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In this post-Christian world, our theology is on display in everything that we do and say. Take, for example, the attic door that was swinging from a broken hinge at the Butterfield house on Wednesday, November 9, 2016, and Phil, the neighborhood handyman who came to fix it. When Phil answered my call to take a small job, I welcomed him in, pointed out the attic door, made sure that he knew the coffee in the pot was his to finish, and then returned to homeschool my children.

But then I heard it. Someone was crying.

Phil was in tears. He had finished the job, and was sitting in my kitchen, head buried in calloused hands, sobbing. I asked why and it all tumbled out: Christians are dangerous people, and this past election proved it. How could we move forward as friends if we don’t agree on basic values? How could I believe the things I do?

Phil and I have been neighbors for years. We go to the same barbecues and funerals and block parties. We have borrowed dog crates, returned children’s bikes, and shared iris bulbs. But then, the day after we went to the polls, the lines were drawn. Phil’s question was key: Can we trust people who do not share our worldview? Where do we go from here? How can the gospel travel when we can’t even talk with each other?

I pulled up a stool at the kitchen table and we cried together. Sometimes a divided world is worthy of a good cry.

In these times of polarizing incivility, it is tempting to soften the hard edges of faith, to fear our failing public opinion and our impending ill repute, to redraw the lines given by God so that we neither love nor speak with gospel boldness. It is tempting to try to “balance” grace and truth.

Many criticize faithful confessional churches and their pastors and elders, embarrassed that they do not prostrate themselves to the twin idols of today’s culture: sexual orientation (the belief that your sexual desire encompasses who you really, ontologically, are) and intersectionality (the belief that who you really are is measured by how many victim statuses you can claim, with human dignity only accruing through the intolerance of disagreement of any kind). What ought we to do?

We can learn from the early church, which in the second century faced opposition on two fronts: persecution from without and false teaching from within.

In order to live with boldness and clarity as a light to the world, we have to love our neighbor sacrificially and live our lives with gospel transparency.

Persecution came to the church in the second century as a result of Christians’ refusing to confess Caesar as Lord. Of particular instruction for our day, second-century Christians were not being asked by Rome to deny Jesus outright. Jesus could join the parade as one of many gods. But Rome saw professing the exclusivity of Christ as treason—and treason was a capital offense. Young and old Christians were put to death for professing the exclusivity of Christ’s lordship. And in the midst of persecution, the church grew in grace and size, and the gospel spread to the ends of the earth.

False teaching always comes in two forms: one is antagonistic, setting itself up in clear opposition to gospel truth; the other is cannibalistic, eating alive the power of the gospel by claiming falsely that the gospel highlights what the culture already knows to be true. Our own culture—like that of the second century—presents a cannibalistic false teaching, one that suggests the theme of gospel grace without the blood of Christ or His resurrection power. An example of cannibalistic false teaching from today’s climate is the LGBTQ slogan “Love Wins.” Same word, different worldview.

What can we learn from second-century Christians? First, they knew that gospel truth without daily, sacrificial, hospitable, gospel grace is ineffective. The biblical truth that we believe is important both to share and to suffer for. Second, the early Christians knew that false teaching is far more dangerous than persecution. We twenty-first-century Western Christians often believe just the opposite. And because we fear persecution more than false teaching, we are often ineffective in offering biblical teaching that best communicates gospel truth and gospel grace.

In order to live with boldness and clarity as a light to the world, we have to love our neighbor sacrificially and live our lives with gospel transparency. We must risk loving our neighbors well enough that they know where God stands in our sin and our suffering. Our neighbors need to know who we really are and who we serve. Not so that we can agree to disagree. But so that we can disagree and still eat dinner together, at the end of the meal opening God’s Word and discussing what we find therein. We need to be transparent in sharing the Scriptures, which God has ordained to speak to His people. It is in these places—these uncomfortable, honest, awkward places of seeing the image of God in each other across the wide divides—that the gospel could travel with integrity, if we took greater risks than we do. Because in order to reflect God’s image in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness, we need to do more than smile and nod. In our post-Christian world, our words cannot be stronger than our relationships. This means that we prepare for the hard work of building strong relationships and the clear dangers of speaking gospel truth. We lean into conflict. And we aren’t overly sensitive about what people say to or about us. We proclaim Christ crucified, and we take every opportunity to do so. This is what it means to offer our post-Christian world authentic and bold Christian truth.

We are not called to balance grace and truth, arriving at a pitiful equation of 50 percent of each. We are called to practice 100 percent grace and 100 percent truth. Love of God and love of neighbor calls for nothing less. Because in our post Christian world, we need to do more than smile and nod. Sometimes we need to start by crying together, knowing that spiritual warfare tears down before it remakes.

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From the March 2019 Issue
Mar 2019 Issue