On Suffering, The Church, LGBTQ, Abortion, Partisan Politics, And Leaving Things Better Than We Found Them
Recently, and in response to several themes covered in Jesus Outside the Lines, I was invited by a Christian magazine into a conversation about some of the more contested issues of our time. What follows is a slightly expanded version of that conversation. I would enjoy hearing your feedback. Grace and peace!
We don’t get far in the book before we come across a couple of daunting questions:
(1) Is it possible to profoundly disagree with someone and love that person deeply at the same time?
(2) Is it possible to hold deep convictions and simultaneously embrace those who reject your convictions? Why are those such crucial questions?
These ideals are not only possible, but biblically imperative. We need only to look at Jesus’ interaction with the rich young ruler to confirm this. This man overtly rejected Jesus’ invitation to life, in favor of his money. And? It says that Jesus looked at him and loved him. It also says that when the man walked away from Jesus, he walked away not feeling scolded or put in his place. Instead, it says that he walked away feeling sad. There was something about his interaction with Jesus that made him feel sad to walk away, something that said to him, “I sense that Christianity is true, and part of me, a deep part of me, wishes it could also be true for me.”
We see similar hints of the same in Acts 2, where it says that the Christian way of life was so positive and life-giving, that first century believers enjoyed the favor of all the people. Or of course there is Jesus again, who welcomed sinners and ate with them.
Once a woman shared the testimony to our church that she fell in love with Jesus not in spite of the treatment she received from Christians, but because of it. We need to imagine what it would look like for the church to rekindle what has always been true about salty Christianity—that it has an attractional value to sinners. We need to be sure that when we offend, it’s the same kinds of people who got offended by Jesus; namely, the smug religious insiders. We also need to be sure that those who are drawn to us are the same kinds of folks who were drawn to Jesus, namely, the tax collectors and sinner-types.
I like what Tim Keller said once about tolerance. He said that true, healthy tolerance is not about not having convictions. Because of course we are going to have convictions. Rather, Keller said, it’s about how our convictions lead us to treat people who don’t agree with us.
Another way of saying this is that the more conservative we are about our Bibles, the more we take the Bible at face value, the more liberal we will become in our loving. Our “us” categories will expand and our “them” categories will shrink.
When you talk about politics, you say that it’s ultimately “through subversive, countercultural acts of love, justice, and service for the common good that Christianity has always gained the most ground.” How might that affect our thinking about partisan politics?
We need to move away from moral-majority thinking and instead embrace our identity as a standout, life-giving minority devoted to the common good. We need to learn from history, lest history repeat itself. Biblical Christianity has always thrived when Christians were in the political minority, and has always languished when Christians were, or attempted to become, the dominant political majority.
For example, The Roman Emperor Julian, after many failed attempts to exterminate Christians from Rome due to their growing influence, wrote a letter to a friend expressing his frustration that Christians took better care of Rome’s poor than Rome did.
Conversely, the saltiness of Christianity in Rome lost its savor when a later Emperor, Constantine, tried to impose Christianity — a “moral majority,” so to speak — on all of Rome as the State religion. The results were disastrous. It’s all there in church history.
When we remember that we serve a King and his Kingdom, that Jesus’ Kingdom is not of this world, we will be for the world in every possible way. We will seek the peace and flourishing of our cities and our neighbors. The presence of Christians in the world then becomes not only good news for Christians, but for everybody. God has left us in the world, in the name of Christ and with the resources he has availed to us, to leave the world better than we found it.
There are many examples of this. All of the Ivy League universities except for one were founded by Christians. Let’s keep doing that. Many hospital names begin with the word “Saint,” pointing to their Christian beginnings. Let’s keep doing that. As secular journalist Nicholas Kristof says, evangelical Christians are the most self-giving, exemplary servants to the world’s poor. Let’s keep doing that. Rembrandt painted world class paintings. Beethoven and Handel made world class music. Dostoevsky wrote world class literature. Let’s keep doing that. Evangelical leader Kevin Palau recently partnered with the openly gay mayor of Portland to resource and bless an under-served public school. Let’s keep doing that. A little Baptist church in Texas pooled funds together to pay for an outspoken, anti-Christian atheist’s medical needs. Let’s keep doing that.
In short, we should embrace all the virtues of leftward politics and also rightward politics, and dismiss the vices of both. The gospel calls us to a greater thoughtfulness than partisanship provides.
You describe how, by recognizing the image of God in others — especially those we disagree with — our perspective changes. How do we interact with people who are pro-abortion and pro-gay marriage? How do we hold our convictions, and give others the honor and respect God’s image bearers deserve?
On the abortion question, I have written a lengthy answer which can be found here. But the short answer is that we need to be pro-life in a comprehensive way, not a partial way. This is the accusation of pro-life people toward pro-choice people, and also of pro-choice people toward pro-life people, that the “other side” is only partially in favor of human dignity and human rights. Pro-life people say that the other side privileges the mother and ignores the child. Pro-choice people say the opposite. But Christians will prioritize both. First, they will protect the unborn as the most vulnerable, voiceless human in the equation. That’s what justice is. And, second, they will respond with compassion to women who truly are in crisis. Over sixty-percent of women seeking an abortion live below poverty. Many of them face the threat of abandonment from parents, husbands, and boyfriends. As Christians, we need to figure out what it looks like to persuasively love such women in a way that makes carrying the baby to term seem and feel more hopeful than the tragic alternative. Beyond any doubt, Christians are doing more for women in crisis pregnancy than anyone else in the world—whether through counseling, orphan and foster care, adoption, and more. But the culture has not caught on to this. Somehow, our light remains hidden under a bushel—and it’s a light that needs to truly “shine before men” before women in crisis will think to run to a church instead of an abortion clinic for help. At the local church level, we need to creatively and seriously ask ourselves what it would take for a woman with an unexpected pregnancy to start believing that a local church will take better care of her, and will help pave the way to a better future for her, than an abortion clinic will.
