Yesterday was the 123rd anniversary of Hitler’s birth. The fact that we do not celebrate his birth or the evil he did is a testimony to those who gave their lives to stop him.
One such man was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a brilliant theologian and humble pastor who wrote two of the great Christian classics of the twentieth century, The Cost of Discipleship and Life Together.
For Bonhoeffer, his faith was not just a private matter or limited only to the church. As he saw firsthand the horrors of Nazi Germany, he resolved to stop them and became involved in a plot to overthrow the government. The plot failed and Bonhoeffer was arrested. He eventually was martyred by Hitler, who imprisoned him in a German concentration camp and then hanged him.
Bonhoeffer was a brave brother in Christ who became an example to many. He came to understand and to then show us, at the cost of his life, that God cares not only about “me” and the “church”, but also about the oppressed and the persecuted and about the fate of nations.
Our Self-Ensconced Cocoons
In contrast, many Christians today have come under the influence of authors who say, in effect, we must stay ensconced in our Christian cocoons. They proclaim that we must not try to impact our culture or our nation through direct engagement in the issues and challenges of our time.
Some of these authors boast that they are neither left nor right, and I agree! But they never seem to get around to saying in any concrete way what their own solutions are, or provide a framework for some alternative approach, other than maybe being nice (Frank Viola) or praying (Jon Zens).
Some go so far as to say even prayer is not appropriate, because it is a “distraction” from focusing on Christ alone (Milt Rodriguez).
The practical effect of such rhetoric – and all of their “you can’t” blogs and their dismissive stereotypes against those who do – is to try to enforce a new form of legalism on God’s people.
A False Dichotomy
Such authors fall into the trap of seeing the debate as whether the church should impose itself on society, or remain disengaged from the rest of society.
This, however, is a false dichotomy.
Scripture presents a third way (truly neither left nor right), which is to acknowledge that God has ordained different spheres of authority, with different rights, responsibilities and obligations. Each – like the church, civil government, the family and individual responsibility – is separate, and should remain so. But all are subject to the precepts and limitations God has imposed on each.
After all, the Apostle Paul didn’t say that the Roman government needed to be “Christianized”, but neither was he detached from the world and its systems.
Let’s get real! Paul wasn’t persecuted and eventually killed for loving Jesus, but because that love made him confront and do things that upended the cultural, religious, economic and civil systems of his day.
Neither Left Nor Right
The Bible is neither left nor right. But neither is it silent on issues of church and state!
Rather, we have the example of the Apostles.
Paul said that even the pagan rulers of his day were “ministers of God”, and then went on to articulate certain well-defined roles that God intended for them to fulfill. See Romans 13 and The Growing Idolatry of Civil Government.
Thus, there is no sense of trying to “Christianize” a nation by having Christians or the church take over. That’s a bogus characterization and dishonest stereotype by authors like Milt Rodriquez, and I have yet to meet anyone who actually espouses such views today.
But, as Christians, it is legitimate to both prophetically and compassionately speak up and work towards the blessings of a civil government which fulfills its God-ordained roles – while also seeking to prevent it from exceeding those roles as defined throughout scripture.
For example, when the civil authorities overstepped those God-ordained boundaries (consistent with Romans 13), Peter and John weren’t bashful about speaking truth to power and engaging in some first-century civil disobedience. See Acts 4 & 5.
Is Christ Lord of All?
To those who disagree that Christ’s sovereignty encompasses our involvement even in matters of civil government and cultural engagement, how can you ignore what Jesus says in His Word?
Rescue those who are being taken away to death; hold back those who are stumbling to the slaughter. Proverbs 24:10-12
When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice: but when the wicked beareth rule, the people mourn. Proverbs 29:1-3
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me…” Matthew 28:17-19
I have addressed these issues in several past blogs, and I hesitated to write about this once again. But I keep seeing the incapacitating influence our modern voices of isolation are having, and I fear for the church in the West.
