Many Christians in the U.S. today are preoccupied with fixing: fixing the country; fixing the culture; fixing individuals who identify in various ways. Is this what the Bible calls for? And is this a worldwide phenomenon for Christians?
To some extent this is a phenomenon pretty much found in the United States alone. Behind this preoccupation is the belief that the United States was founded as a Christian nation based on Christian values, and that if the United States abandons those values, the nation will experience a significant decline from its greatness. Those at the forefront of this movement will point to evidence that in some ways the United States is already experiencing the beginnings of decline including a corresponding moral decline, and that the evidence parallels both the growing trend to remove God (and especially in the person of Jesus Christ) from the public square.
Regarding their premise, there is a great deal of evidence that the United States was founded on Christian principles and by mostly Christian political leaders. We can see it in everything from numerous laws, to the theological content of the early McGuffey Readers, to the foundation of colleges and hospitals, to oaths of office and swearing in of witnesses on a Bible, to public statements by political leaders at their inauguration in office, their farewell addresses and speeches at times of national crisis.
But were these the only principles upon which the United States was founded? We might accurately say with a touch of humor that the Founding Fathers relied on both Calvin and Hobbes. Indeed, they were influenced by the political philosophies of Thomas Hobbes, Montesquieu, Rene Descartes, John Locke, Cesare Beccaria, David Hume, Adam Smith, Voltaire, Rousseau and Plato: all known for varying degrees of secularism in their major writings and some not Christian at all.
Therefore, while we were seen as being endowed with unalienable rights by a creator God, the United States also greatly expanded the rights of a free people to both participate in the political process of the new republic and to enjoy life and liberty and pursue happiness as they saw fit, provided it did not interfere with those same rights in others. So even though these rights come from God, each citizen could choose how to worship God or not worship at all, or even refuse to believe in the existence of God. Certainly many political leaders of that time would have believed in the superiority of Christianity in the marketplace of ideas and therefore would have had little concern about the United States ever abandoning Christianity to any great degree. One of the ways to ensure that, they believed, was to have a well-educated public in at least the basics, what became known as “the three R’s”. From such was spawned an emphasis on the importance of a public school education for all children who reached a certain age and the establishment of most of the early collegiate institutions of the country. (Ironically, most of these colleges are today liberal bastions and harbors of negativity towards Christianity.)
Regardless of the origins of the political system and the prevailing culture in the United States, we’ve come a long way and seen many changes in the 450+ years since the first permanent colony by Europeans was established in St. Augustine, the 400+ years since settlers from England founded Jamestown and the 240+ years since the First Continental Congress of the American colonies met, leading to the 13 colonies declaring their independence from Great Britain less than two years later. In particular during the past fifty years, Americans have moved away from mainline Protestant denominations in general and from organized religion in particular. Many also continue to nominally identify as Protestants or Catholics, but have turned away from strict adherence to Papal authority in the case of Roman Catholics, and local ecclesiastic authority in the case of Protestants, many of whom retain the identity but are essentially unchurched.
At the same time, there has been growth or at least continued strength in various denominations of Baptists as well as in independent evangelical Christian churches (some in small splinter denominations) which include a number of megachurches. It is from these denominations and churches that the greatest hue and cry comes to see the United States either continue to be or return to be a “Christian nation”. But the question is, how should this occur, through politics or evangelism? And if through evangelism or both ways, what should the evangelical part of the message be?
First and foremost, let me state unequivocally that there is nothing in either the Bible or the Constitution of the United States that prohibits Christians (including clergy) from participating in the political process, whether voting, voicing public opinion, running for office at any level, and serving in either appointed or elective offices in any of the branches of government at any level. And certainly the positions and actions of those who serve in government can and must be influenced by their moral beliefs and convictions as shaped by their spirituality. But it must also be consistent with the laws under which they serve and swear or affirm in some way their fealty to. And if those same moral beliefs and convictions cause them to have sharp and deep disagreement with any of those laws, their attempts to change those laws must also be within the framework of the law. Furthermore, if they can no longer abide by the framework of the law, they must be willing to accept the consequences if found guilty of violating the law in a fair and just hearing or trial.
There is, and should be, far less restriction on what is preached or taught within churches and in general the free exchange of ideas in the public square. This is also part of the “American experiment” in freedom, including protections within the Bill of Rights regarding the free exercise of religion. And that free exercise extends beyond mere worship.
But freedom, to be used wisely, demands a high level of responsibility. In his letter to the Romans and two letters to the church at Corinth, the Apostle Paul writes in detail about the balance between Christian liberty and responsibility. Those responsibilities extend to dealings with both fellow Christians and non-Christians, and include a general requirement to obey the laws of the land unless such laws require (not permit) Christians to disobey God’s commandments: in particular, only those commandments that apply when part of a country that is not a theocracy (which is every country other than Israel and Judah from the time of Moses until the diaspora).
