In the Sifting-Part 1, we looked at how the early church grew and thrived despite persecution. After Christianity was legalized, the word Christian became meaningless because lukewarm believers joined the church and used the title of “Christian” for political or monetary gain. I believe this scenario is playing itself out in reverse today in America. Here’s how:
Since the founding of our country, Christianity has been the dominant faith. Many of the settlers and founding fathers were zealous Christians. For much of our history there have been benefits to being known as a Christian, such as the presumption or morality or a leg-up in politics. So if you went to church, didn’t say too many bad words, and no one knew that you looked at porn, then why not call yourself a Christian to gain approval or advancement? Being a Christian in the US hasn’t cost us much and there has been little incentive to apply the difficult commands of scripture.
Here’s an example. You have doubtless heard about how the divorce rate among Christians is just as high as that in the secular world. Why is that? Yes, Christians are not immune to failings as everyone knows. But there are also a lot of people running around calling themselves Christians who are not obeying the simple, but costly, commands of putting your spouse’s need before you own.
Since college, I have been at four different churches- all of which clearly communicated the relationship between growing in Christ and sacrificing for your spouse. In those 19 years, there have been a whopping TWO divorces at the churches I have attended. There have been plenty of divorced people who came to church during that time and then got (and stayed) married. There are also numerous couples who have experienced marital unfaithfulness, and who have received support and encouragement from the church as they struggle toward restoration. But only two divorces. The only explanation I have for the high divorce rate “within the church” is that there are hoards of people who like the title of “Christian” but not the realities of discipleship. (Matt 7:21) Clearly it seems advantageous for some to say they are a Christian, though they are not doing the will of the Father.
Now, at least where I live, there is very little cultural benefit to being a Christian. Outside of the church that identity will not advance you in any circle, but rather is looked upon with disdain.
Many factors can explain why Christians are regarded with increasing scorn: the moral failings of well-known “Christian” leaders; the media’s negative, stigmatized portrait of Christians; the attention that is heaped on individuals and groups who commit heinous acts in the name of God; etc. I posit, however, that the absence of opposition/persecution has, in many places, turned the church into a social club rather than a conduit for God’s rescuing power. It has allowed Christians to remain as spiritual infants for years on end- sometimes for the entirety of their earthly life. The biblical reality is that the Christian who doesn’t grow, is no Christian at all.
There are two options in the Christian life: comfort or maturity. The true Christian life is formed, refined, and matured through trial (1 Peter 1:7, Job 23:10, Psalm 66:10, 1 Cor. 3:13, James 1:3). Some challenges find us – disease, tragedy, job loss, etc. Some we chose for the sake of growing in Christ – fasting, stepping out in faith, giving sacrificially for others, guarding our tongue, taking every thought captive, etc. But if you face little difficulty, and if you are fixated on comfort, you will not grow. There is no way around it. The church in America has been comfortable for so long that many American Christians, though they have been “believers” for years, are still immature (1 Cor. 3:1-3). We have doctrine oozing out of every pore, but many of us are still averse to applying the costly commands of scripture.
Several years ago I heard a testimony of a Chinese pastor who was visiting the US. He spoke about how he had been imprisoned, unjustly fined, denied his rights, and how even his children were affected by government persecution. When he finished speaking, a woman approached and said, “Oh Pastor, we will pray for persecution to end in China!” He looked at her quizzically and said “No, we are praying that persecution in American will begin.” He understood that the health of the church was inextricably linked with not being too comfortable.
We are in the midst of a national reversal. Church, the sifting is upon us (Luke 22:31-32). It’s going to cost you, and that’s a good thing. Because God would rather have you be mature than comfortable. I’m sure that Peter was uncomfortable by the sifting that he experienced. And the sifting of the American church will not be pleasant either. But I am ready for Christ to be seen more clearly via the winnowing of His followers. I am ready for the church to stand out. I want the Bride of Christ to clothe herself with deeds of righteousness in preparation for her Bridegroom’s return.
The American church has been comfortable for too long. Being comfortable whispers to us the lie that we can have Christ and all our desires, lusts, possessions, empty leisure, entertainment, unending vacations, and selfish pursuits. As a result, our gospel has morphed into one that affirms everything we feel and want and think. Friends, that is not the gospel that Christ preached.
The early church understood that following Christ would cost them everything. They did not expect to be comfortable. Therefore they were transformed into vessels that sacrificially poured out God’s mercy and truth to a horribly broken world.
As discussed in The Sifting- Part 1, may I propose that we learn from the early church? We must continue to devote ourselves to the apostles teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer (Acts 2:42). Most evangelicals have got that down. We now need to allow the ever-increasing cultural opposition to strengthen and shape us more into the image of Christ. And out of that must necessarily flow radical and sacrificial acts of mercy.
I do not know if American Christians will ever encounter a persecution that compares to that of the first centuries, or the horror that many of our brothers and sisters around the world face, or the upheaval of the European reformation. But if you aren’t feeling it already, the time when calling yourself a Christian and remaining comfortable in this country is coming to a close.
And I’m ok with that.
For more on the true Christian life, see “Christianity according to Jesus.”