In my last post, I wrote about the inherent tension that comes from pursuing a holy life. I believe this tension has become as evident as ever within American churches in light of the recent Supreme Court decision. Many, many Christians are struggling to reconcile orthopraxy with orthodoxy – that is, correct conduct with correct belief.
How are Christians supposed to maintain genuine attitudes of hospitality and compassion to people they believe are openly engaging in sinful practices? And, now that same-sex marriage has been federally legalized, does this mark the beginning of the end for any form of biblical morality within government legislation?
If we are going to adequately and correctly address questions such as these, there are several important truths Christians in this country need to bear in mind…
#1 – Christians in America still enjoy unprecedented levels of religious liberty.
When it comes to our place in American society, it is difficult for the modern-day Church to find any similarities to the Christian Church of the first century. For hundreds of years, followers of the Way (Acts 9:2, 22:4) were the weird and suspicious cult members of the neighborhood. Their worship practices were misunderstood, and their theology was considered heretical by some and ludicrous by others. In those first few centuries, persecution was an integral part of their reality; sometimes it was localized to a particular region because a local governor didn’t like them, and other times the Roman Emperor himself sanctioned the oppression empire-wide. And so we’re clear, the Church didn’t define persecution merely as unkind words or unfair stereotyping of their faith. That, they believed, was just the nature of a worldly society desiring to malign them. No, persecution was more significant than that. It was shocking, often violent. From vicious slander to the stripping of business ownership. From treatment as social pariahs to imprisonment, forced apostasy and even execution.
When we stop and consider the social conditions within which the first and second-century Church operated, believers in America should be thoroughly humbled by how good we’ve got it. We should also be embarrassed that while recent Pew Research reports indicate a decline in church membership today, in contrast the early Church grew at an extraordinary rate despite being seen as much more counter-cultural. We may lament the recent decision by the Supreme Court, but we should also remember that both the judge writing for the majority and the President of the United States himself included statements acknowledging and calling for respect of those in the country who hold dissenting views due to religious reasons in particular. This, along with the First Amendment itself, would have bewildered Christians in the first century.
And, concurrently, they certainly would have reminded us that…
#2 – Christians are not called to infringe on another person’s civil rights.
Some Christians may refuse to admit it, but there is simply no basis in Scripture for preventing a citizen of a democratic country from enjoying his or her civil rights. What is more, Christians were never called to enforce their belief system – or the behavioral standards incumbent – on the public at large. Sure, they could and did argue for the value of it. Boldly even. But when the powers that be rejected their theological, moral and ethical viewpoints, neither did the Christians take their dolls and go home to pout. They recognized that what they believed in – the new reality to which they had sworn allegiance – was much bigger than mere civic responsibility. Jesus did not spend his last hours accusing the Sanhedrin of corruption and unfair treatment, but rather looked into the eyes of skeptical Pilate and said, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36).
Of course, there are many Christians who would argue that America was founded as a Christian nation and that means it should uphold Christian morality. The problem with this, besides the fact that the foundation of the United States was more a product of Enlightenment principles than biblical ones, is that it assumes the measure of a good society is found in its laws rather than the ideas that inspired them. But what does it mean to be American? Is it to be a biblically moral person, or to be a person liberated from tyranny and oppression? This Saturday is Independence Day. What will that celebration look like: Reveling in the satisfaction that comes from being law-abiding citizens, or gratefully extolling our country’s commitment to equality and personal freedom? At some point, Christians must recognize that for other people to live unto the standards we hold ourselves to, they must be inspired toward them, not forced into them. In the meantime, we mustn’t degrade people who fail to uphold a standard they don’t even believe in.
And speaking of forcing people into something, we should remember that…
#3 – A Christian is called to live a holy life, not to legislate for one.
The fallout from the Supreme Court’s decision on same-sex marriage reveals that a lot of Christians are deeply confused about the inherent difference between an authentic life of faith and civil responsibility. The Bible never claims that trusting in God will bring about a socially comfortable life. The story of Scripture finds true believers constantly at odds with the world around them, with no legislation to ease that antagonism. Those who seek to live a righteous life according to the will of God will, at some point, find themselves in conflict with the prevailing moral and ethical standards of the day. As that point, the committed follower must choose whether he or she will continue to think, speak or act contrary to that worldly standard, or assimilate to it.
The Book of Leviticus was an incredibly progressive work, defining a sacrificial system and a code of moral/ethical conduct far more advanced than any of the prevailing polytheistic societies that surrounded the ancient Israelites. Thus, we read time and again phrases like, “be holy,” “consecrate yourselves,” and “I am the Lord.” It is clear that the purpose of the book was not simply to establish a detailed code of law for the Israelites to live by. No, it was first and foremost a call to live a holy life – to be different, distinct from all the other neighboring cultures and their hazardous influences. To be a people set apart and belonging to a loving, almighty God.
