We tend to idealize holidays, but human depravity doesn’t go into hibernation between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. One thing that will hit most Christians, sooner or later, are tensions within extended families at holiday time. Some of you will be visiting family members who are contemptuous of the Christian faith and downright hostile to the whole thing.
Others are empty nest couples who now have sons- or daughters-in-law to get adjusted to, maybe even grandchildren who are being reared, well, not exactly the way the grandparents would do it. Still others are young couples who are figuring out how to keep from offending family members who are watching the calendar, to see which side of the family gets more time on the ledger. And others are new parents, trying to figure out how to parent their child when it’s Mammonpalooza at Aunt Judie’s house this year.
And, of course, there’s just always the kind of thing that happens when sinful people come into contact with one another. Somebody asks “When is the baby due?” to an unpregnant woman or somebody blasts your favorite political figure or…well, you know.
Here are a few quick thoughts on what followers of Jesus ought to remember, especially if you’ve got a difficult extended family situation.
1.) Peace. Yes, Jesus tells us that his gospel brings a sword of division, and that sometimes this splits up families (Matt. 10:34-37). But there’s a difference between gospel division and carnal division (see 1 Cor. 1, e.g.). The Spirit brings peace (Gal. 5:22), and the sons of God are peacemakers (Matt. 5:9). Since that’s so, we ought to “strive for peace with everyone” (Heb. 12:14).
Often, the divisiveness that happens at extended family dinner tables is not because an unbelieving family member decides to persecute a Christian. It’s instead because a Christian decides to go ahead and sort the wheat from the weeds right now, rather than waiting for Judgment Day (Matt. 13:29-30). Yes, the gospel exposes sin, but the gospel does so strategically, in order to point to Christ. Antagonizing unbelievers at a family dinner table because they think or feel like unbelievers isn’t the way of Christ.
Some Christians think their belligerence is actually a sign of holiness. They leave the Christmas table saying, “See, if you’re not being opposed, then you’re not with Christ!” Sometimes, of course, divisions must come. But think of the qualifications Jesus gives for his church’s pastors. They must not be “quarrelsome” and they must be “well thought of by outsiders” (1 Tim. 3:3,7). That’s in the same list as not being a heretic or a drunk.
Your presence should be one of peace and tranquility. The gospel you believe ought to be what disrupts. There’s a big difference.
2.) Honor. The Scripture tells us to fear God, to obey the king, and to honor (notice this) everyone (1 Pet. 2:17). If your parents are high-priests in the Church of Satan, they are still your parents. If cousin Betty V. does Jello shots in her car, just to take the edge off the cocaine, well, she still bears the imprint of the God you adore.
You cannot do the will of God by opposing the will of God. That is, you can’t evangelize by dishonoring father and mother, or by disrespecting the image-bearers of God. Pray for God to show you the ways those in your life are worthy of honor, and teach your children to follow you in showing respect and gratitude.
3.) Humility. Part of the reason some Christians have such difficulty with unbelieving or nominally believing extended family members is right at this point. They see differences over Jesus as being of the same kind (just of a different degree) as our differences over, say, the war in Afghanistan or the future of Sarah Palin or the Saints’ winning streak this year.
Often the frustration comes not because of how much Christians love their family members as much as how much these Christians want to be right. The professional Left and Right cable-TV and talk-radio pontificators may value the last word, but we can’t.
Jesus never, not once, seeks to prove he is right, and he was accused of being everything from a wino to a demoniac. He rejects Satan’s temptation to force a visible vindication, waiting instead for God to vindicate him at the empty tomb.
Often Christians veer toward Satanism at holiday time because we, deep down, pride ourselves on knowing the truth of the gospel. The rage you feel when Uncle Happy says why “many roads lead to God” might be more about the fact that you want to be right than that you want him to be resurrected.
Plus, we often forget just how it is that we came to be in Christ in the first place. This wasn’t some act of brilliance, like being accepted into Harvard or some exertion of the will, like learning to put a Rubik’s cube together in 20 seconds. “What do you have that you did not receive,” the Apostle Paul asks us, “And if you received it, then why do you boast as though you didn’t receive it?” (1 Cor. 4:6-7)
Satan wants to destroy you through his primal flaw, pride (1 Pet. 5:7-9; 1 Tim. 3:6). He doesn’t care if that pride comes through looking around the family table and figuring out how much more money you make than your second cousin-in-law or whether it comes by your looking around the table and saying, “Thank you Lord that I am not like these publicans.” The end result is the same (Prov. 29:23).
Unless you’re in an exceptionally sanctified family, you’re going to see failing marriages, parenting crises, and a thousand other shards of the curse. If your response is to puff up as you look at your own situation, there’s a Satanist at your family gathering, and you’re it.
