Letter to the American Church – Chapter 16

Chapter 16

The Final Push

“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” – Ronald Reagan

It was June 1987. President Ronald Reagan was visiting what was then West Berlin, and was to give a speech at the historic Brandenburg Gate adjacent to the infamous Berlin Wall. It was the most vivid and monstrous symbol of Communism in the world, separating East Berlin from West Berlin, and of course was erected to keep those in East Berlin from escaping to the free west. Imagine a society so inhuman that it must erect a literal wall to keep its people from escaping. Of course, this is what evil must always do. It must cancel voices that speak against it, and must kill those who stand against it, and must imprison those who might escape its reach.

Ronald Reagan was an exceedingly rare leader in that he was fierce and bold in speaking  out against the great evil of Communism, and genuinely wanted to bring it down, to bring freedom to its captives, if God might use him to do that. But what made Reagan even rarer as a leader was that he seemed to understand that the Soviet regime was weak. It had always pretended to be strong, and to be inevitable and permanent. And many world leaders-including many in America, from both parties-had seemed to believe this lie. But Reagan seemed to know that because the Soviet Union was built on a lie, it was unsustainable and could be brought down-if someone had the courage to stand and fight against it. Which brings us to the single and magnificently memorable line he delivered that day as he stood there, framed visually by the Brandenburg Gate. It came in the middle of the speech, as he courageously and unexpectedly addressed the ugly reality of the infamous wall so close to where he stood. It was the proverbial elephant in the world’s living room, and suddenly Reagan would dare to address it. It was an extraordinary moment.

Most American leaders had been diffident about confronting the Soviets head on in these things. During the Nixon administration, under the Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, the idea of “detente,” which referred to the de-escalation of hostilities, had ruled the day. Kissinger also had often invoked the term “Relpolitik,” which was a fancy way of saying that one must accept things as they are and nto try too hard to change the status quo. Was this cynical, or was it cowardly? Or was it simply realistic?

In any event, in 1980-not long before Reagan was elected-the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan, showing that perhaps “detente” was not so effective after all. The Soviets had shown themselves more than eager to take advantage of any opportunities that presented themselves to expand their empire. At that time Jimmy Carter was president, and the weakness he projected during his time in office made it difficult for the Soviets not to take advantage of the situation.

Indeed it was doubtless Carter’s failures that led to Reagan’s election, and so, from the beginning of Reagan’s presidency-as throughout his career-he would confront the evil of the Soviets and of Communism directly. But in 1987, in the weeks before his famous Brandenburg speech, when conferring with his advisers, Reagan had brought up his desire to say this famous line-“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”-and all of the establishment figures around him had expressed their serious disapproval.

Chief of Staff Howard Baker scowled that it would be “extreme” and “unpresidential,” and General Colin Powell-then Reagan’s deputy national security adviser-had soberly agreed. As far as they were concerned, such a direct and bold challenge to the head of the Soviet Union could only inflame the tensions between East and West.

It’s always challenging to argue with the worldly wisdom of such as Baker, Powell, and Kissinger. But truly great leaders know that sometimes doing the heroic and right thing is a lonely business, and that they will probably never get those around them to understand what they are doing. This is one of the hallmarks of true leadership. As we have said, Bonhoeffer felt quite alone in what he was doing, but he did it anyway, knowing that he had to be concerned only with the audience of One, who was God. And in 1987, Reagan knew that he could not do what the established “diplomatic” voices were demanding he do. Like Bonhoeffer, he knew that history would judge him and that God would judge him for what he did. And like Wilberforce, who thought of the Africans in slave ships, Reagan thought of those in the vast network of the Soviet gulag, many of whom had been cruelly persecuted for their Christian faith by the atheist Communist regime. Was there no one out there in the free world who really believed it was worth at least trying to deliver them from their suffering?

Of course, one cannot help but suspect that establishment figures like Baker and Powell-like so many Republicans today, and so many in the American Church today-were in fact comfortable with the status quo. Often in history, leaders think of something as a “necessary evil” that cannot be vanquished and are only too happy to stand aside and let it continue, as though trying to bring it down is naive and foolish. Most in Wilberforce’s day thought of the slave trade this way. To go against such things was to tilt at windmills. But Reagan-like so many great leaders-was willing to come across as wild and unpredictable in how he led, if that was necessary. He was certainly sickened by the fathomless evil of the Soviet Union and refused simply to see it as inevitable “status quo”. He clearly wanted to do anything he could to bring down what just four years earlier he had infamously called “the Evil Empire,” which was another example of what his critics saw as his impolitic approach.

So Reagan was not about to let those around him dissuade him from saying what he clearly felt must be said in West Berlin that day. The world would be watching. And so that day, he said it, and with steel in his voice delivered the now famous line-“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

And when he said it, something happened. It was as though those words were mroe than words and carried tremendous spiritual power. Because when he spoke them, a crack began to appear in what so many had thought of as an adamantine edifice. It was as though with the single deft and well-aimed blow of those words, the world changed. People suffering in Soviet prisons would hear about it and would tap about it through the walls to each other. Someone out there, far away from them, knew about them and was fighting for them. Someone out there cared enough to boldly speak against the evil that imprisoned them and millions of other fellow sufferers. Someone out there believed in truth and freedom and was not afraid to fight for these ideals. We can hardly imagine how much hope that one line delivered to prisoners around the world.

