Giving to God… Christianity in America

July 4th, the American Day of Independence, is around the corner, coming this Friday. Like every year, it will be a festive holiday with much celebration. I’m guessing that for many Christians the celebrations will be tempered by a sense of concern over the direction that America as a nation seems headed in. But that won’t be due to an unswerving holy allegiance to the kingdom of God as much as it will stem from an unholy allegiance to America. That’s the problem for Christians!

What Belongs to God…

What unholy allegiance? Well, here is Jesus in the Gospel of Mark. It’s the final week and Jesus has entered into Jerusalem, that holy city held hostage by the rule of Roman tyranny. Jesus understands what will happen to him in this politically and religiously volatile climate… death upon the cross! And he has reminded his disciples that if they are to continue following him, they should be prepared to carry their own crosses too because that is what might happen to them for participating in the kingdom of God.

The Pharisees and the Herodians know that Jesus will not align himself with Roman power, so they attempt to trap him with a simple question about paying taxes to Caesar. Jesus’ response is familiar to us… perhaps too familiar.

“Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” – Mark 12:17

Most Christians cite this well known response of Jesus as justification for paying taxes. Fair enough, as Jesus certainly seems ok with paying taxes. But what most Christians miss is what else Jesus is saying… that his disciples dare not give to Caesar what belongs to God – their life.

The coin has Caesar’s image on it so it is ok to give the coin back to Caesar but people bear the image of God, so they dare not give their lives to anyone but God. That means Christians, who follow Jesus, pledge their allegiance to nobody but God… not any nation and nor any president and the flag that signifies them. No allegiance to anyone except for Jesus who is Lord. But many Christians in America fail to see this and as a result they live quite comfortably aligned to a America, identifying themselves with the cause of America, and supporting almost every American endeavor to achieve and maintain that cause. However, now more than a few Christians see America as turning away from God, so their response is to fight for America to return to the ways of God. However, this is part of the bigger problem for Christians living in America.

A Turning Point?

The United States of America was never a Christian nation, regardless of what Christian values it may have one time embraced. As a nation, it’s goal has always been its own sovereignty which is completely incompatible with the Christian conviction that Jesus alone is Lord (Sovereign). Further more, regardless of whatever Christian values America at one time embraced, it also rejected many Christian values in order to establish itself through war and the exploitation and oppression of non-European people such as Native Americans and Africans.

Yet because many Christians, probably of White/European descent, believed in America as a “Christian” nation, they were comfortable among that version of America (this should be a call for much contemplation knowing that the Bible was read in a manner that allowed Christians to be comfortable with a secular nation). But now these same Christians feel a sense of loss… the loss of a “Christian” nation.

Perhaps this loss will allow a new recognition to take hold among Christians living in America, that we do not belong to Caesar even when Caesar is robed in the colors of red, white, and blue… that we must never give to Caesar America what belongs to God — our allegiance. Yet this will only work if there is an awareness among Christians who believed in the “Christian” nation version of America that this unholy allegiance to America was and is wrong. Without that recognition, Christian will likely only continue wasting time on trying to conserve the “Christian” nation that never existed and falter in following Jesus and living as witnesses of the Kingdom of God.

Discipleship Among a Secular Nation

As expected, there are a lot of Christians who disagree in some manner with the recent SCOTUS decision ruling in favor of gay marriage. That’s ok. But it’s also time to breath and relax. The decision is not as big as some Christian voice make it out to be. The SCOTUS ruling in favor of gay marriage will not make America any less of a Christian nation because it never was one to begin with. So with that in mind, instead of fighting for America to return to this allusion of a Christian heritage, it’s time to spend energy learning how to live among a secular American nation. That means learning how to live as a faithful follower of Jesus, embodying the gospel he proclaimed. Do that and the church in America becomes the people who “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