Christians ought to take notice that Paul was writing these words from locations and to Christians in locations that were far harsher in their treatment of Christians than anything close to what Christians in the United States experience today. He was writing these tenets that became part of the Biblical canon of the New Testament at a time when he and eleven of the first twelve post-ascension Apostles would be martyred for being Christian (the twelfth, John, sentenced to exile on the island of Patmos for the final decades of his 94 years on Earth). While persecution of Christians in the world is at historically high levels, there is nothing in the United States that even remotely compares to what was experienced by the early Church until the conversion of Emperor Constantine around 312 AD.
So what choice do Christians face? In terms of Christian witness, it is the choice between legalism and love. Love doesn’t mean anything goes and all Biblical standards are thrown out the window. Agape love means primarily caring about others, Christian or non-Christian, looking to lift up and edify other Christians while drawing non-Christians to the love and light of Christ. It means remembering who we were before we were saved and that we still fall short of the glory of God even after becoming new creatures in Christ. And it means remembering how powerful God’s love is; how strong God’s grace is. 1st Corinthians 13 is one of the best known chapters of the New Testament, and one of the best testimonies to the power of God’s agape love (translated as charity in the KJV). The strength of God’s grace is not as well known.
Thou therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. – 2nd Timothy 2:1
So I choose agape love over legalism. Here are some examples of agape love in action. One is someone famous in the 20th century, one is someone unknown to all but a handful of people, and one is direct from the Bible. There will be a follow up to this post, a part two, that will deal mostly with a fourth example whose example is especially interesting to me in comparison with my life.
Anyone who watched the movie, “Chariots of Fire”, knows the story of Eric Liddell. His refusal to compete in his specialty, the 100 meter dash because the heats for the race in the 1924 Olympics in Paris were held on a Sunday is a key element of the story portrayed in the movie. It certainly smacks of legalism. But while it might have hurt the chances of his country’s team in one event, it was basically something he imposed on himself. He did not require it of any of his teammates. And it was potentially less detrimental to his team than the refusal of Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax to play on Yom Kippur during key games in a pennant race or the World Series. As it turned out, Greenberg’s Detroit Tigers would win the American League pennant in 1934, Koufax’s Los Angeles Dodgers would win the World Series in 1965 and Great Britain would win the gold and bronze medals in the 100 meter dash at the 1924 Olympics, the race that Liddell refused to run. As for Liddell, he had time to adjust his training to a longer sprint race: the 400 meters. He won the gold medal in Olympic record time, and also captured a bronze medal in the 200 meter run.
The movie also showed how Liddell, born in China, was from a family of missionaries. What is somewhat less well known is what he did after his Olympic triumph in 1924. In 1925, he returned to China as a missionary, first in Tianjin (Tientsin) and was transferred to a poor rural area of Xiaozhang in 1941. The area was so dangerous due to attacks by the Japanese Army that he sent his pregnant wife and two older daughters to Canada to live with his wife’s parents.
In 1943, Liddell was captured by the Japanese with other members of the mission and was interned in a camp. While others, even many of the missionaries, became selfish and cliquish, Liddell’s exemplary character stood out in the worst of times as he tirelessly helped others, especially the elderly and the children.
Many stories of his selflessness survived Liddell and the camp. The one that stands out to me involves him serving as a referee for the boys team sports games like soccer, rugby and field hockey. Originally, consistent with the stand he took at the 1924 Olympics, he refused to referee any games on Sunday in hopes that the boys would spend their Sundays in church and devotions that day. Instead, the boys formed their own informal matches. Reasonably well-behaved when their hero was refereeing, fights broke out among the boys during the Sunday games. When Liddell learned of this, did he punish the boys? No. Understanding that they were boys, not men, and concerned for their safety, he relaxed his strict position about activities on the Sabbath and began to referee their Sunday contests as well.
From an internment camp in China during World War II, we go to a small town in south-central Pennsylvania. The year was 2016.
Mercersburg is a small town of about 1500 people, but some famous people were born there or have lived there. A private prep school, Mercersburg Academy, has educated seven Rhodes scholars, a Nobel laureate, two Academy Award winners and 54 Olympians (12 who have won gold medals). I met one of those gold medalists. Charles Moore Jr., who won a gold medal in the 1952 Olympics at Helsinki in the 400 meter hurdles and a silver medal running one of the legs on the 4 x 400 meter relay team, went from Mercersburg to my alma mater of Cornell, graduating in 1952 with a degree in Mechanical Engineering. He is also a member of the Quill & Dagger Society, a senior honorary to which I was selected in 1974. But I’ve already talked about an Olympic gold medalist.
Instead, this story primarily involves the public high school which is named for perhaps its most famous native son, President James Buchanan. And it involves a student there who will never receive world recognition. But I believe she will receive many crowns in heaven.
It began in early March with a local Youth Pastor hearing about The Life Book, which contains the complete Gospel of John. Students are using it to witness to their peers. The pastor was so excited by this that he ordered six cases and shared the information about it at their next youth group meeting. The students eagerly began to make plans to distribute the books to their classmates at James Buchanan High School. But the most eager was Violet Clark. One of the most popular students in school, she asked the Youth Pastor for a full case: 100 books.