Although Reagan hardly thought of it as such, what he said was a kind of prophetic declaration. Can we doubt that apparatchiks across the Soviet Union-not to mention demons-trembled when he delivered that line, when they realized that there was someone who had seen through their lies and who was on to them? What he said proclaimed liberty to the captives-literally and figuratively. It had tremendous power, as words sometimes can have. Reagan did what no one had done before, and in time the whole Berlin Wall-and then the so-called “Iron Curtain”-would come down. The vast seven-decades-old Soviet Empire would collapse, never to rise again. What he said paved the way for all that followed, and as we now know, in 1989, the Berlin Wall was toppled-and two years later the Soviet Union itself was dissolved. It is one of the greatest miracles in history, and what Reagan said that day was among the most important things that made it possible.

When we think of what he said that day, we might think of David going up against Goliath as hundreds of Israelite soldiers cowered. David knew that he couldn’t defeat the giant by himself, but he knew that God was with him. And as a result, we have been talking about what he did for three millennia. It is these people and these actions that change the world. All of the diplomatic niceties so strongly advised by the Bakers and the Powells of the world cannot understand it and cannot see that in the “safe” approach of their worldly wisdom, they are in fact aiding and abetting evil. It seems that they only want to keep it at bay indefinitely and never actually engage with it in open warfare, instead simply preferring to stay out of its way. But David and Wilberforce and Bonhoeffer and Reagan and others-who are outraged by the evil that they see-are willing to risk everything to engage it, and to fight with all their might and main, whatever the outcome. They know that unless they try to vanquish it, evil will win.

What does this mean to us today? Is there something that to many of us now seems invincible and immovable, as the Iron Curtain and the Soviet empire seemed invincible and immovable? As the slave trade and slavery once did? Is there something that frightens us enough that we believe it ought not to be directly countered, but that rather ought to be pacified so that we might coexist with it? And what is this thing, if it exists in our time? What do so many perhaps wish might go away but many fear never will, so that we must make peace with it? Is it the cultural Marxism that talks about systemic racism, or the transgender madness that says the Bible’s view of human beings and sexuality is completely false, and is actually harmful and must be destroyed?

We know the Soviet Union was the face of atheistic Communism, but what we face today is rather less simple to see. What we face is not a nation state that imprisons its citizens within its walls, but it forwards the ideology of atheist Marxism nonetheless and probably does so even more effectively. Many think it is a precursor of what has been described as the system of anti-Christ-and whether it is or is not, it certainly stands against Christ and what we read in the Bible.

But the only question we need ask is: What would God have us do? If He be for us, who can be against us? Is our faith that kind of faith? We cheer for David, but dare we go up against the Goliath of our time? Or would we rather shrink back into the ranks of the Israelite soldiers as everyone else? Of course David-albeit imperfect and quite human-was a type of Christ. And armed with real faith in the Lord of Hosts, he did what no one else could do, and slayed the giant who had cursed God’s people and God Himself.

Reagan knew that the Soviet Union presented itself-as all bullies and monsters and devils do-as something more powerful than it was. He knew that what its leaders desperately feared was that someone like himself would call their bluff. And he knew that most of the people around him had been perfectly content not to call that bluff, but to be bluffed. He-along with Margaret Thatcher in England and Pope John Paul II-knew that if they three fought hard, and pushed with everything they had, they could forever vanquish the “Evil Empire” that was the Soviet Union. And now we know that they did just that.

But before it happened, they were denounced as unrealistic and as anti-Communist “extremists”. Nearly everyone but the three of them behaved as though the Soviet Union really were like an impenetrable and permanent wall that must be accepted and never be touched. But these three had the idea that it was a false wall. And that if they all with a concerted effort gave it a good shove, it would reveal itself to be a sham-a weak and tottering facade whose main posts were rotten. It would go down. Which was why those in power in the Soviet Union-who really knew it to be weak and on the brink of collapse-had to do everything they could to pretend it was immovable and permanent. But those with eyes to see knew this was a lie and knew this was a lie and knew that they must do what all the worldly wisdom said never to do. By the grace of God, they did it. And the wall came a tumbling down.

So the question comes to us. Will we all together now push that false barrier that stands so tall and so long that we cannot see over it and cannot see the end of it? Will we trust God who tells us that victory will be given into our hands and that we must fight with all we have? Or will we, like the twelve thousand pastors in Germany, hang back and see which way the wind is blowing, and in our inaction guarantee that evil prevails? Will we let the three thousand do all the work, watch them fail, and rejoice that we weren’t foolish enough to join them in their foolhardy crusade?

God is clearly calling us not to do that, not to repeat the unspeakably grievous errors of the Christians of that time. But He cannot and will not force us to do what is right. He only warns us and gives us the chilling example of what happened the last time, and through Bonhoeffer and others exhorts us to do what is right. Will we? Will you?

Heaven looks to you and to me to do the right thing. What part of the tottering wall has God called you to push? Are you to run for office? To homeschool your children? To give millions to some vital cause for freedom and truth and justice? Are you to speak out in a situation where others are being silent? Are you to vote-and even advocate-for a candidate some are denouncing as “un-Christian”, but whom you nonetheless know to be a champion of God’s purposes? Are you to risk your job-or your congregation, or something else? God is looking to see whether you trust Him with it, whatever it is. He is waiting for you to show Him that you know that whatever you have is His gift to you, and that you can trust Him with it.

