Results tagged “persecution” from Reformation21 Blog

Christianity: A Spiritual Contact Sport

|

For followers of Christ in America, things are changing rapidly. If thirty years ago, you would have predicted where our culture would be on a variety of issues, no one would have believed you. And yet, here we are, with many aspects of the moral fabric of the culture spiraling down at breakneck speed.

A while back, I wrote some policies for how the church that I serve as pastor will handle marriage-related issues after the legalization of same-sex marriage. As I began articulating our beliefs on marriage, I originally wrote that we believe marriage is the union of one man and one woman. Suddenly it struck me--that definition is no longer clear enough. Rather, our documents needed to say one biological man and one biological woman. There were similar issues related to the current gender chaos, which demanded careful and nuanced language.

This is where we are in our culture. As I hear many Christians react to the changes in our culture, I hear panic in their voices. In fact, I would say that fear of the changes we are facing in the culture grips and controls many professing believers.

So, how do we respond to cultural declension and intimidation that we see happening? This is not a new question for Christians. Thankfully, we have a good roadmap in the Bible for how to deal with this. And the examples laid before us involve contexts that are far more difficult than the one we find ourselves in. One such example is Acts 4:1-31.

Cultural Intimidation

In the Book of Acts, the Gospel of Jesus Christ explodes and spreads at an exponential rate. Yet, that growth did not come without difficulty. It was not a comfortable path. As we begin Acts 4, Peter and John had just healed a man. After that healing, Peter and John preach the Gospel and they do so with boldness. As the crowds grow, the Temple Guard and the Sadducees have Peter and John arrested. They threaten and attempt to intimidate them.

The council of rulers, elders, and scribes asserted their power and authority over Peter and John. The next day the council questions them, "By what power do you do this?" (Acts 4:7). The council sought to show Peter and John that they have no power and should fall in line with their expectations. But their attempts at intimidation fail. When Peter and John are told no longer to speak and teach in the name of Jesus, they steadfastly refuse, "We cannot help but speak what we have seen and heard" (Acts 4:20).

Do you see the picture? Manipulation. Threats. Intimidation. Legal power. This has been faced before. Did you notice the courage? The boldness? It is possible to stand up against cultural intimidation. How? The Resurrection. Look at Peter. Before the cross, Peter denied Jesus three times--with cursing! And here he is, boldly refusing to bow to the intimidation. The Resurrection changes everything. Death has been defeated! Living in the reality of the Resurrection is what makes us bold in the moment of cultural intimidation.

Gospel Courage

When Peter and John were released, they returned to the community of believers and tell them everything that happened. In response, they gather to pray. I wonder, if you were in their shoes, what would you pray for? Would you pray for safety? Protection? But that's not at all what they pray for. "And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness" (Acts 4:29).

They pray for boldness to continue speaking, even though they know that to continue preaching might mean ending up in prison again. When was the last time you prayed for courage rather than for your temporal deliverance? When did you last just pray, "Lord give me courage"? Have you ever?

Why do we lean toward prayers of comfort rather than prayers for courage? I think it all boils down to expectations. These believers still had the images of the cross of Christ fresh in their minds. Jesus told this little band of believers to go make disciple of the whole world.

They didn't think it would be easy. They didn't envision their spiritual lives as a spiritual vacation. They believed that they had been called as soldiers to spiritual war. They did not expect life to be problem free and stress-free. So when problems came, they prayed for the strength to face them with courage.

Imagine you are coaching a football team and after a few plays, your players come to the sidelines exasperated, "Coach! The problem is that they keep hitting us!" You would be perplexed. This is football. You get hit in football. If you don't want to get hit, don't play football. Too many Christians face cultural intimidation and ask "What's going on? Why is this happening?" Well, do you want to be a Christian? We must understand that Christianity is a spiritual contact sport. Expect to get hit.

Spiritual Vacation?

Where did we get the idea that we were saved for a spiritual vacation?

"For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places" (Ephesians 6:12).

We have not been saved for a spiritual vacation, but for spiritual war. Our cultural opponents are also our mission field. But what if we never ask for courage like the believers in Acts 4? What if we believe that Christianity saves us from having to have courage? Then we will respond to cultural intimidation with cowardice. We will attempt to sever our Christian life from the Christian mission. We will think that Christianity is about me being happier and more content and only occasionally are we called, on our own terms, to be sacrificially on mission.

These believers in Acts 4 saw their whole life as living out the mission. They existed to make much of Jesus and spread the Gospel. Many professing Christians have traded theology for sentimentality. They want convictions that cost them nothing. Only when we realize that Christianity is a spiritual contact sport, will we prepare for and ask for courage in the battle.

The Persecution Driven Life

|

John Hooper, the English Reformer and pastor, was burned at the stake for his unwavering stand upon the truth of Scripture. In 1555, just three weeks prior to his martyrdom, John Hooper gave the following charge in a letter: "You must now turn all your thoughts from the peril you see, and mark the happiness that follows the peril...Beware of beholding too much the happiness or misery of this world; for the consideration and too earnest love or fear of either of them draws us from God."1

In 2 Timothy 3:12, Paul states, "All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted." Paul was deeply persuaded that conflict is inevitable between the righteousness lives of the saints and those living ungodly lives in the world. This is nothing less than a tension between light and darkness.

In the conclusion of his beatitude statements in Matthew 5, Jesus pronounces divine blessing upon those who suffer persecution because they exhibit the godly characteristics of the previous beatitudes. Jesus defines persecution as arising from two sources:

First, true disciples of Christ are persecuted "for righteousness" (Mt 5:10). The beatitude statements can be divided into two groups of four with each group ending with a reference to "righteousness." The first group concludes in verse 6, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness," and the second group in verse 10, "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake." The three beatitudes that lead to "hunger for righteousness" are descriptions of a type of holy emptiness--blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn over their needy condition, and blessed are those who are meek and give their cause over to God. These three descriptions of need are fulfilled in the form of mercy, purity, and peacemaking. The inevitable result is persecution for this very righteousness. In other words, the righteousness exhibiting itself in the life of the Christian through the characteristics of mercy, purity, and peacemaking provokes violence in those who do not know Christ. The ungodly observe the righteous lives of believers as a condemnation upon their own unrighteous behavior. In response, they lash out in ridicule and sometimes through severe forms of persecution.

