image of a boat in a storm

Tossed To and Fro By Every Controversy

Then we will no longer be little children, tossed by the waves and blown around by every wind of teaching, by human cunning with cleverness in the techniques of deceit. But speaking the truth in love, let us grow in every way into Him who is the head — Christ.

– Ephesians 4:14 – 15

In Ephesians, Paul warns his readers against following trends in spiritual matters. This was as important in the early church as it is today. It’s easy to get swept up in the pull of public opinion. It’s easy to want to do things that feel right even if they don’t line up with what God wants. It’s as much a challenge to young congregations as to those that have endured for generations.

There’s another way we let ourselves get tossed about, however, and that’s in the venue of current events. Something may suddenly flare up in the media, in the White House, in the courts, or on social networks, and we feel the need to jump on it immediately. We start sharing our thoughts on it reflexively; we share link after link or meme after meme; and it becomes the topic du jour in Bible classes and sermons — until the next distraction comes along.

Distractions and Reactions

We’ve all seen it happen. I’ve done it myself. A Bible study on the topic of giving somehow ends up including a rant about how unfairly the media is treating a Christian celebrity. A sermon about baptism end up spending twenty minutes on gay marriage. A reading from Isaiah suddenly turns out to be about immigration policy. A Lord’s Supper talk unexpectedly turns into a defense of the pledge of allegiance.

Some current events are worth discussion and study, but it should be done so with considered preparation, removing self from the equation and letting God’s word guide our thoughts. It’s never productive to derail what could be an otherwise encouraging study by letting something that is grating on our nerves distract us. Then the next thing will come along. And then the next. Before we know it, instead of purposeful and meaningful study happening in our Bible classes and sermons, all we’re doing is reacting. We’re being tossed to and fro.

What To Do About It

When something in the news or current events rankle us, we need to step back and ask ourselves some questions.

  • Is it a matter of Scripture? Whether or not someone stands for an anthem or wears a flag pin has no bearing on God’s word. In those cases, it’s not worth discussing in a worship or study setting. Have your opinion, but don’t derail others’ faith and worship with it.
  • Will it bring anyone closer to Christ? Again, will discussing the topic help anyone with their relationship with Christ, or will the topic create secular barriers to discipleship?
  • Does it fit the current topic of discussion? Maybe your current frustration does have scriptural relevance. Does it fit the current sermon or Bible study topic? If not, maybe it’s better to find another time or venue to discuss it.
  • Am I able to talk about it rationally? If I can’t discuss the topic without getting flustered or angry, I’m perhaps not the best person to address the issue.
  • Am I letting God’s word guide me? This is a challenging one. Is your opinion on the topic formed by Biblical principles or by secular sources like public figures or media personalities? We should ensure that God’s word shapes our opinions rather than letting our opinions shape our interpretation.

It really comes down to being able to practice self-denial with our need to express our opinions. We also have to stop assuming that every person in the room agrees with us. Ranting about the evils of gun control in a Bible class where there may be a visitor on the other side of the issue will make them feel unwelcome. You or I may hinder another person’s journey to Christ in our need to vent, and I don’t want to have to face Christ in judgment with that on my conscience.

We have to come to the conclusion that souls are more important than personal opinions, politics, or any other secular controversy. We have to decide that we will focus on Bible topics when we’re studying or worshipping together. Just look at Paul’s prison letters as an example. Does he spend time in his letters complaining about the unfairness of the Roman justice system? Does he complain about the conditions of his prison? Does he rant about the corruption of Caesar? In no case does he let physical distractions upset his spiritual focus.

We cannot be distracted from Christ. There are indeed some current events worth addressing in our Bible studies and our pulpits — our obligations to the poor and disenfranchised, overcoming racial prejudices, addressing violence against women. However, there are many more that we should leave alone lest we alienate believers and those seeking Christ. We should be a body knit together by our common faith and hope. Let’s not let secular distractions harm our unity and purpose in Christ. Stop being tossed to and fro by every controversy, and instead anchor yourself in the upward calling of Christ.