As we have said to do what God asks always takes a certain amount of wildness. We remember that God is good, but His goodness is not safe and it is not tame. God is not the religious God of the Pharisees. He does not call us to be tame or safe or religious. It’s safer to bury the talent, but God condemns us when we behave in that way. It’s safer to hang back and see which way the wind blows-but God condemns us for hanging back when He has called us to the battle.

Bonhoeffer once told a student that every sermon should have a “shot of heresy” in it. Of course, this didn’t mean that Bonhoeffer was advocating actual heresy, but he was calling attention to something that we see in the life of Jesus, who over and over shows us the unpredictability and wildness in the goodness of God, which challenges our safe religious pieties. When we follow Him in this way, we are certain to be misunderstood by those who cling to their safe pieties and “worldly wisdom.” When they see the kind of behavior that Jesus exhibited-and that David and Bonhoeffer and Wilberforce and Reagan and so many others have exhibited-they will clutch their pearls and lift their skirts and express their horror at it. They have always done this. The Pharisees did it when Jesus said most of what He said. The twelve thousand pastors did it when Bonhoeffer went out on a limb in following God where no one else was willing to follow. And the establishment has done it in American politics and in American churches, and has blanched when someone shows real leadership and a real willingness to fight against evil. We cannot help but assume they have no idea of what Jesus was saying in the Parable of the Talents and are convinced that the wisest path really was to bury the talent and simply to keep one’s head down and stay out of trouble.

But again, the question comes not to them, but to you. Will you be the leader that God has called you to be in this way? Will you follow Him wherever He goes, and be a true disciple by looking to Him alone in what you say and do? If a holy remnant will now do that-and exhort others to join them-we will see such things in Heaven and Earth as were never dreamt of in your philosophy, Horatio. We will see God’s hand move in our time, for His purposes. We will see God’s will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven. Amen.


Well, that’s it. I hope that you have learned something valuable from this book and that it has encouraged you to answer what it is that God is calling you to do!

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Letter to the American Church – Chapter 15

Chapter 15

“Religionless Christianity”

“For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” -Galatians 5:1

Paul’s words to the Galatian church should haunt us, because there can be no question that we in the American Church have drifted from the pure and utter freedom that it means to live out our faith fearlessly. Will we repent of this and avoid the sure judgment that comes of our disobedience? Or will we continue to let fear dictate what we do, and continue in our religious bondage to sin and death, and reap the whirlwind?

Bonhoeffer had been calling the German Church to this kind of freedom and faith, but in vain. He knew that few had heard what God was saying through him, and that he had been misunderstood by most-many of whom would nonetheless survive him and see for themselves the rightness of what he had been saying.

But without question the most misunderstood thing in all of Bonhoeffer’s life came after his death, when confused, theologically liberal theologians seized on two words he had written in a private letter to his friend Eberhard Bethge. Bonhoeffer never dreamt the world would see the letter, but Bethge was persuaded after his friend’s death to publish his letters, which were filled with profound and important thoughts. The book was titled Letters and Papers from Prison. But in the post-war confusion, a false narrative arose as a result, claiming that Bonhoeffer in his final days had drifted away from the theologically orthodox Christianity so evident in his earlier writings and had slowly evolved toward a kind of humanist position in which the God of the scriptures was no longer at issue-as though the Bonhoeffer in the dank solitude of his prison cells had reconsidered everything and had come out in a different place than the Bonhoeffer of the previous decade. As it happens, this was untrue in every way; indeed, precisely the opposite was true. But many times, a false narrative takes hold, and decades or centuries may pass before it is corrected.

Bonhoeffer was indeed reconsidering everything in the solitude of his prison cells, but the way in which he did so and the results were perfectly opposed to what many confused post-war theologians had so hastily and sloppily concluded. In his letter to Bethge, Bonhoeffer wondered whether we needed a “religionless Christianity”; he was not saying we need a religion devoid of Christianity or apart from Christianity, but exactly the opposite. He was saying we need a true and a deep Christianity, one that is not merely “religious,” one that does not lie to God with “fig leaves” of theological statements and creeds, but that understands we are to live out our faith with every atom of our being in every second we have on this earth, and with every breath God gives us to breathe. Anything less than this kind of faith is nothing at all.

Bonhoeffer saw it was the dead religion of German Lutheranism of that time that had failed to stand against the unprecedented evil of the Nazis, just as he had warned in his Reformation Day sermon in 1932. Bonhoeffer saw what had happened, and in his private letter to his best friend, he said as much. He knew more surely than ever that the days of mere church attendance and intellectual assent to various doctrines were the culprits, that they were what had allowed the unprecedented evils of that time to flourish. The dead religion of many churches in Germany had shown itself not only to be flimsy and useless, but to be piously playing the part assigned it by the devil himself. The “Christianity” of the German churches had been dead religion masquerading as Christianity, and in succumbing to it, those churches had become nothing less than handmaidens of evil. Bonhoeffer saw that if evil ever were to come again, it would require nothing less than a true faith, a “religionless Christianity” that would stand with everything against that evil, that would give it no quarter, and that by the grace of the God who had died for us would triumph to His glory.