Second, true disciples of Christ are persecuted "on my [Jesus] account," or "because of me [Jesus]" (Mt 5:11). Jesus forewarned his followers of the type of treatment they could expect, "You will be hated by everyone because of my name" (Mt 10:22). In verse 11, Jesus is highlighting a Christological title with which believers identify and are persecuted for. According to Luke 6:2, it is the title "Son of Man," that may have instigated the particular offense of unbelievers. This title identifies Jesus as a King of heavenly origin who will reign over a universal and eternal kingdom and who is worthy of worship by all peoples of the earth. This declaration was regarded as blasphemous and proved to be the key to the final condemnation and death of Christ on the cross. The world is okay when believers identify Jesus as a moral teacher or a great leader, but when a Christian attributes divine authority, kingship, and universal rule to Jesus they become outraged and angry. Jesus was saying, "If you identify with me, if you proclaim me as the Son of God, if you proclaim me to be the rightful king, you will relentlessly face opposition, anger, and persecution from those who disagree." Jesus is saying that identification with him at this vital juncture of confession of him to be the "Son of Man," us what gives the righteousness of the Christian its distinct character.

Jesus proceeds in Matthew 5:11 by offering three expressions of persecution that his disciples experience in this world. First, he says they will "revile you," which means that opponents of Christian righteousness and the gospel will mock and verbally shame you. Second, the word "persecute" in verse 11 means "to run after, pursue, or run out." The idea is that the disciples of Christ may be pursued from town to town with the evil intention of violently abusing them or turning them over to the authorities for prosecution. Third, verse 11 states they "will utter all kinds of evil against you falsely." This means that the persecutors of Jesus' followers will raise false allegations against them that have no basis but are in reality imagined lies.

A life devoted to righteousness and godliness will be persecuted or reviled or spoken against, because your holy life is an indictment against their sinful one. The reason for persecution is holy, hot, blazing righteousness and a committed devoted relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. In Matthew 5:10-12, Jesus is blessing those who have identified with him and saying in response, "You are mine!"

Thomas Watson, the great Puritan writer, said of Christians, "Though they be ever so meek, merciful, pure in heart, their piety will never shield them from suffering. They must hand their harp on the willows and take up the cross. The way to heaven is by the way of thorns and blood. Set it down as a maxim, if you will follow Christ, you will see the swords and staves. Put the cross in your creed."

Does this describe you? Are you ready to face opposition and persecution in order to identify with the Lord Jesus Christ in every way? For those who are free in Christ and joyful in persecution are indeed the "salt of the earth" and the "light of the world."


1. John Hopper, "A Letter Which Master Hooper Did Write to Certain of His Friends," The Church of England Magazine (London: James Burns, 1836) p. 382 

 

A Prayer for Persecuted Brethren

|

Dear Father in heaven, you know all things; you know of the great persecution which your church faces, the scattering of your people in regions of the world, and the lamentations of devout men and women over the loss of dear saints. You know by name the people who ravage your church, who enter house after house, and drag away men and women, committing them to prison. Show us your mercy, O Lord, and guard and defend your church, for you can do all things, and you can do this thing.

And yet Father, until you do bring an end to our suffering, we pray that your children who are dispersed through persecution would preach the word, and proclaim the Lord Jesus Christ. Be their refuge in each deep distress.

Until you bring an end to all things, we also pray for the many who seek comfort in this life, those who do not know that you are the only comfort in life and in death. Help the crowds of displaced people to be lifted up through deeds of mercy, and given life through your Word of Truth. Bring joy beyond our imagination to overcrowded homes and cities, to refugee camps and food lines. You can do all things, Lord; you can do this thing too.

And while your people suffer, help us to remember the One who suffered for us. We thank you for the One who like a sheep was led to the slaughter; for the One who opened not his mouth, who was denied justice in his humiliation, whose life was taken away from the earth. Lord you have done great things - help us to remember this greatest thing of all: the eternal salvation worked for us through your Son. Enable us by your Spirit to count it a privilege to be united to him not only in his saving benefits but in his sufferings and grief. And keep us in your care until we meet you, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in the new heavens and the new earth, where tears will be no more. AMEN.

*This is the eighth post in a series on "Praying Through the Scriptures."

In 1869, the German physiologist, Friedrich Goltz, published a series of conclusions from tests he performed on frogs. In his book, Beitrage zur Lehre von den Functionen der Nervencentren des Frosches (Contributions to the Theory of the Functions of the Nerve Centers of the Frog), Golz revealed that he had put a number of frogs in a pot of water and heated it to 78.8 degrees Fahrenheit. At that temperature, the frogs obviously made efforts to get out. Golz then slowly turned up the temperature until the frogs died of at 107.6 degrees Fahrenheit. When he ran the experiment on decerebrated frogs, Golz discovered that the decerebrated frogs remained calm until they were fully cooked in the boiling water. I relay this story at the risk of offending both PETA and little boys who love frogs, in order to draw an analogy. In "late modernity," believers are in danger of becoming just like decerebrated frogs in the kettle. As the temperature of cultural wickedness increases around us, we remain motionless--until it's too late. While we silently tolerate and seek to negotiate with a culture in which abortion, sexual immorality, idolatry, materialism, abuse and every other form of wickedness runs ramped, we are being cooked. I am not suggesting that we become bombastic cultural warriors. I am, however, suggesting that we need to wake up to the reality of the wickedness in the culture in which we live and be willing to live as the faithful, God-honoring, sin-hating, righteousness-loving, truth-speaking believers Christ has redeemed us to be--no matter the cost. 

Jesus teaches us that there will be evidences of God's grace in the lives of those he redeems. The recipients of God's grace are marked as being poor in spirit, mournful, meek, merciful, peacemaking, pure in heart and hungering and thirsting for righteousness (Matt. 5:3-9). They will also be those who are "persecuted for righteousness sake" (Matt. 5:10).  Righteousness is not a culturally defined concept--something determined by statist ethics or media-driven agendas. As one theologian rightly explained, "What God says is right is right because he says it and He says it because it rests on his holy nature."1 This means that we must have our ethics shaped exclusively by Scripture. 