4.) Maturity. The Scripture tells us that if we follow Jesus we’ll follow the path he took: that’s through temptation, to suffering, and ultimately to glory. Often we think these testings are big, monumental things, but they rarely are.
God will allow you to be tested. He’ll refine you, bring you to the fullness of maturity in Christ. He probably won’t do it by your fighting lions before the emperor or standing with a John 3:16 sign before a tank in the streets of Beijing. More likely, it will be through those seemingly little places of temptation—like whether you’ll love the belching brother-in-law at the other end of the table who wants to talk about how the Cubans killed JFK and how to make $100,000 a year selling herbal laxatives on the Internet.
Some of the tensions Christians face at holiday time have nothing to do with outside oppression as much as internal immaturity on the part of the Christians themselves.
I’ve had young men who tell me they feel treated like children when they go home to see their extended families. Their parents or parents-in-law are dictating to them where to go, when, and for how much time. Their parents or parent-in-law are hijacking the rearing of their children (”Oh, come on! He can watch Die Harder! Don’t be so strict!”). Some of these men just give in, and then seethe in frustration.
Sometimes that’s because the extended family is particularly obstinate. But sometimes the extended family treats the young man like a child because that’s how he acts the rest of the year. Don’t live financially and emotionally dependent on your parents or in-laws, passively dithering in your decisions about your family’s future, and then expect them to see you as the head of your house.
Be a man (if you are one). Make decisions (including decisions about where, and for how long, you’ll spend the holidays). Teach and discipline your children.Your extended family might not like it at first, but they’ll come to respect the fact that you’re leaving and cleaving, taking responsibility for that which has been entrusted to you.
5.) Perspective. Remember that you’ll give an account at the resurrection for every idle (that means seemingly tiny, insignificant, unmemorable) thought, word, and deed. At the Judgment Seat of the Lord Christ, you’ll be responsible for living out the gospel in every arena to which the Spirit has led you… including Aunt Flossie’s dining room table.
Russell D. Moore is President of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, the Southern Baptist Convention’s official entity assigned to address social, moral, and ethical concerns. Dr. Moore is the author of The Kingdom of Christ: The New Evangelical Perspective (Crossway, 2004) and Adopted for Life: The Priority of Adoption for Christian Families and Churches (Crossway, May 2009). Visit his website at RussellMoore.com.
The most difficult math problem in the universe, it turns out, is 70 x 7. Perhaps the hardest thing to do in the Christian life is to forgive someone who has hurt you, often badly. But Jesus says the alternative to forgiving one’s enemies is hell.
One of the reasons this is hard for us is because we too often assume forgiving a trespasser means allowing an injustice to stand. This attitude betrays a defective eschatology. At our Lord’s arrest (Matt. 26:47-54), Jesus told Peter to put his sword back into his sheath not because Jesus didn’t believe in punishing evildoers (think Armageddon). Jesus told Peter he could have an armada of angelic warriors at his side (and one day he will). But judgment was not yet, and Peter wasn’t judge.
That’s the point.
When we forgive, we are confessing that vengeance is God’s (Rom. 12:19). We don’t need to exact justice from a fellow believer because justice has already fallen at the cross. We don’t need to exact vengeance from an unbeliever because we know the sin against us will be judged in hell or, more hopefully, when the offender unites himself to the One who is “the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 Jn. 2:2).
A prisoner of war who forgives his captor or a terminated pastor who forgives a predatory congregation, these people are not overlooking sin. Nor are they saying that what happened is “okay” or that the relationships involved are back to “normal” (whatever that is). Instead they are confessing that judgment is coming and they can trust the One who will be seated on that throne.
You don’t have to store up bitterness, and you don’t have to find ways of retaliation for what’s been done to you. You can trust a God who is just. If you won’t forgive, if you refuse to rest in God’s judgment without seeking to retaliate, it doesn’t matter what your evangelistic tracts and prophecy charts say. When it comes to the gospel and the to the end times, you’re just another liberal.
Don’t call it a pullback; we’ve been here for years.
The recent profile in the Wall Street Journal highlighted a generational change in terms of the way evangelicals approach cultural and political engagement: toward a gospel-centered approach that doesn’t back down on issues of importance, but sees our ultimate mission as one that applies the blood of Christ to the questions of the day.
The headline, as is often the case with headlines, is awfully misleading. I am not calling, at all, for a “pullback” from politics or engagement.
If anything, I’m calling for more engagement in the worlds of politics, culture, art, labor and so on. It’s just that this is a different sort of engagement. It’s not a matter of pullback, but of priority.
What I’m calling for in our approach to political engagement is what we’re already doing in one area: the pro-life movement. Evangelicals in the abortion debate have demonstrated convictional kindness in a holistic ethic of caring both for vulnerable unborn children and for the women who are damaged by abortion. The pro-life movement has engaged in a multi-pronged strategy that addresses, simultaneously, the need for laws to outlaw abortion, care for women in crisis pregnancies, adoption and foster care for children who need families, ministry to women (and men) who’ve been scarred by abortion, cultivating a culture that persuades others about why we ought to value human life, and the proclamation of the gospel to those whose consciences bear the guilt of abortion.
