Evangelism: Discipling Nations

This is the second part in a series on evangelism. For better understanding, please read the previous post first. 

Biblical Strategy of Evangelism

What is the Biblical strategy for evangelism? Is evangelism a spiritual discipline that we practice for its own sake, or is it part of a greater purpose? A clear universal mandate for relational evangelism, or even personal evangelism, may be missing in scriptures, but the Bible is heavily focused on the spread of the gospel. A strategy focused only on using friendships may be absent, but the Bible is actually full of evangelistic strategy. The book of Acts certainly contains the most examples and direction for strategic evangelism.

So what is this strategy? In Acts, we see God strategically moving people over and over to reach out to those who had not heard, those who had previously been cutoff from God’s Kingdom, and those in different cultures. This strategy could be “going” as an ambassador. The great commission uses “go” as an imperative participle, “making disciples” is the central mandate, and “go” is the evangelistic strategy component of this mission. However, it is certainly not always a geographic “going”. No one boarded ships, carriages (or plains or trains) at Pentecost, it was a breakthrough of the gospel, right in their midst. The “going” was about reaching people that previously had no access to God.

We see this continuing theme of Acts, from Pentecost where the Holy Spirit is miraculously and emphatically revealed in all languages. It is the reason behind the persecution-driven scatterings, leading Christians to outreach in Samaria, where people who had previously been despised, driven away, marginalized, were welcomed to hear about Christ. It is the driving force behind the missionary work of the church of Antioch, who continued to push the gospel into places where they had not heard.

Continuing into the epistles, Paul states his desire for evangelism and his strategy clearly, when he says that it is his “ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known” (Romans 15:20). The dissemination of the gospel through existing relational connections was assumed to be a natural consequence of discovering Christ. This didn’t require an intentional strategy, the focused strategy was on reaching those who would not naturally hear and find Christ, those in different ethnic groups, and social groups. This strategy was not just expanding our circle of friends, but intentionally looking to see who was in need of hearing of the hope of Christ, who had been marginalized from the existing connections to God’s kingdom.

This is not only the strategy for evangelism, but it also shapes the impetus for evangelism. While there is a tendency for evangelism to be motivated by saving people from hell, so they can go to heaven, as far as I can tell, this motivation is never actually used in the Bible. When the threat of hell is used as a warning, it is always directed towards individuals, pushing them to repentance, not to go evangelize. Instead evangelism is driven by a vision of all people knowing the greatness of God and His ways (Psalms 145:12), and all tribes and tongues worshiping God together (Rev 5:9, 7:9).

In terms of passages that guide our evangelism, the Great Commission has to rank at the top. Christians rightly regard this as central, due to its summation of Christ’s goals, his parting, conclusive words, and the disciples passion for pursuing this mission. This passage also echos this strategy. First, the great commission is not a mandate to engage in relational evangelism, in fact it doesn’t mention evangelism at all. The universal call of the Great Commission on Christians is for discipleship. Evangelism is often a component of discipleship (depending on who you are discipling), as the first part in the discipleship process. Second, the Great Commission is clearly stated in terms of the strategy above: a distinct focus on intentionally reaching all the nations, or to more precisely translate the Greek word “ethne”, all the ethnic groups of the world. This is is the Biblical strategy of evangelism.

This mission stretches back to the beginning of scriptures as well. From early in Genesis, God declares to Abraham that his descendants would not be the sole recipients of His blessing, but rather that through him “all peoples of earth will be blessed” (“peoples” here is similar to ethne, although a bit more granular, and could point to smaller subcultures and groupings). This promise is repeated three times, and is further specified that the blessing will be through Abraham’s seed (Jesus). The prophets reiterate the mission of Christ to the nations, Isaiah declares that it is too small a thing for him to merely restore Israel, but rather He is a “light for the nations” and His “salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”

And this direction is projected to God’s final vision for his people in Revelations, where again we see an overt focus on every ethnicity being in-gathered. In fact, Rev 5:9, declares this was the purpose behind Jesus sacrifice, that “by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation”. And the final vision of His church is described as “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages”, and this is defined as a central reason for Christ’s sacrifice.

There are several other passages that might be referenced in trying to suggest a universal call for evangelism. By far the most explicit, is the “secondary Great Commission”, Mark 16:15, where supposedly Jesus says to “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.” With more manuscripts discovered, all modern translations have to come to recognize that this passage was not actually in any of the original manuscripts.

Interestingly, Paul actually describes the work of “proclaiming the gospel” as a unique and distinctive calling, such that those who are called to do that should receive compensation from other Christians for their work (1 Cor 9:14). Of course Paul never suggested that those who are called to love others should be compensated, it is universal calling! Nor are those who are called to be grateful to be compensated from other Christians; we are all to be grateful! On the other hand, proclaiming the gospel deserves compensation precisely because it is unique calling, requiring extra attention beyond the universal mandates upon every Christian.

Evangelism then, is not just a spiritual discipline, a motion that we go through to please God, but rather it is a part of a great mission, a vision of God to create disciples from all nations. It is part of the greater, grand story of God’s purpose of His glory to be demonstrated revealed through the nations of the earth. And as part of the body that is called to this mission, we all have different roles to play.

Nikki and I have come to believe that understanding God’s purpose and our role in it, should be a goal of every Christian. This is why we have invested in helping to coordinate the Perspective class here in Utah. This class does such a fantastic job of truly exploring God’s global mission. We would encourage you to consider taking this class if you ever have the opportunity.

If evangelism is merely an obligatory duty to fulfill, this might be of no concern. But if we desire to fully embrace God’s heart and His mission, let us invest in that. And when we truly care about a goal, we look for strategy and vision to guide us. Likewise, let’s aim to understand God’s heart and his strategy into this with all our heart and mind.

Evangelism and Pyramid Schemes

One of the most touted strategies of evangelicals is “relational evangelism”. While this can describe a valuable pursuit, I would like to take a closer look at its roots. In particular, in this post I wanted to offer some critiques of making friendships for the sake of evangelism, while also offering possible ways to make this pursuit more God glorifying, based on scriptures.

