Some Christians in the United States think that they are being targeted by opponents. Some see in this a growing “persecution.” Others think that talk of persecution reflects a narrow minded public stance by conservative evangelicals. This conflict can get especially angry when the subject is same-sex marriage, abortion clinics, and the battle with ISIS.
Both anger and fear are growing in this religious divide. On the other side of the divide, some “secularists” are afraid of “religion” (what ever that is, but generally meaning Christians here and ISIS over there). Religion is thought of by some as a will to impose the particular view of some about morality on everyone else. By this narrative religion deprives others—those who don’t agree—taking away from them the possibility of moral choice. Such religion, when unsuccessful at depriving rivals of the possibility of making such choices, condemns its rivals to hell.
Perhaps such fears are not consistent with the teaching of the Bible.
A passage written by the apostle Paul seems to suggest a remedy. It is often mobilized among Christians to encourage an attitude of toleration toward people who don’t believe like “we” do?
“most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear. Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.” Phil 1:14-18
I like this passage. I have no problem with the idea that we should respect those who differ with us. I am sympathetic anytime someone chooses to “apply” a text to the task of creating respect for the other. I don’t even care if such an exhortation comes from the Bible, the Koran, Confucius, the Buddha, Shakespeare or Cervantes.
In the case Paul’s writings, though, this conciliatory text is not the only way Paul responds to opposition. He is not always so kind to his opponents. Some Christians might prefer to take the stance Paul takes in his letter to the Corinthians:
He says his aim is…
“to undermine the claim of those who would like to claim that in their boasted mission they work on the same terms as we do. For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ”
He goes onto suggest that his rivals are like Satan because they disguise themselves “as servants of righteousness”. In another letter Paul curses his opponents (Gal 1:9). He wants them to emasculate themselves (5:12)!
Why doesn’t the Bible give a clear answer to our dilemma? Where does it teach us about “how Christians should act toward Christians they disagree with”? What attitude are we authorized to take when we think our freedom to follow Christ is threatened?
Which text can be applied consistently to all times, places and circumstances? Which must we read as simply a narration about something that happened at a certain place and time?
I have taught enough classes on the Bible to notice that people prefer to use Biblical passages to say whatever they want the Bible to say. There is a general failure to “respect the text.” We don’t like listen to it, when we could use it! We do violence to it and use it to support our pre-conceived ideas.
A particularly difficult pre-conceived idea is that the Bible is full of ‘principles’ — ‘timeless truths’. Here is where we get in trouble. We don’t exactly listen to the text when we lift our favorite ideas out of the stories that produced our favorite texts, and turn them into proof-texts.
The first quote from Paul (from Philippians chapter 1) is not really a text about a dialogue with his rivals. Rather, in the entire letter, he is writing about the meaning of the gospel. He is trying to talk about what happens when people make the claim about Jesus that he is Israel’s Messiah, God’s anointed one (“Christ is proclaimed, and in this I rejoice”)?
If in the Messiah Jesus, God took his promise to bless all peoples to a new level, isn’t this the kind of thing that should be told to everyone?
In the first quote above, from Philippians, Paul writes while he is in chains. It is not a stretch to say that these are chains that he chose, not chains that were imposed on him by rivals. He had himself made an appeal to appear before Nero. And Philippians makes clear that his goal is to make this announcement about Jesus to people at the highest levels. Nero was about the highest level you could get, and a real threat Paul’s survival. Paul had an idea that Nero was not the highest level, and that the highest level was more interested in making blessing available.
When Christians feel opposed, we must make choices. Last week I heard from Kenyan Christians and Nigerian Christians about the choice they have had to make when people they know are targetted to die because they are Christians. I heard them talk about what kind of world they want to create by their response. How can their response reveal their continued commitment to responsible handling of the gospel as a promise to all people, opponents, rivals and friends? They, like the God they follow, are self-sacrificially committed to the promise of blessing, even blessing to their opponents. This is the harder path.