I have been impressed over the last few years about the need for Christians to be gracious, always, when addressing people, especially people who do not believe in Christ. Maybe I have been so impressed because of the many examples on social media in which people “defending” Christ or Christian values are anything but gracious.
The direction from Scripture is clear. The following two passages are instructions on how Christ followers should relate to outsiders:
“Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” Col. 4:5-6 (ESV)
“[A]lways being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.” 1 Pet. 3:15-16 (ESV)
I believe God wants is to take these instructions to heart!
I have seen so many examples of ungracious responses from people purporting to defend the Christian faith and values that it seems to me we are failing generally on this point. We seem to be failing to put on Christ and to display his character to the world, and our failure is having an impact. It’s just not a good one!
When people display godly character in their conversations they really shine. When we aren’t gracious, “seasoned with salt”, gentle and respectful, we risk eclipsing the message of the Gospel by our demeanor. The world needs to see Jesus lifted up, but we may be blocking their view.
Assuming that God is serious about the way we should respond to outsiders who don’t know Christ, what does it mean to be gracious? What does it mean to season our speech with salt? What does it mean to provide a defense with gentleness and respect?
I recently read an article by Ed Stetzer and Andrew MacDonald, Waking Up After QAnon: How Can the Church Respond, posted by Christianity Today. The secondary headline is: Evangelicals disproportionately believed conspiracy theories in 2020. How do we recover?
I do not agree completely with everything in this article, but I think it is more “right” than wrong. The following assertion, for instance, certainly rings true to me:
“For years a segment of Christianity has sought to reclaim the United States of America as a Christian nation—or at the very least a nation founded upon Judeo-Christian values. However, they have, at the same time, witnessed the American culture (and, yes, what they see as American elites—media giants, big tech, politicians, and Hollywood) adopt a more secular and progressive agenda.”
I know this to be true because I “grew up” in Christianity in an atmosphere influenced by the Moral Majority and efforts to reclaim the Christian heritage of this country. It was a patriotic movement made “sacred” with Christian reference and fervor.
The community in which I was engaged out of college joined the effort. It seemed that some momentum was being generated in the direction of reclaiming the United States as a Christian nation…. at least while I remained in that community. When I left to go to law school, my perspective changed.
Looking back, I see that patriotic Christianity appeals to a certain narrative of faith and a desire to protect what is familiar and comfortable. It affirms a sense of place in the world as an American Christian who believes fully that the United States was blessed by God more than other nations in the world and stands alike a city set on a hill for the world to see.
While I think there may be some truth to that blessing from God, we shouldn’t confuse His blessing for a time (and for His greater purpose) with our own desires for prosperity, influence, protection of lifestyle, culture and familiar life. God raises kings, and he takes them down.
The patriotic movement in the church going back in time was influenced, in part, by the “prosperity gospel”. A certain exhilaration accompanies the thinking that we are part of a sacred movement of God’s people uniquely blessed with faith. It was a kind of manifest destiny for the church.
I imagine the 1st Century Jews saw the world similarly, though they didn’t have the prosperity or power of American Christians in 1st Century Judea. Their sense of being God’s people and being culturally “right”, however, made it difficult for them to accept that God loved Gentiles who didn’t observe Jewish rituals. It caused the first schism in the early church.
The American exceptionalism that is part of the allure of this politically-charged faith embraces modern Israel and the Jewish state. They see a kinship there, and I believe are prone to the same kind of error that the early church fell into.
Moving on from that community of my early walk in Christ and seeing faith and the world from different angles changed my perspective. I loved my time in the community of my early Christian years. They did many things right, and they were eager and earnest in their faith in refreshing ways, but I have come to see that God is bigger than our patriotic ideas of Him.
(Not that all the people in the church I attended wandered down that road. I know many of them still, and many of them did not get swept up in the patriotic fervor. They have adjusted and adapted, and their perspectives have changed also.)
The real point here is that God has a global and universal purpose. We are as much a part of that purpose as my brothers and sisters in China, or India or in the African American churches in the US.
That is not to say that everyone is right about the way they view the world from their own unique vantage points and perspectives, but it means I need to listen to them because they offer perspective that I have trouble seeing from my own, limited position. Perhaps, if we can all come together in the shared experience of Christ who died for all mankind and learn to set aside the things that divide us, we can catch a more global and universal glimpse of what God is doing in the world.
The Stetzer and MacDonald article makes the following statement regarding the headlong embrace of Donald Trump: “Christians need to understand how this foolishness not only hurts relationships in the local church and community but diminishes our witness. In such situations, our gospel witness is at stake and we cannot afford to be passive.” This is a major concern.
We may have trouble seeing the ways in which we have wandered off the narrow path unless we take time to listen to what other believes are saying.
Followers of Christ are going to end up as part of “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb… and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God….’” (Rev.7:9) Knowing how our journey ends as children of God, how should we live in this world?
Jesus introduced the kingdom of God to the world and invited the world to “enter” it. Just as the first century Jews were only a portion of the world to whom Jesus extended that invitation, we in the West and in the United States of America are only a portion of the global world Jesus invites to enter God’s kingdom. Jesus came, not to condemn, but to save the entire world full of people.
We might as well get used to the diversity now. I think it’s easy for us in the US to miss the fact that the global church today doesn’t look like us at all. The “average” Christian in the world today is a 22-year old brown female. Only 12% of the Christians in the world live in the North America (including Canada). Only 37.5% of the Christians in the world live in the “west”.
It’s a human tendency to separate from and even to demonize things that are foreign to us. It’s also a human tendency to embrace things that are familiar to us, even to our detriment. Jesus calls us to separate from the world, which is familiar to us, and to embrace God’s kingdom, which is foreign to us in our “flesh” (as Paul calls it).
