Responding to Intolerance: From Life Transformation to World Transformation

By: Matthew Steven Bracey

Increasingly we find ourselves in an America that doesn’t share our Christian beliefs. In fact, it even refuses to tolerate them. Universities decline to recognize Christian student groups with traditional, religious values. Cities deny church groups equal access to rent public properties. Courts find Christian bakers and florists who decline to participate in same-sex ceremonies guilty of discrimination. These examples and others illustrate the mounting pressures Christians face when standing for their convictions.

On the one hand, we shouldn’t be too shocked. Jesus warned us this would happen: “‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20, ESV). The apostle Paul also promised persecution: “All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12, ESV).[1] If we’re not experiencing some degree of hostility, we might want to reconsider the quality of our faith. Indeed, true discipleship is costly, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer would remind us.[2]

On the other hand, we’re still surprised. After all, we’re Americans, and we believe in the freedom of religion. We’ve also grown accustomed to a culture that has accepted the standards of a Christian morality, even if its members haven’t always lived in a manner consistent with Christian teaching, or embraced faith in Jesus Christ. As our culture continues to decline, we are left wondering how to respond to a world that treats us with such intolerance. Today, we are most under fire for our beliefs concerning homosexuality, but rest assured, it will always be something. Whether today or in the future, how should we think through and respond to such difficulties?

Life Transformation

First and foremost, we should recommit ourselves to the gospel’s transformative power in our lives. This means living with integrity, behaving with love toward others, and praying for them.

      Moral Living

Part of the reason the world does not take Christians seriously is because it doesn’t respect them. In large part, we don’t behave according to our beliefs. For too long we’ve tried to “have our cake and eat it too.” We’ve misused the doctrine of Christian liberty to justify our conveniences, entertainment choices, hobby interests, life decisions, and more. Despite our attempts not to be viewed as old-fashioned, the watching world has not been fooled but has called our bluff and deemed us hypocrites.

In some cases, these compromises have been absolutely wrong; in others, they’re simply in bad taste. Whatever the case though, the caricature of Christians in film and other media reflects the world’s findings, and it has found us wanting. The gospel itself is offensive enough to a perishing people (1 Corinthians 1:18) without the inconsistent lives of Christians adding to that offense. Indeed, the world would rather us be authentic than some compromised version of what we’re supposed to be.

      The Rule of Love

Committing ourselves to gospel-produced, life transformation will also mean we treat others with love, even those who would not treat us the same (Matthew 5:38-48; Romans 12:17; 1 Peter 3:9). As Jesus put it, “But I say to you, Love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44, ESV). The reason for this is at least twofold.

First, all people bear God’s image, including those who mean us harm (Genesis 1:26-27). Hence we should afford them some degree of dignity. Second, they are people for whom Christ died (John 3:16; 1 John 2:1-2). God is love (1 John 4:8, 16), and He showed His love toward us “in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8, ESV). Just as God loved us then, even when we were hostile toward Him, we should love others in the same way. In fact, Jesus referred to this love as the second Great Commandment, and then illustrated His commandment with the parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:27-37).

By implication, the proper recipients of our love are those whom God has placed within our spheres of activity and influence, wherever that may be, and whomever they may be. While we should be the people most committed to truth in both word and deed, we should also be the people most committed to love. As Francis Schaeffer reminded us, love is the mark of the Christian.[3] If we don’t have love, we don’t have the Christ we profess.

      Prayer

Finally, in loving people, we must also pray for them, even if they treat us with hostility, intolerance, or persecution. Perhaps they are in our families, at our places of employment, on news programs, in seats of political power, or someplace else. Whatever the case, the Bible is clear that we should pray for and bless them: “Pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44, ESV), and again, “Bless those who persecute you” (Romans 12:14, ESV). No doubt the practice of loving and praying for certain people is difficult, but such is the evidence of the power of a transformative gospel.

World Transformation

As the gospel transforms our lives, it will also transform the world around us. We see this especially in the Bible’s creation-fall-redemption narrative.

