“We are a lot more American than we are Christian.” I still remember the first time I heard that phrase in a sermon. Many times during the years I sat under the teaching of Pastor Phil Strong in Lander, WY I heard that phrase and it had a great impact on me and my ministry to this day.
That being said there is nothing wrong with being an American. Or being patriotic. I feel blessed to be in this nation. Despite all the troubles we have I would rather live in the United States than anywhere else. It is not a perfect country and we have not always lived up to the ideals of freedom, but in a world filled with sin no country does. I enjoy history yet we forget that after only 5 months of being in a pandemic our founding fathers petitioned and appealed to Parliament and the King for several decades before declaring Independence. It was not a knee jerk reaction to make a statement or take a stand.
We tend to take freedom for granted. We also tend to think that things will always be as they have been. Over the past several months we have seen rights that we thought were foundational and unquestionable being tossed aside by courts. We have seen chaos that continues to this day rather than law and order. And we empathize with those who feel the injustice that is rampant in our world.
So how I am to live as a Christian and a Pastor in 2020 America? How are you to live as a Christian in 2020 America? How can we be faithful to the Word of God, first and foremost and yet function in a country that seems to appear more like other nations than the one in which we have lived?
First, we have to realize that we have to look at our situation in New Jersey at the end of July 2020. As a Pastor, God has given me a congregation to love and to shepherd and to lead in the things of God. The session of our church is tasked with making sure that we care for the needs of the people that God has entrusted to us. That has to be my priority. That doesn’t mean that I don’t care about other churches in my Presbytery or even in my denomination or even other Christians in the United States or the world. I do care for my brothers and sisters in Christ, and I pray for them and I pray that God gives wisdom to the leaders of other congregations. There is a unity in the body of Christ that extends beyond a local church.
I am saddened by the calls I hear that all Christians should do this or that. Or all Christians (if they really love Jesus) would be taking a stand in this way or that way. Not every church is the same. Not every congregation is the same. OP churches in different parts of NJ are not doing everything the way our congregation is. That doesn’t mean what we are doing is the best or the right way or even the wrong way. Beware of jumping on the bandwagon that lumps everyone together or looks down on others who don’t react the way we might think they should react.
“Love is patient and kind;…”1 Corinthians 13:4. Too often I am not as kind and patient with my brothers and sisters in Christ as I should be let alone those outside of the body of Christ.
Second, we have to constantly evaluate how to obey civil authorities and obey God rather than men. The two subjects in Scripture are not mutually exclusive. One thing I am sure of, just because I may not like how things are going or what I may have to do as a Pastor, that doesn’t give me the right to thumb my nose at the civil magistrate or to shake my fist at him. As a Pastor I have to beware of pandering. Or the need to make my voice heard so that people listen to me. Or even the cry, you must hear the church. God knows and He understands, and He is not thwarted by a pandemic or disease or even overreaching rulers. The gates of hell shall not overcome the kingdom of God.
Sometimes we are too concerned about our American rights and what is in the Constitution than we are what is in the Bible. I’m pro Constitution. I believe some of those rights have been violated. I think there are times when redress needs to be sought. But I have to make sure I take off my American glasses as I seek to make decisions for God’s people.
Currently, we are not being told we cannot meet as the body of Christ for worship. Even places where indoor gatherings are banned, that is not necessarily a ban on worship. There may be a need for creativity in order to meet. I may have to deal with wind and heat outdoors or multiple services right now when it rains but I can still lead God’s people in worship.
At least in NJ there are no prohibitions as to what takes place in a worship service. There are times when we do need to obey God rather than men. The civil magistrate has no right to decide what to include or not include in an order of service. But what do I gain by shaking my fist at the civil magistrate or thumbing my nose at him and say, “Look at me! I’m going to obey God rather than you.” Why not simply obey God and encourage others to the do the same? I can’t imagine the Christians in Rome saying, “Caesar we are going to be meeting in the Catacombs, you can’t stop us from worshipping. Come and get us!” Or the Scottish Covenanters announcing to the civil magistrate what field they were going to meet in this week so that the governing authorities could break up the gathering and perhaps imprison or kill the Christians. I don’t imagine the Christians in China or North Korea feel the need to announce to the world that they are going to obey God, they simply obey God.
“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.”Matthew 6:1 This is so hard for me at times because we all want to be recognized and esteemed for what we do.
Third, we need to lose the persecution complex. American Christians think they are so abused today, and truth be told we really don’t know the first thing about suffering. Most of what we have faced over the last few months is an inconvenience not direct persecution. Granted we can debate as we look at current numbers in this pandemic whether or not we needed to close everything down back in March, but even at that time it was not intended as an attack on the church. Everything was closed down. Maybe that was a lousy idea, but hindsight is always 20/20.
Today we are allowed to worship. Building restrictions in NJ also apply to restaurants, gyms, and other businesses. That’s not persecution. I love having a building to worship in, but on those extra hot Sundays when we are blessed to be able to still gather outdoors, I am reminded that I dare not worship a building. If other places are singled out because they are churches, then obey God. But there is no need to make a big show and production of it. If the civil magistrate calls for churches to teach heresy or stop engaging in elements of worship that God requires, then obey God. But there is no need to raise an army of believers on social media to follow in the cause.
Is the gospel still able to go forth? If so, then in my local context I may have to live with some inconveniences. I applaud those who have the ability and the money to fight back against abuses of Constitutional rights with lawyers and great resources, but I have to remember that the struggle we face is not against flesh and blood. And courts are not reliable.
Man is sinful. The culture is anti-church. None of that should surprise us at all. This is not new. I have to constantly ask myself in each and every situation, what will help my congregation be encouraged and built up in the things of God and help my church be here for generations to come? And what will help others to see the beauty of the Gospel of Jesus Christ? There is no one size fits all approach for how pastors and elders face a pandemic. I hope we can show grace and love to one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. I hope we don’t pander to the wrong things and rely too much on posturing rather than on the power of the Gospel. God’s kingdom will prevail. The gates of Hell will not overcome it. That is a promise of God.
As I look from the present to the future, I am very optimistic. The Church should be engaging culture. The church should be influencing the culture. The question is do we do that in a winsome manner seeking to be at peace with all men as we are able? Or do we simply consider all of those outside of the church as enemies? I mentioned last Sunday the ten commandments are binding upon all men as God’s righteous moral standard. They don’t apply to just Christians. In order to try and be a positive influence for Christ a carrot may work better than a stick.
The Kingdom of God is constantly expanding as God by His Spirit is drawing men to himself. God’s Word is going forth. We are called to be salt and light. We are to change the culture by how we live. I am optimistic that the Gospel can and still does change not only lives but cultures. The Gospel has a leavening affect as it goes to the ends of the earth. We are to take dominion. Not just here in the United States but in China and North Korea as well.
May we pray for leaders in the church as they make difficult decisions for their congregations. Let us make sure that we are not being more American than we are Christian. Let us be aware of the cult of personality where we give more credence to mega churches and para church ministries than we do to the local church God has placed us in.
I am blessed to serve the saints of God in Brick, NJ. The last few months have not been easy. I think Pastors and Elders if they are honest will admit that they constantly second guess themselves. I have been depressed at times. I say that not to evoke pity but to let you know that it is ok for you to admit your struggles. The more I go back to the Word of God I have great hope and I have great encouragement because Christ is still seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
Perhaps instead of calls for all Christians in America to unite and fight to preserve the American way of life, we ought to unite in prayer for local sessions as they seek what is best for God’s church where they are. And let us continue to pray that God would use us day by day to change the culture around us.
“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.” James 1:2-3