Friday, August 28, 2020

Rules for Voting Like a Christian

      Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. Do not destroy the work of God… 

     So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God.

-Romans 14:20, 22 (NIV)

We’re entering that time in America when we celebrate our democracy by elevating our own

opinions and mocking, belittling, and openly antagonizing those who have different ones. 

     You know, Presidential election season.

     Every four years, we elect a new President. It doesn’t seem so unusual now, but when our system was created there weren’t a lot of other examples of working representative governments to go by. It’s kind of remarkable that the voice of the people can so easily unseat those in power. From my perspective, it’s one of the most admirable things about our country.

     Unfortunately, it can also cause us to act like complete jerks to each other.

     I know of longtime friends who can’t discuss political topics at all. I know families divided along party lines. Sadly, I know of relationships destroyed because someone said something they couldn’t take back in a political argument. All of that’s bad enough.

     Worse, though: I know of people who are made to feel as though they don’t belong in a church because they don’t fit with the political ideologies of the majority of the congregation. Some churches have become politically monolithic for that very reason. And, sadly, there are people concluding that Christianity has nothing for them because they can’t reconcile the political opinions they’ve heard voiced in the church with their own convictions.

     Maybe it’s comforting, in a way, to know that the church was dealing with the tension between competing opinions and ideologies from the beginning.

     The Roman Empire, where the church was born and came of age, probably didn’t encourage a lot of political debate. It was an empire, after all. There wasn’t much dialogue about public policy; more like a monologue that began and ended with Caesar. The church likely wasn’t too divided over political parties.

     But there was division. In the early days, the church was made up of Jews and Gentiles trying to do what was unprecedented: get along while regarding each other as the people of God. In many ways, their cultures were quite different. They had different views on morality and different ways of thinking about God. While Jewish monotheism and Messianic expectation provided the theological foundation for Christianity, there were many other matters on which there wasn’t wide agreement. Paul deals with two of those matters in Romans 14 and 15: what kinds of food are acceptable and whether or not the observance of Jewish holy days was required of non-Jewish Christians.

      This particular debate, for us, sounds awfully strange and not very relevant. Oh, occasionally we’ve applied Paul’s advice in these two chapters to our own debates and differences of opinion, but more often than not we’ve kind of ignored what he says here on matters that are really important to us. I’m convinced, though, that it’s in dealing with those matters that we care about the most that we most need to listen. And, to me, the one phrase that resonates as the church falls victim over and over again to the temptation to divide over political matters is this one: “whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God.”

     There are matters about which debate isn’t worth the damage it can do. The church should be about kingdom work. It’s OK for Christians to disagree about some things. No one should be placed in a position in which they have to choose between a violation of their conscience and a relationship with a brother or sister in Christ. So sometimes we ought to be quiet. Sometimes it’s enough that God knows what we believe. It’s more important to love your brothers and sisters than to win an argument or get your opinions vindicated. 

     With that, let me make some suggestions as to how we should approach election season in the church. None of these suggestions require that you change your convictions or adopt the other parties’ platforms or candidates. You can still vote in the way you think the Lord wants you to — or not vote at all, if you prefer. 

     So, without further ado, here are my suggestions for navigating election season in church with grace, love, and kingdom values:

  • Never succumb to the temptation to make political discussions personal. For a Christian, no discussion of politics should ever descend to the level of name-calling, character assassination, or the impugning of motives — either in person or on social media. That should be obvious. Clearly, it isn’t. Remember: Election season doesn’t invalidate “Make every effort to do what leads to peace and mutual edification.”
  • Remember your primary citizenship. You are not first and foremost an American, not if you’re in Christ. There will be ways in which American values and priorities are out of step with the Kingdom of God. The highest good is not to save America, or that America thrives. The highest good is God’s Kingdom.
  • Don’t buy into the myth that politics will save us. God certainly can and does use politics and politicians to do his work in the world. But that’s a far cry from saying that his work relies on the right policy or the right woman or man in office. If you believe he can work through one party, then you have to believe he can work through the other one, too. Point being that who we vote for is far less important to God’s work than we might tend to think, and far less important than loving your neighbors, seeking justice and righteousness, and living humbly with God.  
  • Mainly, try to be quiet about political matters. I know, this is a tough one. As Americans, we have the right to express our opinions. But as Kingdom people, we have the obligation to give up our rights for the sake of others. If expressing your opinions causes someone to be injured, to leave the church, or to not hear the gospel, then what have you gained? 
  • Finally, when you do have to speak up, speak up for kingdom matters: righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. No political party has a monopoly on those matters. Every politician falls short of them. Instead of party or candidate, speak up for people who are in need, people who are marginalized, people who are trying to be heard. Give yourself — guided by the Holy Spirit, not a party or candidate — to those issues that will promote righteousness, bring about peace, and allow our world to know the joy of God’s kingdom. 

     You may disagree with some — or all — of these suggestions. It would be the height of hypocrisy for me not to give you that freedom. But may we always disagree with grace, with compassion for where differing opinions might come from, and with faithful love that isn’t affected by partisanship.

     May we be Christians first, voters second. 

     And may we give grace to those who vote the other ticket. 

Friday, August 7, 2020

When God Gets A Hold of You...

 I am obligated  both to Greeks and Non-Greeks, both to the wise and the foolish. That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel…. 