Recent exposés related to Rachael Dehollander, and other victims of sexual abuse, have served to prove how willing society--and, regrettably, even the church--has been to tolerate, cover and accommodate wickedness. If we have learned anything from this tragic situation, it is that we must wake up to the reality of wickedness in the world in which we live; and, be willing to call sin what it is. In order to do so, it is incumbent on us to defend the "straight line" of righteousness. Denhollander appealed to C.S. Lewis' reflections in Mere Christianity on the "straight line," as she faced her abuser: 

"I can call what you did evil and wicked because it was. And I know it was evil and wicked because the straight line exists. The straight line is not measured based on your perception or anyone else's perception, and this means I can speak the truth...without minimization or mitigation. And I can call it evil because I know what goodness is. And this is why I pity you. Because when a person loses the ability to define good and evil, when they cannot define evil, they can no longer define and enjoy what is truly good."

What a powerful word there is in this for us. We must seek, by a diligent use of Scripture, to appropriate into our own thinking, consciences and lives the "straight line" of righteousness. When we cease doing so, we will inevitably begin to accommodate evil. This is not simply a call for us to stand up for victims. It is a call for us to reject all unrighteousness. We must disabuse ourselves of the notion that something is wrong only because it hurts someone else in a perceptible manner. Sin is, first and foremost, rebellion against the King of Heaven. As R.C. Sproul put it, "Sin is cosmic treason...against a perfectly pure Sovereign." When King David finally acknowledged his sin of adultery and repented of it before the Lord, he confessed, "Against You and You only have I sinned and done what is evil in Your sight" (Psalm 51:4). Accommodating culture on the horizontal plane is the inevitable result of downplaying the severity of sin on the vertical.

By nature, men and women approve those things that they know are abhorrent to God. The Apostle Paul--after opening the catalogue of natural depravity ranging from sexual immorality to unmercifulness (Rom. 1:29-31)--explained the science of cultural accommodation. "Who knowing the righteous judgment of God," he wrote, "that those who practice such things are deserving of death, not only do the same but also approve of those who practice them" (Rom. 1:32). Our natural instinct is not only to tolerate but also to practice and to approve evil in the lives of others. Accommodation can happen either explicitly (through vocal support or active engagement) or implicitly (by downplaying its severity or covering it up). When we accommodate societal sin in these ways we become just like the decerebrated frogs in the kettle. 

It is a travesty of the highest order when ministers publicly castigate fellow ministers for speaking out on such things as abortion, marriage, homosexuality and gender identity, while silently refusing to speak out on them. Appealing to kindness and ecclesiastical procedure--in attempts to censure vocal denunciation--is often nothing less than a smoke screen for fostering cultural accommodation. Rhetorical sophistry is par for the course, these days, for those who--wishing to blur the "straight line" of righteousness--silently promote ethical compromise.  

Believers are not to be zealous to uphold the "straight line" because we are better than others. God only justifies "ungodly" men and women (Rom. 4:5). Rather, we do so out of a desire to glorify the God who redeemed us and to reflect His image in a wicked and perverse world. We do so also for the sake of the Gospel. Jesus died for sin. It is impossible to hold out the abundant and lavish grace of God in the Gospel unless we first uphold God's holiness and standard of righteousness (Rom. 5:20). The law makes sin exceedingly sinful so that men and women will see their need for the forgiveness and reconciliation that is only found in Christ (Rom. 7:13; Gal. 3:22). 

There will, of course, be a cost if we decide to do what is pleasing to God and stand for the "straight line" of righteousness in a world that approves and promotes wickedness. Rachael Denhollander learned that painful truth. Though the cost may be great, we must remember that there is true blessedness in upholding God's standard of holiness. After all, Jesus didn't say, "Blessed are the cultural accommodationists, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven." 

 

1. Van Til, C. The Defense of the Faith (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2008).

Andrew White, Todd Pruitt and John the Baptist

|

Over at Mortification of Spin, Todd Pruitt has made waves by sounding an alarm over Andrew White, the PCA ruling elder who--as a Democratic candidate for governor in Texas--has stated his commitment to legalized abortion and gay marriage. As reported by Pruitt, Mr. White stated on Texas Public Radio: "I support Roe v. Wade 100%," and promised, "I'll veto any of this legislation that's coming out that limits a woman's right to choose." Todd responded with an open letter to Mr. White that laid out the biblical stance on the wickedness of abortion and called on him to repent. If Mr. White continues, Pruitt expressed the prayerful hope that his session and presbytery will subject him to church discipline.

In the aftermath of this public letter, Pruitt followed up to report on the response from the differing sides of the PCA.2 On the one hand, he notes how biblical conservatives expressed horror that an elder in our Bible-believing denomination could seek to provide political protection to sins condemned so clearly in Scripture, along with alarm over the apparent approval (or at least inaction) of his Session. On the other hand, Pruitt was contacted by numbers of progressives in the PCA who held the opposite view. Pruitt has been labeled as schismatic and divisive, accused of meddling, and derided for an "unchristian attitude." Included was the inevitable complaint that Todd had not followed Matthew 18 by first contacting Mr. White in private (this despite the fact that Matthew 18 concerns sins committed against us personally, not public sins by public persons).

One lesson from this situation is that the PCA in its fifth decade is deeply divided over core issues that extend even to the most basic biblical ethics. Just last week, Pew Research published a survey of views on the morality of abortion which claimed that 54% of PCA members support abortion "in all or most cases." Many of us have found this statistic hard to believe, but Andrew White and his supporters suggest otherwise. Is it possible that a professedly Bible-believing denomination could be so deeply divided on such a basic issue as the morality of the slaughter of pre-born babies? If so, how could this happen? Perhaps the PCA's differences over worship, confessional fidelity, and cultural accommodation are more closely connected to our most basic Christian commitments than many have thought. Or, perhaps, the issue is really only about the relationship between church and culture. This would seem to be the concern of Pruitt's critics, who argue that a professing Christian (and elder) should be able to give public support to biblical abominations. You know, two kingdoms, etc.