 

Advertisements

Arguments About Christmas

Radically Christian: Why Arguments About Christmas are Counterproductive In my childhood, I argued about Christmas a lot. “You know,” I would say in a matter-of-fact tone, “Jesus wasn’t really born on December 25th.” I relished correcting people about the inaccuracies of their religious holiday and their little nativity scenes. Since then I’ve learned, you can be right […]

Postcards From Babylon

Brian Zahnd: Postcards From Babylon

So I’m writing my postcards from Babylon calling on Christians tangled up in red, white, and blue to renounce the idolatry of American civil religion. America is not an object of reverence — it’s just the latest in a long line of here-today, gone-tomorrow empires. I can love America like I love hamburgers and rock ‘n’ roll, but I can’t love America like I love Jesus. America as my residence within this world is fine, but America as the savior of the world is heresy. The gospel of the American dream is not the gospel of Jesus Christ. They are antithetical to one another. It’s either the story of Jesus that gives meaning to life or the story of America that gives meaning to life, but it’s not both. Lincoln, Reagan, Clinton, Bush, and all the rest can claim America is the “last best hope of earth,” but it’s not true. That’s just the sort of thing that empires say; but it’s also the sort of thing Christians must never say.

America is many things. It’s a country, a culture, an empire, and a religion. As a country and culture America can often be respected, admired, and celebrated. But as an empire and religion, America is a rival to Christ. One of the reasons that Christian discipleship is so difficult in America is that we are trying to make disciples of people who are already thoroughly discipled into a rival religion. You can either operate under a governing philosophy of America first or you can seek first the kingdom of God, but you can’t do both. To claim otherwise is to either tacitly or explicitly claim that Christ is a servant of the American cause. But as Karl Barth (who knew a thing or two about the dangers of Christian nationalism) taught us, Christ cannot serve some other cause, Christ can only rule.

As with anything, our nation, its symbols, and our loyalty to it can be idols that draw us away from Christ.

I’m Just a Passing Through

mountain-path

Is it possible we’ve grown overly comfortable with this world? I saw a preacher I love and respect talking about how he simply doesn’t feel welcome in America anymore. I understand where he was coming from, and I sympathize with his feelings. I do not criticize him for the statement; it was just an impetus that got me thinking. Are we supposed to feel welcome in this world? How welcome did Christ and His apostles feel in their home country, and did it affect their mission or relationship with God?

An Unwelcome Savior

In Matthew 8:18, a scribe approaches Jesus and says he will follow Jesus wherever He goes. Jesus responds to this by saying, “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay His head.” In other words, I might be willing to follow Jesus, but am I willing to be an outcast for doing so? Just look at how Jesus’ own hometown receives Him in Matthew 13:54 – 58. The reception is so unwelcome that Jesus goes away without performing a single miracle.

Consider also Hebrews 11:13 – 16:

These all died in faith without having received the promises, but they saw them from a distance, greeted them, and confessed that they were foreigners and temporary residents on the earth. Now those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they were thinking about where they came from, they would have had an opportunity to return. But they now desire a better place — a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them.

I Can’t Feel At Home…

When I was growing up in the church, we would sometimes sing a song that went like this:

This world is not my home, I’m just passing through.
My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue.
The angels beckon me from Heaven’s open door.
And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.

O Lord, you know I have no friend like you.
If Heaven’s not my home, then Lord what will I do?
The angels beckon me from Heaven’s open door.
And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.

We would sing that, but living it is another matter. Think about going to visit another country. What would you do while you were visiting? Would you spend your whole time trying to make your hotel room suit your needs exactly? How involved would you become in local controversies? Would you even be aware of them? Would you convert every cent of your savings into the local currency? Probably not. Instead, you’d have an itinerary to follow, and, if the hotel sheets are the wrong shade of periwinkle or the local cuisine doesn’t sit well with you, oh well. It’s not like you’re going to live there.

Looking Toward Home

Additionally, those things that can make you feel a bit uncomfortable in another country — driving on the other side of the road, unfamiliar foods, different languages, currency conversions — make you long for home all the more. Again, we might sing, “I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.” Those things that make this world uncomfortable and even unwelcoming should, instead of distract us into focusing more on this world, set our eyes above to our true home. They should make us long for our home where God is our light.

We have an itinerary in this world to do God’s work, to live like Christ, and to seek out lost souls to share His hope with. This world is a layover before eternity. It’s a temporary residence. It’s not our home. It’s nice to feel welcome, but it’s not necessary. Wherever we are and whatever the climate is toward our Christian faith, our hope and our work remain the same. Our relationship with God through Christ stays the same.

Beware of Obscurantism

Beware of Obscurantism In an obscured version of Christianity, it appears as though you have to do particular things that are not actually the gospel in order to follow Christ, because all the Christians you know do them. It could be as simple as a change in dress or hairstyle or musical tastes; or it […]