I’ve been somewhat bothered by a phrase I’ve heard repeatedly as churches wrestle their way through the Covid era, so I thought I’d try to process it out loud. Here’s the offending line: Protect our witness.
The idea is something like this: Stuff Christians do, like gathering together in large groups, sitting in close proximity for an hour, singing so heartily spit flies at least twice the magical six feet, sharing meals, engaging in holy kissin’, and all with unveiled face before God and each other is dangerous, reckless, and destructive. It’s spreading disease, sorrow, and death. And who likes death-spreaders? Not I.
So, Christians, do you actually want to be known as the death-spreaders? The hospital flooders? The curve unflatteners? Then give up those things, or at least adopt the new rules of the game and be ready punish those who won’t play by them. Because if you don’t, your community will hate you. Protect your witness, at all costs. It’s a matter of life and death – for your church and your community.
But this needs further thought. Something isn’t right.
Jesus preached a sermon once and “all spoke well of him and marveled at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth” (Luke 4:22). That’s as it should be. Gracious words ought to earn good repute.
But the longer Jesus preached, the less he sounded like the silver-tongued, pearly-toothed Joel Osteen and the more he sounded like his rather abrasive cousin. You know, the one with grasshopper toes stuck in his teeth.
So by the time Jesus finished his sermon…
all in the synagogue were filled with wrath. And they rose up and drove him out of the town and brought him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they could throw him down the cliffLuke 4:28-29
Now I don’t expect that every great sermon will end with a wild-eyed congregation in a blind rage attempting to murder the minister. At least I hope that’s not the mark of success. If it is, I’m an abject failure. The closest I’ve gotten is a few anonymous notes and some passive/aggressive comments. On the other hand, some sermons are so bad they really should end with an execution (Calvin agrees), but that’s another conversation. The point is, it’s possible to do the right thing perfectly and be hated for it. Jesus couldn’t have spoken with more grace, love, compassion, or, we might awkwardly say, Christlikeness, and they still tried to run him over a cliff.
So much for his good reputation.
Jesus would later warn,
Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.Luke 6:26
If everyone speaks well of you, something’s wrong. Weird. The only prophets everyone spoke well of were the ones God didn’t authorize. Which means even though everyone was speaking well of them, God wasn’t.
We actually can protect our witness, and we do so by giving the people what they want. Problem is, what they want is often diametrically opposed to what God wants them to have. And in our increasingly adolescent society, withholding from anyone anything they want produces the exact same tantrum we occasionally get to enjoy from three-year-olds in the grocery store.
Some things Christians call good, our society calls evil, and vice versa. Christians believe in the goodness of several culturally repugnant ideas: Sex only between married people. Marriage only between one man and one woman. That anything outside this is grounds for being banned from the heavenly city (Rev. 22:15). Not only will boys be boys, they must be boys, and what’s more, they must become men.
Nowadays, them’s fightin’ words.
Still, Christians have rightly insisted at least since Justin Martyr that we’re not bad people! We love our neighbor, we build strong families, strong communities, we are gracious, generous, and celebrate disciplined, industrious, upright lifestyles. Good Christians by definition aren’t embezzling money from the company, selling drugs, robbing banks, sleeping with someone else’s spouse, or trafficking children. We work hard, pay our taxes, and conduct business with integrity. We enjoy good clean non-destructive fun and invite others to share in our good times. Admittedly we’re not perfect, but this is our ideal, and at our best we’re willing to toss out of our communion those who stubbornly refuse to forsake evil and pursue righteousness. We recognize that we carry Jesus’ name emblazoned on our foreheads, as it were (Rev 9:4), and we want his name to be great. We are, after all, Christians.
The church often does enjoy a good reputation in the world. We are, Jesus said, a lamp in a dark place. This light of ours might be little, but still, we’re gonna let it shine and not let Satan blow it out, and a brighter world is a better one. Our light shines brightest in the darkest hours, and perhaps our witness is never stronger than when when the world watches our faith in Jesus provide strength to endure times of trouble (1 Pet 3:15), hope in the face of death (1 Thess 4:13), freedom from the burden of guilt (Rom 8:1), and a genuine love and care for other people (John 13:35), including the weakest who can’t repay us any favors (Luke 14:12-14).
A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches,Proverbs 22:1
and favor is better than silver or gold.
