Thursday, October 24, 2019

When And How Should Christians Publicly Fight For Their Faith?

How should the church’s voice and presence in 21st century culture mirror how God’s messages to the world were revealed by the prophetic voices in the Bible?

I have been wrestling with this for a while. The Bible clearly calls Christians to be “salt” that adds spiritual savor, to be “light,” that casts the light of truth and hope into a sin-darkened world (Matthew 5:13-16).  How do we do this well? What does the proverbial “word fitly spoken” look like? What is within our power to do to make sure we do not lose the savoriness of our salty message? How do we use our freedoms in a democratic system to best represent Christ and spread the life of the Kingdom of God?

I have recently been reading Tremper Longman III’s book Daniel: The NIV Application Commentary. Today I came across this section:
Western Christians misapply the examples of Daniel and Peter. A prime example is the complaint about the lack of prayer in our public schools. Our present law prohibits a teacher from offering a prayer in our state-run schools. This bothers some Christians, who believe that Daniel 6 provides the motivation for objection. They argue that Daniel was told he could not pray, but he persisted in prayer. If we, then, are told we cannot pray, we must not cave in to the “law of the Medes and the Persians.” A similar kind of argument is presented in the analogous cases of Christmas displays on government property or the hanging of the Ten Commandments in a judge’s courtroom. 
But are these situations really analogous to Daniel 6? I suggest they are not. Daniel was not prohibited from praying in a certain location like the court. He was forbidden to pray to God at all, even in private! Indeed, it is preposterous to even imagine Daniel during his early years in Babylon insisting on prayer before the opening of the Akkadian class or the class on divination.  
The confusion in the United States and probably other Western democracies arises because some Christians insist that their country is the modern equivalent of Israel. However, it cannot be urged too strongly that there are and can be no modern equivalents to Israel. There is no such thing as a “Christian nation,” except in the sense of a nation where most of the inhabitants happen to be Christian at the particular historical moment. In other words, the nation is not the church. 
The modern equivalent of Israel is not a political entity but rather the church. Christians should be working to keep prayer out of public schools, manger scenes off the front yard of city hall, and the Ten Commandments out of the local magistrates’ offices. When the church has state backing, it grows complacent, or even worse, coercive in its witness. Indeed, study has shown that when the church gets an entrée into the power structures of the state (whether the government per se or public educational institutions,) it has hurt, not helped, the cause of the kingdom. I believe we can see this in a country like Korea, where the church exercises enormous influence in the public sector and also has significant wealth and power. The power struggles within Korean ecclesiastical structures are notorious. 
No, the quiet faithfulness of Daniel in the privacy of his upper room has nothing to do with trying to practice public prayer in state-run institution… Western Christians, however, must be vigilant… To be vigilant, however, does not mean to prepare for war or to fight for our rights. Again, the example of Daniel 6, as well as that of the disciples in the New Testament, not to speak of Jesus himself, is to prepare to risk all, even our lives. When Daniel heard about the law forbidding his prayer, he did not rally the troops for a strike or armed resistance; he prepared himself for death. The same may be said concerning the three friends in Daniel 3. Christians do not fight for the beliefs by assaulting or killing, but by dying…  
Our faith gives us the courage to risk all, even death. Christians living in the West have not been asked to risk all. Often we act as if we are unwilling to risk anything. Our willingness to risk even our lives is what will turn the heads of the secular culture that surrounds us. Our complaints, our legislative efforts, our attempts to compel people to live according to our standards of morality will only close their ears. 

I think that's a fantastic reorientation about how we look at being a faithful presence in the world.  However,  since Christian history is full of culture-changing movements sparked by Christian presence, I will add what I believe to be an important caveat about the kinds of things with which the people of God should publicly and strongly engage based on what I see in the Bible.

The prophets in the Old Testament called people to repentance both within Israel and around Israel. When this call to repentance was within Israel and the early church, it covered virtually all facets of God’s moral design for living; however, it was not as all-encompassing when sent to the nations around Israel or the people outside the church.

In the OT, God could have judged other nations constantly if he had demanded of them the exact same standard as he demanded of his covenant people, Israel (for example, other nations weren’t punished for idolatry, adultery, not keeping the Sabbath, moving boundary markers, etc). God did not do this, because, well, no other group of people were in covenant with him.

However, there is one key thread: If they shed innocent blood or were known for extreme violence, God would at some point render judgment. Noah’s day was “filled with violence”; Ninevah was a “city of bloodshed”;   read the judgments recorded in Amos 1:2–2:3 and the moral climate of the Assyrians (1),  Sodom (2) and Canaan (3).  I think of it this way: it was a standard that everyone should have figured out. They didn’t need divine revelation beyond what was already written in their hearts. It's as if God basically said, “At least this. You all know you can’t do this.” (4)

The New Testament writers seem to keep their pointedness on most moral issues “in house.” At one point, Paul goes out of his way in 1 Corinthians 5 to note that the moral bar he raised was only for the church – why would Christians expect those with a different worldview to care about the things they care about? (5)  This was the 1st century world of Rome, ya’ll. Paul knew about a lot of morally unsettling things.

That didn’t mean Christians didn’t care. They simply very quietly went about their lives doing what they believed to be right, looking for ways to be involved in their culture such that their presence on God’s behalf brought help and hope to the brokenness in the city. They rescued babies set out to die; they offered material help and health care to everyone; they lobbied for freeing slaves within the church (#philemon); they not only accepted but honored the scorned and marginalized of their day: women, slaves, prostitutes, etc. (6) They didn't expect Rome to be sympathetic, supportive or accommodating; they expected that God would use the faithful presence of His people to bring light and hope to a dying and weary world.

