You are the salt of the earth …
You are the light of the world
In order to be salt and light in the world, each of us must be constantly modeling and teaching what Jesus has taught us. The point is not that we are better than anyone else, even though we are constantly accused of that attitude by the culture. The point is that we share the good things we receive through our relationship with Christ. The culture is flavored with poison and oppressed by deep, palpable darkness. Christ calls us to bring good flavor and bright light to the whole world.
Read the latest news of cultures wars and the persecuted church in Living on Tilt, the newspaper.
When we examine our surroundings, we know that everyone in the world needs what we have received. Yet when we try to share, we very often encounter resistance. The squeeze and the smash that I described last week are realities, and they have been realities since the first Christians were arrested in Jerusalem. One of the greatest challenges for Christians from the very beginning has been government. When someone in the crowd asked Jesus about taxes, the stage was set for the ongoing friction between Christians and government. Christians still ask today how we are to differentiate between what belongs to Caesar (government) and what belongs to God.
The fundamental question, however, comes back to Christ’s call to be salt and light and to make disciples. Christ gave us the ministries of being salt and light in order that we might complete the only real job he gave us: making disciples. Eugene Petersen, in his contemporary paraphrase of the Bible says: Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life, marking them by baptism in the threefold name: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Then instruct them in the practice of all I have commanded you. (Matthew 28:19-20 The Message)
Christians who live in the USA are more fortunate than Christians who live in countries where the government has the goal of eradicating all religion, or all but one religion. The government defined by the US Constitution encourages citizens who belong to any and all religions or no religion to express themselves and to participate in electing leaders and shaping the laws of the country. Contemporary Christians living in the USA have every right and the civic responsibility to help elect political leaders and to participate in the shaping of laws for the nation. The US government is designed to provide opportunity for the discussion of any and all issues that affect citizens, and the government is intended to allow anybody to participate.
Christy McFerren, in her excellent book First Steps Out: How Christians Can Respond to a Loved One’s Struggle with Homosexuality talks about the way Christians have participated in the national conversation. She says, “The political system was never intended to be a means of discipleship.” Sadly, Christians have been mistaking the government for a means of making disciples for a very long time. When the emperor Constantine became a convert, he decreed that everyone in the empire had to become a Christian. He set a bad example of the value of good government, because his action created a perception Christians struggle with to this day: the perception that if the government can compel people to become Christians, it will somehow be Christ’s agent of transformation in the world. Every Christian could rejoice that Constantine came to know Christ, to be forgiven of his sins and to experience the blessing of the Holy Spirit’s ongoing work in his life. Every Christian should have pleaded with the emperor not to pretend that people could be saved by government decree. It is impossible to comprehend all the damage to the Church achieved by that single decree.
In the USA, there were many Christians who rejoiced on the day that George H. W. Bush announced the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives. I was not among them. It scared me to think that the tentacles of government would extend ever deeper into Christian ministries in the US. The history of that office and the problems that have arisen related to what is or is not permitted if a faith-based organization is receiving funds from the government have validated my original unwillingness to celebrate that idea. One of the things that office did was to confuse a lot of Christians into believing that the government had decided to participate in the discipling of the nation. Christy McFerren is absolutely correct when she says that discipling is not the work of government.
We Christians who want to be salt and light, who want to be busily sharing our faith and leading others to faith must shun the involvement of government in that work. Here is a fact: anybody can hand out food to hungry people. Here is another fact: only a Christian can share Christ. Unfortunately, if the government bought the food and paid the rent on the building where it is handed out, the Christian who shares the food may be forbidden to share Christ.
The government has a compelling interest in the welfare of all citizens, and it has always tried to provide a safety net for people in need. The Office of Faith-Based Initiatives was not established in order to accomplish the Christian mission of discipling the world. The Office of Faith-Based Initiatives was established in order for the government to be able to claim that it served more people who needed a safety net. This office is not the sole source of support for most of the ministries that receive money from the government. The government spends a little less on each person served by the agency the government funds, while the government still counts all the people fed as fed by the government, thereby getting credit for feeding the hungry. The government did not decide to make grants to ministries in order to promote discipling.