Jesus calls us to reject the sin that is familiar to us in exchange for His righteousness that is foreign to us. Righteousness is not of us or from us; righteousness is of god and from God.
Thus, Christians are uniquely called to be different from the rest of the world who embrace the familiar (both things of the world, generally, and specific aspects of this worldly specifically, such as gender, race, nationality, etc.). We are called to separate from this world that is familiar to us and to embrace a world that is foreign (the spiritual realm into which we must be born again).
This model of Christian living is demonstrated by Paul and the disciples in carrying out the Great Commission. Paul said that he became all things to all people that he might win some.
Paul quoted pagan poets and philosophers in his address on Mars Hill. (Acts 17) That means he read them and understood them. Thus, he was able to quote them appropriately and use those references that people knew to point them to God. This is because Paul embraced the fact that he was in the world, though he was not of the world.
This is what is means to carry out the Great Commission – to “go into all the world” making disciples. In the case of those disciples, God “encouraged” them with local persecution to scatter to Judea and and beyond. (We don’t always embrace what is foreign and unfamiliar to us willingly!)
We have the same command and challenge in our modern world. We don’t do these things easily or always willingly. it takes us way beyond our comfort levels that are defined by what we know and is familiar to us. When we take up our crosses and follow Jesus, though, he takes us into foreign territory!
One example of foreign territory is the modern worldview is informed by Critical Theory and and how it informs the world on issues of racial injustice. As members of a kingdom comprised of every nation, tribe and tongue, we need to be able to speak into issues of racial injustice
Esau McCaulley interviewed NT Wright on his Disrupters podcast last year. NT Wright is a British New Testament scholar of some renown who became McCauley’s mentor. McCaulley is an African American from raised a Southern Baptist in the deep south.
McCaulley made a comment after the interview that prompts my writing today. He said, “I feel like I am a mix of a bunch of things. I have this kind of British, evangelical side, and I have this kind of African American church side, and strangely they have coalesced in ways I didn’t expect.”
I think about how interesting and rich the conversation was between NT Wright and Esau McCaulley. The fact that they come from disparate and diverse backgrounds permeates the discussion as they explore the things that unite them.
Esau McCaulley is a New Testament scholar in his own right, now, because of the influence of NT Wright. He has written one book on Galatians, and he is now writing a second. McCauley also became an Anglican, but his heritage and unique experience, personally and communally, as a black man in America remains central to his identity.
I think about the church in the United States and the global Church. I recently heard someone describe an unfortunate, unforeseen and unintended consequence of the Reformation and the great movement to translate the Bible into common languages so that all people can read the Bible in their own tongues. That consequence was the fragmentation of the Church.
First, it fragmented into groups of people who spoke English, French, and other European languages. Over time, the fragmentation rippled out so that today in America we can find Spanish-speaking, Filipino-speaking, and other linguistic, ethnic and cultural huddles of believers that keep largely to themselves based on language and heritage.
The Reformation splintered into many “protestant” groups, and that fragmentation exploded into the New World where Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists and others splintered apart from each other into various and distinct groups, and many more new denominations sprung up. The fragmentation continued along cultural, doctrinal, ethnic, ritualistic, racial, governmental, and other lines.
Nowhere is this fragmentation more evident in the world than in the United States. In fact, statistics that show that churches are more segregated than the rest of the country (which is still pretty segregated).
The intersectionality (to use a very loaded term) of the disparate backgrounds, experiences and heritage of NT Wright and Esau McCaulley, and their ongoing relationship remind me of the need for unity in the Church. We need to come together. We need each other.
I have been wrestling with the divergent views of social justice, critical theory and gospel justice for some time now. They all “compete” in the same arenas, have some overlapping commonality, but they diverge in some very fundamental ways. I am not going to get into those difference here, but I want to try to open a discussion about how we, as Christians, move in these areas and discuss them in ways that honor the desire of Jesus to leave the 99 and go after the lost sheep.
I am writing this after reading a well-written article by Natasha Crain, 5 Ways Christians are Getting Swept into a Secular Worldview in This Cultural Moment. I like that she starts out by acknowledging that George Floyd’s death, which prompted a massive public response, was unjust, and that racism is not only wrong; it is not biblical. She acknowledges that Christian can agree with the secular world on those points.
She goes on to describe five (5) ways in which Christians get swept along by secular currents that are not biblical in attempting to respond to injustice. Critical theory (and critical race theory), in particular, is antithetical to Christianity in some of its core tenets. Though she doesn’t really say it directly, critical race theorists and Christians can both agree that injustice exists and even on that much of what that injustice looks like. The real divergence is in the worldview that informs and under girds critical race theory and its proposed solutions.
I am not going to talk about the details of those differences either. (I did a little bit of that in Critical Race Theory from a Christian Perspective.) What I want to address, using Natasha Crain’s article as a backdrop, is the extent to which I believe the evangelical church failed to address justice issues as God would have us address them.
We are good at preaching the good news (the Gospel), and good at proclaiming truth (including articles like Natasha Crain’s article detailing what is wrong with the critical race theory and social justice efforts the truth and/or leave the Gospel out of the equation), but we are not so good at doing justice. (I have written about this recently here, here and here.)
I see many articles like Natasha Crain’s article, and I hear many voices warning about the evils of critical race theory and social justice initiatives that are divorced from the Gospel, but we need positive voices to speak into the area of justice from the position of the Gospel at the same time. Justice is at the very foundation of God’s throne. (Psalm 89:14) We can’t ignore it!