That’s the reason the pro-life movement continues to resonate, with growing numbers, among young Christians. It’s very clearly not a singularly “political” issue, but an issue that demands political, ecclesial, and cultural reform and persuasion. Most importantly, it resonates because younger Christians recognize the gospel as of first importance, and the pro-life movement has demonstrated why the life issue is a gospel issue.
A culture of death that denies personhood to the unborn is a culture that is assaulting the very image of Christ himself. The unborn children the culture categorizes as “fetuses” or “embryos” are those whose cries go up to the One who hears them. When we stand against legal abortion, we do so because we believe—because of the gospel—that life is better than death, and that a person’s value is more than his or her utility. We simultaneously speak of justice and of justification, prophetically standing up for the unborn in the public arena while extending the mercy of Christ, through the cross, to those who are guilty. We plead for life while we recognize that our ultimate enemy isn’t the person screaming at us from the sidewalk outside a crisis pregnancy center. The Enemy is the snake of Eden that wishes to destroy, both through empowering wickedness and through accusing those who have sinned.
I don’t think we need a pullback from politics. I think we need a reenergizing of politics. This means we must do more than simply live off the fumes of the last generation’s activism. Millennial and post-Millennial Christians are walking away from the political process, and this is what alarms and motivates me. They’ve grown cynical at movements that are willing to adopt allies that are gospel heretics as long as they are politically correct (see “Beck, Glenn” or “Trump, Donald”). They are disenchanted with movements that seem more content to vaporize opponents with talk-radio sound-bytes rather than to engage in a long-term strategy of providing a theology of gospel-focused action in the public square.
Those who wish to retreat are wrong. Ignoring so-called “political issues” doesn’t lead to a less politicized church but to a more political church. One cannot preach the gospel in 19th century America without addressing slavery without abandoning the gospel. One cannot preach the gospel in 21st century America apart from addressing the sexual revolution without abandoning the gospel.
The question is the “why” and the “how.”
We engage politically because we love our neighbors, we care about human flourishing. But we do so at multiple fronts. We engage on Capitol Hill (as I do), on issues ranging from stopping the abortion industry, to protecting religious liberty, to speaking out for human rights for the persecuted overseas. We cultivate churches that see the holistic nature of the kingdom of God and who shape consciences of people to live as citizens. But we always do that with a focus that we are not prosecuting attorneys but defense attorneys. We are seeking, ultimately, to point people to the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
The gospel means we must point to the sin—and call it that—but it means we don’t stop there. We speak with a northern Galilean accent that says, even to those who hate us, there’s good news for those who repent and believe.
That means we speak and we vote and we mobilize. Onward Christian soldiers. But we don’t do so as gloomy pessimists, continually wringing our hands or crying conspiracy. And we don’t do it as naïve utopians, believing we can organize our way back to Mayberry. We do it as those who weep for those around us who are being sifted by the darkness. We do it as those who are cheerily marching to Zion, knowing that whatever the short-term setbacks, we are on the winning side of history.
We teach our people that their vote for President of the United States is crucially important. They’ll be held accountable at Judgment for whomever they hand the Romans 13 sword to. But we teach them that their vote on the membership of their churches is even more important. A church that loses the gospel is a losing church, no matter how many political victories it wins. A church that is right on public convictions but wrong on the gospel is a powerless church, no matter how powerful it seems.
That means modeling a Christian political engagement that doesn’t start or end with politics alone. It starts and ends with the gospel and the kingdom of God. Those who oppose our convictions will hate us. Those who want to use our church voting lists as their political organizing tools won’t understand us. So be it. Kingdom first.
Pullback? No. Unless, that is, we mean pulling back to the ministry of Jesus—who addressed everything, body and soul, public and private, political and personal, but who did so with the cross in his vision at every point. That’s what the church has done in every era.
We want to see our so-called enemies out-voted when they’re doing harmful things, unelected from office when they’re hurting the common good. But we don’t stop there. We want to see them transformed by the blood of Christ. We don’t only want to sing “Onward Christian Soldiers, Marching As to War.” We also want to sing “Just As I Am, Without One Plea, But That Thy Blood Was Shed for Me.”
Russell Moore is President of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. He formerly served as Dean of the School of Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and executive director of the Carl F. H. Henry Institute for Evangelical Engagement. Dr. Moore is the author of several books including Adopted for Life: The Priority of Adoption for Christian Families and Churches (Crossway).
Visit his website: RussellMoore.com
It’s a little book by a dead man from the last generation, and it just might be the road-map for the future of American Christianity. I’m referring to the late theologian Carl F. H. Henry’s 1947 book “The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism.” This slim little paperback’s importance might not seem obvious in a digital whirling world of contemporary Christians, but the issues Henry raised over sixty years ago are more relevant than ever.
