A ‘We’ Problem

Tough times expose tough truths. The political, social, economic and health crises of 2020 revealed a disturbing reality about evangelicals in America: What we say is most important is not actually what we consider most important.

For all our talk of revival and reaching the lost, our actions and reactions tell a different story. For a long time now, our words, thoughts and values have not aligned with what we claim we’re about. If there’s any doubt, consider the reactions of prominent pastors, Christian podcasters, television personalities and nonprofit leaders to the events that defined 2020. Their reactions—our reactions—made what we most value abundantly and embarrassingly clear.

Once you scratch the veneer off our Bible-laced rhetoric and faith claims, our sermons and songs, we value what everybody else does: Winning.

What do we fear? Losing.

But not winning or losing souls. I’m talking about how we systematically alienated people in America through our un-Christlike rhetoric and fear-based posturing. And make no mistake, people were watching. They were listening. Folks who don’t embrace our faith—the very folks we propose to “save”—found out what’s most important to us. And it wasn’t them.

If it were, we would not have let ourselves be dragged into and embroiled in far less noble conflicts with far less noble goals. If evangelism and discipleship were truly most important, we would not have so easily surrendered influence with those outside the church. We would not have permitted ourselves to be reduced to a voting bloc.

Tragically, because of our misplaced, un-Christlike value system, we were not prepared or positioned to take advantage of what, in hindsight, may have been the greatest opportunity for the church in our lifetime. We had a chance, to borrow the apostle Paul’s words, to shine like stars in the heavens. We could have lived like “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation” (Phil. 2:15).

Instead, we grumbled and argued. With one another. With our neighbors. With local and state governments.

“Unity will become the priority only if we are willing to acknowledge that a lack of unity signals an emergency.

We squandered a chance, in Jesus’ words, to let our “light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:16). We hid our light under a bushel. We lined up behind our party of choice and leveraged our sacred text to validate our political talking points.

Toward the end of 2020, as some felt the prospects of winning politically and culturally slipping away, many high-profile evangelical church leaders behaved as rudely and as un-Christlike as their secular counterparts. In some instances, worse. In their attempt to save America from the “other” political party, they threw away their opportunity to save half the American population from their sin. Consequently, we all lost influence. We all lost credibility.

We Are One.

If you’re confused or offended by my use of a collective we, I get it. After all, we’ve never met, so what right do I have to assume you took part in or condoned any of this? And doesn’t “we” include me? Yes. I’ve chosen my pronoun on purpose because if you are a Jesus follower, you are to blame. And you are a part of “we” because we are one—one body united by one Savior and one baptism. 

I may not know you, but I can’t do without you. You may not like me, but you need me and are connected to me. The apostle Paul thought so. When he used the body analogy to describe the highly dysfunctional church in Corinth, he did not offer anyone the choice to opt out. He did just the opposite: “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it” (1 Cor. 12:27).

Implication: You’re all one whether or not you like it—and whether or not you like one another. The people in Corinth were a “we.” And so are we.

As much as I would like to differentiate and distance myself from the behavior of some parts of the body, I can’t. And neither can you. And that’s OK, considering what else Paul wrote about this uncomfortable arrangement: “God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body” (vv. 24–25).

“Jesus did not address the system because he came to address something else—the hearts behind the systems.”

Who put us together? According to Paul, God did. And God put us together so there would be no division. Like your physical body, each part of the church body “should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it” (vv. 25–26). If you sprain your ankle, the other parts of your body don’t look the other way, and they don’t post about your sprained ankle on social media. They don’t blame; they engage. They come to the rescue. 

So this is a we problem. And we must address it. 

The Enemy Is Division.

My heart is broken over the division—not in our nation but in the church. Division is the very thing Jesus was most concerned about, the thing we seem completely unconcerned about. Truth is, we’ve fostered and fueled division by letting recent political and cultural mayhem distract us from what our Savior commanded us to do. 

The American church is in a state of emergency. But we are too distracted to notice. We continue to be divided by secondary concerns while failing to address what should be our biggest concern, namely division. Division is the threat. Division is the enemy. 

Because of its size, a united church in the United States, with all its beautiful cultural diversity, would have the influence necessary to move the nation back toward the middle, the place where problems are actually solved. The middle, where defenses come down, experiences are shared, and people are inclined to listen to one another.

Why do we allow ourselves to be divided about the issues of the day when we are stewards of the message that has the potential to make the most difference?

Pause to consider the non-Great-Commission-critical issues we’ve allowed to divide us—everything from climate change to critical race theory to COVID-19, masks and vaccines. Two doses, three doses, no doses, who knowses? Why, why, why would we—the light of the world, the salt of the earth, the hands and feet of Jesus—let ourselves be lured into debates and divided over questions about which we all have opinions informed by partial and skewed information? Five years from now, our “everybody needs to know” opinions will be all but irrelevant and forgotten. But the damage to the body will be done. And you will have contributed.

I know that’s not your intention. But direction, not intention, determines destination. The nation is moving in a dangerous direction. But instead of leading, the church is following. We’re following because we’re divided. We’re divided because we’ve allowed ourselves to be divided.

