Core commitment 1: Graciously and uncompromisingly evangelical

tax-refund-advanceWe will remain graciously and uncompromisingly evangelical:

  • Everything we are and everything we do must be rooted in, centered on and permeated by the evangel, the gospel of Jesus Christ.
  • Before anything else, we are worshipers of God, disciples of Jesus Christ, and are to love him with all of our hearts, souls, strength and minds.
  • The Scriptures must remain the continual, ultimate authority and standard for our faith and lives as individual believers and as a church.
  • We must not allow ourselves to be co-opted by any other identity. While remaining absolutely committed to the biblical Christian faith, we will seek to be intentionally diverse racially, culturally, politically, generationally and socioeconomically.
  • We must speak the truth in love. We should strive to be loving and gracious in interacting with our community; we don’t expect a non-Christian world to live like Christ. But we also must not compromise or lay aside biblical truth to seek to be more acceptable to the world around us. Real love and truth are inseparable. To over-emphasize either love or truth at the expense of the other is to risk losing both.
  • We will strive for complete unity regarding the essential truths of the gospel, and provide as much freedom as possible concerning secondary issues. We’ll only take a definitive position on debated, secondary issues when it’s necessary for mutual fellowship and ministry as a church.

The Death of Osama bin Laden: How should we respond?

Like many of you, Sunday evening found me watching the President’s announcement on TV. Osama bin Laden was dead. After so many years of seemingly fruitless effort, this tireless promoter of terror—a mass murderer, responsible for the deaths of thousands—had been located and killed. The news was stunning. And it brought very different emotions: relief that they had finally tracked him down; satisfaction that justice had been served; pride in our nation’s intelligence community and military; hope that this loss would be a debilitating blow to Al Qaeda. But the more I watched the jubilant reactions from people in front of the White House and in Times Square, the more I became disturbed. Should we, as Christians, share in joyfully cheering and celebrating the death of our enemy?

While there are differing views among followers of Christ, most Christians, drawing from passages such as Romans 13, believe that God intends for the state to “bear the sword.” This means that it is both necessary and appropriate for governments to defend their citizens through law enforcement and military action. There may be questions concerning whether our government should have intentionally killed bin Laden rather than seeking to capture him alive. I’m sure that we’ll hear this question debated over the coming days and weeks. But, for the sake of this discussion, let’s assume that the government’s actions were completely justified. How do we now respond? Should we be cheering along with the rest?

Some might remind us what a monster this man was, of the blood on his hands. They might replay the horror of 9/11, and describe the incredible effort it’s taken to hunt down this terrorist. This is war, after all; it brings out our passionate feelings. And this is the way people react to the death of their sworn enemies. We can find many examples of people winning a hard-fought victory and celebrating by symbolically dancing on the grave of their tormentor.

Still, are we supposed to be just like everyone else? Shouldn’t there be a difference? From what, or whom, do we draw our cues? Can we imagine Peter or Paul (let alone Jesus) joining in the chant: “O.B.L., burn in hell!”? Is our first thought to respond as Americans . . . or as citizens of the Kingdom of God?

We don’t have to look very far before we find Scriptures that caution us and restrain us in our reaction to the suffering and death of an enemy. Ezekiel 18:23 tells us that God does not delight in the death of the wicked. This should give us pause. If even God doesn’t delight in the death of the wicked, but desires that they turn from their wicked ways and live, what business do we have jubilantly exulting in the death of an enemy? Proverbs 24:17-18 instructs us: “Don’t rejoice when your enemies fall; don’t be happy when they stumble. For the Lord will be displeased with you and will turn his anger away from them.” And notice that these two examples come from the Old Testament, before we even get to the New Covenant teachings of Christ.

Jesus, of course, taught us to not hate our enemies, but to love them (Matthew 5:43-48 and Luke 6:27-36). In fact, this extreme, unnatural love is to be the sine qua non of the follower of Christ, the characteristic that distinguishes us from all others and shows that we are truly his. Jesus demonstrated this love when he prayed for the forgiveness of the very people who were nailing him to the cross. We are to do good to those who hate us, to bless those who curse us, and to pray for those who seek to hurt us. Let’s see . . . someone who is our enemy, who hates us, who curses us, who seeks to hurt us—this sounds like a fairly good description of Osama bin Laden. So, how should we love this enemy? Even in the midst of necessary and appropriate justice, how do we demonstrate a loving, Christlike attitude? By rejoicing in the streets that he’s dead?