Did Violet distribute those books of witness to her fellow students by preaching fire and brimstone and telling them what horrible sinners they are? No! With a big smile and joy in her step, she went from student to student, those she knew and those she didn’t, to hand them a book and share Christ’s message of hope with them. It took her a little over six weeks to share the entire case, sharing the last three just before her 18th birthday.
The day after her birthday, Violet was involved in a serious car accident as she left school. Although the school is not one where prayer is normally promoted, students and teachers spontaneously began a prayer vigil on behalf of Violet. But three days later, God chose to call her home.
In the immediate aftermath of Violet’s death, the school community turned to the word of God that was now readily available, not only to deal with her death, but to find out how to receive the kind of joyful life that Violet lived while she was among them. Many students are coming to Christ, not in response to rebuke, but because Violet and some of her fellow youth group members radiated the love of Christ among them.
From modern day Pennsylvania, we go back nearly two thousand years to eastern Macedonia, in particular to the city of Philippi. Here we look upon two men who have gotten themselves into a peck of trouble. We know them today as the Apostle Paul and Silas, but it was Paul who was the leader.
It is Paul who we will focus on. God could not have picked a more interesting and well-suited person to be both his chief missionary of the Gospel and author of a major part of the New Testament through the letters he wrote to the churches he planted, clarifying some of the finer points of Christian theology and contending with heretical positions that were already creeping into the early Church. As the Church spread into Asia Minor, Macedonia, Greece and points west, the early Church membership went from being entirely Jewish to a not always comfortable mixture of Jew and Gentile.
But who better to deal with contentions and heresies than a Jewish scholar who at one time thought that believing that Jesus was the Messiah and the Son of God was the very epitome of heresy. Saul of Tarsus, who would later be better known by his Roman name, was perhaps the foremost persecutor of these Jewish followers of Jesus. It fact, it was when he was on the road to Damascus to apprehend these followers of Jesus (the name “Christian” was not even being used yet), that Paul had his direct encounter with Christ that led to his 180º change of position on the legitimacy of belief in Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God. It was such a major change that many of the leaders of the early Church were highly suspicious that it was a trick to enable Paul to destroy the Church by cutting off the head. It would be like Ted Cruz suddenly speaking out as the most ardent advocate of pro-LGBT issues.
But Paul was far more than a zealot. He was a scholar who studied at the feet of the best teachers of the Law that Judaism had to offer in his day. In fact, he was a member of the sect whose name is now synonymous with legalism. He was a Pharisee. And while he preached in the synagogue of Damascus immediately after his sight was restored following his Damascus road experience, he also studied the Tanakh long and hard to make sure that his interpretation of the experience was accurate.
Although the Bible tells us that Paul did not preach with eloquence, by adding a solid scriptural foundation to a compelling testimony of a changed life, he was able to win many converts, both Jew and Gentile, to the early church. As such, he often drew the ire of those who had a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, whether Jew or Gentile. In Philippi, it was wealthy Gentiles he angered. They incited a mob that brought Paul and Silas to the magistrates who in turn had them beaten and thrown into prison. At this point, we’ll let the Bible tell the story, starting with Acts 16:23.
And when they had laid many stripes upon them, they cast them into prison, charging the jailor to keep them safely: Who, having received such a charge, thrust them into the inner prison, and made their feet fast in the stocks. And at midnight Paul and Silas prayed, and sang praises unto God: and the prisoners heard them. And suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken: and immediately all the doors were opened, and every one’s bands were loosed. And the keeper of the prison awaking out of his sleep, and seeing the prison doors open, he drew out his sword, and would have killed himself, supposing that the prisoners had been fled. But Paul cried with a loud voice, saying, Do thyself no harm: for we are all here. Then he called for a light, and sprang in, and came trembling, and fell down before Paul and Silas, And brought them out, and said, Sirs, what must I do to be saved? And they said, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house. And they spake unto him the word of the Lord, and to all that were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night, and washed their stripes; and was baptized, he and all his, straightway. And when he had brought them into his house, he set meat before them, and rejoiced, believing in God with all his house. (Acts 16:23-34)
What brought salvation to the jailor and his family? Was it angry rhetoric directed against the jailor, the magistrates and his accusers? Was it the formation of a protest committee, marching around the jail and shouting slogans? Did a commando raid break Paul and Silas out of prison, taking the jailor and his family with them? No! It was because he saw their concern for him. Not only had they been cheerfully praising God in a situation where most would be surly and grumbling, they did not avail themselves of the perfect opportunity to escape. But Paul, who wrote about sacrificing his Christian liberty for a weaker believer, sacrificed his physical liberty for someone who didn’t even believe in Christ. Yet led by the Holy Spirit to demonstrate humble obedience, Paul won this man and his family to Christ.
Even some conservative Christian websites are talking about the need to return to the primary Gospel message for our witness to the world. Although I don’t agree with every idea stated in the article, I am providing a link to one such discourse. And then the next blog post will look at the fourth and final person in the list I promised, a person some of my transgender friends may be surprised that I am including. But his message fits this theme perfectly.
And above all these things put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness. And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to the which also ye are called in one body; and be ye thankful. – Colossians 3:14-15
It’s good to be “back”!