It is ironic and tragic: that Bonhoeffer in his prophetic way was unable to communicate these things to the German Church before it was too late, and it is further ironic and tragic that when the rubble was settling over the ruins of Europe, his nearly final words on the larger subject were so widely and fundamentally misunderstood. But the question comes to us in the American Church all these years later: Will we heed Bonhoeffer’s cry for a full-throated faith that does not hope, but that knows God has defeated death, and that lives in a way that makes this plain to anyone who cares to see? Will we kick away the traces of our dead religiosity and fear-based pieties and speak truth whenever we have that opportunity, come what may? Will we wipe away the false boundaries between our faith and everything else-whether “politics” or culture-and act as though Truth is a Person who knows no bounds, who created the heavens and the earth and all that is in them, and who died that we who are the crowns of God’s creation might at last live in true freedom, with the authority that He gave us when He died and rose from the grave?

We have come to that place in history now, and the Lord looks to us, the American Church. Will we be His people now, as the world looks to us in the midst of madness? Our Bible studies and sermons have all been meaningless if we do not make what we learned come alive in ways that are self-sacrificial and that show we really do know that God has defeated death. To do anything less than this is to represent a lie, and to lie to God in doing so. How else shall we put it? This is the hour for which each of us has been born. If we live fully in that freedom for which Christ has set us free, we will see God’s hand in ways we dare not imagine. We will see miracles small and great, and we will see not only revival, but reformation. We will see the goodness of God make its way into everything we do, because that is God’s will for us and for the world at this time. Many who do not yet know the God we claim to worship will see how we live and will want to know Him, and will come to know Him, and will become a part of what He is doing in our generation. Dare we believe that, or are we already headed to the caves, believing nothing we do can matter, and that judgment is falling and all we can do is save ourselves?

So you who are the Church-for it is not an institution, but a collection of each of us, in direct personal relationship to God-are responsible in this. You. It does not happen apart from you and cannot happen apart from you. God looks to you now, and to you alone. He has put history and the future in your hands. In the end, you cannot look to your pastors or leaders, but must look to God Himself. He will lead you in this, and you will either let Him lead you, or you will not succeed. He created your for a relationship with Himself, and although He wishes to use your pastors and leaders in helping you along this journey, He cannot do so unless you yourself take the ultimate responsibility in this. It is with you that He wants a deep and a personal relationship. He created you for that, and your life can never be what it is meant to be unless you know that and step into it without fear.

Are you willing? Are you ready? God has chosen each of us to live now, at this very moment in history, for His eternal purposes. We are not here now by some mistake. God has ordained that we be born when we were born and that we live now, to do the works now that He has prepared for us in advance, to His glory. It is an unimaginable privilege. This is the hour of the American Chruch. We are charged with pointing our fellow Americans and the whole world to the God who has somehow allowed us the inexpressibly great privilege of representing Him in these dark days. Will we do so? Will you?

But sometimes, in order to do something, we need to see an example of it. As my friend B.J. Weber has often asked, “What would that look like?” And so, for a final example of what this might look like, we turn to something that happened in 1987.

 

Letter to the American Church – Chapter 10

Chapter 10

Speaking the Truth in Love

When Pilate immortalized the question “What is truth?” he did so by asking it of the One who Himself was truth. The irony is so painful as to be piercing. But Pilate was doing what leading figures sometimes do: they say something far more profound than they can hope to realize, just as when Caiaphas asked, “Do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish?” It seems clear that these men “knew not what they said,” and had no idea that God was using them in their historic roles to prophetically speak truths of which they themselves were utterly and tragically unaware.

But Pilate’s infamous question comes to us. Do we know what truth is? Do we understand that truth and facts are not the same thing? Do we understand that truth is something so illimitably large and fathomless that it created the universe with a word, that it stands outside time and space, that it is a Person? Can we bear the answer to the question “What is truth?”

But somehow God-by taking on human form-asks us to bear it. He asks us to look to Jesus, who somehow in the lowly form of a man is yet God-to see the One who is Truth, to see Him as the standard bearer, and as the standard too. He is an image of truth itself, a battle flag for truth. His is the standard raised up amidst the choking smoke and deafening carnage of the battle between truth and lies. And we are to rally to that battle flag, to Jesus Himself.

So if Jesus Himself is Truth, then what? Then we know that statements of doctrine are not enough. Jesus is alive. Jesus is eternal and immortal. There is something far more to Truth than ideas. If Jesus really is Truth, then we know that truth inescapably partakes of love. The Bible tells us that God is love. So the One who is Truth is also the One who is Love, and it is not possible to separate them without degrading each of them-nor does God wish for us to try. Indeed, we must know that He is deeply grieved if we try to separate them in any way, which we often do. They are part of the very same thing, and by coming to us in human form God is making plain to us that our fallen human attempts to parse truth into something less than the Person of Jesus is to fall into the trap of reductionism. Just as we cannot contain the universe in a nutshell, neither can we reduce truth to syllogisms or even to creeds or confessions. God forbid.

So Truth is a Person. And God knows that unless we understand this, we have no idea what truth is. And unless we know that truth is inextricably intertwined with love, we also have no idea what truth is. Finally, unless we also know that love is inextricably intertwined with truth, we have no idea what love is. We always and ever stray from God in attempting to dissect truth or love in this way, and in so doing we must kill it every time. To follow the parallel, we crucify God every time. It is nothing less than sin to try to have our own fallen view of truth apart from love or love apart from truth. God demands that we deal with the whole, that we understand Truth and Love are God Himself, who is a Person. Of course, there is profound mystery here, but God requires us sometimes to deal with mystery.