Here's where John the Baptist comes in. It so happens that my Wednesday night studies on Mark's Gospel bring me tonight to the passage where John the Baptist publicly scolds Herod Antipas for his adultery with his brother's wife Herodias (who is also his niece). Herodias doesn't like this a bit and so after her daughter mesmerizes a drunken Herod, John the Baptist's head comes off. What insight does this passage provide to Andrew White and Todd Pruitt? One way to answer the question is to ask where the faithful servant of Christ is found? Is he at the party with Herod? Is he defending Herod's right to practice his own idea of sexual ethics? I would say that the lesson for Mr. White is found in Herod's experience: if conscience does not silence sin, then sin will silence conscience. But for you, Todd, the lesson is found not only in the hatred directed towards John the Baptist but also in the attitude of Jesus toward his faithful servant.



Conflict, Comfort and the Cross

|

Last week, a gunman entered First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas and killed 26 people, wounding 20 others. The massacre was brutal and left what will surely be scars on all of those who survived, many of whom were young children. Usually there is some sort of grieving period that decorum allows in the aftermath of such events, but as civilization abandons any pretense at care or compassion that grieving period is quickly disappearing.

One of the nastiest things about the internet is that it allows angry and grieving people to abstract the people they are writing about from reality. People are able to speak freely even when they know what they have to say is cruel or even evil. It should be no secret in the Christian community that the world thinks that we're foolish. We acknowledge it, but sometimes we see it in ugly ways.

Perhaps the most despicable reactions came from Actor Michael McKean, who mocked the dead on Twitter and attacked those who encouraged prayer for the people in the church: "They had the prayers shot right out of them. Maybe try something else." Wil Wheaton attacked one politician who expressed sympathy and prayers for those who had lost so much: "If prayers did anything, they'd still be alive."

I do not wish to judge these men as human beings. I don't know them in their everyday lives. I don't know what they've been through or what they've seen, but someone who understands the cross would never say these sorts of things. These are the responses of people who do not understand the cross.

The mockery of the unbelieving world assumes a few significant things. It assumes that God would never permit his people to die. It assumes that suffering isn't part of God's plan. It assumes that if prayer "worked" then God's people would just keep on living. And most fundamentally it assumes that God builds his church on power and strength. There's an entire worldview of assumptions that have to be true if their mockery could have any basis, but of course all of these assumptions miss the cross.

The cross was the ultimate and willing display of weakness. When many think of the cross they think, perhaps of an identifying marker, a beautiful piece of jewelry, or some elaborate symbol. But the cross was horrible, ugly, and nonsensical. It was a weapon of death, akin to the rack or the guillotine. At the core of the Christian religion is the conviction that death is the road to life and weakness is the road to strength. That's totally upside down from the rest of the world.

Paul says that "the world did not know God through wisdom" (1 Cor. 1:21). What he means is that if you were trying to dream up a way to rescue people from hell, the conclusion that reason would take you to is a show of power, a demonstration of strength. This is why the religious leaders mocked Jesus as he died: "Let him come down from the cross, and [then] we will believe in him." And in a sense that mockery is echoed in the sentiments of men like Wheaton and McKean. The cross is foolish to these men (1 Cor. 1:18-25). What else would we expect?

You see, the mockers also don't understand that Christians are called by Christ himself to carry the cross, too. If McKean, Wheaton, and their tribe don't understand the cross, then they certainly won't get what Christians are called to carry. What the saints at First Baptist Church were called to carry last week. Jesus spent a huge quantity of his earthly ministry preparing his disciples to suffer and carry the cross.

I do fear, however, that as Christians, we also forget these truths. How often do we prize earthly power, success, cultural authority, and the respect of those outside of the church? Prizing these things is a sign that we've learned to think like the world, too.

Sometimes I fear that as Christians we are far too easily embarrassed by the opinions of the watching world. The base ideas about Christ that the world works with assume the narrative of power and strength. The truth we need to remember is quite the opposite.

The truth that suffering and loss is intrinsic to the Christian religion and to our own lives as believers means that church shootings, religious persecution, and difficulty shouldn't be the exception for Christians. We should understand comfort and ease to be the real exceptions.

Time to Bury the Bibles?

|
Few things bring out the hysteria in all of us like a presidential election. Perhaps only the close of a millennium (anyone remember Y2K?) can compete for catapulting Americans into a posture of fear and anxiety about their nation's collective future (or lack thereof). Don't get me wrong. I like to indulge in a bit of anxiety just as much as the next guy. And as I've contemplated, over the past few months, the direction our country might take under the leadership of candidate A or candidate B, I have often felt like I was nine years old again, reading a choose-your-own-adventure book where I'd managed to pursue a plot line with no remaining positive outcomes.

If asked, I suspect many American Christians would judge this most recent election the worst in our country's history (in terms, that is, of the perceived quality of their choices for supreme leader). But according to Daniel Dreisbach--in an article titled "The Wall of Separation" written several years ago for Christian Today--American Christians in election year 1800 felt just as worried, if not more so, than American Christians have in recent days about the future of their country under the leadership of either prospective president. The rather grim choice of leaders facing voters in 1800 was between the incumbent John Adams and Adam's own vice-president, Thomas Jefferson, two men who had played pivotal roles in the founding of the young nation.

The biggest problem early nineteenth-century Americans had with Jefferson was his purportedly suspect religious views and his supposed sympathy for the revolutionaries who had turned France on its head a decade earlier. Actually, the two worries went hand in hand. The French revolution, whatever aims it originally embodied, had evolved into pronounced efforts in 1792 and 1793 (during Robespierre's "reign of terror") to eradicate Christianity entirely from the country (the "de-Christianization of France"): Christian Scriptures and artifacts were destroyed; Church buildings were converted into stables or temples consecrated to Human Reason; towns, streets, and squares were stripped of their Christian names; the seven day (Christian) week was replaced with a more "rational" ten day week and the year of the French revolution was declared "year one" in the new dating system. Many Americans assumed that Jefferson's election would set America on a similar course, and that hard won religious freedoms of recent years would be forfeited.