On the marriage question, please see my response to the final question below.
You discuss the fact that many people, including a few high-profile Christians, are leaving the church. They’re not leaving the Christian faith, but they’re frustrated by their experience at church. What do you say to these folks?
I also wrote a longer piece on this question, which can be found here. But in short, Don Miller and others who have spoken about leaving the local church should be taken seriously. On some level, theirs is a prophetic concern that the church they experience falls short of the Acts 2:42-47 ideal where believers lived beautifully before God, each other, and the watching world. They broke bread together, shared their goods with all who had need, studied the Scriptures and sought to live them out, had a robust life of prayer together, and gave themselves to deeds of mercy and justice. It is a fair critique to say that many churches today fall short of this ideal. On the other hand, leaving the local church altogether is not an option that Scripture gives to those who identify with Jesus. The church is Jesus’ chosen bride, after all. If the bride is good enough for Jesus but not good enough for us, that says more about us than it does about the bride. Plus, just think of how Paul engaged the church at Corinth. The church that got more attention in the New Testament than any other church was a very broken community. But Paul pressed in with Corinth instead of hitting the eject button on them. He purposed not to abandon them but to love them to life. And in his second letter to them, we see some of the positive effects of that.
In the chapter about hope or realism, you talk about how Mary and Martha responded to their brother’s death, and how each interacted with Jesus. Jesus’ behavior, you say, “was not an indicator that He was out of touch with the human condition. It was an indicator that He was deeply in touch with the human condition.” How so?
You can look at this question from a couple of angles. First, it’s important to notice that Jesus responds to the two sisters according to their uniqueness. With Martha, his approach is more direct, whereas with Mary, it is more gentle and subtle. As usual, Jesus responds to both in a way that affirms their dignity, that he sees them deep down to the soul. His is not a canned approach. Second, it’s important to see how Jesus did not distance himself from their suffering and their tears. Instead, he stopped and wept with them. A careful look at the Greek also indicates that he was angry—not at the sufferers but at the suffering itself. That’s deeply comforting for those who are being bullied by suffering. If suffering is the bully on the playground, Jesus is the one who is stronger than the bully. He sympathizes, but he also gets angry and he acts.
You talk about the culture’s changing attitudes toward sexuality and how, in part, they stem from loneliness. In response, you say the church must ask: What will it take to ensure that every unmarried person has access to friendships as deep and lasting as marriage and as meaningful as sex? How do we do that?
On the sexuality question, I like to start with what Madeleine L’Engle once said, that “We draw people to Christ…by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.” I think what she is saying is that on sexuality and every other contested moral issue in the culture, the telling of the light will backfire unless there is also a showing of the light. For me, this raises several “What if…” questions.
Rather than condemning “sex in the city,” what if we concerned ourselves instead with being the “city on a hill” that Jesus intends for us to be? What if we affirmed along with the Bible that being unmarried and celibate (like Paul and Jesus) is a noble and fruitful calling? What if we affirmed along with Paul that the calling to singleness, though less common, is still a “far better” calling than marriage because it frees single men and women to devote themselves fully to the Lord’s concerns? Speaking of this, what if we got rid of the term “single” in the church and embraced a renewed biblical vision for the church as a surrogate family where every person, married and divorced and single, hetero attracted and same sex attracted, has access to spiritual friendships as deep as that of David and Jonathan, whose mutual accessibility, transparency, and loyalty rivaled the love between a man and a woman? What if we shifted our emphasis toward the Marriage to which all other marriages are but a shadow—the mystical union between Jesus and his bride, the Church, which is inclusive of believing husbands and wives, as well as widows and widowers, divorcees, and other unmarried men and women? According to sacred Scripture, no matter what one’s marital status or sexual orientation, the first moment of trust in Jesus makes that person as married and complete as s/he will ever be. From our first moment of faith, Jesus is our Bridegroom and we are his Bride.
Similarly, what if we focused on renewing marriage inside the church first, repenting of hard-core and soft-core pornography habits, taking thoughts and fantasies captive that objectify the image of God, reducing divorces where there are no biblical grounds, and nurturing love, lingering conversation, hand-holding, fidelity, forgiveness, and living face to face (in intimacy) and also side by side (on mission) within marriages? For unless and until we become this kind of counter-cultural community amongst ourselves—showing the light of Christ that is in us as well as telling it—any zeal for biblical marriage and chastity “out there” will fall on deaf ears. And rightly so.
Click here to receive these reflections weekly in your inbox.
Get weekly posts delivered to your inbox
Connect with Scott: Twitter / Instagram / Facebook
Sermons: iTunes Podcast
Books: Jesus Outside the Lines and Befriend
Explore Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville