Salt of the Earth in a World That is Becoming Tasteless
The mission of our church, Christ Presbyterian in Nashville, is to follow Christ in his mission of loving people, places, and things to life (a more detailed version of that mission can be found here). Believing that Christ intends for his followers to “flavor” the world with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control in a similar way that seasoning flavors our food, one biblical metaphor that has become very meaningful to our community is the metaphor of salt.
“You are the salt of the earth,” Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.” (Matthew 5:13)
In ancient times, salt was a significant staple that had two primary uses.
First, since they did not have canning technology, freezers, or chemical preservatives, first century people used salt as a preservative. Surround a piece of beef with salt, and it would slow the process of decay significantly.
Second, salt was also used in the same way that we use it today, as a core seasoning. Salt has this wonderful way of bringing out the best in whatever it touches. But for salt to be effective, a few rules need to be followed. What is true about salt in our food also seems to be true about Christians in the world. These rules are as follows:
RULE #1: SALT, IF CONSUMED BY ITSELF, OFFENDS THE SENSES
The same is true of religious communities!
(We are meant to be in the world, not to remove ourselves from it)
If you’ve ever put a spoonful of salt in your mouth, you understand what I mean here. Salt by itself is bitter and raises the blood pressure. Often this is what happens to religious communities that separate from the world and turn in on themselves. Like the New Testament Pharisees, when believers hive off from the rest of the world, they can become fear-driven and condemning in their posture toward the world outside. Bitter, small-minded, flavorless. Yuck.
RULE #2: SALT ALWAYS DOES BEST AS A MINORITY INGREDIENT
The same is true of Christians who are engaged with the world and culture around them.
(We are meant to serve the world as a life-giving, prophetic, love-driven minority)
At one point or another, we have all ruined a perfectly good steak or plate of fries or bowl of popcorn by over-salting it. Salt becomes overbearing when its influence on a dish becomes dominant versus subtle. But with just the right amount of salt, the very best is brought out of the steak, or the fries, or the popcorn, or the apple pie, or whatever.
This is where those who wish for the culture to be ruled by a “moral majority” would do well to learn from history. Biblical, historic Christianity has always thrived when Christians were in the minority, and has always languished when Christians were — or attempted to become — the dominant majority. The politically conservative “moral majority” movement of the 90’s serve as a case in point here. By seeking to impose traditional values on society chiefly through political force versus persuasion, the movement backfired by embittering people groups who did not feel loved or cared for by their movement, but rather felt scolded, shamed, criticized, and condemned. Likewise, a more recent and politically liberal “moral majority” has begun to emerge more recently. Unlike the more conservative movement in the 90’s, the liberal majority seeks to impose liberal values on society chiefly through political force versus persuasion. In all likelihood, this more liberal movement will also be met with its own resistance, and will largely be rejected because of a left-leaning fundamentalism known not for love but scolding, shaming, criticizing, and condemning.
But if we look at history, we’ll see that Christians — who at their best were not known to scold, shame, criticize, and condemn — instead loved their neighbors to life. And, remarkably, they most often did so not in a climate of government support, but rather in a climate of government opposition and oppression. For example, the Christian movement grew like wildfire in biblical times. We see in Acts 2 that believers were “enjoying the favor of ALL the people,” not as a power-base majority but as a life-giving, stand-out minority (Acts 2:42-47). The Roman Emperor Julian, after many failed attempts to exterminate Christians from Rome due to their growing influence, wrote a letter to his friend Arsacius expressing his frustration over this fact. The more he tried to eliminate Christians, the more their movement would grow. The Emperor complained to his friends, “The Galieans [Christians] take care of our poor as they do their own.”
When did Christianity begin to falter in Rome? When a later Emperor, Constantine, became a Christian and tried to impose Christianity — a “moral majority,” so to speak — on all of Rome as the State religion. The results were disastrous. You can read about it in the history books.
TOWARD A TRUER CHRISTIANITY:
IN PRAISE OF A STAND-OUT, LIFE-GIVING MINORITY
If Christians are to be salt in the world, we must begin to see ourselves not as a moral majority, but as a life-giving, stand-out minority — as salt sprinkled around the whole dish, touching and penetrating every course. Instead of spending so much energy fighting battles that Christians have already lost in the culture, might we consider setting aside our outrage and instead begin to ask questions like:
How can we, like Jesus, be ‘”gracious losers” in a culture war that has already been lost?
How can we, instead of demanding our so-called “rights” lay down our rights as Christ did for the sake of the world?
How can we, like Jesus, seek to win the world through prophetic, life-giving love versus through worldly power and coercion?
KINGDOM OF GOD > RELIGIOUS “FREEDOM”
According to Jesus, serving and staying true to the Kingdom of God is more important than maintaining our “religious freedoms.” It should not be lost on us that besides Ecclesiastes and the Song of Solomon, every single book in the Bible was written by a person who was in exile, incarcerated, enslaved, or being actively persecuted.
Biblical Christianity has always thrived most when there was an element of the world being against Christians.
This was true of Jesus, so we should expect it to be true of us. Jesus only had 120 followers after his resurrection, even though according to the Apostle Paul there were over 500 resurrection eyewitnesses still living! The early church leaders were constantly in and out of prison because both the Jews and Romans were threatened by their growing influence. Eleven of the twelve Apostles died as martyrs. It was under such conditions that the church grew like wildfire. The same is true now — in parts of the world where it is most costly to be a Christian, we are seeing the most rapid growth in the Christian Church. Meanwhile, in areas where being a Christian is much less costly, the younger generations, bored and cynical toward nominal, saltless faith, are secularizing at an unprecedented pace.
WHAT DOES SALTY CHRISTIANITY LOOK LIKE?
It looks like the best babysitters, who clean the dishes before the parents arrive home, who leave the place better than they found it. Likewise, Christians are put in the world by God, in the name of Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit, to leave the world better than we found it.
There are many examples of this. All but one of the Ivy League universities except for one were founded by Christians. Let’s keep doing that. The first hospital was founded by Christian ministers and benefactors, and there are now hospitals all over the world whose names include 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 for the glory of God. 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.
But what if people misunderstand our intent? What if by being so “in the world,” people start to think we are soft on truth? If we must choose, and sometimes we must, it is better to be misunderstood and labeled as too soft on sin, than it is to be misunderstood as self-righteous, harsh and stern. Jesus was regularly accused of being a glutton and a drunk, even though he was neither. Why? Because Jesus lived his life around drunks, prostitutes, shady tax collectors, and the like…and never felt the need to explain himself. Jesus welcomed sinners and ate with them (Luke 15:1-2). Mustn’t we?
Ay friend and mentor, Tim Keller, has often said, “Christians are called by God to be living so sacrificially and beautifully that the people around us, who don’t believe what we believe, will soon be unable to imagine the world without us.”
Let’s keep doing that. And, if we haven’t been doing that up to now, let’s start there. Because it was in the vicinity of this kind of Christianity — the life-giving, stand-out minority…not the so-called “moral majority” that the Lord added daily to the number of those being saved.
We are a loved people.
So let’s go out and love.
Let’s leave it better than we found it, shall we?
Struggling in today’s polarized climate? Scott’s latest book, A Gentle Answer: Our ‘Secret Weapon’ in an Age of Us-Against-Them is now available for individuals, discussion groups, and churches.
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