Sunday, March 1, 2009

How far from Jesus' teachings have we strayed?

Why aren't American Christians being persecuted? I remember pondering this years ago, soon after I became a believer. Doesn't scripture say

...all that would live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution? (2 Timothy 3:12).

"All?" Does the fact that I'm unable to convince family and others of Christ count as persecution? Does the fact that they politely tell me to buzz off count? Does the fact that serious atheists get very rude about it in internet discussions count? Does the fact that I early on lost a lot of my pre-Christian friendships count? Is that persecution? Well, to an extent I suppose some of it is, though some would probably tell me it's just the expected result of my own faulty way of presenting the gospel, and they may be right. But of course even if it's persecution to some extent, it's far from the horrendous sufferings and martyrdoms of millions of true believers through the ages and across the world even now, and far from Paul's own experience in the verse just previous to the one quoted above:

...persecutions, sufferings. What things befell me at Antioch, at Iconium, at Lystra; what persecutions I endured. And out of them all the Lord delivered me. (2 Timothy 3:11)

We in America thank God for our freedom to worship here, for the freedoms built into our Constitution that permit it. It just seems that we are living in a time and place where we are blessedly free of persecution. But scripture says we SHALL experience persecution IF we are living godly in Christ Jesus. This suggests there is more to it than the happenstance of living in a tolerant nation.

Some of us see a time coming soon when our freedoms are going to be more and more restricted. President Obama right now is discussing rescinding the previous administration's protection of the conscience of medical staff who object to abortion. He wants a law denying them that freedom of conscience. Will he get it? The signs are that he probably will, eventually at least. His views are very popular.

What will it mean if he does? Well, it OUGHT to mean, I think, that Christian doctors and nurses who oppose abortion will defy the law, refusing to participate in abortions as always, expecting to lose their jobs, or leave their profession altogether before that happens.

THEN some of us may begin to know what it means that those who would live godly SHALL be persecuted.

THAT's the radical Christian life as we should be living it. That's life in this world as the scriptures present it to us. That's the called-out life that brings persecution and if we aren't living it we aren't obedient to Christ, we're useless Christians, we're salt that has lost its savor. This is certainly not life as we've been living it in the West, but that's because we've been living it wrong. We've capitulated to the culture. We're supposed to be salt and light to the culture, but instead the culture has completely ensnared us.

So perhaps a law against freedom of conscience could be the beginning of the radicalization of the church that we've been needing. ANYTHING to force us to begin to live as true citizens of our Lord's Kingdom which is not of this world, and show ourselves distinct from the kingdoms of this world as we should -- and FINALLY, start getting persecuted for living as we should.

That would be a very good thing but the problem started way before we got to this point, though it's been rationalized away on the basis of our living in such a tolerant country. Under this rationalization the church has simply been conforming more and more to the culture and losing more and more of our savor as salt.

Really, it's probably the case that it wasn't ever just that we enjoy peace because we have freedom to worship in this country, we've simply been bamboozled by our belief that this is a Christian nation with our best interests at heart, or at least was at one time. That is probably one of the main reasons for our weak and backslidden condition. Whatever the reason, we don't live enough like the true Kingdom of God to BE the church that Jesus founded, so we don't push the culture, it pushes us.

If we DID live as He wants of us, we WOULD be persecuted.

To what extent have we in America been putting our trust in a WORLDLY INSTITUTION, the Constitution of the United States, RATHER THAN IN GOD?

Of course we ARE living in a blessedly free country (so far) so there's something to the reasoning that we are spared persecution for that reason, but still I often remember the scripture that says flatly that we WILL be persecuted if we are living right and puzzle over it.

Seems Christians make compromises with the world without acknowledging it as such, or they may rationalize it as a necessity of some sort. By that kind of reasoning just about nothing the Lord asks of us can be practiced because it's ALWAYS inconvenient. The Kingdom of God just IS at odds with the world. I've known Christians who gave in to a son's living with his girlfriend without marriage, even under the Christian's own roof, accepting them without objection just as they'd chosen to live. The reasoning usually goes that there's really nothing they could do about it, they're adults after all, and they wouldn't want to break up the family, and they WERE going to get married eventually -- such as when the girlfriend's divorce was final, which from my new perspective on remarriage makes that a double sin.