We’re also warned to not seek revenge (Romans 12:19), that vengeance belongs to God alone. How much of the celebration over the death of bin Laden is motivated by feelings of vengeance accomplished? This is inappropriate for us as believers.

Most of us have heard the familiar expression, ‘There but for the grace of God go I.” What few know is that John Bradford originally spoke these words while watching a man walk toward his execution. When we exult over the death of an enemy, we forget that—on our own—we are no more righteous in God’s sight than Osama bin Laden. We forget that no one deserves God’s grace; that’s why it’s grace. And since God loves us even though we don’t deserve it, we also are called to love those who are seemingly unlovable. We forget that even Osama bin Laden was created in the image of God. We forget that this is one for whom Christ willingly laid down his life, that this is a lost sheep for whom he would leave the ninety-nine and earnestly seek. If Osama bin Laden is eternally lost (and I don’t presume to know the state of his heart when he died), then does Christ laugh and cheer at the fate of this man? Or does he weep as for a lost child?

I’m encouraged to see that more than a few Christian leaders and thinkers share my concerns. We realize that the United States is not the church, and we aren’t surprised when the actions of Americans are incongruous with the principles of the Kingdom of God. When it’s all said and done, the US is, after all, part of a fallen world. And most Christian voices are not denying the need to strongly oppose bin Laden and bring him to justice. We share in the satisfaction of justice enforced, and we are proud of our nation. But we aren’t Americans first, and then Christians. We are first—and eternally—followers of Christ, children of God, and citizens of his lasting Kingdom. The principles of the Kingdom are what define us, not the temporal victories of a nation we love, but which will have its place in history and then be no more.

If we intend to follow Christ as his disciples, then we are called to be distinct from our fellow Americans. We have a higher standard. How do we respond to the death of Osama bin Laden with the love of Christ? the love of Christ for our enemy, Osama bin Laden? And if we don’t respond in love—but giddily rejoice at his death—how are we Christians any different from everyone else?

Contentious Christians: How should we handle controversy?

UnknownMost bloggers establish some ground-rules for those who want to participate in the discussion. And that’s a good idea, especially considering the tone of much of what’s online today. Some of the rules are obvious to most of us (I hope). If you use any vulgar or obscene language, or if you insult other commenters, your comments will be deleted. But, as Christians, I think we’re called to a higher standard than just not being obscene or insulting.

John F. Kennedy once observed that “too often we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.” Unfortunately, this is all too true today, even among evangelical Christians. It’s human nature to polarize and divide over issues. We see this polarization running rampant in our political system and, sadly, we frequently see it at work in the church as well.

As those who worship the one who not only exemplifies truth but, in some profound way, is truth, we should be expected to carefully examine each issue, to ensure that we truly understand differing viewpoints, and to know the underlying reasons for any disagreements. However, people―Christians included―have a tendency to listen to only one perspective. Many receive all of their information from “their side” and rarely give their opponents a fair chance to explain their views. Those who are politically liberal tend to listen to liberals. And usually the only time they hear conservative viewpoints is when they hear other liberals describe what “those conservatives” believe. Of course, if you’re not liberal, don’t get smug just yet . . . because most conservatives do the very same thing.

This way of “being informed” creeps into the body of Christ and affects how we handle controversial issues. We often end up talking past each other without making any impact because we don’t really understand where the other side is coming from. We haven’t learned some important lessons taught in the book of Proverbs: “The first to speak in court sounds right―until the cross-examination begins” (Proverbs 18:17), and “Spouting off before listening to the facts is both shameful and foolish” (Proverbs 18:13).

The manner in which we sometimes express our disagreements also greatly concerns me. When researching differing viewpoints online, there are times when I’m dismayed by the unloving and unchristian animosity displayed toward opponents who are brothers and sisters in Christ. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t debate, and debate vigorously. But who are we to impugn the motives and intentions of fellow believers? Can we see the heart? Are we qualified to judge it? Sometimes the interaction becomes so mean-spirited and vitriolic that I have to check and make sure that it’s actually spewing from a “Christian” site. Brothers and sisters, this should not be.

So how should we handle controversy in the church? Here are a few suggestions (and expectations for this blog):

1. Begin with an attitude of love

From what Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 13, we can have all of our doctrinal t’s crossed and i’s dotted, but if we don’t have love it doesn’t amount to much of anything. This doesn’t mean that truth is optional. Speaking the truth is imperative, but we must speak the truth “in love” (Ephesians 4:15). Remember when the lawyer asked Jesus which commandment was the greatest? Jesus gave him two commandments, both having to do with love. Love God; love each other. He said that all of the Law and Prophets hang on these two commandments (Matthew 22:34-40). Jesus also said that the defining characteristic of his people would be the love they have for one another (John 13:35). If we were truly loving toward each other in our debates, do you think this might eliminate much of the hostility? If the world saw a church where Christians consistently showed love for each other―even when they strongly disagreed―could that maybe have an impact on people looking for a faith that’s real? one that really makes a difference in people’s lives?