      The Cultural Mandate

When God created mankind, He created him with the function of filling, subduing, and ruling the earth (Genesis 1:28). This is known as the cultural mandate, and has resulted in the establishment of cultures and all they contain. As the Creator’s image-bearers, we function in this world as His vice-regents in relation to these things. However, sin has infected the world, its people and its cultures (Genesis 3). Though God created us to govern, we don’t know how.

Thus God sent forth His Son to redeem “that which was lost” and reverse the effects of sin (Matthew 18:11; cf. Galatians 4:4-5). This redemption includes our own estate, but it also includes the lost capacity to function as God’s rulers of the world. As a result, our responsibility as God’s vice-regents regarding the cultural mandate has been renewed. As we build and manage this world and its cultures, societies, governments, and institutions, including the arts, education, medicine, technologies, and other cultural artifacts, we should do so in a manner that honors the Creator. Significantly, however, this task persists only in conjunction with the gospel message itself.

      The Gospel Message

Just as God sent His Son into the world, so His Son sends us into the world to preach the gospel and its transformative implications for all of life (Matthew 28:18-20). How can we let our light shine before men unless we go and be among them (Matthew 5:16)? Just as God gave us the function of ruling the earth, He has also given us the function of preaching His gospel. The two go hand in hand. In fulfilling our responsibility before God the Savior, we learn better how to fulfill our responsibility before God our Creator. Redemption leads to renewal—personal renewal (as considered above) and cultural renewal.

Like the cultural mandate, the gospel message will have a profound effect on the way we participate in building and redeeming culture. As we function as God’s ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5:20) in our various spheres of influence, we serve as the vessels through which the gospel has its renewing and transformative effect. We do this in our vocational contexts as Christian administrators, artists, authors, businessmen, counselors, filmmakers, journalists, lawyers, musicians, news reporters, public servants, scientists, teachers, and more. Whatever the issue of the day—abortion, censorship, same-sex marriage, the legalization of marijuana, religious liberty, or whatever—we lovingly yet boldly stand for truth and work toward godly change within our contexts to the extent we’re able. By doing this, we fulfill God’s gospel commission and its far-reaching implications on all it touches.

Conclusion

How do we respond to the growing intolerance in American society? We remember that we, the church, are the vessel of salvation to a dying world. As such, we must commit ourselves to holy living. Though we are called to be in the world, we are not called to be of it (John 17:14-16; Romans 12:2). Though we are called to take the gospel forth to transform the world, we are not called to let the world transform us. Whatever pressure our society may give us, we must resolve to obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29). When life gives us difficult circumstances, sometimes the right course will be hard but clear; other times it will require great wisdom.

In addition, we must go forth, and we have God’s promise that His Word will not return void (Isaiah 55:11). With certain people, in certain contexts, and for certain seasons, the gospel will have a renewing, transformative effect. However, we must remember that people are still free agents who will make their own decisions. Sometimes they will respond positively to the gospel. Other times they will not, and may resolve all the more to stand against us. In such instances, we must maintain our Christian integrity, love and pray for them, and persevere to obey God’s commission to go forth as His ambassadors and vice-regents, preaching the gospel and its implications for this world.

[1] Other passages that speak to these themes include, but are not limited to Matthew 10:22; John 16:33; Romans 5:3-5; 8:18; 2 Corinthians 4:8-10; Colossians 1:24; James 1:2-4; 1 Peter 2:21; 3:18; 4:12-19; 5:10.

[2] See Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (1937).

[3] See Francis Schaeffer, The Mark of the Christian (1970).

 

Bracey

Matthew Bracey and his wife Sarah live in Mount Juliet, Tennessee where they are actively involved in ministry. Matthew works at Welch College, where he serves as the Registrar, Law and Policy Advisor, and a faculty member, teaching courses in history, law, theology, and interdisciplinary studies. He holds degrees from Cumberland School of Law (J.D.), Beeson Divinity School (M.T.S.), and Welch College (B.A., History, Biblical Studies). His academic interests include government, history, law, and theology.

 

Author: The Brink

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