In the New Testament, we find Jesus upholding this same call despite living under a different law – the Law of Rome – which had politically subjugated the Jewish code. But for Jesus, holiness need not be government sanctioned. It was a question of open-handed devotion to God, not fist-clenched obedience to the law. He embraced the moral and ethical code, claiming in his most famous sermon that he had not come to abolish this call but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17-20), but he continually pointed to inner motivation as the key to outward behavior. Christians today need to understand that even if we are unsuccessful in passing legislation that upholds our behavioral ideals, that failure in no way affects our unique call to live a holy life unto the Lord within this country.
Which brings us to the biggest spot of tension, namely that…
#4 – Christians are called to resist idolatry, not simply to uphold biblical morality.
Historically, Christians have been called not to pull back from a society that contains unbiblical laws, but rather to abide within it. Peter’s first letter acknowledged the tension of living in a culture that rejected what they saw as an unpatriotic, upstart Messiah cult. Nonetheless, while encouraging Christians to pursue holy living, he also instructed them to submit to, and even honor, human authorities. Any Christian who would seek to justify his or her disrespectful or ill talk against the government or its leaders would do well to contemplate 1 Peter 2:11-17. Those words pull no punches.
The New Testament never assumes society would affirm the principles and standards of God’s kingdom, or even that it could. Rather, Christians are expected to resist the spiritual, political or social idols that offered only false identity and fleeting provision. The problem is, we often forget what idolatry really is. When we place our trust in a worldly institution or individual (for security, provision, identity, recognition, and/or pleasure), that is idolatry. It has always come in many forms, from natural elements to graven images to political figures. And we find a variety of manifestations of idolatry in our world today, but one Christians often overlook is American individualism. A side-effect to living in a country founded on Enlightenment ideals and upholding democratic principles is that we place quite a bit of importance on individual freedom – that “pursuit of happiness” part of our Declaration of Independence. Thus, when some Christians rage against American courts that choose not to uphold their moral standards, they are reacting less from a commitment to spiritual holiness and more from an innate sense that their personal liberties are being challenged. In reality, they have made idols out of state and federal laws. They have placed in them their sense of security and personal worth, and when that law changes, they feel vulnerable, insecure, and threatened.
And what of same-sex marriage itself? In our time, one of the most deceptive idols has turned out to be human sexuality. Our conditioning within American individualism only furthers the misguided belief that sexual expression is key to defining oneself. More and more people, whether they are heterosexual, homosexual, transgender, etc., have been fed his lie. And so, the search for individual identity trumps submission to divine relationship, let alone biblical morality. However, even committed Christians have just as often fallen prey to this particular form of idolatry. For instance, young Christians who believe that a “true-love-waiting” soul mate will finally complete their existence are just as misguided as homosexual couples who believe they will find true fulfillment through government-sanctioned marriage.
So, given the above four truths, how do we as Christians move forward, particularly in relationship with those who do not share our commitment to holy living?
#5 – Christians should be ever-mindful of their approach as much as their attitude.
The whole story of Scripture – Old Testament and New – is of God calling people to anticipate and participate in His work of redemption and restoration. The first two chapters of Genesis paint us a vivid picture of God’s perfect intentions, and it is immediately followed by a story of how the whole thing was thrown out of sorts by our selfishness. (Adam and Eve’s response to the serpent’s lie that they could become “like gods” is indicative of the idolatrous thinking discussed above.) Everything after that is the account of God seeking to restore what has been broken. And at the exact right time, God’s son appeared to not only provide atonement for that inherent selfishness, but also to show us what it looks like when we truly live within God’s redemptive plan.
One of the most impressive things about Jesus’ life is how he was able to uphold a moral standard while simultaneously showing sincere empathy and genuine compassion to people whose lives had become idolatrous messes. Jesus’ attitude about sin never faltered. He was both grieved and angered by it, particularly the way it prevented people from recognizing what God was up to in their midst. Nevertheless, he also maintained an intimate and understanding approach toward sinful people. He did not keep people at arm’s length, but instead showed them incredible patience. And he never once complained that the government should better regulate faithful living. As one writer has put it, his position on sin never overshadowed his posture toward those lost in it. So, when it came to instructing his disciples in holy living, he did not say, “Let your light be so legislated among all people that they may be legally held to your moral standards and glorify your Father in heaven.” Nope. He wasn’t interested in seeing a world that knew nothing of holiness forced to conform to that standard.
Instead, Jesus asked his followers to live in such a way that here and there in a lost and bewildered world, we might stand out as those rare individuals who know where true identity comes from. That we might be those peculiar folks who, as it turns out, have learned what real freedom is all about.