The seventh chapter of Acts tells the story of Stephen, a newly ordained deacon (Church waiter), who is brought before the Jewish authorities with false charges of blasphemy and plans to destroy the Temple. In his defense, full of the Holy Spirit, Stephen offers an alternate history of Judaism that both devalues the importance of the Temple and charges the authorities with the murder of Jesus and all of the previous prophets. Stephen is hastily dragged out of the city and stoned to death. He becomes the first post-Ressurection martyr and an immense persecution immediately breaks out against the Church.
My bible study group was recently discussing this passage and my wife rhetorically asked “Was Stephen’s sermon effective?” The obvious Christian answer is “yes”, but I can’t imagine in the first weeks and months following Stephen’s sermon that many Christians thought that it was effective. The story does not tell of any Jew who became a Christian because of the sermon; in fact it seemed to have the opposite effect, entrenching the hatred and persecution of this new religious community. The church at that moment in time is what we today would call a mega-church. Thousands of believers were together, centered in Jerusalem with thousands being added daily. The church was becoming institutionalized adding structure and organization to make it more effective in its mission. As Stephen was dragged out of the city, all of the success of the early church seemed to be dragged out with him. Christians were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria and forced into secrecy and fear. Many more would lose their lives for preaching the name of Jesus. Jewish authorities would no longer call for patient tolerance of this new heresy but instead made it legal to pursue and punish all who dared devote their lives to Jesus. By all appearances and short term evidences the event seemed to be an utter disaster for Christianity.
The Evangelical Church in America is currently facing a paradigm shift. For most of American history it has enjoyed a “favored religion” status and enjoyed both significant political and cultural influence. The culture as a whole has entered into a post-Christian age, where all of the presumptions of Christianity are now actively questioned and rejected. Almost all of the tenets of the Sexual Revolution have been adapted by the culture and many of those ideas stand in direct contradiction to Christian ethics. Christianity is moving from a place of preference and respect to one of suspicion and derision. The influence on faith in the public sphere is rejected and religious freedom is actively redefined as “freedom of worship” by segments of the federal government.
“Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy” by Eric Metaxas has recently captured the attention and imagination of large swaths of the Evangelical church. It tells the story of a young German theologian who actively opposes the transition in the German culture and institutional Lutheran Church to adopt and adapt to Nazism (in an effort to remain culturally acceptable). Bonhoeffer eventually founded a rival Lutheran sect and an underground Bible college. He also joined a resistance movement that plotted a failed assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler. Eventually Bonhoeffer was captured and executed by the Nazis in the last days of World War II.
Many Evangelicals (Metaxas included) are inspired by Bonhoeffer’s resistance to the changing culture and its intrusions on the theology of the Lutheran church. They fear the sexual liberation of our current age will likewise intrude on Christianity and demand the same kind of rejection of core principles that Nazism did in 1930s Germany. Others are offended by these comparisons and remind us, with respect to our previous failures to show compassion and justice to the LGBT community, that Bonhoeffer stood against the oppression of the Jewish minority; likewise Evangelicals should seek the political and social benefit of today’s homosexual minority lest we spoil our future witness. Still others, have whole-heartedly accepted the Sexual Revolution and embraced the rejection of heteronormativity either by a rejection of Biblical authority or by alternative interpretations that endorse sexual expression outside the confines of covenant, heterosexual marriage.
I recently saw this quote posted on Facebook and I think it’s about half way there. “One of the biggest temptations we face in the post-Christian context is the temptation to be liked.” – J.R. Vassar I think the other great temptation of post-Christianity is to intentionally seek rejection and find solace in being despised. Both temptations are too easily achieved. For the next 20-30 years Evangelicalism will be finding a new place in American culture. In that time I’m certain of only one thing, there will be a great many mistakes made by Evangelicals. Some will adopt the spirit of the age and offer nothing the world does not have on its own. Others will remain quiet when they should speak, worried that the offense of the Gospel will be a burden neither they nor the church can bear. Some, without the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, will rebuke and condemn the culture and alienate the name of Jesus from a great many people. I’ve seen all of these things by friends and acquaintances. They will continue to happen in large scale ways and in individual conversations. They will be tragic and embarrassing.
There is a very fine line for us to walk, one that I constantly worry is not being well minded. I think that the days of the United States sitting in the center of Evangelical culture are behind us. New leadership, new expressions and new revivals will be found. In the mean time, I will pray for the day, when a Christian with tremendous character, but a seemingly low office of influence, finds herself (or himself) full of the Holy Spirit; saying things that utterly destroy all of the influence and institutions that we have placed our hope in — thereby causing the kingdom of God to flourish in the most unexpected and seemingly disastrous ways we can imagine.