Our Enlightenment minds cannot abide mystery. We have drunk the rationalist Kool-Aid and have in God’s own Church introduced the idea that His great and unfathomable mysteries can be reduced to creeds or statements of faith-as if we could reduce Him to that level, as if we could remake Him in our own image, as if we could have truth and love on our own syllogistic, bullet-point terms. After all, it’s so much neater than having a relationship with a Person.

But that is what God asks of us. Truth and love are united in Him. To declare any truth in a way that steps away from God’s love is to speak no truth at all, as well as to step away from the One who is Truth. But to claim we are being loving when we step away from the Truth of God is not to love at all, but only to fool ourselves into thinking we are being loving. It is also to step away from the One who is Love. And when we “love” in this fallen human way, we are not blessing those whom we claim to be “loving,” but are in fact cursing them and damning them. There’s no way around it. So not to speak an uncomfortable truth to someone who needs to hear it-and giving the excuse that we are loving them-is not to love them but to harm them.

So we see there are two ways in which someone can err. One is to speak so much “truth” with so little love that he is not actually speaking truth. We have seen and heard such persons, so obsessed with “truth” that whether they are actually communicating successfully seems immaterial to them. And actually, that’s quite the case. They are obviously more concerned with justifying themselves, with proving they are uncompromising purveyors of “truth,” than with actually purveying truth. They seem to believe they are earning points with whatever god they are serving by such behavior. They are not at all worried about pushing others away with what they are saying. Perhaps they even delight in the idea. But if one is actually communicating-or wanting to communicate-one is naturally not insensitive to whether what one is saying is actually getting across to the person or people with whom one is speaking. That lies at the heart of what it means to speak and communicate.

The opposite of this is an equal problem: to show so much “love” that you are misrepresenting the real love of God, and are forsaking God’s truth in the process. You are so afraid of saying something that might push away the one to whom you are speaking that you cease to say anything at all controversial or potentially disagreeable.

Bonhoeffer witnessed this when he first came to the United States in 1930. His fellow students at Union Theological Seminary seemed less interested in what he saw as truth than in some larger truth they believed more important, as though truth had become the hopelessly outdated obsession of the “fundamentalists” of that time. Bonhoeffer was hardly an American fundamentalist, but neither could he make sense of how the “progressive” American Christians of his time could take the fundamentals of the faith so lightly. He saw in time that many of them could do so because they had already dismissed them; such doctrines as the Resurrection and the Atonement were no longer taken seriously.

Sometimes there’s nothing wrong with wishing to avoid controversy. We are hardly called to constant contentiousness. The Scriptures talk about being “at peace with all men” and about “becoming all things to all peoples” so that Christ can be made known. But at what point do our efforts in this direction begin to backfire? At what point does our obligation to speak truth give way to what the Bible calls “fear of man”? Proverbs 29;25 says, “The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is safe.”

So how has it happened that the secularists have so effectively caricatured Christians as “Bible-thumping moralists” that many Christians have internalized these criticisms and no longer feel the freedom to speak? How many Christians-and Christian pastors and leaders-are paralyzed for fear that they might say something to drive away the person with whom they are speaking?

We are obliged to wonder: Where are all of the leading American pastors today on the issues of sexuality and transgender madness? Are they afraid to speak? Do they not know that God has appointed them to speak on these issues fearlessly-as though He really has defeated death on the Cross and has freed them to do His will and share His love, come what may?

The first pages of Genesis declare that God created us male and female in His image. Can anything be simpler? Not to aver this at a time when it is being madly challenged-to the detriment of millions of souls-is to be silent in the face of evil, and therefore to partake in evil. Everyone in the world knows that a rooster cannot lay an egg and that a man cannot have a womb-and cannot menstruate or give birth or lactate or be a mother. But who will say it? Who will help lead the way through the carnage of this ideological warfare? Who will hold up the battle standard-which is Jesus Himself-so that others can see and follow?

Young women dedicate their whole beings to athletic excellence, only to be roughly shoved aside in what ought to be their long-awaited moment of triumph by a man who, to the applause of a hopelessly confused and broken culture, claims suddenly to be a woman. A young man is confused about his sexuality, but he only hears one message: that he must seize and celebrate his same-sex attractions as a gift from God. Is your pastor talking about these things? Are you?

We must be honest and admit that much of the time we are not living out our faith but are at least partially enslaved to public opinion over the truth. And this is the main reason we are silent when we should not be silent.

Do we fear that someone will think less of us if we say that we believe sex is made by God for men and women in lifelong marriage? Have we perhaps halfway been persuaded that this idea is outdated enough that it’s worth keeping silent about? Are we afraid that someone in a sexual relationship will feel judged by us, and will see us as religious legalists rather than as loving and compassionate followers of Jesus? At what point does our silence encourage someone along in their sin and in their path away from God?

Are we afraid to say that abortion is morally wrong, and that under no circumstances must we equivocate on it? Would we have spoken against slavery in 1850? Would we have spoken against the monstrously antisemitic actions of the Nazis in 1933? Why do we believe we would have spoken then if we are silent now?