Racism, Violence, and An Anemic Church

The murder of nine black Christians who were gathered for Bible-study at the historic Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina last Wednesday by the hands of a single gunman who was there “to shoot black people” is horrific. But it is also a terrible reminder or the racism and violence that pervades America as a society. Unequivocally, racism and violence are two major issues in America, both of which causing great harm to the victims of such evil as well as undermining any sense of a civil society. The good news is that the church, called to live as an embodiment of the gospel of Jesus Christ, is poised to counter such racism and violence with the love and peace of Christ. Yet when the church ignores racism as a significant issue and justifies violence as a sometimes-necessary way of life, the church loses its prophetic gospel witness amidst an American society full of racism and violence.

Denial and Justifying the Wrong

The racism and violence that pervades in America should concern the church but sadly, this is not the case for many churches and the Christians who make up those churches. Instead of calling people to embody the love and peace of Christ as a counter-narrative to values of racism and violence, Father’s Day sermons were preached in many churches − because that’s the expectation of the chaplaincy pulpit.

It gets even worse when we turn on social-media, for there we encounter the failure of Christianity in America to embody a prophetic gospel witness. First, there are some white Christians who just want to deny the reality of racism. They speak of their own un-prejudiced treatment of blacks and other minorities and think that because they are not prejudice, that racism is not really that big of an issue. Some Christians will defend the symbols of racism, such as the Confederate Flag, as though these symbols are meaningless. They don’t want to have any constructive conversation about racism, a decision that white privilege allows since it is not the white person who has historically suffered under racism.

When it comes to violence, some Christians would rather talk about how allowing a concealed-carrying gun permit would make us safer. Instead of asking how the church can church can press deeper into faithfulness during such challenging moments, they want to talk about what level of violent measures might be necessary to make our worship gatherings more secure. In order to justify the “necessary” violence, appeal is made to Jesus. Yes, Jesus! Ignoring the peaceable kingdom-narrative that Jesus embodied… ignoring the self-sacrifical manner of life that Jesus lived which refused to harm others… ignoring the fact that Jesus went to the cross and told his disciples that if they are going to follow him then they better be ready to carry their own cross, some Christians will proof-text the story of Jesus overturning the table and driving the animals out of the temple to suggest that Jesus was violent and therefore justifies our violence. I’ve heard others, in a twisted anachronistic logic, appeal to Trinitarian doctrine to say that since Jesus is God in the Flesh that Jesus in the Old Testament approves of violence since God in the Old Testament approved violence (and they don’t even see the hermeneutical problems… should we stone every adulterer too? And put to death disobedient children?).

Forget the Irrelevant Nonsense… Embody the Gospel

This is where the church needs to wake up! Every day I read some blog or article about the evangelistic struggles that churches are encountering. Most of these article offer nothing but more nonsense (another phrase comes to mind but I’ll restrain myself) suggesting that if pastors just double-down on more creative preaching, if churches just get on board with the latest trendy worship style… was it contemporary, Taizé, liturgical, or…, offering four or five strategies for becoming missional, or offering four to five leadership principles to reignite your outreach, and on and on it goes. Nonsense!

You want to know why the church is becoming more and more irrelevant? It’s because the churches in America have little left by way of an alternative life. Regardless of what churches say they believe when you click on their “about us” page on their website, too many churches offer little alternative to the pervasive racism and violence because of the way they, through the Christians that make up these churches, ignore the issue of racism and justify violence. Who needs a church when that church appears and sometimes does embody the same life embodied by the American society at large? Why should any non-Christian desire to become a part of a church that isn’t any different from America? Nobody needs a church for that, they already have America!

If churches want to reach their community with the gospel of Jesus Christ, they must learn to not only speak the gospel but embody the gospel. That means speaking prophetically to the issues of racism and violence while embodying the kingdom alternative which is the radical love and peace of Christ demonstrated through forgiveness and reconciliation. We saw a sign of that embodiment when the daughter of Ethal Lance, one of the victims killed at the Emmanuel AME Church, said to the accused killer “But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.”