Relational Evangelism?

Relational evangelism is typically a strategy of forming friendships for the sake of evangelism. One of the first concerns of the specific strategy of making friendships for the sake of conversion is fairly simple: it seems surprisingly absent from the Bible. From what I can tell there is virtually no examples of or instructions telling anyone to make friends for the purpose of evangelism. The best reason I can find for the strong emphasis on relational evangelism is that it is a relatively successful mechanism for getting converts (lessons learned from the business world, perhaps). This isn’t to say that outcome-justified strategies are bad, in general this would be a strong reason. However, the outcome-driven reasoning for relational evangelism has other problems based on questionable assumptions. The first problem is that relational evangelism can have negative side-effects in the pursuit of its goal, and secondly a singular focus on the outcome of conversions may misrepresent our essential goal as Christians.

In considering possible side-effects, we need to face the potential deceptive nature of relational evangelism. If friendship is pursued, with the implied goal of a relationship, when in fact, the real goal is conversion, this is disingenuous. Often this deception isn’t a sophisticated covert operation, but when underlying motives are hidden in relationships, that can easily lead to feeling slighted by the (apparently) insincere motives.

Again, I can find no direction in the Bible to pursue relationships for the ulterior motive of evangelism (in fact, surprisingly, evangelism is never even given as a universal mandate for Christians). Instead, within the Bible, I find pages and pages of instructions for how to do relationships for the sake of… good, loving relationships themselves. The God of the Bible doesn’t seem to treat relationships as a means to some other end, but rather something to be cultivated themselves. If it has a further end, it is for nothing short of God’s glory. God seems love to healthy caring relationships simply because he desires this for his people, it is his nature, reflected in humanity, and this glorifies Himself. Relational evangelism, then, runs the risk of degrading the value of relationship, lowering relationships to merely a tool, instead of having intrinsic worth itself (or at least in finding its worth in directly glorifying God).

Pyramid Schemes

I believe a helpful analogy in understanding the concern with relational evangelism can be expressed by comparing it to a pyramid or multi-level marketing scheme. Let’s consider the basic definition of a pyramid scheme: A pyramid scheme is a model in which participants receive rewards for enrolling other people into the scheme, rather than supplying any products or services to the public.

So how can a religion be similar to a concept that we typically apply to a business model? The core analogy is that a religion behaves like a pyramid scheme when it conveys that the highest and most valued activity is the conversion of others into the religion. The problem with this type of approach is that it is an empty cycle of recruitment. When the goal is nothing but converting people who will in turn seek to convert people, we are left with a circular pursuit that lacks any real substance. As a friend once said, we are recruiting soldiers, whose battle is nothing more than doing more recruiting.

The alternative to this empty scheme is that we pursue being obedient followers or disciples of Christ that make meaningful contribution to those around us, bringing blessing and peace. We want to make real disciples.

However, even “disciple-making” can easily shift into pyramid scheme. One can easily teach disciple-making as an alternative to evangelism for the purpose of making reproducing disciples. But again, if the goal is simply reproduction, without meaningful transformation that leads to substantive impact for others, in which case, disciple making has simply become a more sophisticated and effective pyramid scheme.

In a pyramid scheme, marketing (particularly by leveraging friendships) has overtaken the product or service itself, as the central component of the organization. Christianity must not be centered solely on marketing or reproduction, because it demonstrates that the core essence of Christianity (the fruit of the Kingdom, and the King himself) are not worthwhile themselves, and that relational manipulation is needed to grow. Followers of Christ exist to glorify the ways of God, not to demonstrate their own marketing and growth expertise.

To illustrate this further, I like to compare Amway and Apple. The former company is known for relying on multi-level marketing to sell products. No one (except the participants who are trying to sell) really considers Amway to have exceptional products. Rather they are known for exceptionally successful recruitment and marketing push. On the other hand, Apple is a company that has thrived on the reputation of their products. People buy their products not because a friend, who will get commission if he makes a sale, has convinced them they are good, but because of their reputation for, and people’s direct experience with their beautiful, well-designed products (this isn’t always the case, I am actually not a big fan of Apple products myself, but I certainly recognize their high reputation. There are a number of other companies that are perhaps even better examples of being built on product reputation, with very little marketing investment, like Asics, Krispy Kreme, and Sriracha.)

Scriptures frequently use the analogy of fruit to describe the result of meaningful faith. The primary significance of fruit is that it is distinctive in substance and nature from the rest of the tree. A tree consists of hard wood, but fruit is an entirely different substance. When a fruit tree grows, this can be good and healthy, but it is not fruitful if it only increases in size and branches. It must produce an distinct substance (something that can be distinctly tasted as good) from just more wood. Likewise, this means that while it is very good when Christians spread Christianity, and this growth is important, this alone is not fruitfulness. Fruitfulness is demonstrated not when Christianity produces more Christianity, but when it produces distinctive fruits (love, joy, peace, etc.)

Ultimately, the Gospel is good news, not good marketing. To love the gospel is not to be a lover of persuasive communication, but rather a lover of the revelation of the goodness of God.

Ultimate Purpose

The second questionable assumption of relational evangelism is that the outcome of conversions, and the number of conversions, is the central goal of Christianity. Indeed this is a logical conclusion if we assume that all humanity is destined for infinite joy or infinite sorrow, and every other finite matter (reward or punishment) is infinitesimal in comparison. This conclusion makes logical sense to me. But apparently it didn’t to Jesus, as his ministry does not align at all with this conclusion. Jesus, throughout the gospel, consistently pursued a holistic ministry, not a sole focus on conversion. However, this conclusion is perhaps most clearly contradicted in John 6. Jesus teaches that “whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him” (vs 56). The response: “After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him” (vs 66). We are left with one of two possibilities. Either Jesus had no idea how poorly his sermon would go over, or he had something more important in mind than how many people would simply label themselves as followers or “Christians”.