I have supped with too many brothers and sisters in other parts of the world who know what oppression and persecution mean. They have no such naive sensibilities, nor were they captive to the blissful comfort and ease of modern Western life – bought and paid for, I might add, by those like Bonhoeffer who gave their lives for justice and liberty.
I’ve traveled the world, and have dodged the secret police to encourage and strengthen those suffering oppression. I also have seen liberty come to whole nations due to the efforts of Christians who cared enough to confront evil, and personally have been part of those efforts.
Salt and Light
To my brothers and sisters outside the U.S. who have no such isolationist illusions about Christ’s compassion and authority, and daily have to live out His call to be salt and light even against oppressive cultures and governments, please pray for us in the U.S.
The church here – especially where it has come under the influence of existential, post-modern philosophies that deny external standards of truth, morality and virtue – by and large is sterile, insular and anemic.
There is a disconcerting “cookie-cutter” conformity evident in the existential wing of the Christian community in the U.S. From what I have observed, it seems that those who are trying to reach this generation, with its post-modern, insular mentality, too often have ended up reinforcing – perhaps unintentionally – that post-modern, insular mentality.
To my existential brethren who reject external standards of truth, morality and virtue, consider carefully your ways.
Too many have sold our birthright – which is to be the salt and the light of Christ – for the ease and comfort of your self-ensconced cocoons.
Too many have adopted slogans like “Christ is All”, but then listened uncritically to those who turn around and deny He is Lord of all.
Too many naively think that being a good Christian means just being nice and never offending the powers that be.
Bonhoeffer bears silent witness from the grave against us, and those who perpetuate this retreat into isolation and irrelevance.
The Power of the Cross
History likewise bears witness against us, as we deny the stark reality that the power of the Cross – time and again – has changed whole cultures and the course of nations.
Wilberforce, Witherspoon, Martin Luther King Jr., Susan B. Anthony, Colson, the abolitionists …
… they all bear witness against the isolationists among us and cry out that the power of the Cross is greater than some today dare imagine.
When existentialist, post-modern Christian authors are dismissive of direct cultural and civic engagement (including political involvement by Christians who feel called to do so), I think they are trying to impose limitations on the entire Body of Christ that are rooted in their own sensibilities.
Such narrow views also likely come from the fact that they, themselves, may not be called to certain things – and that’s OK.
But let’s stop the nonsense and, as we see in Romans 14, acknowledge that no part of the Body of Christ is “beyond” everyone else.
Let’s stop trying to impose the sensibilities, gifts and grace of a few as somehow normative for all.
The Fierceness of God
I feel very passionate about the Body of Christ, in all its glorious, multifaceted expressions. We are the visible life of Jesus – not only in us and among us, but also through us.
This, I think, is the key issue confronting the organic/simple community here in the West:
It is not so much whether cultural and civic engagement is ever proper. Rather, can we stop imposing our own sensibilities and limitations on others, and find the grace to allow different gifts, different callings, and different aptitudes within Christ’s multifaceted body?
If we can’t do this, then I believe we have lost sight of God’s fierceness. We want only His comfort and affirmation, and thus have lost our ability to be effective salt and light not just within our own “tribe” and our own comfort zones, but to all “tribes” and spheres of life – including whole cultures and nations.
For me, the fierceness of God compels me to go beyond the wishy-washy sensibilities of the current dominate culture that pervades the West – and the Western Church.
It compels me to step outside my own comfort zones and sensibilities as I literally go to the prisons, the homeless, the abused and the abusers, the pimps and the prostitutes, the gender benders and the gender broken, the pushers and the addicts – but not with some tidy, post-modern, do-gooder gospel that thinks Jesus is just about being nice.
Rather, I go with the fiercely transforming love of Jesus, which compels me to come beside desperate people who are “other” as we nonetheless connect in Christ through our common humanity.
It compels me to speak liberty directly, and to confront their bondage plainly. It often ain’t pretty, as I deal with the sin and the accumulated crap in people’s lives and see freedom come through Jesus.
It also compels me to proclaim the power of the Cross to transform whole cultures, entire nations, and history itself.