     For I am not ashamed of the gospel,  because it is the power of God  that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed — a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”

-Romans 1:14-17 (NIV)

Photo Courtesy of The Christian Chronicle

Earlier this week, I got word that Jimmy Allen had died. 

     You might not know who that is. In the 60s and 70s, he was arguably the best-known evangelist among Churches of Christ. Allen traveled around the country holding evangelistic meetings — around 1400, by his estimate, resulting in about 10,000 baptisms. His style might not be very popular today — arguably his most famous sermon is called What Is Hell Like? — but the fire and brimstone he preached at his meetings was intended to give his audiences a chance to hear and respond to the Gospel of God’s love.

     In his own words, Allen believed the Gospel “was too good for me to keep my mouth shut.” He meant that, too. He shared it in front of audiences of thousands, but he also shared it on airplanes, in restaurants, at his kids’ school. He even said that he regularly picked up hitchhikers just so he could talk to them about Jesus.  (Wonder if any of them asked to be let out of the car short of their destination?)

     “Seems to me like this is what Christians are supposed to be doing,” he would say.

     By the time I knew Jimmy Allen, it was as a Bible professor at Harding University, where he taught for about 40 years. Every one of those years, I guess, he taught the book of Romans. The joke at Harding was that Paul the apostle — who wrote the book — couldn’t manage better than a B+ in Allen’s Romans class. (I will neither confirm nor deny that I got an A.)

     I didn’t know much about Dr. Allen’s background; I think most of us secretly believed he sprang fully-formed and preaching from his father’s forehead or something. I’ve since learned that he never knew his father, and that his mother was killed in an accident when he was still a boy. He grew up in rural Arkansas, cared for by his grandmother and working in the fields to earn a few cents. He didn’t know Christ until he came to school at what was then Harding College. Maybe his background made him that much more ready to hear the story of God’s unconditional love in Jesus. When he heard it, it changed him, and he never seemed to want anything more than to see it change others.

     Allen emphasized God’s grace in that Romans class. For some of us, the idea that we’re saved because God is full of grace — and not because we get everything right — was, well, a revelation. I can remember him saying, passionately, “If you get a hold of Romans, God will get a hold of you.” It was obvious to anyone who heard him preach, or who took that Romans class with him, that God had gotten a hold of Jimmy Allen.

     I guess that’s why he also said, often, “I would rather teach Romans than eat when I’m hungry.” He wanted God to get a hold of his students as well. 

     Despite his reputation as a fire-and-brimstone preacher, Allen was a person of great kindness and grace. I recall him saying at least once that he never believed anything bad that he heard about someone, and that if the person ever proved that it was true, he didn’t delight in it. That kind of spirit is in short supply in our world, and sometimes hard to find even in the church. But I believe it’s the way of Christ.

     I was hyper-sensitive to traditionalism when I took Dr. Allen’s Romans class. I was young, thinking I knew it all and especially where the Old Guard was wrong. I probably thought Dr. Allen was one of the ultra-conservative Old Guard; wrongly, as it turned out. He sort of messed up my “Liberal/Conservative” map, and it finally dawned on me why when I heard him in class one day take down people who bragged about not having  changed any of their views on the Bible in twenty-five years. He called people who make that claim stagnant, and dared to say that they hadn’t spent much time in the Bible in that quarter century. In saying that, he was stepping on the toes of some of his colleagues. But it was nice to hear him say that it was to be desired that the Bible change our minds the longer we study it. “In teaching others, we are continually asking them to change from error to truth,” he said. “We should be willing to practice the same.” I’ve never forgotten that. My thinking about some things — maybe a lot of things — has changed in the years since I knew Dr. Allen. He probably wouldn’t have agreed with all the changes, and I’ve come to believe he was mistaken about a few things too. If anything, though, I appreciate the gospel that changed his life even more than I did back then. And maybe that’s the best way to evaluate changes in your views: Do they help you to better understand, appreciate, and internalize the wonderful story of Jesus?    

     That story was always, to Dr. Allen, about more than salvation from his sins. He understood that the gospel calls us to be colonists of the kingdom, instruments of God’s healing in the world. In the Sixties, when it was far from popular in the south to be committed to racial equality, Dr. Allen was publicly supportive of civil rights. He used his pulpit as one of the most well-known evangelists in Churches of Christ to bring the issue of racism to light. I imagine it cost him some meetings, but to him it wasn’t secondary to the good news of God’s grace. For him, it was obvious that if we’re all saved because of God’s favor toward us, then none of us are more than or less than any other person. 

     Jimmy Allen’s life reminds me of the obligation we have as believers, gospel-formed people, to preach that good news to all people. Sharing the gospel is not a good idea; it’s a responsibility. It’s what Christians are supposed to be doing. You won’t do it like I do. I don’t do it like Dr. Allen did. Jesus wants the gospel proclaimed in your voice, performed in your actions, and no one can do that better than you. 

     The gospel reveals God’s righteousness, Paul says. It shows us that, in spite of our unrighteousness, God is faithful from beginning to end. “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us,” he says. Through Christ, God demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that he is righteous and can be trusted to act in love toward us, no matter what.

     Dr. Allen’s obligation is finished. His duties are discharged. Many, many people heard of the faithfulness, righteousness, and love of God as seen in Jesus Christ. May we follow his example in never being ashamed of that good news. May we never discriminate, but proclaim it to all people, believing that it is the power of God for salvation. Our words. Our actions. But when they tell that story, they are filled with God’s power.

     If God has gotten a hold of you, tell it.