I believe that the Bible makes clear that the central mission of God is to glorify Himself. And He works through the church to reflect his amazing wisdom, grace, love, and justice (Eph 3:10). God is honored and glorified by a church that truly reflects these characteristics. The church in America has reflected many of these characteristics at times, but in contrast we also struggle with dishonoring God as our actions and attitudes build up a reputation of hypocrisy, judgment, arrogance, and selfishness. This struggle for the church to properly reflect God, to pursue His honor, is our most critical pursuit. And it seems nearly absurd to think that this struggle will be solved or even significantly helped by increasing the numbers and size of the American church. In a country where tens of millions, the majority (or nearly majority) of the country, identify themselves as Christians, the quality of the church properly representing and glorifying God hardly hinges on growing or shrinking a few percentage points (and possibly it may even fulfill its role better with fewer numbers).

As we consider how to glorify God, imagine that we were to make a serious research inquiry into who was the greatest leader in human history. How might we evaluate different leaders? While we might consider the number of followers as a simple filter for who to consider, we would almost certainly value things like integrity, inspiration, morality, and courage above simply the number of followers. For example, who would seriously think that Hitler was a greater leader for leading tens of millions than Oskar Schindler, simply because he only led a few thousand?

After leveling some criticism at relational evangelism, I want to try to now more clearly affirm the positive aspects of relationships and evangelism:

  • God delights in healthy, loving, self-sacrificial relationships themselves. Relationships don’t have to serve some other end, to be God glorifying, relationships that reflect His love and selflessness can honor Him regardless of whether they lead to presenting the gospel.
  • Relationships can authentically reveal the gospel that have developed in the spirit of mutually, humbly pursuing a right, just lifestyle.
  • A true, genuine relationship is characterized by people sharing their deepest cares. If God is the center of our lives, than honestly revealing ourselves should include revealing our passion for Him.
  • A community of healthy, loving relationships can be a brilliant display of God’s character and a great attraction to others.
  • Relationships themselves can communicate God’s hope.
  • Disciples in a mutual pursuit of God, and learning to obey His ways, can be one of the most power foundations of a friendship.
  • We are called to be ambassadors for God. Part of being reconciled to God is helping others be reconciled to God.
  • Evangelism can be one of the higher forms of praise. When we freely proclaim God’s goodness in response to how we have genuinely experienced Him, we are offering one of the greatest forms of worship (more than simply evangelizing out of duty or reward).
  • While I believe the American church doesn’t lack for size, many cultures and regions of the world lack a viable expression of the church. Strategically building trust and relationships that communicate the good news to enable the worship of God in every ethnicity is clearly integral to God’s vision of being glorified and worshiped in great diversity (Matt 28:19, Rev 7:9).

While I have perhaps been a bit critical of some evangelistic strategies, strategy is definitely in the Bible, and next I want to look at some of the strategy that is revealed.

Advocating For the Poor

There are well over a hundred verses in the Bible about caring for the poor. These take various forms: some condemn the wicked for their oppression or disregard for the poor, some talk about God’s concern for the poor and the hope He offers them, and many are also direct mandates to care for the poor. Of these verses, most of these speak in general terms about caring for the poor, but others discuss the specific ways that we should care for the poor. While the general nature of these verses should compel us to care for the poor in any way possible, there are more specific mandates. There are two main mechanisms to help the poor;we find a number of passages instructing us to give to this poor (financially, or with goods), and there are also sets of passages instructing us to advocate for or defend the cause of the poor. These passages include verses like Psalms 72:4, Proverbs 29:7, and Proverbs 31:5-9.

These verses are translated in variety of different ways, including “defend the afflicted”, “care about justice for the poor” (NIV), “defend the poor”, “care about the rights of the poor” (NLT), “defends the poor”, “knows the rights of the poor” (ESV), “considers the cause of the poor” (NKJV). In contrast to giving to the poor, these verses speak to the importance of working to ensure that the poor have a just, fair, and equitable life and opportunity in society. This might have the most literal implications for a judge, but for us (assuming you aren’t actually a judge), we need to think a little more about how we can proactively pursue this command.

Outside a direct position of making judicial or governing decisions in regards to the poor, I believe our primary role in fulfilling this command is found in advocating for the poor. As citizens we do indeed have an influence on government. And following these two Biblical categories of instructions for the physical welfare of the poor, giving to the poor and advocating for the poor, the first can be carried out by offering our material (financial or goods) resources, the second by offering our influence (certainly we should also pray for the poor and care about their spiritual and relational needs as well). Our giving page talks about opportunities for the first, but I wanted to consider our second in this post. While often it may feel that the only way we can help the poorest of the poor is with money, advocacy gives the opportunity to invest our time and voice as well.

I have previously written about how our citizenship is a profoundly substantial resource. And this isn’t just a subjective superlative, our influence as an American voter can be objectively and literally measured; every voter effectively influences roughly $25,000 per year in government funds, which doesn’t even include other impacts the government has. If we are called to defend the poor, our voting privileges give us the ability to defend the poor with advocacy that has potential for very meaningful and substantial benefit to the poor.

So what are ways that we can defend and care for the poor through advocacy? And what does that look like for an American citizen?

The great opportunity that we have is found in simply contacting our representatives and encouraging them to have concern for the poorest. There are numerous bills to consider and budget decisions that they will make, and as they come to focus, we can easily email, write, and call them to push that to consider first and foremost how to protect the most vulnerable. Even calling a representative is very easy. An aide will answer the phone, you can tell them what position you want your representative to take, and they will politely record your response. Remember, they want your vote, so they are always very friendly, and will never argue or dispute (unless, perhaps you insult them, but I have never tried that).