I sometimes plead with God to allow me the honor, the joy and privilege of continuing to proclaim His fierce love, until my last breath, to those outside my comfort zones.
If God has not called you to do the same, fine. But stop trying to rob the rest of the Body of Christ of the joyous privileged of proclaiming the wonderful, liberating blessings of Jesus before all seats of authority and in all spheres of life.
~ Jim Wright
- The Growing Idolatry of Civil Government (crossroadjunction.com)
- The Cultural Implications of the Great Commission (crossroadjunction.com)
Amen and amen. I would just add that having lived in the ‘developing’ world I would say some/much of the so called freedom and liberty the west thinks it enjoys is an illusion. Freedom to over consume, indulge and oppress is not freedom at all. Some of those that think they are rich and actually poor. Unfortunately we have had far too many western christians trying to export their brand of christianity.Of course not to say there is no such thing as relative freedom of speech or liberty, just we all need to walk humbly as their is no christian nation.
Anyways I 100% agree, this isolationist stream of thought is a worry when these authors set themselves up as experts and guides to all.
Jesus is Lord of all!
Your paragraph on being salt and light is critical to this discussion. We don’t get to choose when and where to be salt and light when living in and for Christ. We find ourselves, eventually, in every facet of society. To enshrine ourselves as monks bellowing the gospel from afar is to be anti-missional.
Agreed. The problem is with those who insist on telling the entire Body of Christ where we can’t, or shouldn’t, be salt and light. “Beyond” me… 😉
Many of the monks actually were salt and light. In fact monasteries in Europe are attributed as preserving a great deal of knowledge and even in reviving the economy of the middle ages (they taught that work is part of being in the image of God, versus just mindless drudgery associated with the curse). See this series by Glenn Sunshine: http://www.colsoncenter.org/the-center/columns/call-response/15602-the-image-of-god-and-creativity
But I know what you mean and agree 😉
I really liked this message. Well written, passionate and it captures well the essence of God’s heart. As a reply to Viola’s recent posts, I’m not sure it’s on target. I haven’t read a lot from him lately, but being in the organic church movement, I’m sure you’re more well versed on Frank’s views. You tweeted this to me as a response to “20 reasons why…”.
In that message, Frank lamented the narrow mindedness of believers who adopt a political position then exclude from their circle anyone who hasn’t adopted the same view. His complaint is not that political activism is wrong, but rather that excluding potential friends solely on the basis of their political view is not consistent with God’s heart. I didn’t see anything in his post that denounced taking a political view or action, per se.
Thanks for your time!
My concern relates more to Frank Viola’s “Beyond Evangelical” series, where he engages in very false and negative stereotypes – and frankly derogatory labels – regarding those whom he is “beyond”; with some of the blogs and a book by Milt Rodriquez which say we should never be involved in civic or political engagement and shouldn’t even be praying for our nation because that’s a “distraction” from Christ; and with an article and other writings published by Jon Zens which say it is wrong to get involved in the civic and cultural issues of the day and instead we should only pray.
I did a blog series, “Beyond Evangelical?”, on these issues. I quote there from some of their writings, and relay some of my private attempts to have dialog with Frank on the factual errors in his own series. The first in that series is at https://crossroadjunction.com/2012/02/20/beyond-evangelical-1/.
I do think it wrong for Frank, given his vigorous efforts to be a spokesperson to the Church, to keep saying (many times) that he’s neither left nor right (which again, I agree with), but without then saying what he actually believes or providing a coherent alternative framework for cultural and civic engagement (or, if he thinks it appropriate, political involvement).
It’s one thing to say that you are “beyond” others and diss them with negative stereotypes and labels. It’s another thing to say what you actually believe in concrete, tangible ways.
I think Frank owes it to his followers – and those he has discredited – to come out and articulate answers, rather than just doing the easy hipster thing of repeatedly saying how he’s not like everyone else.
“I think Frank owes it to his followers – and those he has discredited – to come out and articulate answers, rather than just doing the easy hipster thing of repeatedly saying how he’s not like everyone else.”