2. Watch out for pride

Ego creeps in so easily! It begins to be all about my views, our side, what we believe. Us vs them. Once we’re looking at an issue this way, it becomes very difficult to fairly listen to the “other side.” We see this in politics all the time. We lionize our leaders and demonize theirs. We try to justify whatever our party does, no matter how despicable, and when the opposing party does something commendable we pick it apart. Why? Because we have to be right; we have to win! It becomes a matter of pride. Before we look at the actual issue, we need to acknowledge: it’s not about me. It’s not about what will make me look good. It’s not about helping my side win. Instead, our focus needs to be: What is true? (Whether I like it or not.) We need to sacrifice our egos. Are you willing to admit it when you’re wrong?

(Notice that before we’ve examined any specific issue, we’ve examined our own attitudes. If we entered into discussion and debate with right hearts―before God and toward each other―it would alleviate most of the rancor in our disagreements.)

3. Seek the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth

What this doesn’t mean is checking out an issue until I’ve amassed enough catchy points to win the argument! Remember, it’s not about winning arguments. It’s not about defending my position. It’s about actually understanding an issue and discovering what is really true. Seeking the truth also doesn’t mean listening only to my side’s explanations of the views of our opponents. It means having the courtesy to truly listen to opposing viewpoints and fairly consider them. It’s not compromising the truth to give another person a fair hearing. You don’t have to be convinced . . . but are you willing to be? Remember the old saying: If you never have to change your mind, you’re probably not using it! Are you so focused on the truth that you’re willing to change even a long-held position? Which is more important to you: truly being right, or having everyone think you’re right?

4. Be fair with your opponent

If it’s not all about winning, this shouldn’t be such a problem. But too often it is. If you’ve read many books on Calvinism, you’ve probably found descriptions of what Arminians believe that no Arminian would ever recognize as their own! And Calvinists can make the same complaint. If we are explaining the position of our opponents, they should be able to listen to us and say, “Well put! That’s how I would explain it too.” We need to be scrupulously fair in the way we describe the beliefs of others. Do you like to be misrepresented? Do you enjoy it when you’re falsely accused of motives you don’t have and beliefs you don’t hold? Then let’s make sure we don’t do that to others. Express your opponents’ views accurately and fairly.

5. Try to persuade instead of winning arguments

If you’re truly convinced that your brother or sister is wrong, if you’re concerned that this error is potentially harmful to them, and if you have a loving attitude toward this person, how will you interact with them? By bombastically hitting them with every argument within reach and overpowering them with your array of facts and bulletproof logic? By hounding them until they’re forced to concede that they’re wrong? Is this really the way to change someone’s heart and mind? Perhaps we might be more effective if we adopt a more scriptural style of interaction:

A servant of the Lord must not quarrel, but must be kind to everyone, be able to teach, and be patient with difficult people. Gently instruct those who oppose the truth. Perhaps God will change these people’s hearts, and they will learn the truth.

2 Timothy 2:24-25

6. Distinguish between essential truths and non-essential viewpoints

We must not compromise the essential truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ. But there are a number of secondary issues that we routinely fight about that are not worthy of dividing over. The manner of Christ’s return is a wonderful, blessed hope and a fascinating topic for discussion. But it’s a little silly for us to be so dogmatic over something of which we are still so ignorant. Some issues require a firm, unyielding stand; others invite ongoing consideration, discussion and illumination. We should seek the wisdom to appropriately distinguish between them.

7. Realize that you won’t convince everyone . . . and that’s okay

It’s not our responsibility to change people’s hearts. We communicate the truth, the Holy Spirit works in their hearts, and they eventually either respond or resist. When people don’t come around to our way of thinking right away, it doesn’t mean that we’ve failed or that they are automatically rejecting God. We can’t control this process or the timing. Even if some Christians don’t agree with you, they’re still your brothers and sisters, and you still need to treat them with love and respect. And we just might be the ones who need to reconsider our viewpoints! Keep these passages in mind:

Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone.
Romans 12:18

Understand this, my dear brothers and sisters:
You must all be quick to listen,
slow to speak,
and slow to get angry.
Human anger does not produce the righteousness God desires.
James 1:19-20

I think that sums it up quite well.