terminally ill with a bad case of this confusion. For American Christians, it’s a clear symptom of a deep spiritual malignancy when we simultaneously confess that our true citizenship is in heaven while applauding political speeches which posit the Apostle Paul as an American patriot. For examples: when we think that 2 Corinthians 3:17 refers not to the Holy Spirit who brings Christ-centered liberty from law-keeping as a means of salvation, but to the spirit of political freedom that we cherish in America; when we're called by politically powerful Christians in language clearly and purposely evocative of Hebrews 12 to "fix our eyes on Old Glory and all she represents" as we run the race set before us; in general, when we hail our nation as the world's great hope and the city shining on the hill with messianic light - we are woefully, systemically, sick with gospel compromise. We’re spiritually coding. We could use a crash-cart, and perhaps this is precisely why we may in fact face real persecution in our culture – we Christians need to regain clarity on what is and is not the gospel of Jesus; on who Jesus himself is and is not; on what is and is not the solution to the human condition; and therefore on where our deepest affections and loyalties ought to lie. If nothing else, persecution brings profound clarity on what principles and practices are truly Christian.
There’s no doubt that Christians and Christian institutions (and other groups!) have suffered from government overreach in America, and that as a culture we are indeed trembling from tectonic shifts, philosophically and politically, which threaten to swallow our civic religious freedoms whole. But the ideological fault-lines in our land were formed long ago. It’s actually shocking that we’re not more shaken up than we are! The fault-lines have been active beneath the surface for quite some time while we’ve perhaps been spiritually slumbering via materialistic ministry misadventures. We should have seen, should have been prepared for, or at the very least should not now be surprised by the way structures and lifestyles we’ve long taken for granted are crumbling and tumbling down. In some cases, perhaps many more than we want to admit, it's not God's blessings that are collapsing, but our idols. Christians can be thankful along those lines for God's severe mercy.
In the midst of the tumult, it seems the most effective Christian responses are happening humbly, quietly, and behind the scenes in local settings. The stands being taken in smaller environs amount to faithful gospel proclamation, hard and humble personal conversations, and the cultivation of loving hospitality. These small-scale movements are making spiritual headway against the dehumanizing, enslaving thought systems which need to be conquered by gospel truth and taken captive to Christ. The stuff in social media headlines about the struggles of embattled churches which are also big businesses led by iconic pastors seems by comparison a gross mockery of true Christian suffering under governmental persecution. It only seems to lead to more (legitimate) criticism of popular Christianity in our culture as popular pastors speak and act with an autonomous spirit, rather than in respectful, humble, freeing subjection to Christ, the king of nations (Daniel 3, Acts 4). Ironically, the reason true Christian faith faces hostile political opposition is at least partly due to its false but famous representations.
Christian liberty is most emphatically not the “rugged,” autonomous individualism for which we’ve sometimes unknowingly or perhaps eagerly exchanged it in America. Paul’s mentality and modality of ministry included a sophisticated awareness and pragmatic usage of his rights as a Roman citizen, and our method and means of ministry ought to do the same with regard to our civic identity as Americans. We can love our country, seek its benefit (Jeremiah 29), vie for its principles which cooperate with God's commandments, and even fight for it (I’m perpetually proud that my dad and granddad served in the U.S. Navy). And we can fight against its ethos on behalf of the oppressed when the nation’s laws and leaders are the oppressors. We must remember that we are citizens of Christ’s kingdom first, and forever. We American Christians are called to conduct our lives according to an authority higher than the U.S. Constitution. God’s holy word must rule and guide us, no matter what our beloved country or culture champions at the moment, or has prized historically.
Paul put this transcendent but immanently practical gospel ethic to work when he circumcised Timothy, an action which surely could have drawn scads of Christian critics accusing him of compromise. Imagine the social media headlines were that possible in Paul’s day! Biblical scholar F.F. Bruce writes, “No doubt Paul was charged with inconsistency for his action . . . Those who deplore the absence of this consistency from Paul miss the higher consistency which aimed at bringing all the activities of his life and thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ (2 Cor. 10:5) and at subordinating every other interest to the paramount interests of the gospel (1 Cor. 9:23).” - F.F. Bruce, The Book of Acts - New International Commentary on the New Testament. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988).
I want to express my personal gratitude to and respect for the pastors and parishioners who are applying Paul's principles and practical example. They feel the national headlines heavily, personally, and have thus sought with the gospel’s guidance to understand the events and engage the people most immediately involved and affected. Praise God for gospel proclamations that are not mere recitations but which emphasize principled, faithfully nuanced application to the deep pains upon historically hurting hearts. Thank the Lord for ministers and ministries who, in the midst of many government mandates, have found clever, creative ways to continue to keep Christ the King's commands to his church, including the command to honor and be in subjection to our civil authorities (Exodus 20:12; Romans 13; 1 Peter 2).
By definition of their humility and by design of their ministry, you won’t hear much about such leaders and laity in the headlines. But they are out there, and they are working for Christ and genuinely loving their neighbors in his name. It’s especially important for critics of Christianity to know this, those who judge the historic faith by observing its ostensible representations in current celebrity pastors, Christian corporate enterprises, public scandals, political co-options, and other manifestations of autonomy and materialistic self-exaltation - all of which attempt to capitalize on the name of Christ. These are Christ-defying blasphemies, not Christian bona fides. Part of the heat we all feel might be the Lord’s refining fire starting to make that difference blazingly clear (Malachi 4).
It’s also important for discouraged believers to know all this. When we examine history, we see that there were indeed, of necessity, many prominent Christian public leaders (often rendered so against their personal preference) whose work significantly advanced the gospel. At the same time, the Lord used the unannounced, faithful service of Christians behind the scenes (Acts 2) to spread his word and bless his world – especially in times of genuine persecution (Acts 8), plague (Matthew 10, Acts 5), and sociopolitical unrest (Ephesians 2, Philemon). That’s still happening today, because Christ remains enthroned and retains his witness in the humble hearts and merciful hands of those who love him more than their own lives, who love him as their lives (Matthew 28, Colossians 3), and as such, who love their neighbors as themselves (Matthew 22) not only in word, but in deed (1 John 3).
May we as Christ’s church in America, or wherever you are reading this, be ever and essentially guided in our personal and corporate conduct by the paramount interests of Christ’s gospel. Let us with all confidence in Christ live a life pursuing whatever particular service he has for us, public or private, willing to go as far as true gospel work will take us to call people to him, heralding and selflessly living out the true liberty for which Christ has set us free.