Frank has been talking about an upcoming book release. I’m waiting to see if he goes beyond his initial beyond evangelical writings such that he fleshes out his centrist/neither left nor right view as it relates to various spheres of society and life. That said I’m not holding my breath, Frank speaks from an intensely idealistic platform, hence why very little of his writings include concrete real life examples or personal stories.
It is troubling to me that there seems to be an undercurrent that the picture they paint of christ is better or more exhaustive and complete than everyone else’s angle. I do draw a lot from writers like FV and co, I just think like most they overstep their jurisdiction so to speak.
I’ve repeatedly tried to press to find out if being beyond evangelical is in their minds limited to simply being beyond the evangelical stream or beyond all current major forms of christianity… if it is the former then its easier to put what is being said in context. It makes being beyond evangelical as merely a transitional phase/season as believers come out of their bubble and realize there is more to the faith. Honestly though seems a bit like emergent with a christocentric flavoring.
You articulated my concerns very well, and with fewer words! However, on whether Frank Viola is saying he’s just “beyond” evangelicalism or “all current major forms of Christianity”, his blog series clearly takes the latter approach. He contrasts his own “tribe” (again, to use his terminology) with not just evangelicals but nearly everyone else – often with very discrediting stereotypes and negative labels. He does it with charm and grace, but he does it none the less. I think that was the turning point with me, and it solidified many of my growing concerns with what I was seeing “in the field” with his “tribe” and with the writings of those who he was promoting, like Jon Zens and Milt Rodriquez. But like you, I also have gained much from all three authors. It’s just that they really need to consider where they are now going. It’s alarming, because it is becoming their own brand of legalism which they are enforcing by telling everyone what they can’t do when it comes to civic and cultural engagement – and thus comes from the same insular mentality that seems to have created many other problems within their movement.
I can’t speak to the nature of the movement or tribe being on the other side of the world. I do imagine though like with any venture where a following develops, those followers tend to run ahead with ideas to their own detriment. That is why its my hope the context in mind is more limited than what appears to be presented in some of the ‘beyond evangelical’ writings.
I think its very hard for christian teachers who have a handle on scripture to preface their words with ‘this works for, it may not work for you’ or ‘this is the light i need to walk in’ but i need you to walk in your own light. Preferences become prejudices so easily.
I am guilty of that, attempting to find truth that applies to everyone at all times. Depersonifying Jesus such that I no longer need to consult him on how i should approach a situation or aspect of life. That is not just about subjective or experiential truth, it is still ‘objective’ and propositional, just that even the spirit has to apply the latter at the right time in the right way in my life.
Personally I admire those who try to change systems from within, from without or live separate from those systems… I think balance is only seen when taking all into account.
All that said, I believe in person guys like frank and milt are much more balanced and inclusive than they appear on paper, I know I am 🙂
“I believe in person guys like frank and milt are much more balanced and inclusive than they appear on paper.”
I suspect you’re right. They just need to be much more careful in what they say on paper.
It is usually not the first generation of any movement that gets in trouble, but the second and third. But the seeds of those problems usually are sown at the beginning.
Although I have no interest in any “movement”, it would be naive for me to deny the influence Frank and some of his fellow “Beyond” authors have had. They have written some wonderful, powerful, transformative books and blogs. But they are not “beyond” questioning dialog, I hope, when it comes to some of the other things they’ve written. They – like all of us – have blind spots or can go too far in expressing the sensibilities and biases of their own “tribe”.
Interestingly, this blog has gone ballistic in the number of hits and attention it’s gotten. It seems to have struck a resonating chord with many who have been developing similar concerns. Just a couple of days after I posted it, however, a big blog came out of the “beyond” camp on how they should all realize that “apostles” (Frank, Milt and some others in their movement have self-described themselves as apostles) often come under persecution from those who are “of Satan” because they oppose the “apostle”.
I just hope that’s not a sign of digging in and becoming even more insular, rather than listening to other voices who may be trying to bring valid, constructive balance.