A Final Thought… The Kingdom Alternative

Are there other pressing issues the church should be prophetically speaking about? Of course, there are. But the issues of racism and violence are the issues at hand now and they are issues that have and will continue to plague society without any church ready to demonstrate the kingdom alternative. To dismiss the issue of racism and justify violence, or to try shifting the conversation by bringing up other issues, only makes the church more anemic. In such a difficult time, it is time to press deeply into the gospel and ask what it means to faithfully embody the kingdom alternative among a society plagued by racism and violence. That can’t be done pretending racism isn’t a big issue or engaging in hermeneutical gymnastics in order to justify violence. That happens by following Jesus who showed us what it means to love God and neighbor…even our enemies!

Participating in Global Missions

This is a guest post from a friend and fellow follower of Jesus, Will. In this post Will talks about global missions, how he and his wife are participating in missions, and one way in which you might join in this work.

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Jesus said we’d be his witnesses even to the ends of the earth. The missionary community has been pushing towards that goal for almost two millennia now. As it turns out, we’ve already reached the easy geopolitical areas. What’s left are places like Somalia, whose government is in shambles and violence is an everyday fact of life. Or perhaps the northern border country of India, where in one region kidnapping is the number one economic activity. Or even the restricted access countries like China, Vietnam, Russia or the Muslim-bloc countries. Or the geographically brutal jungle tribe regions in the Amazon and in Papua New Guinea. Most of those areas left are hostile to both God and humanity. The point is that the final push to the absolute ends of the earth is the hardest one.

Conversely, church giving to pioneer missions is pretty low. Current giving is estimated as less than 0.05% church resources dedicated to pioneer missions. The number of full-time professional missionaries going to the field is also on the decline. These facts hit home on my Harding University graduation day in 2006 when I saw more than 1000 of my peers graduate, and only 2 of us were missions majors. A few more than that minored in missions. Something had to change, I though. We cannot move forward if we can’t send more.

A couple of trends in missions came to bear at that moment. First was a blended model of missionary activity and health care. Now, missionary activity should be thought of as actively sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ and forming new believers into a local, indigenous church. Many of us have participated in medical missions, and they are truly a blessing when we are able to participate in these social endeavors that support the indigenous church. We don’t often get to share our faith in medical missions, because we often don’t speak the language or understand the local culture. For the last ten years I’ve been serving in a number of social work roles in different organizations in three different countries, speaking in five different languages. The second trend is “business as mission”. It was first termed in 2004 by the Lausanne Committee. It too is a blended model, but it unites business activity with missionary activity. In my years trying to help people both medically and economically, the realization came that jobs are really what brings economic development. It was an “aha!” moment, followed by a “duh!” moment.

When I interned as a missionary in Switzerland, and when I lived as one in Guatemala, one of the hardest things to overcome was a lack of role in the host culture. In other words, when people asked what I did, my answer didn’t really make sense to them, and I was relegated to the “weird guy” role. Fast forward to 2015. My wife and I now own an importing business. We sell high-quality loose leaf Coban black tea online at an affordable price. This allows us to truthfully say that we are importers when we are introducing ourselves. It also allows us to speak the gospel of Jesus to our suppliers and buyers. It also allows us to go to countries in the Muslim-block, which is a major consumer of tea, without fear of retribution.

Tea is to Muslim countries as beer is to Texas. We can make relationships with people who would never have anything to do with a missionary, and we can tell them about Jesus. It’s really exciting to talk to a Muslim about Jesus and to give them a copy of the gospel in Arabic. There really isn’t a feeling like it that I can describe, except by elation. It’s a very simple task, but so profound. Not only can it create jobs and create relationships, but it can also create fundraising opportunities for pioneer missions, which is one of our goals with this business. We currently operate in Guatemala and the USA, but our next phases will be to open markets in major Arab immigrant communities in the USA, then to North Africa, and then to Afghanistan.