Time to Refocus

Unity will become the priority only if we are willing to acknowledge that a lack of unity signals an emergency. When that happens, the church in the United States will set aside our partisan differences, along with a host of other mostly irrelevant points of disagreement, and serve as the conscience of our nation. 

Our division is proof that we’re not all looking—and thus not moving—in the same direction. Our eyes have been fixed on winning. Winning fueled by the fear of losing our freedom. Losing our rights. Losing our country. And if we continue moving in our current divided direction, our misplaced fear will fuel what we fear most. We could lose all the aforementioned.

We have lost our fear of division and, consequently, have lost our voice and our influence. Thus, we’ve lost our best chance to preserve and protect the liberty many are so afraid of losing. Our division fuels the thing we fear most.

We’ve fostered and fueled division by letting recent political and cultural mayhem distract us from what our Savior commanded us to do.

So, in the words of the author of Hebrews, let’s fix our eyes on and orient our lives around “Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith” (Heb. 12:2). When our eyes are fixed on Jesus as portrayed in the Gospels, his life, his posture, his responses and reactions will inform and conform us. Our response to the world around us has been prescribed to us and modeled for us by our Savior. As followers, we collectively have a responsibility. The good news is, it’s not our responsibility to solve the world’s problems. We will never agree on how to solve the world’s problems. Or our nation’s problems. Some of us can’t even solve our own problems. 

Fortunately, Jesus has not commissioned us to solve the world’s problems. Turns out, he didn’t attempt to solve them all either.

The Heart of the Matter

Follow Jesus through the Gospels and you bump into something surprising—and unsettling. While Jesus often stopped to meet the immediate needs of individuals, he posited no permanent solutions for any of society’s big problems. Not one. On purpose. Because he came for a different purpose.

Jesus refused to be dragged into taking sides on civic, social and what we would consider political matters. He made no effort to fix the system. And there was so much that needed to be fixed. After all, Jesus’ own execution was induced by a broken justice system unduly influenced by lobbyists representing the interests of the temple. Yet even as a victim of a broken justice system, Jesus declined to comment on the injustice of the system. Instead, he looked Governor Pilate in the eye and assured him that he wasn’t the one running the show. Stranger still, from a cross he did not deserve to be nailed to, Jesus forgave the folks who nailed him there. Jesus did not address the system because he came to address something else—the hearts behind the systems. The hearts that created, defended and profited off the system.

“When our eyes are fixed on Jesus, his life, his posture, his responses and reactions will inform and conform us.”

The Gospels document interactions between Jesus and two tax collectors, Matthew and Zacchaeus. The system used to determine what taxes were owed, when they were owed and how they were paid was extraordinarily corrupt. This was due in part to the fact that the system, like most ancient systems, was virtually impossible to monitor. But Jesus did not condemn the system, nor did he offer suggestions about how to improve it. Instead, he addressed two participants. He invited Matthew to follow him, and invited himself to Zacchaeus’ house for lunch. While Jesus did not try to change how taxes were collected, these two encounters changed two tax collectors. And that was his purpose. As far as we know, neither Matthew nor Zacchaeus attempted to change the system. Matthew changed careers; Zacchaeus changed his approach.

In another missed opportunity, Jesus was asked to heal a Roman centurion’s slave. He accepted the invitation but failed to condemn or even comment on slavery. During his final visit to Jerusalem, the Pharisees provided Jesus with the perfect opportunity to call out both the injustice of the imperial tax code as well as the horror inflicted on Judeans by their Roman occupiers. Again, he did not take the bait. He refused to choose sides.

A Change of Heart

Everything that disturbs you about America originated in the hearts of Americans. Everything. I say that with certainty because Jesus said it with such clarity: “The things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart” (Matt. 15:18).

Are you disturbed by people talking at, rather than to, one another? Are you bothered by the condescending tone and dehumanizing terminology that characterizes so much of our national conversation? That’s not a political problem. That doesn’t change or improve if your candidate wins. If your candidate wins, it might get worse. Jesus labeled this behavior a heart problem: “Out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander” (v. 19).

Everything that disturbs you about our nation, along with everything that disturbs you about you, can be directly or indirectly linked to that short list. Jesus caps it off with this: “These are what defile a person” (v. 20). These are what defile a nation.

“Once you scratch the veneer off our Bible-laced rhetoric and faith claims, we value what everybody else does: Winning.”

So if everything that disturbs us about our nation stems from the human heart, why do we become entangled by secondary concerns? Why do we allow ourselves to be divided about the issues of the day when we are stewards of the message that has the potential to make the most difference?

Jesus knew better. We can do better. We must do better. Imagine what would happen if the church refused to take sides politically; abandoned our culture-war mentality; and fearlessly, directly and politically incorrectly addressed matters of the heart. What if we realigned our teaching, preaching and discipleship around Jesus and his new covenant command?

Jesus told us to love as he loved; the evil thoughts of our hearts are highlighted when we hold up our actions and reactions to this command. Nothing clarifies where we are, where we aren’t, and where we should be with more precision than asking, What does Jesus’ love for me require of me?

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