When most people think of Carl Henry, they tend to think of his magnum opus, the six-volume “God, Revelation, and Authority,” which dealt with the major philosophical and theological challenges to Christian theism and the biblical canon. Some remember his work as a pioneer, along with Billy Graham, in the explosion of the post-World War II evangelical movement. From his place as a founding faculty member at Fuller Seminary to his role as first editor of “Christianity Today” and beyond, Henry was the intellectual godfather of the cause. But, in my view, “Uneasy Conscience” is what matters most for us these days.
Just after World War II, Henry, then a young rising star in the Christian firmament, issued a jarring manifesto calling for a theologically-informed and socially-engaged evangelicalism. Henry warned that American Christianity, on the Right and on the Left, was headed for irrelevance, toward being the equivalent of a wilderness cult. His agenda wasn’t simply an updating of style and presentation (although he had written a book on church publicity). The issues at root were about misguided views on the kingdom of God.
He was right. And he still is.
Henry was concerned about two fronts: detached fundamentalism and social gospel liberalism. The liberals, Henry insisted, had replaced the gospel with a political program. Instead of seeing the primary mission of the church in terms of God’s reconciling work in Christ to forgive sins, the liberals were busy grinding out policy papers on nuclear policy. Liberals saw the kingdom as a program for public righteousness, often enacted legislatively.
At the other extreme, though, Henry warned, conservatives over-reacted to the social gospel. They spoke of the kingdom of God, but acted as though it were wholly future. These conservatives embraced an otherworldly vision of salvation, that was mostly about getting souls to heaven at death. They held to an inordinately spiritual vision of the church, in which the church’s mission was about merely “spiritual” matters such as evangelism and addressing personal morality.
By severing social concerns from the gospel, the conservatives had, Henry warned, conceded these issues to liberal Protestants and, ultimately, to their more radical successors. Neither side, Henry argued, understood the “already” and “not yet” tension of the kingdom of God, a tension that was about more than how we view the last things. It is about also how we see salvation and the church.
In 1947, an evangelical consensus on the kingdom seemed impossible. After all, the coalition of conservative Protestants was united around the “fundamentals” of biblical inerrancy, substitutionary atonement, bodily resurrection, personal regeneration, and so forth. But these evangelicals often couldn’t agree about how such questions even as whether the Sermon on the Mount applies to believers today or only to Israel in a future millennial kingdom.
Remarkably, that has changed. In the years since, evangelical theology has embraced, at near universal consensus levels, a vision of the kingdom that is both “already and not yet.” The kingdom understandings that previously kept fundamentalists isolated have now been corrected by a more biblical portrait of the church, and the cosmic scope of salvation. This provides the basis for a renewed and biblically informed evangelical public theology. While the theory has developed in positive ways, though, Henry’s primary issue remains. Without a holistic vision of the kingdom of God, evangelicals will continue to split up the gospel in ways that can make Jesus unrecognizable to the culture around us. While there are few arguments these days about whether the Lord’s Prayer applies to the church age or whether the church is “Plan B” in the purposes of God, other, similar confusions remain.
On the one hand, the tactics of the old social gospel liberals have been inherited, ironically enough, by the Religious Right. Once again, in many quarters, a political program has replaced the gospel. Just listen to Christian talk radio for an hour and see where the emphasis is.
On the other hand, there is still a growing body of Christians who speak as though the kingdom is either wholly future or wholly spiritual. Look at the ongoing efforts to divide concern for evangelism from a concern for justice, the mission of the church in caring for people’s souls from caring for their bodies. There are rarely prophecy charts involved anymore, but it is, at heart, the same old dispensationalist hermeneutic involved, seeking to “rightly divide” the parts of Jesus’ ministry that apply to us now from those that will only apply later. In some cases, there is outright suspicion about “kingdom talk” at all, for fear that “kingdom” is a stalking horse for doing away with the gospel.
When evangelicals contrast the “gospel” with the “kingdom,” we are right back at Scofield, without even knowing it. And, as in Henry’s day, this means that concern for poverty, family stability, homelessness, orphan care, racial reconciliation, and a host of other concerns will then be filled in by those who deny the central truths of the gospel. And that’s a shame.
Henry’s “Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism” is perhaps the most important evangelical book of the twentieth-century. It is just as relevant as it was in 1947, and should be read again by all those with a serious commitment to applying a kingdom vision to every aspect of life. The kingdom Jesus inaugurated spoke to the whole person, to spiritual lostness, to physical sickness, to material poverty, to the need for community. A church that joins Jesus in preaching the kingdom will too. We need that reminder every generation, perhaps especially now. The evangelical conscience is, after all, still uneasy after all these years.