Jefferson's stated religious convictions did little to assuage such fears. To be sure, Jefferson's religious views were considerably more conservative than those of the atheistic revolutionaries across the Atlantic who were championing the Cult of Reason. His views were closer, perhaps, to those of Robespierre, who himself championed the Cult of the Supreme Being as an alternative to the blatantly atheistic Cult of Reason. But to most Americans that seemed a distinction without a difference. Most Americans--quite rightly, in fact--recognized that you either accept God's own revelation of himself at face value or not, and that a "God" made in man's own image offers little improvement upon no God at all. In other words, Americans appropriately saw through Jefferson's claim to be a "real Christian" since the Christianity he embraced disallowed Christ's deity, Christ's virgin birth, Christ's resurrection, and other biblical accounts of the miraculous. The Gazette of the United States summarized Americans' perception of Jefferson's religious convictions when, shortly before the election of 1800, it declared a vote for Jefferson equivalent to a vote for "NO GOD".

But to many Americans, Jefferson was the lesser of two evils. Adams, after all, was the incumbent (and who ever likes that guy?). Plus he was a Presbyterian, and many Americans -- though not most, as things turned out -- deemed Presbyterianism one degree worse than rabid atheism. No matter his suspect religious views, Jefferson remained particularly popular among New England Baptists who were more invested (for obvious reasons) than other religious identities in disestablishment. Fears that Adams was secretly plotting to impose Presbyterianism on the nation in toto seemed to be reaching fulfillment when Adams called for a national day of fasting and prayer during his time in office -- no doubt Adams intended that everyone should pray to the Presbyterians' God!

In the end, of course, Jefferson won. And, as Dreisbach observes, that fact led some American Christians to bury their bibles in their back yards or hide them down their wells (presumably above the water line), confident that governmental forces would be knocking on their doors shortly to inaugurate the de-Christianization of the United States of America.

Of course, those authorities never came knocking. In fact, the bulk of the peoples' worst fears about what would come after 1800 never materialized. And, to bring it back to the present, I'm guessing the worst of our present-day fears about what's coming under our now president-elect probably won't be realized either. In part, that truth is simple testimony to our tendency towards hyperbolic anxieties. In even greater part, it's testimony to the fact that, come what will, "God reigns over the nations; God sits on his holy throne" (Psalm 47:8).

 

As the Supreme Court deliberates on the question of homosexual marriage, American Christians are bracing for a level of government persecution yet unknown to us.  The fear is that with homosexuality declared a constitutional right, opposition will officially be akin to racism.  Under such a ruling, Christian institutions who refuse to grant homosexual rights may be subjected to official oppression and lose their tax exempt status as non-profit institutions.  Even churches may lose their tax-free status if they refuse to permit marriages between two men or two women.  This would deal a heavy financial blow and may be a precursor to the removal of our religious freedoms, so that public speech against moral perversion becomes a crime punishable by fine or imprisonment. 

Christians who know the book of Revelation will notice a striking parallel between this potential situation and that which Jesus described to the church of Smyrna in Revelation 2:8-11.  This ancient city was a jewel on the Aegean Sea, the chief city of the Roman province of Asia.  With over 200,000 residents, it was noted for its historical loyalty to the Roman empire.  In the year 26 a.d., the city even competed for and won the honor of erecting a temple to the emperor Tiberius and was famed for its commitment to the Roman imperial cult.  As such, the church there was vulnerable to the persecutions that the emperor Domitian was about to unleash on those who would not bow to his supposed deity.

Of the seven letters to the churches of Revelation, the one to Smyrna is the shortest.  It contains no rebukes, but reveals Christ's close familiarity with the sufferings they had and were about to experience: "I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander. . . . Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison" (Rev. 2:9-10).  The word tribulation means pressure of great oppression.  Already, the Christians of this city were financially impoverished, probably because participation in social and economic life was forbidden to those not willing to worship Caesar as Lord.  Jesus is not speaking of a mere removal of tax-exempt status, but the word for "poverty" means a crushing situation in which even basic needs cannot be met.  Their situation reminds believers today that this kind of persecution should not be unexpected by those who name Jesus as Lord.

A second form of persecution took the form of slander, which Jesus says was coming from the Jewish community, who did not want to lose their privileged status by association with the Christians.  We know that Christians in the early church were falsely accused of drowning their children and eating human flesh, wrongly associated with the sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper.  This form of persecution is currently escalating against Christians in America, as we are accused of "hate crimes" because of our moral stance against homosexuality.    Jesus warned that more persecution would soon come: "Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison."  When he adds, "Be faithful unto death," it seems that some at least would also be slain (Rev. 2:10).

As Christians brace for official oppression in America, Jesus' words to Smyrna offer a great hope.  Primarily, Jesus declares his sovereignty over such tribulation.  We see this in his ability to foretell these events.  He begins his letter saying, "The words of the first and the last" (Rev. 2:8).  As the Lord of the beginning and the end, Jesus is sovereign over everything in between.  Jesus also foretold that it would not be an interminable persecution: "for ten days you will have tribulation" (Rev. 2:10).  "Ten days" is probably a symbolic number indicating a lengthy but not indefinite period of time.  There would be an "eleventh day" when he would remove the trial.  Jesus also informed Smyrna of the reason for this suffering: "that you may be tested" (Rev. 2:10).  So it will be in America when Christians are forced to pay a tangible earthly price for our fidelity to God's Word.  Will the loss of tax-exemption and the threat of cultural exclusion cause us to yield our allegiance to Christ?  This is the matter about which we should be praying: what truly matters is not whether or not we suffer persecution but whether we remain faithful should it come.  As Christians brace for a Supreme Court ruling that would have been incomprehensible just a few years ago, together with an intensity of opposition we have seldom known, we too should be comforted by Christ's sovereign control over present history.  If persecution comes, we must receive it as a test from our gracious Savior and an opportunity to show his power as we gladly endure it in faith to his Word.

Jesus had a simple message for the believers in Smyrna that is needed by American Christians today: "Do not fear what you are about to suffer" (Rev. 2:10).  Do we doubt our Lord's ability to preserve us under trial?  Do we question his willingness to support us under unjust oppression?  Then of what are we afraid?  Jesus' message to Smyrna reminds us that we have every reason for confidence and joy if we are given the privilege of suffering for his name. 