Unfortunately, however, it always seems to be the case that “success” and fame in ministry makes one cry “persecution” when faced with questioning dialog.
I love you brother!
Respectful disagreement and questioning dialog does not diminish our hopefully mutual esteem. If I didn’t think you were an important voice with a similar passion, I wouldn’t care enough to try to raise a dissenting voice that reflects the growing concerns that have emerged within the “organic/simple” community – and thus try to break through to you all on some of these issues.
Again, thanks for the comment.
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Thank you for this post.
Regarding action in politics or culture, my stance is:
1. Pray! 1 Tim. 2:1-4 is clear to me about this.
2. I need the Lord’s leading about if/how I should be active.
3. I apply the first part of Romans 14 – if I am inactive (beyond prayer), I do not judge those who are active; if I am active, I do not despise those who are inactive.
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If I were to try to explain to some of the folks I know around the world who are (to take a single instance) taking the Good News of Jesus by their bodily presence and willing identification with the suffering gypsy culture in Pakistan, much targeted by militant Muslims there, why some Christian brothers and sisters here think that’s a “wrong” thing to do, they would think — and I would have to agree — that I’d lost my ever lovin’ mind and placed my soul in peril of demonic attack. Because it’s such a departure from how the gospel has flourished in the souls of my brothers and sisters there, causing such love for the lost and suffering that they must act IN that love by reaching out or lose their intimacy WITH that Love. I never, ever thought I’d have to explain or defend this particular passion of my heart to go to where the hurting (and sometimes the hate-full) are, to reach out in Jesus’ name, to bind up wounds and wait with them for His healing to be complete. Perhaps, I am just an “old dog” who will never learn the “new tricks.” But if I move out of the Passion of His Love, expressed in the going and the doing that He has set aside for me to do from the foundation of the world, how then am I His disciple?
“I feel very passionate about the Body of Christ, in all its glorious, multifaceted expressions. We are the visible life of Jesus – not only in us and among us, but also through us.” There is so much in your article that is literally melting my heart and pouring out of my eyes and down my cheeks.
I had planned to take this whole day for prayer, scanning quickly thru email and deleting almost everything… but I opened your email and read this…And I can’t stop weeping so I’ll just type as the tears splash on my keyboard.
I have read Bonhoeffer years ago and it ignited something in my spirit – something that would cry out even when I was hyper-involved in church. Something that made me cry out in prayer for nations. Something that wouldn’t let me quit even after being threatened to stop questioning the status quo.
And today, my intentions in taking a day of prayer were to ask God if I should just “quit” – quit this making myself vulnerable to stubborn ministry leaders who would rather remain two-faced. I have been speaking up on my blog, sharing my own story… but also with the intention of sharing 100 stores of other people… to make it black and white clear that God our Father is concerned about justice within His own family. I’m speaking into the dark chasm of spiritual and marital abuse by sociopathic leaders in the church.
And I get threats. More threats this week. Even though I don’t use names, nor any evidence that would suggest who they are, they email me and threaten to send their attorney after me. They claim they are being harassed, even when I speak in love and plead for reconciliation according to Matthew 18. They refuse to meet with me.
It all boils down to what you said about being passionate for the Body of Christ – I call her the “Bride of Christ” – and how we are “The visible life of Jesus,” as you say. And I can’t quit. But we need more people in this fight… who will express the fierce nature of Christ through us. Who will be warriors willing to stand in the gap between life and death in the Body of Christ.
I don’t choose isolation, but it seems like more Christians want me out than in. I know it’s just my skewed perspective right now… from all the rejection wounds. I know there are more good Christians than bad ones, more on God’s side than not. Nevertheless, I do acutely feel the isolation, as they slam the virtual door in my face. I know this article is about the Body of Christ… and here I am just venting out my own pain… and in doing so, I guess I am re-enlisting in the fight. The comfort zone is just a seduction. I want the magical! Thank you for this article, which is giving one more soldier the will to keep going…. thanks!