Probably the easiest and most effective way to get involved in advocacy is to join or even just follow (mailing list, Facebook, Twitter, or whatever you prefer) a poverty advocacy group. These groups often will research and follow legislation as it is considered, and send information on who you can call and when, to promote bills that help the poor. These groups all invest effort in research to ensure that they are advocating for the most effective measures and policies to help the poor. There are several great groups that help citizens advocate for the poor:
Bread for the World – This is Bible-based Christian group, working to fight for the poor, here and abroad, although they tend to be more focused on domestic issues (I tend to believe that domestic policy tweaks are more complicated with smaller impact).
RESULTS – This group is probably the best organization at specifically equipping and training people to advocate for the poor in an effective way. They offer numerous ways to engage, and provide a lot of assistance in how to influence representatives, and will often organize in-person meetings with representatives and letter-writing campaigns to local newspapers.
ONE – This is probably the largest poverty advocacy group, and they do a great job staying focused on the most severe international poverty issues. This group is more focused on mobilizing large numbers of people, so they offer very-low effort advocacy opportunities (sometimes just clicking through to sign a petition, sometimes encouraging a quick phone call), but don’t tend to push for as much depth as RESULTS.

There are also a number of other advocacy groups that also do great work, but tend to be more focused on technical suggestions and in-person lobbying, or advocacy with foreign governments, rather than getting members to advocate. This is very important and effective work, but these groups are supported more through financial donations, and rely less on personal advocacy. This may be a great way to be involved if you have more money, and less time (but I wanted to focus more on personal advocacy in this post). These include groups like Jubilee (focused on debt relief and more technical trade and tax issues), International Justice Mission (focused on criminal justice systems in other countries), and Oxfam (focused on an array of social justice issues with various governments).

It is easy to be cynical of online advocacy. We often see online petitions going around. Does this really have any impact? Recently, our local RESULTS group sent out a request to contact representative Chris Stewart to encourage him to co-sponsor a bill that starts a working group in USAID to better support child and maternal health in developing countries. There were about seven or eight of us that called his office to encourage co-sponsorship, and sure enough, he agreed to sign on. It is worth understanding the significance of this. Representative Stewart represents about 700,000 people. Each of us were effectively representing the voice of about 100,000 residents by our simple phone calls! This is an incredible level of influence and impact! People often think that voting is the key to change, but our vote has a relatively small influence compared to the influence we carry by actually contacting our representatives.

Some may be concerned that some of the policies may not be effective. These groups’ advocacy is often focused on aid efforts, and often “foreign aid” is frequently criticized. However, “foreign aid” tends to be an unhelpfully vague term, often encompassing completely different types of international funding from military funding of other developed countries, to programs really directed at the poor, and an anecdotal examples of waste and misuse tend to ignore the incredible impact of well-targeted aid programs. Most of the efforts that advocacy groups fight for are around health initiatives, education, and microfinance. They are very well monitored, with excellent accountability, that save and empower countless lives and really are about giving the poor a fair opportunity, saving them from the injustice of preventable diseases, inaccessible schooling, or lack of basic capital. There may be critics of other types of foreign aid, but there is little, if any actual debate about the positive impact of such efforts to help the poor. In fact, it is almost undisputed that these efforts save more lives per dollar than basically any other government expenditure. This is less of question of efficacy and more about making the poor a priority. This is very straightforward way of simply being a voice to help the poor.

Finally, in closing I’d like to point out that one of the great things about advocacy is that it is complementary to giving. Are you already giving all you can to help the poor? Great, you can engage in advocacy without have to cut giving somewhere else. While you glorify God with your finances by giving, advocacy is something you can do with your time and voice.

The Church and the Kingdom, Part 2

This is part 2 in a series on the way my understanding of certain term used in the bible and in Christianese has changed and how that has affected my faith. You can read the first part here
In the previous post, I looked at what I have been learning about the meaning and purpose of the Church and the Kingdom. I used to vaguely consider these simply other words for Christianity, but I have come to think of these as very distinct. The Church has the specific purpose of nurturing, training, and preparing people to follow Christ, and ultimately model the community that should arise from following Christ. The Kingdom is the actual actions of following Christ. In this post, I want to consider a few other terms, and how they relate.

Other Terms

Within scriptures, the word “Christianity” is never actually used, and other forms, like “Christian” are only used a few times. There are instead several other words that are used that are applicable to our concept our “Christianity”, and I wanted to try to describe my understand of these distinct words and concepts.

The Believers

This is the most simple and straightforward description in scriptures for the collection of people that believe in and follow Christ. This is probably most analogous to what we mean when we say “Christians”.

The Way

“The Way” was the initial term that Christians used to describe their religion. This term obviously emphasized the teachings of Jesus as a distinctive “way” of living. In Acts, it is reported that they soon started to be called Christians by outsiders. The Christians didn’t seem to object to this, and as the early church increasingly understood and formulated the divinity of Christ and His centrality, the name seemes fitting, even though it was rarely mentioned in scriptures.

Brothers, Children of God

If you look up all the references to brothers and children of God, they seem to exclusively refer to believers. However, it can be easy to recognize the object of these terms, but miss the meaning. If we take these terms to be nothing more than a synonym or replacement for believers, this would seem to suggest that the Bible uses these words as a code word, to obscure the meaning, rather than using the clearer term “believer”. But of course these terms aren’t intended to be obscure, but rather add meaning. So while the object of these words is the believers, the descriptive meaning that these terms add to the reference to believers is to describe a familial, relational connection between believers with each other and with God (which builds our understanding of the Church and the Kingdom). When we see these terms we should recognize that scriptures is pointing us to a relational element (and not just a code word for believers).

Christianity

Again, the term “Christianity” doesn’t appear in scriptures, but I was comparing other words with it, so it seems worthwhile to try to define this as well. Being more colloquially originated, Christianity has come to mean more of the culture of Christians. Christians certainly do have their own sub-culture, with certain language characteristics (Christianese), worldview, ideologies, and traditions. However, not only does the term “Christianity” not really have a Biblical origination, but the sub-culture, like any other sub-culture is often a mix of perspectives and ways, some that are redemptive, and some that are in opposition to Christ’s teaching. Christianity, as a culture, needs to be transformed and redeemed by the Kingdom of God, just like every other culture.