Jesus' letter to Smyrna included three incentives that American Christians should hold in view.  First, he tells us that even if we are utterly impoverished in a material sense, yet "you are rich" (Rev. 2:9).   If biblically faithful churches should be subjected to punitive taxes and if individual believers are fined or oppressed, we will be abundantly compensated with spiritual riches.  In fact, the very affluence we are threatened with losing is often the greatest barrier to the simplicity, vibrant joy and sheer spiritual wealth we ought to be enjoying.  With this in mind, it is possible that his reference to a trial for "ten days" is an allusion to the testing of Daniel and his friends in Babylon, when they refused to transgress God's law by eating forbidden foods from Nebuchadnezzar's table.  In this case, Jesus was reminding the believers of Smyrna that like Daniel they would emerge "better in appearance and fatter in flesh than all the youths who ate the king's food" (Dan. 1:15).  Trusting in the same Lord, the believers of Smyrna and America would emerge from tribulation strengthened in faith and with a greater public testimony to the power of our Savior.  Armed with this confidence, the Bible urges to rejoice in the prospect of suffering for Christ, "knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope" (Rom. 5:3-4). 

A second incentive has to do with the eternal glory that is gained by those who suffer for Jesus in this life: "Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life" (Rev. 2:10).  This promise connects to the athletic games held in Smyrna, which rivaled those of Mount Olympus in Greece.  Jesus thus promises an ornament of glory, life, and power to crown believers who conquer through faith.  He began the letter by declaring himself the Savior "who died and came to life" (Rev. 2:8), and who thus has the power to give us grace under trial and glory in heaven. 

Third, Christ reminds us of the greatest blessing awaiting us in his soon return: "He who has an ear, let him hear what the Sprit says to the churches.  The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death" (Rev. 2:11).  Instead of fearing and reviling the cultural enemies of Christ today, Christians should look on them with pity for the eternal judgment awaiting those who perish with sins unforgiven because of unbelief in Jesus,  and we should make it our prayerful priority to offer a living witness that may lead to the conversion of many unbelievers.  Even if we should be threatened with death (which is not a current prospect in America) we should not fear, for he will raise us to eternal life.  Jesus promises those who endure in faith, "I will give you the crown of life" (Rev. 2:10). 

Jesus placed a single requirement on the persecuted church of Smyrna: "Be faithful," even "unto death" (Rev. 2:10).  There were not to look at the suffering to come with fear but with anticipation of purification and deliverance by our Sovereign Redeemer.  With Jesus in view, we are to make faithfulness for his sake our single goal and most urgent prayer.

When the book of Revelation arrived in Smyrna, one believer who was almost certainly present was Polycarp of Smyrna, who was martyred in 154 a.d. as the bishop of that city.  Church tradition tells us that Polycarp was a disciple of John's who was consecrated to his church office by the apostle himself.  This makes it possible, even likely, that Polycarp was actually the church leader who read this letter when it arrived in Smyrna.  We know that he survived the persecution about which Jesus warned.  But years later the day came when he was required to renounce Jesus or face the penalty of death.  His immortal answer is recorded in church history: "Eighty and six years have I served him, and he has done me no wrong; how then can I blaspheme my king who saved me?"  With that refusal Polycarp was executed by public burning, having been faithful to the end and being certain of the crown of everlasting life from the hand of his beloved Lord.  May his godly spirit - a spirit of humility, meekness, gospel love, and courageous resolve - be evident among American Christians should a time of persecution fall upon us for our loyalty to God's Word.  Jesus told his followers in Smyrna words that surely apply to American believers today: "Do not fear what you are about to suffer. . . . Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life" (Rev. 2:10).

Thoughts on street preaching

|
In recent weeks there has been a spate of arrests of Christian brothers in the UK involved in street preaching and other open-air witness. As someone who preaches in this way fairly regularly, this is obviously a matter of interest and concern, and that on a number of fronts. For the record, I do this because I think that it is a legitimate and potentially profitable way - one of many - of going outside the walls of our building to reach men and women, boys and girls, who have no appetite at present to come inside to hear the Word of God being proclaimed. I think we need to make a distinction between what we do in trying to gather a crowd to hear that gospel and what happened in, say, the Scriptures, when Christ had a crowd gathered with an appetite to hear him, or in the days of men like Whitefield when they were - initially - forced outside, and then had ready-made congregations. I also think we need to accept that, unlike somewhere such as the Areopagus, public discourse is no longer, in the culture of most in the modern West, an accepted mode of discussing and pursuing truth.

Street preaching is not necessarily the place to learn the art of preaching in its entirety, but it is a fine place to hone it, for it demands a liveliness and a vigour that you can get away with lacking in a pulpit where - generally speaking - most people are under sufficient cultural constraint to wait until the end of the sermon before they leave, however dry and dull you are. On the street (which must be distinguished from merely preaching to an attentive congregation outdoors) you have a moving congregation, and you must win and keep their attention, for the sake of their souls. With that in mind, here are some thoughts on street preaching. I do not pretend to be an expert, but an observer and practitioner, wishing to improve myself as well as help others.

Rights and liberties. Be aware of them, but don't make a song and dance about them, and don't go out determined to make an issue of and defend them. A hyper-defensive mindset is a good way to start a fight. In the UK there are helpful documents, drawn up by well-instructed Christians after careful research, that set out for your benefit, and - if need be - for the benefit of others, what you are entitled to do. Knowing this, and being able to respond intelligently if challenged, can be helpful.

Appearance. Clothing should be discreet and appropriate to the occasion. I am far from saying that an open-air preacher should always be in a suit and tie (indeed, given the appetite of certain cults for that kind of 'uniform,' it might be positively unhelpful). However, the open-air preacher should be, in essence, neat and neutral, neither shabby nor power-dressed, deliberately avoiding either extravagant or unintended statements by virtue of his dress. I say this because I think of one brother, a fairly energetic and loud preacher, who I have seen on more than one occasion preaching wearing a hoodie drawn up about his head, with the drawstrings pulled quite tight, and his hands thrust deep into his pockets, dragging the whole garment further down over his face. In most of the environments in which I saw him preach, that outfit gave him the appearance of little more than bellowing thuggishness in the eyes of most passers-by, and probably didn't endear him to anyone else wearing a hoodie either. Other men look, quite frankly, as if they have been dragged through a hedge backward. Appearing to belong in the ranks of the local odd-bods is not necessarily the greatest start to winning the ear of the man in the street. And if you stand up dressed like an Edwardian dandy or some other fop then you deserve everything that gets thrown at you, and I hope that you will soon stand down and let some sensible bloke get on with the business.

