[Editor's Note: In light of Exodus International's decision to halt its operations and apologize for its actions, here's a look at the current state of bigotry and the Church.]
Leaving a downtown bar on New Year’s Eve, I was affronted by the voice of a man across the street with a large loudspeaker and even a larger cross hoisted high over his shoulder. This man had a lot to say about repentance, the wickedness of those on the street and Jesus, but no one wanted to listen. Walking away, I was most concerned that my unchurched friends would assume that this man was speaking for me—since I am a pastor and, by all outward accounts, both this man and I are Christians.
Unfortunately, “Bullhorn Guy” has become a caricature, but this doesn’t cancel out the reality that Christians do frequently speak out in bold, cringe-worthy ways.
When I became a Christian not too many years ago, I immediately noticed that the Christian community loves to turn up the volume when moral issues are on the table. How Christians communicate the diverse opinions of the Church about abortion, gun laws, tax policy, homosexuality, gender roles, the role of the federal government, torture or whether to shop at Wal-mart matters. Our radar often rightly trips when we turn on cable news, or we listen to a classmate awkwardly explain their devotion, or we walk by protestors holding graphic images on billboards brought to you by a local church. And it’s not just the poor presentation style that makes us cringe. Many of us, while listening to our Christian kin, hear words, beliefs and perceptions that make us start to sweat and call out, “Please stop. You are screwing things up for the rest of us!”
But when you hear enough well-funded, title-holding professionals and ministers speaking nonsense, you begin to wonder: “Do I have to be a bigot to be a Christian?”
High Wire Act
If you’re like me, such incidents move you not to become more outspoken about your faith—even to counter such incidents—but to become silent.
In an attempt to not be branded as one of “them,” we’re tempted to make an equal and opposite error. Because of our experience with foot-shape-mouthed Christians, we begin to question not only the message but the delivery itself. So we become hesitant about speaking about faith at all—even when it might be valuable.
If we speak out about what we believe, we risk being branded as “intolerant bigots” and even failing to be “wise as serpents” (Matthew 10:16) as Jesus commanded. But if we remain silent, we fail to be the “salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13) sent to speak life-giving truth into the world.
In public discourse, it seems, neither the outspoken fool nor the mute glorifies God.
Yet in the order to find a third way, the Church must face some crucial questions:
What moral issues should we speak about with tact and boldness and what moral issues should remain in-house in our own Christian community? Racism is clearly inappropriate for anyone, but should we hold those who are not believers of a Christian ethic to religious standards of sexuality, for instance?
And once we’ve answered these questions, how then should we engage the laws of our country? Some argue that we shouldn’t legislate morality at all, yet every law assumes a value judgment. And so, if we participate in creating a law-abiding country, the Christian community must think through moral claims in a more mature fashion.
For all these questions and more, we are in need of wisdom.
A New Game Plan
If we want to avoid the off-key vocalizations of conviction that are becoming so divisive, we have to start by taking a look at where the battle lines are really drawn. Too often, it seems, Christians begin with the wrong targets. We perceive moral differences as camps of “us” and “them,” marking our opponents and so commencing an ideological war.
Yet is this approach really what Scripture advocates?
The simple truth of the Gospel is that God is remaking His world and inviting Christians to be a part of it through the work of His Son. But there is opposition both around us and within us as we join His work. As Paul writes, “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood” (Ephesians 6:12).
Greg Boyd, former atheist turned apologist, notes, “If something has either flesh and/or blood in it—it is not our enemy.” In other words, if God is remaking all of His world, no one is beyond hope.
"A LEADER SHOULD NEVER RISK THEIR ABILITY TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE BY MAKING AN UNNECESSARY POINT. " - ANDY STANLEY
The medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas argued similarly that God displays His power not by eliminating all His opponents but by converting them.
If this is God’s strategy, then certainly it changes ours. For if His mission is to bring all men and women to Himself, then our main concern cannot simply be who is “right” but who is redeemed.
The task of the wise, then, is not to ready for battle but to learn divine jujitsu—to do good to the healthy and sick alike in the hope that the sick will be healed and the healthy inspired.
This has long been the approach of Andy Stanley at North Point Community Church just outside Atlanta, which draws over 24,000 attendees each week. This is no accident—Stanley has made it his goal to help the unchurched feel right at home.
“If I’m really concerned about helping people see the world differently, if I really think I’m right, whatever right is ... then my goal needs to be to influence you,” he says.
Any other method, Stanley asserts, is counter-effective. “Often, making a point undermines our influence rather than fueling our influence.”
When a military position is attacked, the army either builds up more defenses, flees or surrenders. So those who sense incoming fire from Christians either put up bigger shields, leave the conversation altogether or surrender. But such white flags do not arise from love of God or their own admission of wrong. That’s not influence—that’s being beaten into submission.
But how else can we influence if not with persuasive debate? There is a way—and it takes far more courage than charging into battle.
“If we refuse to have a relationship with our opponents, we almost guarantee we will not influence them,” says Brian McLaren, author of A New Kind of Christianity and other works. “We might coerce them. We might undermine them. We might defeat them. But we won’t influence them. And since Jesus teaches us to love our opponents and do for them what we would want done for us, and since I would think we would much rather be influenced than be undermined, defeated or coerced, it makes sense that trying to build relationships would be a good start.”
The solution is not constructing better cannons. The solution is to disengage from the fight completely and transform battlegrounds into hospital wards. For the work of Christ, and ours in imitation, looks more like the work of a physician than the infiltration of a platoon.