OT Precedent

Perhaps another helpful way of distinguishing between the Kingdom and the Church is to look at their Old Testament precedence. For the Kingdom, the precedence is found in the theocratic kingdom represented by the Davidic line of Kings. The Davidic succession of Kings found its ultimate fulfillment in Christ as the ultimate King of the Kingdom. And their battles they waged, in their partial understanding (Col 1:25-27), are representative of the real battle that was to be revealed.

For the church, finding the precedence might seem a little harder. Conventantal theology sometimes is described as treating the church as a successor to Israel. While I definitely affirm conventantal theology (that there is no distinct spiritual category of people with obligated blessing based on ethnicity, Matt 3:9, which clearly contradicts dispensational teaching), the church as a successor isn’t quite precise. According to Romans 9:6-8, it is the believers, the children of God, that are the true heirs of Israel. It might also be tempting to compare the Church, or at least its ministers, to the Aaronic or Levitical priesthood. This is also misguided. The purpose of this priesthood was to act as a mediator between the people and God. The necessity of this function was decimated at the cross, when the veil was torn, and all believers were effectively made priests, with direct access to God. This also means that the associated rituals of the Aaronic priesthood, like animal sacrifices, a temple, and required tithes do not carry forward to the church.

However, finding the precedence of the church in the Old Testament is actually much easier than searching for metaphors. Why? Because the church is actually frequently referenced in the Old Testament. Now, of course, this may sound like a bizarre claim, as you probably have never seen the word “church” in the Old Testament. But, that is because you are reading an English Bible, and an artifact of English translation is the Hebrew equivalent word is traditionally not translated into “church”. However, the Hebrew word that is most equivalent to “church” or “ekklesia” is the Hebrew word “qahal”. And this Hebrew word for church (and it is varying forms, including a verb form) not only is mentioned in the OT, it occurs over a hundred times in the Old Testament (and even in the Septuagint, this is typically translated to Ekklesia, and occurs 80 times there). If you want to see the church in the Old Testament, just look for this word, which is typically translated more literally as “assembly”, “congregation”, or in verb form as “gather”. Now, I would certainly affirm that, thanks to Paul’s epistles, the church is much more fully developed in the NT, but it certainly is present and described in the OT.

What does this mean for us?

In response to my first post, a friend asked how (mis)understandings in these things work themselves out (for good or ill) today. This is a great question, and I don’t really have a complete answer. I wrote this post more to try to wrestle with the relationship and responsibility of these different aspects of God at work in His people. As a church leader, I feel it is important that I try to understand this. However, to take a rough stab at how a lack of distinction in these concepts might affect our thinking, I will offer this: I think we have tried a little too hard to make our virtuous efforts be tied to a Christian source. My assertion would be that when we pursue helping the poor, social justice, or evangelism, that there doesn’t need to be a church banner flying overhead, because the church isn’t and doesn’t need to claim direct responsibility. God will be glorified by these actions, (eventually), even if the immediate audience isn’t aware. This may diminish the church in one respect; in terms of our expectation of its direct capabilities. However, I think this (greatly) magnifies the Church in another respect. I like to characterize the role of the Church as a catalyst, and a catalyst can often trigger something that is orders of magnitude greater and larger than the catalyst itself. The Church has, can, and will continue to plant seeds of change that permeate and grow far beyond what the individuals themselves could ever accomplish. Through the Church is a thrilling and amazing potential! Lowly followers of Christ, by gathering to disciple and encourage, have triggered new patterns of living that have rippled through generations and have truly formed and shaped the world we live in today. We can and should legitimately hope to see our gatherings do the same today and tomorrow.

Putting This All Together

If I were to try to weave these together, I think I would say this:
Believers are called to periodically come gather together, like a family, relationally and lovingly, to train, nurture, equip, encourage, and prepare each other for following Christ’s way, that we might live our lives (not only inside, but outside the church) obeying the ways of the Kingdom, showing the way, like a catalyst, for transformation (for all cultures including Christianity) to a new way of living. As we do this, and manifest the Kingdom of God, demonstrating compassionate, merciful, and just ways, we tear down the barriers between ourselves, and draw people to gather together in harmony, a delight to Christ, radiating as His bride, walking in ways that anticipate our future closer union and gathering as relational community with Him.

The Nature of Christian Persecution

What is the nature of Christian persecution and opposition? Jesus declared that we should expect to face persecution, and throughout history, Christians have often faced different types of oppression and hardships for their. Christians have come to not only expect persecution, but will even find validation in opposition from society. What types of opposition have Christians experienced, what are “good” forms of opposition, and what type of hardships should we reasonably expect and prepare for?

Jesus set the expectation for persecution early on, saying: “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first.”. Jesus went on to encourage and even suggest reward for those who face this persecution.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”.

First, it is important to remember that persecution or hardship can never alone be used to validate the truth of one’s ways. This is a classic example of the genetic fallacy. Genetic fallacy is when we argue for or against something because of who believes it. A silly example would be saying that Nazi’s drank water, so therefore water is evil. A more serious example, is that Westboro Baptist firmly believe that they are doing the right thing with their ugly protests, and they say the opposition they receive proves it. We must be careful not to fall for genetic fallacy, and assume that since there is opposition that challenges our beliefs, therefore our beliefs must be right. Sometimes we face opposition for our beliefs, because our beliefs are wrong.

However, while recognizing that we can’t use opposition as a solid basis of truth, it is still helpful to recognize what types of patterns of persecution to legitimately expect. We can look for these both in scriptures and in history.

As we look at the verses above, this already gives some narrowing definition to legitimate persecution. Legitimate persecution is tied to who Jesus is and what he represents: righteousness. Certainly the great prototype and example of suffering religious persecution, is Christ Himself. So can we draw from His example?