If you’re a tea-drinker, I hope you’ll join me in supporting our business and the mission at TRW Fair Trade Imports.

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Bio: Will and his wife, Karen, and live in Atlanta, Georgia. Will is a graduate of Harding University with a Bachelor of Arts in both Missions and French and is currently working toward an Master of Business Administration at Harding where he is on track to graduate in 2015. Will also works full-time as a patient navigator, providing resources for elderly cancer patients across Georgia. Both Will and his wife are active members of North Metro Church in Kennesaw, GA.

The Culture War… Laying Down Our Weapons and Following Jesus

On Monday, with the release of Vanity Fair’s feature and cover shot of Caitlyn Jenner, formally known as Bruce Jenner, social-media was set ablaze. Trending, is the appropriate way of describing it. On Twitter, on Facebook, and I suspect in a whole lot of other social-media outlets.

Not surprisingly, the Christian sub-culture had a lot to say as well. Like a day of tornadoes forming one after another across the Mid-West, so it was with Christians talking about Caitlyn Jenner. With everything from quick-press blog posts, photo sharing with platitudes, to 142 character praises or condemnations, Christians either rushed to the defense of Jenner or they expressed their criticism.

And so Caitlyn Jenner became the latest object in the so-called culture-war we engage in. Last week the object was Matt Chandler and the Village Church over their handling of a marriage/divorce involving Karen Hinkley and Jordan Root. The week before that was the Duggar Family regarding the scandal involving the sexual abuse allegations of Josh Duggar. Before that it was…

What in the name of Jesus are we doing?

A Not-So-Civil Culture War

Every time something controversial trends, depending on where we stand, we respond either taking the side of the prosecutor or the defender. For what… Jesus and the gospel? I’m not sure of the reasons, though I have my suspicions, but I’m sure that such reactions keep us from being the salt and light Jesus has called us to be (cf. Matt 5:13-16). In we’ve become part of the zeitgeist, noisy voices in a large auditorium of where nearly every conceivable religious and political view is shouting right along with everyone else in this culture war.

When it comes to engaging culture there’s a fine line between using social-media to influence people and using it as a coercive instrument. When the goal is simply to criticize, intimidate, and even silence the other side, we become coercive. Regardless the instrument, social-media or a sword, coercive power is not the way of Jesus and therefore not the way of his church.

You might recall Chic-fil-A, World Vision, or even last April’s fiasco with the State of Indiana passing the Religious Freedom Act as examples of what I am getting at. It’s a failure for sure. While one side may win this battle or that battle, we all lose in this not-so-civil culture war.

Listening, Learning, and Speaking

It’s time to lay down our weapons, to rid ourselves of coercive forms of power, and end the shouting contests that solve nothing. I’m not suggesting that we should remain silent and never speak on controversial issues. Sometimes we are called to vigorously speak out against matters of injustice, unethical practices, and falsehood. But how we speak matters!

To begin with, we must listen to the wisdom of James, listening and learning before we reactively speak and become angry (cf. Js 1:19). Listening and learning, with one ear attuned to Jesus and the other towards culture, will allow us to speak gospel words.

More importantly, we must acknowledge that the most important place − the front line − for engaging culture for the influence and proclamation of Jesus and his gospel is among our neighborhoods with people we have taken the time to build meaningful relationships and friendships with. Unless we’re willing to dwell among people, especially those we call “sinners,” and become present with them (and to them), we really have nothing to offer. We certainly don’t have any business preaching without first dwelling among and listening.