They'd have experienced some persecution if they'd refused to allow them to live together in their home. THEN they would experience what Jesus taught about His truth bringing a sword into families. When we capitulate to the culture we bring Jesus' warnings to naught, but they will judge us in the end.

So I had those questions in my mind at the beginning of my Christian life but although in the first flush of impassioned belief I did try to live up to what I understood to be Jesus' strict call, it was easy to let it go and become just like the rest of the church, easygoing, no different from the world around me.

We aren't going to be persecuted if we aren't being obedient to Christ. America may well be a wonderful nation that allows us many freedoms, and Christians do usually remember to thank God for this blessing, but perhaps this very blessing has worked to the detriment of Christian witness in this country. Prosperity is generally not a good thing for the Christian life.

That has often been the case through history. Radical obedient movements have sprung up over and over, ALWAYS courting persecution and often martyrdom, only to lose their cutting edge as they prosper and the next generation forgets what it cost the first to follow Christ. America's prosperity has been our undoing. And we tend to forget: America is not the Kingdom of God; America is a worldly kingdom no matter how tolerant of Christianity.

And it is tolerant only up to a point, and the tolerance has been decidedly shrinking over the last decades.

The Pax Romana (a long period of peace in the Roman Empire) was attributed by at least one early Christian writer to the church's praying for the empire; but we reverse this order and say our peace as Christians is to be attributed to the wisdom of the state we live in? Something doesn't compute here.

Whatever the causes, and they're probably many, at the very least we haven't been living obediently enough to push the envelope on how far America really would make room for the true Christian life. We've capitulated over and over in this country. It's frequently lamented by Christian observers how little the church differs from the culture, how our divorce rate is equal to and even higher than the culture at large for instance, but I don't think I've seen a radical enough critique of the situation from these commentators, something that really gets at the root of our problem.

How many even think about whether we've fallen and how far? Many churches are quite content and complacent in their lukewarm Christianity. The root of the problem is really the abandonment by the best most conservative churches of Biblical commands we hardly even think about any more. Some of them have been theologically rationalized away, some have merely fallen into neglect.

We've only started to object to the world's imposition of ungodly practices in abortion and homosexual rights over the last few years. But our sickness started way earlier than that and it's OUR sickness, not the culture's. Such things as abortion and gay rights wouldn't even come up if God weren't judging not just the nation but the churches in this nation.

What does God have against us? This is going to take much deeper soul searching than noting our divorce rate. That's just the tip of the iceberg. That's just a symptom. Our inability to have an impact on abortion laws is another symptom. Obama's being elected is another symptom.

It's also God's judgment, against the nation.

But primarily against the church.

It's time for the church to radically separate from the culture.

I think we should seriously set ourselves to let go of every worldly comfort we've permitted ourselves and cut ourselves down to the barest possible minimum. Four walls, the simplest bed to sleep in, the simplest food to eat, the simplest neat functional and modest clothing, the minimally necessary transportation. Away with everything unnecessary, everything of fashion and indulgence. Give away the TV and all the electronic paraphernalia that isn't absolutely necessary. Give away most of our money to the poor -- THAT's a Biblical guideline we push off on specific circumstances and don't apply to ourselves. Not just a little here and there, not just a tithe, but for those who have large incomes MOST of it has to go for alms, or for the Lord's causes as He directs. And those who are poor, those for instance who lose their jobs for standing up for Christ, should be willingly supported by the rest of the church (one of the early church fathers showed that they did this in their day. We have certainly fallen short of that standard in ours!).

But this is just to begin to begin to sketch in the picture I'm starting to have in mind and starting to try to live myself, slowly. I'll get to more of it as time goes on, Lord willing.

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