If someone in 1975 or 1985 or 1995 or 2005 spoke about sexuality from a biblical viewpoint, and did so in love, the outcry against them would have been minimal. It was the time to speak. And of course it was vital that our words be seasoned with compassion. But it is because of what we earlier described as the “Spiral of Silence” that it is so difficult to speak now. Shall we arrest the downward spiral, or will we go along with it until we can say nothing about anything? Are we not already very close to that? Will we repent of our role in bringing things to this pass?

Again, we may take Bonhoeffer as our model. In his book “Ethics”, which he saw as his magnum opus and which he worked on near the end of his life, he touches on the touchy subject of abortion.

“Destruction of the embryo in the mother’s womb is a violation of the right to live which God has bestowed upon this nascent life. To raise the question whether we are here concerned already with a human being or not is merely to confuse the issue. The simple fact is that God certainly intended to create a human being and that this nascent human being has been deliberately deprived of his life. And this is nothing but murder.”

But Bonhoeffer was not some cold-hearted activist. He was a pastor and a man of God. He saw that there was more to the story, and says so:

“A great many different motives may lead to an action of this kind; indeed in cases where it is an act of despair, performed in circumstances of extreme human or economic destitution and misery, the guilt may often lie rather with the community than with the individual. Precisely in this connection money may conceal many a wanton deed, while the poor man’s more reluctant lapse may far more easily be disclosed.”

So Bonhoeffer spoke the truth about abortion, but did so with compassion and love. But he did not allow his compassion and his love to silence him on the facts. To be clear about the fact that love and truth are unavoidably connected, he ends his rumination with the following:

“All these considerations must no doubt have a quite decisive influence on our personal and pastoral attitude towards the person concerned, but they cannot in any way alter the fact of murder.”

Will we model our public witness on Bonhoeffer in this way? By God’s grace, let us do so.

 

 

Letter to the American Church – Chapter 9

Chapter 9

The Idol of Evangelism

The second error of which we in the American Church have become guilty-and of which many in the German Church were guilty in the 1930s-may be called “the idol of evangelism.” In the same way that Luther’s zeal for our justification by faith was used to crowd out other essential biblical ideas-and therefore led to theological errors, which may lead to historical tragedy-so can the vital concept of evangelism be gravely misunderstood.

If we elevate any good idea too far, we distort that idea and everything along with it. So just as one might say that “faith” is everything-and thereby forget that “faith” must be lived out might say that the most important thing in the world is that someone come to salvation. After all, if the infinity of eternity is at stake, nothing can even begin to compare with that level of gravity. and so we go about calculating how to do this one thing and this alone. Not only is this the most important thing imaginable, but we encourage ourselves further with the idea that when someone comes to faith, their behavior and their views on every subject will eventually come into line with God’s will. They will instantly come to hold a biblical view of sexuality and of the infinite value of all life, and anything else that is biblical. It’s inevitable.

Of course, it’s not quite that simple. God expects us, and often calls us, to do many things at once. Discipleship is not evangelism, but if we think that without attending to the serious work of discipleship, we can ever be anything like what God intends for His Church, we are mistaken. Nor does the Bible present us with a picture of God’s people doing nothing but leading others to salvation. Sometimes God enjoins His people to build walls or to fight battles. Sometimes He has us say difficult things to people who do not receive those difficult things, but who instead walk away forever. Nonetheless there are some who have this fixed idea that evangelism is the most important and really the only thing worth doing. After all, what’s the point in doing anything at all if one more soul ends up in Hell for eternity?

But if we are to take the Bible as a whole, we see that this view is a capacious misunderstanding of what God expects of us-and as with any such misunderstandings, it leads to grave errors and problems, and often to tragedy.

For one thing, it may well cause us never to say anything that might offend someone, because we fear that that offense-on some infinitely less important issue than eternal salvation-might drive that person from assenting to the only thing that matters, which is a “saving faith in Jesus Christ.” But if we adopt this myopic and unbiblical view, we will essentially be paralyzed, unable to do any of the many other things to which God calls us. As we have earleir touched on reducing “faith” and “belief” to some thin intellectual assent that misses the heart of what it means to love God with our whole being, we have here similarly reduced the “Gospel” to convincing someone to assent to God’s simple plan of salvation. If we are able to get that person to pray a certain prayer, we have done all that is needed and may move on. We can dispense with fighting for justice, or against slavery, or with trying to see that our government enacts the will of the people. We relegate such things to some worldly list of what you can do if you didn’t get the memo that the only thing that matters is bringing others to personal salvation. Won’t all of that other stuff burn anyway? Why waste our time with any of it?

Of course, as extraordinarily vital as evangelism, is, God calls us to more. And in doing those other things, we can rest assured He is using whatever He has asked us to do for His eternal and evangelistic purposes. The only caveat is that it will not be so immediately evident to us, and may never be.

God calls us sometimes, for example, “to speak truth to power,” and gives us a memorable picture of John the Baptist doing that with Herod as well as the astonishing picture of Jesus doing that with the religious leaders of His time. But if John the Baptist and Jesus only cared about the salvation of those to whom they were speaking, could they have said much of what they said? Obviously, God’s calculus is not quite what ours is. But do we dare to think that we care more about souls than God?

For example, Jesus called the Pharisees “white-washed tombs” and said they were “of their father, the devil,” John quotes Him as saying:

“You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me. Which one of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.” (John 8:44-47)

Jesus actually tells them that the devil is their father. Can we imagine anything more aggressive and awful to say? Did Jesus not realize that anything He said that might be so extremely insulting could push them away from finding true faith?