“But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect…

– 1 Peter 3:15, NIV

Engaging Culture As Followers of Jesus

Part of following Jesus Christ is living as a learner, learning just how to live as his disciple. I’m still learning and sometimes I show how great of a student I am and sometimes, actually a lot of the time, it is evident how much I still have to learn. Nevertheless, because I believe that God is redeeming, reconciling, and restoring all of creation in Jesus Christ, I keep following. I want to participate with him in the mission of God, making the world aware of the good news and embodying that good news in the way I live. Doing that means involves at least two activities: 1) becoming aware of how God is presently at work in the world in order to join in that work and 2) knowing how to faithfully engage in that work among the world. I do neither well, at least not if Jesus is the standard by which I measure myself.

Becoming Present

When it comes to the first activity, part of my daily prayer is to see how God is presently at work around me and how I might participate in that. My trouble is that it more often I see God at work around me only in hindsight and by then, it’s a little too late to join in that work. That’s because I tend to be too tasked focuses on what I am doing and what I plan to be doing that I miss out on what God is doing (that’s not an excuse though!). However, lately I have really felt the conviction of the Spirit that I must become more present to what is happening around me and who is around me in order to more faithfully live on mission with God. And that opened up two incredible conversations this past weekend that I want to share.

  • The first conversation took place at pool-side with another parent while we both were waiting for our children who were having their swim practice. I was reading a book by James K.A. Smith, How (Not) To Be Secular, for my upcoming D.Min seminar and this parent asked me about the book and why I was reading it. This particular person is a pediatrician who was grew up in England and is about to finish a Ph.D. in botanical medicine. Obviously, ver smart! Realizing that I am a minister engaged in theological studies, she asked me a question about homosexuality and what it means to be created in the image of God. Her own Episcopalian and very politically left background means that she has some different beliefs and values than I have when it comes to this issue, which I was aware of as we talked. Nevertheless, we had a good conversation sexuality and how Jesus showed hospitality to those regarded as sinners.
  • The second conversation happened, in of all places, while sitting in a hot-tub. Someone who knew that I went into Baltimore during the recent riots and protests to pray with and listen to the protesters asked me why I would do such thing. This question wasn’t a passive-aggressive attempt in maligning me for doing this, just an honest question from a person who happens to be Black. So I explained that I am a follower of Jesus and as his disciple, I refuse to let issues like racism and violence divide… that I want to do what I can to bring about reconciliation. So we had a good conversation about this.

Now let me get to why I want to share these two conversations with you.

Which Battle to Win?

As you know, both issues, sexuality and racism, are difficult issues that both the church and culture at large are wrestling with right now. Everyone has their beliefs on each issue and any conversation about either issue has the potential to quickly disintegrate into an argument that only creates further division and animosity. So as Christians, how do we engage in such conversations? This question brings us back to the second reality of participating on mission with God discussed above… of how we faithfully engage our culture, particularly our friends and neighbors.

In engaging our friends and neighbors, we want to remain faithful to Jesus. So besides treating others as we ourselves wish to be treated, we also want to speak truthfully about what we believe. That is, we want to speak the truth in love (cf. Eph 4:15). But I want to suggest that sometimes speaking less is what it takes to speak in love and that this is how we must learn to engage our friends and neighbors. And if Facebook is any indication, this is something most followers of Jesus, including myself, need to learn.

This is about deciding what battle it is that we want to win. It requires listening and discerning first in order that we may create a dialogue. Part of the discernment is knowing that not every battle, or the entire battle itself, must be won in in one single moment. Therefore we must decide which battle do we want to win. Do we want to win a theological argument about sexuality and human nature or a political argument about racism and violence in a city like Baltimore? Or would we rather the win be that someone, one of our friends and neighbors, now knows that we are safe enough to ask questions on difficult and potentially volatile issues without being judged and dismissed because they may have some significant disagreements with us?

For me, the big battle, is about helping others to see God at work in Jesus, coming to believe in Jesus and follow Jesus because I believe that God is redeeming, reconciling, and restoring his creation in and through Jesus. I’m still learning how to do this and I already see in hindsight some ways that I could have handled to two conversations mentioned above a little differently… and probably better too. Nevertheless, we must pray that we may learn to be present in each moment, remaining open to the opportunities for engaging our friends and neighbors as followers of Jesus, and remaining patient and wise about what to say and what not to say. God has already won the big battle, we just need to kindly and patiently point others to that victory!