One of the first things to notice is the source of Jesus’ persecution. The challenges and conflict that led to the cross are a major theme in the gospels. And who is the opposition in this conflict with Jesus? The Pharisees. These were the religious leaders of the day. And these weren’t just any religious leaders, they were, in fact the religious leaders of Jesus’ own religion. They (attempted to) follow the same God that Jesus preached. They were the proto-Judeo-Christian leaders of the day. They were the church leaders. In fact if we look more closely at the major theological division of the day; the resurrection, the Pharisees would even legitimately be categorized as the same denomination as Jesus. Yet these leaders were the major force of opposition and ultimately persecution against Christ. (And I say this as a leader in our church; it is humbling to remember that I am in position which is so prone to being in opposition to Christ).

This story of persecution continues well into Acts, as the early followers of “The Way”, as they called themselves, were thrown and imprisoned and killed. And again, who was the source of these attacks? They were the dominant church/religious institute. The conflicts between the dominant religion and the followers of “The Way” are the main narrative of Acts as they (the disciples) challenge the power structures and traditions of the “church” at the time (the religious organizations).

As Americans, we should recall our history, to be keenly aware of our experience with this. The pilgrims themselves were a group that were persecuted. And who were they being persecuted by? That’s right, again, the Christian leaders and organizational structure of their society. And even within our country Christians spearheaded the oppression of Salem Witch Trials and defended slavery.

Christians have come to expect persecution to come from secular society, but the Biblical narrative and even American’s own history demonstrate that isn’t always the case. They indicate that to follow Jesus is to invite hardship and challenge from Christians and their culture, as much as anyone else. If we are truly follow Christ’s radical and revolutionary call, that turns the natural way of religion upside down, this is as likely to illicit backlash from the Christian culture as anywhere else. The point is that Christ’s teaching are so contrary to our natural ways, that it is a challenge to every culture and sub-culture, whether it be Greek, Jew, American, or even Christian culture.

Now again it is worth remembering that persecution from either side does not validate the truth. You aren’t correct just because you are being opposed by Christians either.

Let’s also consider what types of activities actually lead to persecution. Being persecuted simply for what religion you belong to is actually quite rare. There are indeed cases of it. However, if you study the statistics on Christian persecution, you will see enormous variations in the counts. Why is this? It is because persecution solely due to religious affiliation is extremely rare. But persecution due to religiously inspired or commanded activities is much more common. Categorizing these activities as religious is naturally very difficult and subjective.

Again, this is demonstrated by scriptural accounts as well. They didn’t crucify Jesus because he was a “Christian” or believed in God. In fact, if his only teaching was just that he worshiped YHWH, he would have been welcomed with open arms. Jesus wasn’t crucified simply for being Jesus of Nazareth, or for his religious affiliation. Nor was Jesus even persecuted for laws that he established. In fact, the crime that Jesus was crucified for was clearly stated: sedition, or insurrection.

This points to the fundamental nature of most legitimate persecution in the world. Persecution isn’t usually about religious affiliation. It is not even about what laws the Bible teaches. Persecution is about power. Jesus wasn’t persecuted because he had some good sermons, or for a particular set of rules. He was persecuted because he was subverting the power structures and hierarchy around him. Jesus represented a threat to the order of power that the religious leaders were wielded. Jesus was turning this upside down, creating a kingdom where the first will be last, where the weak are lifted up and the strong are torn down. And this upheaval was not welcome by those at the top of the order.

Of course, Jesus was crucified by the Romans. This was partly due to the Jewish leaders insistence, but their own role was important as well. Jesus immediate challenge to the power structures of the church were most direct, but there was some truth to the threat Jesus played to Romans as well. To be sure, Jesus was very clear in resisting any type of military and violent coup against the Romans. But his followers had indeed switched their alliance. They no longer held to an unassailable alliance to the Roman empire. The Romans certainly didn’t have any physical threat to worry about from the Jesus followers, but to the degree that the Romans hunger for and demanded allegiance, the threat of allegiance to another Kingdom was very real in Christ followers.

And this persecution wasn’t just something that was externally triggered. Christ was on an intentional and committed path of sacrifice. It is on the committed path to sacrifice for others, sacrificing for the subversion of power, for the sake of those in need that real persecution takes place.

Likewise through the history of Christian persecution. It is not those that quietly have a private faith that are persecuted. It is those that are committed to sacrifice that challenge hierarchies of power around them, and choose to stand with the oppressed, that face the greatest threats.

Unfortunately, I feel like we have sometimes forgot this. In our Christian culture talking about persecution has far too easily become a replacement for real sacrifice. We talk about slippery slopes (it is also shocking to me when people explicitly state that they are basing their fears on a logical fallacy, like slippery slope) that will supposedly lead to persecution. This is a convenient replacement for making any real sacrifices.

This slippery slope fallacy is far too common. Many of us have mistaken the path of secularism as moving us towards persecution. But this path is not towards greater interest in (against) religion, but towards disinterest. The secular world is not growing hostile toward religion. It is growing bored with religion. Now this may be a worse fate. It has been said that the opposite of love is indifference. This reality may be hard to swallow, but many people just don’t really care that much about your religion or what laws it includes.

This exaggeration of hardships among Christians is not only out of touch with reality, but I believe it represents a shallow, wimpy Christianity. There are people who are tortured and killed for Christ. Comparing the types of opposition American Christians face with someone has to truly pay for their belief is, to be blunt, pathetic. Not getting your way with legislation and then comparing it to a slippery slope to persecution is nothing but weak and whiny Christianity. Until we have actually bled or been injured for our faith, we have little room for complaint.

Jesus called us to take up our cross (Matt 16:24). This isn’t a passive call, to sit around and worry, and fret, and wait for someone to come persecute you. This is active call, that begins with denying ourselves. Likewise, in our society, sacrifice doesn’t come passively. It comes when we actively and voluntarily give up our time and money for others. Christ-based sacrifice is found when we identify with, help, and give to others that are hurting or oppressed, and challenge the structures and hierarchies that hold them there (Eph 6:12). This is how we follow Christ on the cross.

Confession

I confess my iniquity; I am sorry for my sin. – Psalms 38:18

The most sincere expression of our position before the cross is that of apology. To ask for forgiveness, without admission of guilt is meaningless. So what is apology about, and why is it so difficult and neglected?