But obviously Jesus-who was perfect and sinless-knew more than a little about what He was doing, and in making these harsh pronouncements showed us another side of things. He was engaged in “truth-telling.” In its own way, this is part of what will indeed eventually bring some people to salvation.

We also remember that Jesus turned over the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple and braided a whip of cords to drive the animals out while shouting. To many in the Church today this is the very definition of “toxic masculinity”-and perhaps just as Luther wished James’s epistle had been lost to history, many Christians today secretly wish this unfortunate episode had been kept out of the Gospels. But far from being a picture of “toxic masculinity,” this is a picture of perfect masculinity. It is a picture of God’s idea of masculinity. In this muscular action of some violence, we have God’s own picture of Himself: a holy God who acts in history, and who sometimes does shocking things out of His love for us.

Throughout the Old Testament God judges Israel and its people for their behavior, but can we doubt that He does it out of love for them? Through the mouths of the prophets, He essentially threatens them that if they don’t do X then Y will happen. And if they do X then Z will happily result. This is a picture of a father’s love, not of someone who is controlling or egotistical or “agenda-driven.” If we care so much about “leading people to Christ” that we are somehow holier than God Himself, to what God are we leading them?

Because of this hypertrophied view of evangelism, there are many today who refuse to comment on anything controversial or political if they think it might conceivably interfere with the possibility of leading someone to salvation. They forget that God gives them other duties, including loving our neighbors by sometimes speaking the truth. We become so desperate to show those listening to us that we are exactly like them-and that we do not judge them-that we forget these are not the only things worth being concerned with.

We hear over and over of pastors who have taken this tack with tragic results. The tats and skinny jeans and smoke machines and celebrities in the green room-and all of our professions of “nonjudgmentalism”-are not quite enough to bring people to Jesus. At some point we may be required to say something that causes people to stop nodding along, and might even cause them to walk away. When Jesus spoke of the necessity of us “eating His body” and “drinking His blood,” He knew that many would turn away, would say “enough” and go back to their lives without Him. But He said it anyway. We know it was not a miscalculation on His part. When we wore our bright bracelets that cavalierly asked “What would Jesus do?” we might have remembered that at a certain juncture, that is precisely what He did. And that people walked away when He did it.

But Jesus trusted His Heavenly Father with the eternal souls of those who could not bear His hard teaching. Do we? Recently we saw a celebrity pastor enjoy extraordinary moments in the media spotlight, but in those moments when it suddenly got real, so to speak, he was unable to be clear about God’s most basic views on things like sexual morality, for example. He could not bring himself to say that the Bible has had this view of men and women from the beginning and that Jesus said as much. He was not able to spend some of the good will and hip bona fides he had been accumulating, ostensibly for moments like this. This was the opportunity to spend that coin. But instead, the coin was buried safely.

Have we forgotten that God has given us these coins to spend for His purposes? Has that coin become an idol from which we cannot bear to part? Has it become so valuable to us that it is now controlling us?

Not long after the celebrity pastor’s TV appearance alluded to above, we wept to hear that he had fallen into sexual sin and had been living a double life. Our hearts break, because we know that the idol he had unwittingly been worshiping had exacted its tribute from him, and we pray for him.

At least as early as writing “The Church and the Jewish Question,” Bonhoeffer saw that those in the Church have a solemn obligation to speak up when they see grave injustices. Some years later, he famously wrote, “Only he who cries out for the Jews may sing Gregorian chants.” In other words, we shouldn’t imagine that God would have us worship Him and listen to sermons if we have neglected to do what we can to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves.

The idol of evangelism-which is of course really an idol of “false evangelism”-was a great part of what silenced the Church in Germany in the 1930s. We only want to preach the Gospel, many pastors said. So rather than potentially be thrown into prison for speaking the truth of God, they kept their mouths shut, hoping the Nazis would leave them in peace.

But did it ever occur to them that if God allowed them to go to prison or to a concentration camp for obeying Him, perhaps He had someone in one of those places to whom He was sending them? Bonhoeffer shared his faith with innumerable souls at Tegel Prison in Berlin, and then later on in the other places to which he was taken before his death.

Only weeks ago, while attending the National Religious Broadcasters convention, I was in a room with a prominent American pastor who openly shared how proud he was not to have said anything so controversial that he might in any way be “cancelled” or lose his opportunity to “preach the Gospel.” For him the price of silence on any number of issues was one he paid with joy if it gave him the opportunity to continue doing what he believed God had called him to do. But what if God had called him to say something that arose from what he believed, but that those who had the power to cancel or attack him didn’t like? What if he felt an obligation to speak out on any number of issues which the cultural elites had declared off limits? Why would acceding to such tyranny in a free nation be acceptable, and what gospel did he hope to preach if he was allowing himself to be muzzled in this way? Is it not possible that his witness for the Gospel actually would be strengthened if he dared to say what less timid pastors were afraid to say?

but he had such a theologically narrow view of what it meant to “preach the Gospel” that this had obviously never occurred to him. And as far as he was concerned, those being cancelled were only reaping the results of the imprudence of not keeping focused on their strict evangelistic duties. It never occurred to him that he was helping the enemies of freedom-and the Gospel-gain strength. It never occurred to him that by playing such a game, he was making it more difficult for people in a free society to speak the truth, and that this ability to speak truth freely and without fear is indeed a “Gospel issue.”