May we, who believe in and follow Jesus Christ, be filled with the Spirit in order to faithful participate in the mission of God!

Pentecost Today: When the Church Welcomes this Message (Acts 2.14-41)

K. Rex Butts:

Since last Sunday was Pentecost Sunday, so this is a short message I preached a few years back on what it might be when the church welcomes this the message proclaimed in Acts 2.

Originally posted on Kingdom Seeking:

Below is the manuscript for the opening address I gave at this past weekend’s Hearts of Fire Conference for the various house churches that meet across the Denver metro area on Saturday, May 22, 2010.  The address is titled “Pentecost Today: When the Church Welcomes this Message” and it was meant to be a challenge based on Acts 2.14-41.  The conference was attended by Christians from a variety of backgrounds, including Churches of Christ as well as other Christian traditions.  The message and challenge was well received and I am thankful to God for being able to “preach” a bit.  I also taught a break-out class titled “A Christian Response to Suffering” that fostered a guided conversation on how Christians should respond to others who are enduring suffering.  It too went very well.

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Pentecost Today: When the Church Welcomes this Message

Tomorrow will be fifty days from Passover.  For…

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Controversy Sells… While Wisdom Cries Out

This September will mark ten years of blogging. That’s a lot of self-publishing, some of it good and some of it not. I enjoy reading blogs and of course, I enjoy blogging myself. If nothing else, the more I got into blogging the more opportunity it gave me to think critically and work that out in a coherent manner since I knew others would be reading. But I’ve also posted some blogs and said some things in blogs that if I could do again, I wouldn’t. Words spoken in haste. I once thought about removing some of the blog posts that I now cause me to cringe when I read but I haven’t because this blog is also an open journal of my thinking, for better or worse.

A Brewing Controversy…

Here is one thing I’ve learned in ten years of reading blogs and writing blogs: Controversy drives up our daily views!

Think about these names for a moment… Ted Haggard, Rob Bell, Mark Driscoll, World Vision, Phil Robertson, Chic-fil-A, Treyvon Martin & George Zimmerman, Michael Brown & Darren Wilson, Freddie Gray, and now Josh Duggar.

Controversy is the common denominator here. Each one of these names are in some way attached to a controversial incident. Whether they did something to warrant the controversy or not, the controversy itself provides an opportunity for bloggers. Every blogger knows that if you write about controversy, including the names of those generating the controversy, that it helps with the daily stats. I’ve done it myself. In fact, for a long time my most viewed post was a blog I wrote about Rob Bell’s book Love Wins.

Every time someone makes a controversial remark, another scandal erupts, another tragic shooting occurs, etc… a plethora of blogs fills up the social-media feeds. Everyone of them taking a side even though it is almost impossible to know all of the pertinent facts necessary to make a fair and informed judgment. Every blogger wanting to be on the right side of the issue, whatever that is. Sometimes our opinion (let’s face it, good or bad, that’s what they are) turn out to be vindicated but sometimes our eagerness to blog about what and who is trending reveals a short-sited awareness.

Wisdom Cries Out…

My own learning moment came with Treyvon Martin and George Zimmerman. While I am still of the opinion that Zimmerman was far from innocent, I was quick to defend Martin… too quick. As more details emerged, it became clear that Martin did plenty to aggravate the situation (that in no way justifies his death).

Wisdom suggests that we should be slow to speak and quick to listen (cf. Js. 1:19) but doing so may not garner as many blog hits as we like. I’m as guilty as any and I’m sure still figuring what it means to slow to speak and quick to listen when it comes to blogging as well as many other areas of my life.

What Ido know is that Wisdom is crying out for us to listen first and then only speak when necessary. But controversy sells!