The apostles were not at all reluctant to use public opportunities to preach the gospel, of course - see Paul’s discourse on Mars Hill in Acts 17. But read his presentation carefully. He presents who Jesus is; he doesn’t call out his audience for any particular actions the church considered sinful – and if history is reliable at all, his audience was ripe for a call to very specific kinds of repentance.

I wonder what it looks like for the 21st century church to have the same kind of presence, one in which our presence is compelling rather than our voices coercing, one where it is clear that "we wrestle not against flesh and blood?"

"It's us against them. Gloves are off. It's on!" has never been a compelling witness.

I see a clear Old Testament green light for confronting sins of egregious, unjust violence and demanding a common human standard that ought to be clear to anyone. In today's world, that's abortion, human trafficking and exploitation (of all kinds), rape and assault, abuse and brutality of any kind, and unjust warfare.

After that, the biblical approach seems to be one of keeping our own temples clean. Covenant people clean covenant house with covenant means toward covenant ends. The Philistines around us do not answer to us, and there is no biblical precedent that demands they support or even accommodate us. I like it when they do; it won't surprise me when they don't.

And that's when we fight....the desire to exact our pound of flesh, make demands, get what we deserve, and rage against the cultural and political machines that thunder toward us.

It's a time for more Daniels who know what it looks like to humbly endure, patiently suffer and even die well if the time ever comes for the sake of the gospel and its witness.

It's time to get out of the way so that someone will ask, "Who is that with you in the fire?"

Ah, yes.

It looks a lot like Jesus.

It's just hard for others to see him when we keep getting in the way.


 1. Not only were the rulers of Assyria terribly cruel, they boasted of their cruelty on monuments that exist in museums to this day. Here are some boasts from various monuments:

  •  “I cut off their heads and formed them into pillars.”
  •  “Bubo, son of Buba, I flayed in the city of Arbela and I spread his skin upon the city wall.”
  •  “I flayed all the chief men who had revolted, and I covered the pillar with their skins.”
  •  “Many within the border of my own land I flayed, and spread their skins upon the walls.”
  •  “I cut off the limbs of the officers, the royal officers who had rebelled.”
  •  “3,000 captives I burned with fire.”
  •  “Their corpses I formed into pillars.”
  •  “From son I cut off their hands and their fingers, and from other I cut off their noses, their ears, and their fingers, of many I put out their eyes.”
  •  “I made one pillar of the living, and another of heads, I bound their heads to posts round about the city.”

 2. “Ancient stories give hints about the evil in Sodom. Strangers and travelers who came into the city would be robbed, stripped, and held captive within the city. They would wander the streets slowly starving to death, to the great amusement of the citizenry. One account relates that visitors to Sodom were offered a bed according to the Middle Eastern laws of hospitality, but it was a bed of torture. Short people were stretched. Tall people had their legs cut off. If a traveler had no money, he would be given bricks of gold and silver with his name on them! But nobody would sell him bread and water, even for all that gold and silver, so the traveler slowly died of starvation. The Sodomites gathered around the corpse and took back the gold and silver. The people in Sodom were not just evil, they were proud of being evil. Imagine being a child in a place like that… Archeology gives some hints about what the Canaanites did. On one High Place, archeologists found several stone pillars and great numbers of jars containing remains of newborn babies. When a new house was built, a child would be sacrificed and its body built into the wall to bring good luck to the rest of the family. Firstborn children were often sacrificed to Molech, a giant hollow bronze image in which a fire was built. Parents placed their children in its red hot hands and the babies would roll down into the fire. The sacrifice was invalid if a parent displayed grief. Mothers were supposed to dance and sing. The Israelites later copied this practice in a valley near Jerusalem called Gehenna. Hundreds of jars containing infant bones have been found there.”

 3. Ahaz, a Canaanite, "even sacrificed his son in the fire, following the detestable ways of the nations the Lord had driven out before the Israelites" (2 Kings 16:3). Christine Silk notes, “The wealthier the Carthaginians became, the more they practiced child sacrifice, so that by the third century BCE, at the height of Carthaginian civilization, child-sacrifice was sanctioned by the state and mainly practiced among the nobles and upper classes. This horror was done in a civilization that was already one of the most advanced, most cosmopolitan and affluent places in the Mediterranean. Among the Phoenicians (who were Canaanites living in northern Israel, along the coast) it was the commoners, as opposed to the upper classes, who were quite involved in sacrificing their children. Another piece of important evidence that child sacrifice took place can be found in the writings of Greek historians who lived during the golden years of Carthaginian rule, in the 3rd century BCE. Kleitarchos, a Greek historian, wrote: “Whenever they [the Carthaginians or the Phoenicians] seek to obtain some great favor, [they] vow one of their children, burning it as a sacrifice to the deity, if they are especially eager to gain success. There stands in their midst a bronze statue of Kronos (Ba'al) its hands extended over a bronze brazier, the flames of which engulf the child. When the flames fall upon the body, the limbs contract and the open mouth seems almost to be laughing, until the contracted body slips quietly into the brazier.” (Stager 1984, p.2)

 4. Romans 2:14-15

 5. John the Baptist is not applauded in the biblical text for challenging Herod’s divorce and remarriage, for example. It got him killed, and to what end? The Bible records no result other than John's death.

6. Paul’s commands about head coverings in church for women was a command to give a sign of honor to women who were refused honor in the culture. Only respectable women wore veils; in the church, all women wore veils without exception. #leveltheplayingfield

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