As we have said, many pastors in Bonhoeffer’s day were making a similar calculation, although we are able to see exactly how it played out in the end. Bonhoeffer read of one well-meaning American evangelist-Frank Buchman, who headed the Oxford Group-who wished to get a meeting with Hitler and his top lieutenants with the idea of leading them to faith. But Bonhoeffer knew there comes a point when such things are naive to the point of being destructive. We know that theoretically there is no length to which we shouldn’t go to bring a soul into the Kingdom, but a practical element must enter our thinking-and inevitably does, if we are honest. Unless God Himself speaks to us clearly, we are obliged to make such calculations.

When Bonhoeffer was doing all he could to speak out about what was happening and to wake up the Church to act, he was sometimes met with the abominable theology to which we are here referring. Some German pastors felt they must only be allowed to preach the Gospel and lead people to faith. All else was secondary. But at one point-as we have mentioned-Bonhoeffer summed things up quite clearly, “Only he who cries out for the Jews,” he said, “may sing Gregorian chants.” In other words, if you are unwilling to show the self-giving agape love of Christ by openly risking all you have for the sake of those who are suffering, who have no voice, you are no Christian at all, but a hypocrite and a fraud. God will reject your worship because the very thing that He required of you, you ignored.

Bonhoeffer was quite clear about Christians who “did business as usual.” If one did not have the guts to speak against the evils being committed against the German Jews under Hitler, one had abdicted the right to worship God. Many have heard the apocryphal story of Germans in church singing more loudly to drown out the cries of the Jews passing by in boxcars on a nearby railway line. We don’t know if the story is true, but we understand the gist of it. But for many years before Jews were being hauled via train lines to their deaths, most German Christians did nothing. Those were years in which they hoped nothing terrible would happen, but did nothing to prevent terrible things from happening. They sat on their hands. They had church services. Perhaps they prayed. Only Bonhoeffer and a handful of Christians did what God was calling all Christians to do.

But when he heard that Buchman was making great efforts to have a meeting with Hitler and later on with Himmler in the hopes of leading these men to faith, Bonhoeffer knew it was a fool’s errand. This was not because he didn’t care about the souls of the Nazi high command. Obviously, God sent His Son to die for everyone, and if there were any chance of leading these monsters to repentance and faith, Bonhoeffer would be thrilled to take it if possible. But he also saw that those who were singing this easy evangelistic song were ignorant of the realities at hand. He was not. He knew that the time for action was at hand, that human beings were dying and suffering, and that whatever anyone did had better be what God was calling them to do. It had better not be some zealous religious fool’s errand, because innumerable lives were at stake.

This is no less true for us today. If we do not speak out at the injustices we see all around us, to what thin-lipped gospel do we think we are leading anyone? If we believe our own governments is looking the other way at certain injustices while boldly making a show of being heroically concerned with others, are we not obliged to point this out?

Our responsibilities as Christians go beyond mere “evangelism.” We pretend we would have spoken out for the Jews in Bonhoeffer’s day, or that we would have spoken against the slave trade in Wilberforce’s day, but are we speaking out today on the issues that are no less important to God in our time? If not, we are deceiving ourselves. But God is not deceived.

On what issues are we ourselves being silent, and for what reasons? The unborn are being murdered and their body parts sold for profit. Are we not to mention this for fear of driving someone away from God? Or do we ourselves not quite believe it or wish to believeit?

Very young children in schools are being fed pernicious ideas on the subject of sexuality-ideas with which their young minds are quite unable to cope, and to which their own parents object.

Older children are being so confused by sexual activists that they agree to have their bodies mutilated, so that they can never become the men and women God has created them to be.

Socialistic and communistic ideas are being pushed everywhere. These will end up harming the poor more than anyone, although those pushing these ideas boldly spread the lie that any who oppose these wicked ideas secretly hate the poor.

Are we really to keep silent about all of these things? Is it not possible that those whom we wish to evangelize are looking to us in the Church-who claim to have no fear but of God-to speak boldly on these things and fight for the truth as we see it while there is yet time? Is this not perhaps the very thing that will lead these souls to the God we worship, if we obviously so love Him that we are willing to live in this way?

No one cared more about evangelism than William Wilberforce. But he also cared about the Africans suffering in that abomination called the transatlantic slave trade, so he did everything he could to speak out for them and worked in every way possible to end the slave trade, and eventually succeeded. Shall we forget that innumerable people in his day told him that he mustn’t mix faith and politics? But he knew that if his faith did not compel him to work for those who were suffering, and for any number of issues beyond that, then his faith was worth nothing, and whatever he said about it would ring hollow in the ears of his hearers.

Perhaps you are worried about what the New York Times and other elite institutions have to say about you and other “evangelicals”? Do you worry that being portrayed negatively in the media might make it harder for you to share your faith with skeptics? That’s not an entirely wrong concern, but with every day that passes it becomes less important. If we allow our ideological enemies to tell us what we can and cannot say and what views we can and cannot have, we have taken our eyes off God. If we honor Him in all we say and do, He will honor us. He promises that in the Scriptures, and we can count on it. But now we must honestly ask ourselves: Do we believe it? Are we acting as though we believe it?