Voice. One of the great qualifications for street preaching is to be able to be heard, but that should not be confused with mere volume. After all, if you are bawling from the off, you have nowhere to go when you need to emphasise something. The great things to aim at are projection and penetration, with clarity and distinctness of speech at a premium. Extreme and sustained volume will make the most earnest pleading sound to some ears like little more than a harangue. Personally, I would avoid amplification: it tends to deaden the nuance of the voice, is difficult to judge, can be objectionable in itself, and is - in some instances - easily challenged as to its legality or appropriateness. Indeed, I know of one brother whose preaching is barely above the conversational level, and yet people come over to him in order to hear what he is saying. Bear in mind, too, the need for wisdom in adaptation. If you are preaching to a milling or streaming crowd, then a little more volume and projection is appropriate. But what if someone comes over to engage in more deliberate conversation, or you gather a little knot of more interested hearers? That will do its own attracting, and to continue preaching or speaking at the same level is to seem aggressive at the very least. Speak so as to be heard by those around you and a little beyond, and don't keep bawling at someone standing three feet away from you - it is unlikely to seem gracious to them or to others observing.

Verbal tics and physical mannerisms. These will be mercilessly lampooned on the street. Here the sanctimonious will be rapidly punctured and the posturing will be mocked. This is an arena in which, if not your sins, at least your foibles and idiosyncrasies will find you out. Here you will be given opportunity, whether you wish it or not, to be made aware of your tics and mannerisms, and be stirred to urgency in getting them under control. Be especially aware of rote ideas and stock or involuntary phrases. I know countless men who start well, get going, run out of steam, and immediately revert to the Ray Comfort, "Have you ever told a lie?" school of engagement. I am not here commenting on the helpfulness or otherwise of that approach, but it certainly militates against freshness and engagement when it becomes the default mode, either as the invariable starting point or whenever you have an empty head and a dry mouth. I also know some brothers who, when heckled, seem to be in the habit of verbally geeing themselves up. Perhaps they believe that they are acknowledging the contribution, but yelling something like, "Come on then!" whenever someone responds to you rather suggests - in my world, at least - that you are itching for a fight rather than willing to engage in a discussion, and escalates any trouble fairly rapidly.

Location.
Go where there are people, but do not make yourself unnecessarily obnoxious by assaulting a captive audience. For example, if you set up right next to an open-air café or coffee shop, you trap people who have no option but to hear: your fishing for souls becomes the equivalent of dropping dynamite into a barrel of the soggy beasties. Make sure that you are not on private property without permission, and be aware of various byelaws. For example, the place where I often preach is a thoroughfare where we have every right to be. If I move a few yards on I enter an equally public space where the local authority have a measure of additional jurisdiction to which I would be subject. Some like to use a board to provide a focal point (having some kind of statement that you have watched it for ten minutes in breezy conditions and it did not fall down might help if you get accosted by a health-and-safety Nazi); others simply stand and speak. Being visible is obviously helpful, but the habit of invariably standing on a small box to shout in an empty street is a bit pointless. There are times and places where a little elevation is a great advantage, but if you are of normal height, you will be fairly visible to most people most of the time. Getting on the box can make you seem intimidating, desperate, or simply silly. If you wish to, stand near a wall or some other construction, so that - if a crowd should gather - you have something to get on if you need it (bear in mind that being able to get on it nimbly and keep on it easily are of the essence here). Incidentally, keep an eye on your stuff, even to the extent of keeping your eyes open while praying: those with an animus against you or a ripe sense of mischief will gladly disappear with your gear while you are pleading for their souls.

Helpers. It is a good idea to have others with you, and not just to keep a permanent video record of your shenanigans. The preacher is, if you will, casting the net, but it does no harm to have a few brothers and sisters nearby with a hook and line, as it were, following after the ones and twos who pause for a moment. Those with you can pray, take turns preaching, hand out leaflets, head off trouble, and all other kinds of good things. Scatter them about and/or gather a few when you begin preaching: if you take a congregation of sorts with you then you always have someone to preach to, and often people will be happier to stop, even briefly, if they feel that they can be one largely hidden among others.

Style. You are not now in the pulpit with a group of people more or less willingly gathered to hear the Word of God preached. Quoting chapter and verse is likely to slow you down, and will not convince anybody (whatever you do, don't invite passers-by to turn with you to the second chapter of Hosea, or some other part of Scripture that many Christians struggle to find). Your approach must be condensed and concentrated, a model of well-governed intensity. Sometimes you will have barely a minute, often less, in which to get your points across, to grab the ear and grip the heart. Every segment of your sermon, more or less, needs to be a gospel grenade. Forget your rolling periods, weighty pauses, and great swelling paragraphs - they will not cut it on the street. Your notions of homiletics, in which, perhaps, a series of points builds to a great crescendo and telling conclusion, is worthless in an environment in which - until you have a group of people actually listening to you - much sense of development and structure is unhelpful. Your whole sermon must be a mass of gospel fishhooks baited with vivid words and pungent truths. Pointed and engaging illustrations and a bit of genuine wit will get you far. Get plenty of Bible into your words. Your gestures should not be remarkable for the forced, the theatrical, the manic or the grotesque - you are set out for display as a whole person, and there is nothing to hide behind, so you need to exercise control over all your limbs and use them naturally and effectively.

Attitude. Some brothers seem persuaded that aggression is a sine qua non for street preaching, but that is far from the truth. There are some who appear to labour under the conviction that they are called to make a scene rather than move a soul. Their whole manner is one that speaks of belligerence, forgetting that Christ's sons of thunder were, on at least one occasion, soundly rebuked for their destructive spirit. These are the men who seem to imagine that if they have only managed to get into some kind of argument, only succeeded in stirring up some kind of antagonism, they must be doing their job well. They seem intent on venting a measure of unholy spleen, determined harshly to probe the sensitivities of all who pass by at their most tender spot, and then applauding themselves because they are convinced that the resulting negative reaction is expressive of a heart set against God. Consider that the reason for such a reaction might just be that you are an offensive troll whose mission to stamp on as many toes as possible in the name of God has been overwhelmingly successful. Just because truth came from the mouth of Balaam's donkey does not make your behaving like an obstreperous ass somehow virtuous. You are there to do these men and women and children good: lifeboats and coastguards would not improve their success rates if manned by rough and angry personnel with harsh voices and complaining spirits.

