Should Christians Respect the World?

One of the basic themes of Rosaria Butterfield’s book, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, is the importance of hospitality and friendship. It is no exaggeration to say that Butterfield was converted through friendship. She emphasizes the fact that the pastor who led her to Christ neither shared the gospel with her nor invited her to church during their first visit.

Midway through the book Butterfield describes her distress when moving into a red Republican county for the first time and seeing placards with Scripture verses everywhere. This disturbed her on at least two levels. First, as she puts it, “Political advocacy plastered next to Bible verses makes me anxious.” No matter how much some conservative Christians might believe their faith requires them to vote Republican (or at least to vote against the Democrats), it is an abuse of the word to claim its authority for that conviction.

But the placards also disturbed Butterfield because they inevitably take Scripture out of context and separate it from any context of hospitality or friendship.”Do these Bible verses that sit on placards take up the same cultural space as the rainbow flag that once resided on my flagpole? Are these ‘Welcome’ signs or signs that read ‘Insiders Only’?”

She illustrates the point with respect to the oft-placarded verse, John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he sent his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Why is this verse so often separated from the one that follows it?

For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. (John 3:17)

Butterfield observes,

This verse gives me greater clarity into how to read the one that comes before it. It tells me that if Jesus did not come into the world to condemn it, then neither should Christians… [T]he domain of Christian witness is not salvation (that is God’s work) but service – selfless love and sacrifice.

The implication that she draws is that Christians are too quick to deliver a message without showing any concern for individual persons as unique persons. The point, of course, is not really primarily about placards.

Bible verses that front salvation over Christian service, instead of being important interfaces between Christian homes and the watching world, seemed like sneaky little raids, quick and insulated targets into culture, with no sense that a worldview of care lay behind them.

Christians may think in their heart of hearts that getting a point across, taking a stand, or quoting the Bible is the most loving thing they can possibly do. And such actions are often motivated by loving concern. But that is not how they are usually received. Why not? Because as delivered they remain abstract; they could be delivered in just the same way to any given number of people; they can even be communicated through Twitter. They reflect no particular love for this particular individual as a particular individual with all of her own cares and concerns. They suggest that we might be willing to have a relationship, but it will be on our terms and in our world.

Of course, Butterfield is not trying to take anything away from the importance of Scripture or of the preaching of the word. Anyone who has read her book knows that these channels of grace loom large for her, both in the way that they proclaim the “forgiveness of sins” and in the way they warn about the one who will “come to judge the living and the dead.” But in a society that is not Christian, as much as so many Christians insist on assuming and acting as if it is, these messages must take place in contexts of service and friendship.

This is, after all, the model of the New Testament. The apostles, prophets, and pastors were called to proclaim the message of salvation, but most Christians were called to follow Christ in a manner attractive to the world by fulfilling their various vocations of service. The Apostle Peter exhorts Christians not to use their faith as an excuse to be disobedient, belligerent, or obnoxious, but to do good to others in a spirit of love and humility, always being prepared to suffer at the hands of the unjust.

For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. (1 Peter 2:21)

This is the context for Peter’s call to believers always to be ready to give a reason for the hope that is within them, yet to

do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. (1 Peter 3:16)

What is the meaning of this word ‘respect’ that Peter uses? Perhaps that’s what Christians often struggle to show to the world, and perhaps that is one of the dimensions of what Butterfield is calling us to think about. When we interact with nonbelievers, no matter what the controversy or circumstance, do we communicate respect?

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About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on July 31, 2015, in Christian Life, Evangelicals, Preaching and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Should Christians Respect the World?.

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