It’s only right that those who serve the One whose name is above every name should have a good name themselves. But there are times when the church will be both faithful to Jesus and have a bad reputation. Peter reminds us that even when Christians are “honorable,” sometimes unbelievers will “speak against you as evildoers” (1 Pet 2:12). Congratulations, you just got a bad reputation.
It stinks getting a bad reputation for doing good things. It doesn’t always happen, thankfully. But it’s happening in China where Christians are deemed a threat to the stability of the nation. In parts of Nigeria our brothers and sisters are being oppressed, ostracized, kidnapped, or even beheaded by those who think they’re doing God a favor (John 16:2-3). And on a smaller scale, that same anti-Christ attitude is starting to show up here in the States: Christians who gather together in ways that violate the newly minted standards of public safety may be considered a threat to the well-being of their community.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, no consideration is given to any positive impact this sort of thing has on those beset by the pandemics of depression, isolation, fear, and lack of normal, natural, necessary human contact. This means hearing each other’s voices, seeing each other’s faces, and physically embracing one another. These are not luxuries (though they are luxurious!), they’re among the bare necessities of human existence. That’s why God tells us to engage in them.
In an increasingly hostile culture placing increasingly heavy pressures on the church to act in ways foreign to her normal operation, churches must decide if they’re willing to protect their good name by bring their behavior into compliance with these new demands. The promise is that compliance will result in celebration and admiration. The witness will be protected.
But there’s a fly in the ointment: Just as belief drives behavior, modifying behavior about a thing ultimately leads to modifying our beliefs about that thing. Because we are incapable of holding beliefs and behavior that are out of sync with each other for very long, a forced change in behavior must inescapably be followed by a change in belief. If human beings are obsessive about anything, it’s justifying our behavior. To live at peace with our changed behavior, we must embrace new beliefs that make sense of the new behavior.
If we want the world’s applause, we’ll ultimately adopt the world’s doctrine, in whatever field of study, be it science, fashion, epidemiology, or ecclesiology. If we let the world tell us how to “do” church, of course the church will become indistinguishable from the world. In that case, we’ll no longer have a witness left to protect. The salt, attempting to keep its place on the spice rack, will have lost its savor. In the short run, it’s self-preservation. In the long run, it’s ecclesiastical suicide.
The church’s first responsibility then is to consider how its beliefs and behavior are perceived by Christ. We know what the world wants – they tell us all the time. It’s not so easy to know exactly what Christ wants from a church in the weird world of 2020. Does Jesus want us to have Sunday school? Potlucks? If so, how?
However we pursue answers to these questions, we dare not begin by assuming Christ is primarily interested in the world thinking highly of us. Christians might be insecure about their reputation, but Jesus certainly isn’t about his. His name is above every name, and anyone who thinks it isn’t is on the wrong side of the future. Our mission is to wear his name well by his estimation, and not worry in the least about anyone else’s.
Easier said than done.
Nevertheless, many even of the authorities believed in him, but for fear of the Pharisees they did not confess it, so that they would not be put out of the synagogue; for they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God.John 12:42-43
In those seasons we enjoy both the smile of Christ and the world, we give thanks and make hay while the sun shines. But the hour inevitably comes when Christians remain faithful to Christ by allowing their reputation to go to cultural hell. Like Stephen, our goal is not to stop the stones from flying, but to see the heavens opened and Christ rising from his seat to receive us. In the short run, it may well be ecclesiastical suicide. But in the long run, it’s self-preservation:
“I know… the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.”Revelation 2:9-10
It may be deadly to protect our witness. It is most definitely deadly not to protect our “Well done.” It’s no fun having a bad reputation we don’t deserve. It even comes as a bit of a shock, which is probably why John felt the need to say, “Do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you” (1 John 3:13), and Peter said, “do not be surprised… if you are insulted for the name of Christ” (1 Pet 4:14).
Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heavenMatthew 5:11-12a
Jesus told us some would hate the light, because they love darkness (John 3:19-20). But the light must shine on, because some will come running to it as God calls them out of darkness into his marvelous light (1 Pet 2:9). Remember, it is Jesus’ light we shine. If we are hated, we are hated for His sake. If we are loved, we are loved for His sake. In any case, we don’t need to protect him.
We need him to protect us.
Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.Jude 23-24
top image borrowed from http://scpolicycouncil.org/research/healthcare/protecting-south-carolina-from-obamacare Seemed fitting.