“There is a time to be silent and a time to speak”
It’s hard enough persuading Aussies about the wonder, truth and goodness of Jesus Christ without Christians mucking it up. We can have a hundred churches faithfully and lovingly speaking and living out His Gospel, but the foolishness of a few can quickly undo much good.
Let me begin by reminding ourselves, Jesus wasn’t exactly a popular guy in the first century AD. Crowds were drawn to him because of his memorable speeches and because of his miraculous deeds, but scarcely did they love him. In fact, the culture’s leaders conspired to have Jesus arrested, put him on trial in a kangaroo court and then killed in the most gruesome and public manner ever invented by humanity. As they did this, the crowds cheered on Jesus’ crucifixion.
Down the centuries and in every culture that has had contact with Christianity, Jesus Christ has been controversial. To many, he has been recognised as the Son of God, the resurrected Lord, and the only Saviour of the world. Through faith, this Jesus has destroyed great evil, removed personal sin and guilt, and has gifted new lives, new communities, and transformed cultures in ways that we continue to benefit from today. Much of what we have today is the result of this Jesus who changes beliefs, attitudes, and lives.
Jesus Christ remains a controversial figure in the world of 2020. Many people allege a liking for Jesus…until they read and understand things like the cross, God’s justice, and his claims of Lordship. In other words, a Jesus that we mould into our own image is likeable. This kind of Jesus is given special mention in our ripostes against organised religion and in our sermons that espouse the latest moral dictums.
But as Jesus himself said,
“If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. 19 If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. 20 Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. 21 They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the one who sent me. 22 If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin. 23 Whoever hates me hates my Father as well. 24 If I had not done among them the works no one else did, they would not be guilty of sin. As it is, they have seen, and yet they have hated both me and my Father. 25 But this is to fulfill what is written in their Law: ‘They hated me without reason.’ (John 17:18-25)
People will often accept a God who conforms to their own heart’s desires, but without Divine grace, they will find the God and Father of Jesus Christ repellent. As Jesus explains the world’s response to him, he includes a word for those who follow him; the world will hate them.
This idea of societal suspicion and even rejection of Christianity and Christian people is one of the regular reminders in the New Testament. Christians shouldn’t be surprised when there is backlash for believing the Gospel and for affirming God’s ways as good and true. This reaction is quite normal.
However, not all opposition to Churches and Christians is because of the Gospel or because we are doing what is right. Sometimes Christians are called out publicly because we are acting in foolish ways and even sinful ways. It can be difficult to always distinguish between foolishness and sin, partly because we are not privy to peoples’ hearts. Actions and words are however powerful communicators, and they can usually adorn the Gospel or confuse the Gospel.
Like in every crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic is not only witnessing the best and worst of humanity, but we are also seeing the best and the not so good of Christians.
Take, for example, Grace Community Church in California. Thousands of Christians from all over the world look up to this church and to their Senior Pastor, John MacArthur. His many decades of ministry has been a source of encouragment for significant numbers of Christian men and women, including here in Australia. Last week, the Elders of Grace Community Church decided to defy local Government orders and return to their normal Sunday services.
Before casting stones it is important to read the statement by the Elders at Grace Community, and also to read this response published on 9Marks.org by Jonathan Leeman. I concur with Leeman’s reflections, which in summary includes a general agreement with the theological convictions of Grace Community but disagreement over how they have applied these beliefs. For example, Lehman suggests,
“I personally wonder if defying government orders for the sake of a pandemic is the most judicious opportunity to exercise those muscles.”
There are serious threats to religious freedom in our societies. With an increasingly secularised and polarised culture, there are reasons for believing life will become more difficult for Christians exercising their belief and practices. Is this pandemic really one of those issues?
“Right now, the guidelines restricting churches also restricts restaurants, movie theaters, museum, gyms, funeral homes, non-essential offices, shopping malls, barbershops, and more. As those restaurant and gym owners cast a glance over at our churches, will our refusal to abide by the same restrictions which are causing them financial distress help the witness of the gospel, especially if we could find other ways to comply, such as meeting outdoors?”
Leeman also suggested,
“What’s implied in MacArthur’s statement is that his elders don’t believe there is a real threat with Covid-19.”
This is correct. Indeed photographs of their ‘triumphal’ return to Church last Sunday reinforces this message that COVID-19 is not the serious disease medical experts and Government authorities are communicating. Whether this was intended or not, this was the effect.
Was it necessary for Grace Community Church to recommence their services at this time? Does their decision show love to their neighbours?
Let’s take an example closer to home. A Christian school in Melbourne has today made the news for what was a stupid and unnecessary reason: they are demanding students to only wear face masks that match their school uniform and school colours. I think SBS is throwing a cheap shot at the school; this is hardly worthy of national news, and yet it now is. A Christian school has made a needless decision that adds to the pointless growing number of examples of Christians making an unnecessary stand.
In addition, throughout the different stage of lockdown, there have been examples of churches flaunting the rules. The number of cases is tiny, but we already know that the media love to name and shame a Church when possible. Why give them a reason?
More serious are Christians who repeat and give oxygen to conspiracy theories surrounding COVID-19. Stop it, repent, and stop taking the Lord’ name in vain. The pandemic is difficult enough with medical experts trying to understand the nature of this terrible virus and how to best combat it, without armchair experts encouraging rumours, gossip, slander, and other sinful speech. I understand how some Government messaging is confusing and how medical opinion has at times conflicted. I appreciate that these serious restrictions are uncomfortable and difficult. But as a Christian, I am to honour and obey those in authority, even when I disagree with them. I am to love my neighbours, and I am not to create stumbling blocks for people. Aussies are already resistant to the Gospel of Christ without me building extra walls blocking out the beauty and glory of God that shines in the face of Christ.
Some of the examples I’ve cited above are not necessarily Christian behaving sinfully, but they are unwise. They may not represent many Christians but it does mirror far too many.
In this year of grave uncertainty and instability, of growing anxiety and fear, we as Christians have the greatest message of hope to offer our neighbours. Let it not get lost in the midst of needless biases, prejudices, and preferences.
As the Apostle said to the Colossians, “Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.”
Australians don’t need to hear every thought and every theory that is gurgling around in our stomachs. They don’t need us to insist upon every tertiary preference. They need us to be wise, full of grace and adding salt (which is the Gospel not our speculative thoughts on immunology).
Here is an interview on Fox news with John MacArthur explaining their decision