However, and this is an important however, when government money comes in, freedom to make disciples goes out. The old adage that “he who pays the piper calls the tune,” applies here. The government will not give money to pay the salary of a missionary whose work is to make disciples. The government will only give money to be used for purposes consistent with the government’s definition of “general welfare.” The government does not care if a Christian or a Hindu or an atheist hands out food to the hungry, but it has no intention, nor should it have any intention, of making Christian disciples among the hungry that are being fed.
I have a several friends who work in charitable endeavors related to a church mission of making disciples. Each of the agencies for which they work receives government funding in one form or another. The degree of government interference in the actual work of making disciples varies from agency to agency, but the fact is that when push comes to shove, the government does not pay for prayer and Bible study. The government does not pay for someone to explain to a client why Christ died. The government pays for handing out food, or clothing, or health services, or adoptions, or etcetera. Some individuals have even been told that they may not pray with someone who is asking for food or shelter, yet for Christians whose mission is to serve Christ and make disciples, the most natural thing in the world is to pray with someone in need. Anybody can hand out food, but only a Christian can share Christ. I don’t mean to say that they tell the people no help will be forthcoming unless they join in prayer. I simply mean that when any Christian sees someone in need, the most natural response is to say, “Let’s pray about this situation,” and after prayer, proceed. If the government is funding the work, people may or may not be free to do that.
In years past, the freedom to pray or not to pray may have been taken for granted, but not so much now. When Hope Christian School in Albuquerque, NM, rejected an applicant because his family did not meet the school’s definition of family, the school was within its rights to accept or reject any applicant for any reason whatsoever. The rejection was rooted in the school’s interpretation of a Christian view of family, which meant to most readers that the school was expressing a religious value. Even that observation might have been argued over and then let go except for one thing: the school had received a federal grant for school administrative projects. Those projects were unrelated to the admissions process, and none of the money was to be used for promulgating religion per se. Yet a spokesperson for the ACLU proclaimed almost immediately that the school had no right to exclude anyone on religious grounds because it is a federal grant recipient.
The ultimate decision about the requirements for compliance with the terms of the grant does not lie with the ACLU, but the cultural implications are clear. If you read the news, you will quickly discover that the culture and the government increasingly believe that if you receive government money, you must adopt the government’s value system. If it ever was a good idea in the past to use the government in the church’s mission to make disciples, to spread salt and light in the culture, it is not a good idea any longer.
How shall a Christian relate to government?
Christy McFerren speaks to that question, too:
“If we as the Church were to stop being afraid and do the hard work of relationship-based discipleship, the laws and officeholders who govern us would eventually reflect what we fight tooth and nail for in every election cycle. … Discipling nations starts with hearts. … our message of hope and unconditional love should not be a byline on our political talking points – it should be the main thing people hear.Until we change this … the Church will continue to lose her potential to touch the hearts of the individuals all around them.”
In plain language, the church must not hand off to the government the work of making disciples. It must not hand off to the government the obligation to pay the financial costs of making disciples. The church must not confuse success in changing laws with success in transforming human lives. The church must make disciples and be the salt and light in the culture that Jesus taught us to be. Christians must act as grateful stewards of God’s provision and Christians must support the costs of making disciples. When we do our work, the government will become what a government should be, not because we got more votes for our position, but because the people running for office and voting for officeholders and making laws and enforcing laws and adjudicating laws are listening to the guidance of the same Holy Spirit.
The current president has made it clear on more than one occasion that he believes it is his calling to fundamentally transform this nation. I could speculate on his objective based on what I can see, but that is not my purpose here. My point is that the mission of the Church is to make disciples, which will result in the fundamental transformation of the whole world by the power of the Holy Spirit. The president is committed to using the government to accomplish his purposes, and I do not think Christians should confuse his purposes, no matter how charitable they may appear, with the purpose of God. As Christians, no matter what the government is up to, we must reject the idea that government is God’s chosen agent to bring his kingdom to earth. The government is not established for that purpose. God’s only agent for bringing his kingdom near to every person on earth is you and me – the Church. We dilute our power and our purpose if we think for a moment that we can corral government power in the service of the Kingdom of God. God’s agent for the fundamental transformation of the world is the Holy Spirit, and God’s plan for accomplishing that objective is that each of us should be completely committed to making disciples as we share Christ wherever we go.
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. Matthew 28:19-20 NRSV