So bear in mind that arrest is not the ultimate badge of honour for the open-air preacher, some unassailable confirmation of spiritual faithfulness, the ministerial equivalent of the Victoria Cross. Sadly, some preachers seem to think that there is some scale of awards in which the more they are abused or restricted, the more effective and faithful they have been:

"Somebody yelled at me the other day."

"Oh, that's nothing, I got spat at a few weeks ago."

"Really, well, they threw something at me just last month."

"All terrible, no doubt, but I got asked by the local authorities to move on."

"Gentlemen, I . . . [pause for effect] . . . I have been . . . arrested!" [Gasps of awe and a smattering of applause for the esteemed brother.]

I have seen and heard some and of some who, as soon as they are challenged by someone, invite them to call the police if they have a problem. Now, if that isn't unhelpful, kindly fax me an explanation of what is! Or, the police turn up to have a word, and the immediate response is to get up on one's high horse (tricky if you are already standing on a small box, but I have seen some brothers attempt it with panache), strike the martyr pose (again, if you are already on a box on your high horse, this becomes quite a high risk approach), and state that you are exercising your rights as a citizen and as a Christian, and the only way to muzzle you is to arrest you. Brother, you are probably not (yet) Bunyan before the magistrate. I know that some police officers, appointed to keep the peace and enforce the law, have mistaken themselves for moral guardians in accordance with the spirit of the age. Nevertheless, a friend of mine with the Metropolitan Police assures me that most of the police are likely to apply some sort of 'attitude test' - a bolshy street preacher invites his own trouble. A soft answer turns away wrath (Prv 15.1), and we would do well to learn that a calm explanation, a readiness to find another location, or perhaps - in some circumstances - even a willingness to come back another day, avoids unnecessary trouble. Stirring up trouble and inviting arrest is not being persecuted for righteousness' sake, but bravado. "Ah, but I was forbidden to preach Christ!" Really, was that before or after you made a stroppy nuisance of yourself? Often, they are not even forbidding us to preach, and - although I freely acknowledge that we should not bow to illegitimate pressures - a gracious response can defuse the situation, win the appreciation of the coppers in question, and spare us to fight another day. We are in danger of provoking conflicts that do not need to happen. When the time comes, by all means stand up for your right to make Christ known, but do not precipitate the confrontation before the hour arrives. Being arrested does not prove in itself that you are faithful or effective, it can draw precisely the wrong kind of attention, and it jeopardises not only your continued work but the work of others like you. The same Bible that tells you that all men will speak well of you only if you are in the train of the false prophets (Lk 6.26) tells you also to live at peace with all men, if you can (Rom 12.18), and to pray for those who exercise authority in the hope "that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence" (1Tim 2.1-2). We are sent out as sheep in the midst of wolves. "Therefore be wise as serpents and harmless as doves" (Mt 10.16).

Substance. Brothers, when we preach, let us preach the gospel! You and I must not be mere noisemakers or Bible bawlers. Most of the faithful and earnest men who go about this work are not likely to smooth the edges of their messages, telling everybody who goes by that they are doing well and God will be pleased with their efforts. But some do swing to the opposite extreme. So remember that you are not the first chapter of a minor prophet on a bad morning, delivering God's message of judgement to his disobedient nation. You are an ambassador of Christ, pleading with men to be reconciled to God, a true minister of the new covenant. You must be a thoroughly evangelical evangelist - yes, that ought to be a tautology, but too often the evangelist leaves the evangel in the bottom of his bag. You are setting out to convince the lost of their lostness and to see them safe to Christ. You must, to be sure, set out the convicting context of the gospel, showing that - before God, and measured by his holy law - none is righteous, no, not one; you must set forth the glorious substance of the gospel, that God has revealed his own righteousness apart from the law, which is by faith in Jesus Christ; you must set forth the demanding invitations of the gospel, calling on sinners to repent and believe in order that they might obtain life eternal. You are not there to expose the flaws of the government, although if there are governors and officials in your audience, you might address them. You are not there to deride the culture, although you might identify the participation of your hearers in its sins. You are not there - and I hear this kind of thing too often - as God's official representative to light the touchpaper on all the flashpoints of our society. I am not saying that, to choose the most obvious and most harped-upon issue, that we should ignore homosexuality, but if you want someone to start yelling about hate crimes and start a real fight with you, this is one of the best places to start. So why start there? Why deliberately bait the vast majority with something that is going to stop them hearing the real content of your message? The prevalence of homosexuality in our society is more of a symptom of a disease than its cause. To make it the primary point of contact is like a doctor working himself up over a temperature rather than diagnosing and prescribing antibiotics for an infection. Strike at the heart! Do not fudge the truth, but do not pick fights. If men must be offended, at least let them be offended by the gospel you proclaim, and not by other matter that you have managed to be offensive about, or the offensive manner in which you go about proclaiming the truth or anything else. Let it be the truth as it is in Jesus which cuts men to the heart, whether it leads to them gnashing their teeth at you or crying out in desperation, "What shall we do?" There is plenty of straight talking about sin and wickedness that, if the Spirit carries it home to men's hearts, is going to stir up trouble: why pick the things that will stop men's ears before they actually hear what they need to, and face their particular sins? Street preaching is not a sustained harangue or an attempt to berate all who pass by. It is going out as Christ's proxies to further the seeking and the saving of those who are lost. If I am going to be heckled or spat at or arrested or beaten or whatever it may be, I want it to be for the right thing done in the right way, and not just because I managed to get someone's goat.

Having said all that, I shall probably be arrested next time I go out, but I hope and pray not. Ideally, I shall go on learning to preach Christ to those who either have never heard of him or who have no accurate idea of who he is and what he has done. I shall seek to proclaim Christ as crucified within and without the walls of the church building by all legitimate means that I can discern and employ, in accordance with my gifts and calling. I shall attempt to do so winsomely, accurately and courageously, to the honour and glory of God. If I must suffer for doing so, I hope that the Lord will give me grace to bear it well and respond to it righteously. And I hope that these thoughts will help those who are or think that they might be street preachers to do the same things to the same ends, always with much prayer and in dependence on the Holy Spirit, and so see many souls brought to Christ.