Monday, July 14, 2014

A problem of emphasis

Every now and then I come across a statement like this one I saw recently:

"People should be able to talk about their faith without fear of judgment or reprisal."

Without getting too much into the topic of evangelism and how/when people can and should “talk about their faith,” I want to point out a problem of emphasis when many people say something like the above.

More and more, it seems, the emphasis many Christians will read into a sentence like this one (or intend if they write it themselves) is on the judgment and/or reprisal. That is to say, they mean that Christians should be able to speak openly about their faith and there be no consequences. If a Christian stands up and speaks out about Jesus, they believe, then he/she should have no opposition to it.

I witnessed this not too long ago when it turned up that a man in Scotland had been arrested for street preaching. (Again, I’m not out to engage in questions of methodology today.) I saw a handful of links to articles about this on social media, with comments to the effect of, “They can’t do this—it’s a violation of his rights!"

While that may or may not be so (it certainly is not a “right” granted constitutionally in every country across the world), this is beside the point. When we turn to a “rights” argument we’ve lost the plot, as they say across the pond.

If this is what was meant (or should be meant) by the kinds of statements in question, they should read something like this: “People should be able to talk about their faith without judgment or reprisal from others.” But that’s not what is said!

Rather, it is the fear of judgment and reprisal that we should be without. This is the model we see in the New Testament: time and again, Jesus and the apostles faced the potential of being arrested (or worse) when they would preach the gospel. These potentialities (and actualities) did not stop them; rather, often they returned to preaching as soon as they got out of jail!

Acts 5:27–32 is a clear example of this:

And when they had brought them, they set them before the council. And the high priest questioned them, saying, “We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.” But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers  raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and  forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.” 

What was distinctive about this response was not the insistence that these men has the right to teach and preach whatever they wanted—they didn’t. Rather, what distinguished them was that they said, “We must obey God rather than men."

They had no fear. Not of these leaders. Not of judgment. Not of reprisal.

Today, I hear fellow Christians say that laws passed limiting or restricting our “religious freedoms” are a threat to the gospel, and laws passed that support our “religious freedoms” are a victory for the gospel. No they’re not.

Let me be clear: I’m grateful for our country, and for the freedom that our constitution allows us (regarding our religion, and otherwise). I don’t take that for granted, nor do I wish to casually see it done away with. There are definitely times when I believe that our lawmakers (and law enforcers) act well, in accordance with our constitutional rights, and it is definitely something I give thanks about when it happens.

But the gospel is not beholden to the laws of the United States or any other nation. Indeed, if history is any indicator then the gospel thrives the most when the laws of nations oppose it. If you doubt this, consider where the growth in the church is in the 21st century:  Africa (where most of the countries are decidedly Islamic, culturally and legally) and Asia, especially China (which still has much of the atheistic secularism of its communist history intact). So maybe we can stop talking and acting as if our over-interest in political activity is a matter of the gospel—it’s not.

[There’s nothing wrong with an interest in politics. Politics is important generally for our culture. It’s a fine hobby for some, and a reasonable profession for some others. But it’s not a gospel matter—not in the “what must I do to be saved?” way. Even the Theonomists would agree with that, I think.]

What hinders the gospel—especially in a nation like the United States—isn’t the legal system. It’s not the liberal media or the secular pop culture. It’s the apathy of humankind for their fellow man, as manifested in our individualism. It’s our lack of belief that God actually can and will save those who are opposed to him. And it is our fear of the judgment of others, and our lack of willingness to suffer any inconvenience (let alone actual hardship) for the gospel’s sake.

I’m pointing the finger at myself here, but I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in being at fault in these ways.

What if we cared a little more for our neighbors? What if we believed God’s Word when it says that our neighbors can be saved? And what if we weren’t ashamed to love them well in the name of Jesus?

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