Confession has long been understood to be at the heart of Christianity. But it is a difficult act. I have seen that with our children, sometimes simply getting an apology, helping them to see their guilt and express regret for it, can be the most difficult, yet important part, of their growth.

The act of confession is performed by expressing our guilt or our wrongs. Confession’s sincerity is demonstrated by regret for our actions. But, as I have talked about before, ultimately we need to look for purpose in our actions. And the purpose of confession, is to bring reconciliation in relationships.

Confession is the opposite of accusation. Confession recognizes our own wrong. Accusation looks for the wrong in others. Confession works to build relationships, accusation tears them down.

The Bible describes Satan as the accuser. When we seek to accuse before confessing, we are joining with Satan.

On the other hand, in response to our sin, Jesus became our confession. At the cross, Jesus heard our cry for help, He saw our need for reconciliation, and He rescued us. But, He had every reason to accuse us, to point out how we were to blame, and to leave us to our corruption. Yet, he did not do that, instead he fully accepted blame himself, becoming our confession.

When Isaiah came into the presence of God, his response was confession (Isaiah 6:5).

The practice of confession means that when we are in the midst of strife and conflict, our reaction is to look for what we have done wrong, not the other.

This is critical both as individuals and collectively. I have, and I am sure you have, seen firsthand how relationships are strained or even severed simply because we dwell on the wrongs of others, rather than confessing our own wrongs.

For some forgiveness seems impossible because because our sins look so great. However, others face a different temptation, that we minimize our sins, as if our sin is merely a legal technicality that has to be resolved. Let’s be clear, our sin is not just an abstract violation, and God’s does not define it as just an arbitrary set of rules to throw His weight around. We have truly fallen short of walking in His glory in our relationships with others, both near and far.

We are sinners. And that means that we really have harmed and hurt others. Sometimes this is active, direct pain we have cause others. Sometimes this may be passive, our apathy and neglect of opportunities to help others, but that resulting pain and suffering of others is no less real, and no less sin (James 4:17). When we don’t recognize how we have hurt others, confession is merely religious ritual, and not an act of relational restoration, as it should be.

Confession seems to be lost on our culture. In fact, it seems that being “unapologetic” has actually become a statement of pride, a badge of honor. We brag about not apologizing for who we are and what we are. And when we see others apologize for us, for our country, for past transgressions, we are quick to condemn.

When we look at the world today, it is not difficult to find plenty of strife. And just like children, we are equally prone to look for opportunities to accuse, rather than introspect for our own wrongs.

Unfortunately, I fear that we have a tendency to be infected by this same unapologetic attitude. The church has been called to draw people to Christ, but if this is case, we live in an era of an unmitigated tragedy of exodus from church as the church has failed to express the purposes of God to our culture. Too often our response has been self-congratulations over uncompromising rather than humbly recognizing our failures to listen to the suffering of those that are different, to communicate the beauty of God’s purpose, and to honestly engage in tough issues. Too often, we have pushed people away, and then proclaimed our self-righteousness, rather then being willing to look at our own faults. We have engaged in “culture war”, and the results are as predictable as a husband that engages in a fight with his wife; he has lost the moment he set out to “win”, rather than understand and relate.

When we consider our collective sins, a pertinent question is whether collective apology is meaningful. Should we apology for others? Again, we must consider the purpose of confession. If it is merely a religious ritual, and act of piety, than the apologizing on behalf of others is pointless. But if we are seeking relational reconciliation, then we must reconsider. Apology on behalf of friends, our fellow Americans, or Christians, even our ancestors, or anyone who has damaged relationships that we might still have a connection or identification with (not in our own eyes, but in the eyes of anyone that is hurting), than anything we can do, including confession (and perhaps foremost confession) should be employed to seek peace and harmony.

The cross was Christ’s confession or apology on our behalf, unto God. It was admission of our guilt, and the sincere expression of a desire to reconcile. Let us not walk in arrogant accusation, but humble confession. Here is a great video liturgy of humble call to confession.

Lord, forgive us our sins. Forgive us for how we have hurt others, those close to us, as well as our enemies. Forgive us for the wrongs of our ancestors, and how we have trampled over those in the way of our pursuit of power, land, and wealth. Forgive us for the wrongs of our country, as we have reaped violence, consumed excessive resources, and ignored the cries of the suffering. Forgive us as a church, for our failure to demonstrate your beauty, your purpose. Forgive us for our arrogance.

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us. – 1 John 1:8-10

Christ Above All Rule and Authority in our Churches

“[The Father] seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church.” Eph 1:20b – 22

As Christians, we serve Christ, the King. When we (rightly) call Christ “The King”, we are echoing a Biblical theme that holds Christ up, not just as a savior, but as a ruler, His has a Kingdom. The entire theocratic line of Israelite kings points to a final fulfillment of the everlasting king, Jesus. We are subjects of the Kingdom, and called to obey our King. One of the symbols we use to represent a kingdom, is a flag. The topic of flags has received a lot of attention lately, with debates over confederate flags, flying flags half-mast (and many waving rainbow flags as well). Flags are typically used to represent a particular nation, society, order, or other affinity, and flying a flag is way to declare one’s allegiance, loyalty, and submission to that nation or kingdom. Flying a flag is a way to lift up, honor, and exalt that kingdom and its king or ruler or ideology. Recently I had been a part of some discussion of what this means for a church. Should churches be flying flags, and if so what? And while I doubt I will ever see confederate or rainbow flags show up in our church, there is still a flag, and another kingdom (other than Christ’s) that it represents, that often does fly in our churches. What does the Bible say about this?