A Time to Be Silent
A striking feature of Jesus’ methods is the fact that He often chose not to answer questions. When asked directly about divorce, legislation, tax policy or marriage, Jesus often side-stepped the moral question, mocked it outright or countered it with a new question.
In John 8, for example, when a woman is caught in adultery and the Pharisees attempt to test Jesus, they ask him in verse 5, “In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” Rather than answering directly, Jesus stoops down to write in the dirt, then turns their question back onto the woman’s accusers themselves: “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7).
According to Christ’s example, it seems there are times when we ought to be silent in the public square—but when?
Theologian Tony Jones suggests this is a question best discerned in community with wise council. “Christians can only make the decision about when to remain silent by being committed to a small community of people with whom they can discuss and debate the issues of the day,” he says. “Only then can we garner a sense of whether, and how, to speak out.”
Plato likewise noted that the wise speak when they have something to say, but fools speak because they have to say something—and perhaps that is another practical gauge for discernment. In essence, the Church is not a daily talk show. We don’t have to have a definitive opinion on every hot topic du jour.
In Stanley’s words, it’s not worth losing our credibility and influence over. “It’s neither necessary nor wise to take a stand on everything everyone wants you to take a stand on,” he says. “A leader should never risk their ability to make a difference by making an unnecessary point.”
A Time to Act
17th century philosopher Blaise Pascal had another engagement strategy that’s as wise for today as it was when he first said it: “Men despise religion. They hate it and are afraid it may be true. The cure for this is first to show that religion is not contrary to reason, but worthy of reverence and respect. Next make it attractive, make good men wish it were true and then show that it is.”
Some might think this is compromising—that the truth ought to be brutal and unflinching. Yet routinely we see Jesus painting the Kingdom of his Father in ways that target the heart and illicit the reaction, “Of course! That’s what I’m made for!” Perhaps there is a place for both, but we’ve spun them out of order.
Christians often speak out on moral issues—war, abortion, marriage—before establishing that following Jesus is respectable, rewarding and an attractive pursuit. This is about as effective as asking the prodigal to clean up before he has any desire to go home. If we offer moral wisdom to those who do not yet find us morally wise, our audience will likely hear our arguments merely as arm-twisting power plays.
We may mean well, but it is here that we must make a critical distinction—a distinction so critical, Stanley says, that if failed could be the fatal flaw of the Church today.
“The Church has lost massive amounts of influence in culture by attempting to legislate the behavior of people who don’t share our assumptions,” he says,“And so it’s pointless [and] works against your ultimate agenda to try and guilt people into or push people into behavior based on an assumption they never embraced to begin with.”
Any fool can get online and shoot his mouth off, but certainly talking about what is good and doing good are two different things. Simply being contentious over moral issues like gay marriage, gun rights or war policy accomplishes little—especially if further investigation reveals the speaker’s lofty ideals and personal actions don’t line up.
In a culture like ours, where political duplicity and celebrity scandal are commonplace, words carry little weight. Words from stars and congressmen carry little power—but our actions can move the world.
Perhaps Peter, one of Jesus’ first disciples, said it best: “It is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the foolish” (1 Peter 2:15). It’s counter-intuitive, but it works—our Christ-like actions can resound throughout culture in a way that words cannot.
And this isn’t a cop-out to communicating truth, McLaren points out.
“I believe the call to morality is an upward call,” he says. “The Spirit of God meets us where we are and calls us to take the next step ... So I would wish that our churches would always be in the forefront, grappling with the next-step moral issues that the culture at large is not ready to confront.”
This is often where we find God—one step ahead, inviting us forward. And as we follow Him, we may live lives that display the irresistible beauty of“the light of the world, a city on a hill [that] can’t be hidden” (Matthew 5:14).
A Time to Speak
But in addition to just living, there is also a time—and a way—to speak.
Wisdom not only suggests that following Jesus is the best possible way to live. Wisdom also has strong opinions about how to communicate that following Jesus is the best possible way to live.
Paul teaches that as representatives of His Kingdom, our job is to be ministers of reconciliation—and to stop holding others’ sins against them (2 Corinthians 5:19). And this changes how we speak. It seems Christians would succeed far more in influencing our culture if their chief message was one of reconciliation rather than judgment.
“We couldn’t do much better than to saturate ourselves in the Sermon on the Mount,” says McLaren, “The Beatitudes, for example, set our moral compass to a different north than the typical gamesmanship of political discourse. Jesus’ warnings against insult, judging and even anger are game-changing. And underneath it all is the reminder that we are bound to our neighbor and enemy, so we must love them as ourselves, seeking not the binary of defeat/victory, but reconciliation and the common good.”
If this is true, then what we say is equally important to how we say it—an idea echoed in Scripture.
At the high point of his most extensive letter on Christian morality, Paul writes, “Love never fails.”Paul invokes in this passage what philosophers call a “universal quantifier”—a function that is true when applied to any and all factors. Jealousy may work, violence may work, blathering may work, sitting on our hands and shutting our mouths may work—but one cannot conceive of a situation in which love will not work. There’s no possible state of affairs where love tempered by wisdom fails, for love has a supreme power.
When a moral dilemma arises and we prepare our response, love cannot possibly lead us wrongly.
In fact, the reason occurrences of “Christian bigotry” are so repulsive to us is that they are antithetical to love. Bigotry requires irrational devotion to one’s opinions at the exclusion not just of other opinions but of other people.
When the time is right, a good moral doctor ought to give a compassionate diagnosis to the patient in order to push him or her toward greater health and wholeness. But when we speak in the public square, we need to leave our loudspeakers behind—remembering that Jesus did not come and die for moral ideals or ethical mandates. He came and died to free the ones He loves—and the wise will act accordingly.