The Bible’s approach to the Kingdom’s of the world is very exclusive. The Kingdom of God is not a kingdom that we simply add to the other kingdoms of the world. From early in scriptures, God declares his exclusive claims of rule: “Do not worship any other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God”. We must not be tempted to compartmentalize “worship” here as merely bowing down or singing worship sings. This commandment isn’t for the sake of keeping our knees clean and our voice boxes well-rested. It is ultimately about who we are giving our submission, our loyalty, and our honor too. And God is jealous, he isn’t just asking that we give him some of our submission, but that He would completely displace our submission to any other kingdoms. But surely we can share and divide up our allegiance to God and country and serve both kingdoms? If we justify ourselves by calling another kingdom “godly” or “Christian”, then can’t we fully obey both masters? As I written before, Jesus echoes these Old Testament passages with an emphatic “no”:

No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. – Matt 6:24

Calling another master or kingdom “Christian” only lures us further into the temptation of displacing our true King with an earthly country, just as the Israelites desired when they asked for a king. Serving two masters may work for a while, but ultimately they will come into conflict at some point, and your love for one will need to take precedence.

Now, of course as we consider flags, for many, flying a flag is not intended to declare that we have supplanted God with country. For many flying a flag is simply way of paying tribute to our freedom and the sacrifices made to achieve that freedom. But, the flag is still a symbol, used and defined by cultures. The American flag can mean many different things to many different people. To some it means sacrifice and freedom. To others it might mean violence and exploitation. Regardless of whether you, personally, see it as a great symbol or a detrimental symbol, we must remember that we can not control what it communicates to different audiences. It is symbol that is defined by cultures that interpret it. By using the symbol, we are putting ourselves at the mercy of culture, and different audiences, to define what we are communicating. But, if we believe that it is our duty, as Christians, we must strive to communicate clear Biblical concepts, not just wavering symbols that depend on who and how they are interpreted. Scriptures go to great lengths to carefully define the concepts of grace, forgiveness, love, etc., rather than simply relying on whatever culture defines these to mean. We must diligently seek to communicate absolute truths, and not just relative symbols that are up to the observer to apply in different ways. With this in mind, we must remember that we are called to do whatever it takes to bring people to Christ, willing to remove any and every obstacle. Paul says, “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” (1 Cor 9:22) Paul never let any personal preference of symbols or imagery that he liked stand in the way of drawing people to Christ.

The question of how symbols are interpreted can not even be limited to how a flag is interpreted by fellow Americans. Much of the New Testament, from the Great Commission, to the events in Acts, to the strategies of Paul are concerned with making Christ known not just among one nation, but among ALL nations. Christ’s commission to make disciples of all nations is preeminent concern, we must certainly consider the vast diversity of interpretations of our flag, and what it mean to other nations, and how divergent those interpretations may be from what we really want to communicate as the church. But are mere symbols that important? The first commandment, to worship God alone, does stand by itself. It is so important, that it is immediately preceded by the second commandment, which forbids any representation of another God. Of course even the ancients were probably smart enough to recognize that idols were symbols of gods. But even these symbols of other entities desiring submission represented a danger.

So what does this mean to the church? I believe that the church’s purpose is to lead people to obey, follow, submit to, and honor Christ. This is the entire purpose of the church, and the church should be a place where every effort is defined by the pursuit of this aim. The church exists to lift up Christ and only Christ, and as the one true, rightful ruler and only ruler, to teach submission to the one and only one Kingdom, the Kingdom Of God. To fly flags that symbolically place the kingdom of America on equal status as the Kingdom of God, no matter how we might wish this to honor certain principles or people, is ultimately a symbolic statement that says Christ is equal in authority. This unfortunately defies the Father’s declaration that Christ is to be “above all rule and authority and power and dominion”. There is just no way around it, the church must settle for nothing less that exalting and submitting Christ, and Christ alone. The church is not a place of mixing allegiances, but of declaring Christ above all rule.

For a minute, imagine arriving an US Army boot camp, and to discover that they were flying a Chinese flag right along the US flag. You would probably find this quite shocking. Now somebody might offer some explanations of why China is a nice country, they have been lifting many out of poverty, and they have some great accomplishments. But this isn’t the point. Boot camp exists to train soldiers in unswerving loyalty, dedication, and service to their country. The US flag flies above all, because the boot camp exists to train soldiers for serving that country. Likewise, the church exists for the purpose of leading people to follow Christ. It does not matter if we think highly of another country or kingdom. If boot camp points to a single allegiance, how much more so should the church do the same in pointing people to their King.

Another Old Testament story that highlights that conflict between God and countries of the world is found in Daniel, when Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are faced with pressure to put their loyalty to their ruler alongside God. Again, we shouldn’t think that this story is about the physical act of bowing, God was not concerned with bruises on their knees. Bowing was a symbolic act of giving full submission and honor to the King and the country he ruled. While this story is often held up as an example of uncompromising loyalty to God, it is important to remember what precisely what they were being asked to do. The pressure was not just about some random physical act, but about the pressure to demonstrate loyalty to a country and its ruler, which is, as always, a replacement of loyalty to God. God’s call for our submission and loyalty is not just because God is hungry for followers, hoping that he can satisfy his hunger for a high follower count. It is because God is truly the best leader we can follow, and His leadership is in our best interest

Again, as Jesus clearly stated in Matt 6:24, eventually our loyalty will be determined when our loyalties come in conflict. When this happens whose direction will we choose? Unquestioned loyalty to country has served to facilitate some of the greatest tragedies of mankind. For many German soldiers in the 1930s, serving God and country were united. The churches had defined Christianity and loyalty to country without distinction. Without clarity that loyalty is to God above all, the actions of the third Reich remained unquestioned by many Christians. The same experience occurred in the Civil war as Christianity became defined by the the loyalism to the national traditions of slavery rather than a God who challenged this notions.

Again, I understand that many individuals fly flags to communicate, honor, and pay tribute to different ideas, sacrifices, and ideals. That is fine. But the church must take the greatest of care in recognizing what it might be communicating, and how that might be understood, and how that might greatly differ from the purpose of the church to draw people to the exclusive rule and reign of Christ. I encourage the church to focus solely on the the glorious calling of lifting Christ and Christ alone. The Father gave Christ “as head over all things to the church”, and may we do all that we can to proclaim that He is indeed “above all rule and authority and power and dominion”! Praise to be to our one true King!