I just recently read an article written in response to the close defeat of a bill to legalise same-sex marriage in New South Wales. I was surprised to find that the article had pretty much nothing to do with same-sex marriage at all, but was instead a vitriolic tirade against Christianity. The author criticised the Bible, the idea of believing in God, and Christians as being intolerant and hypocritical.
Of course, one doesn’t have to look very far to notice the blaring irony of condemning Christians as ‘intolerant’ and then proceeding to insult them because their beliefs are different to yours (not very tolerant, is it?). But that’s not what struck me as I read this article. No, what struck me is simply how aggressively anti-Christian the author of this article was.
After taking a stab at the absurdity of Christian faith, he quips: “Regarding the above wisecrack, I hate to bring religion into this but, hell, your opposition to same-sex marriage is based largely on your faith, isn’t it?” He then proceeds to accuse Christians of all sorts of things: being unloving and intolerant, of making up the idea that God cares about our sex lives, and of cherry-picking our favourite parts of the Bible while completely ignoring the parts about beating our children with rods, killing them with stones, or selling them into slavery.
Now, obviously, for anyone who knows what the Bible really teaches, his insults hold no water. But that’s really not the point. The point is that this is genuinely what a lot of non-Christians think Christianity is like!
The Bad Name of Christianity
It doesn’t matter if people’s low opinions of Christianity are groundless or untrue – the point is, they still think very little of Christianity! This is significant for us, because if people think very little of Christianity, they are unlikely to be very receptive about the good news of God’s grace. If people think Christians are bigoted, unloving, self-righteous, anti-gay, and all the rest, then how open will they be to the gospel?
This post is not about debating same-sex marriage, or even about refuting the (horribly misguided) claims and attacks that this guy makes in his article. No, my point is much simpler than that: I want to remind us as Christians how little Christianity is understood by the general public, and what a serious challenge this gives us in evangelism.
The New Testament gives us a clear indication that the Apostle Paul and other early Christians were very concerned that Christianity had a good name among those outside the faith. As we saw recently, Paul encourages slaves “to show that they can be fully trusted, so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Saviour attractive” (Titus 2:10).
Similarly, one of the requirements Paul gives Timothy for an elder is that “he must also have a good reputation with outsiders” (1 Tim 3:7). I often wonder if we have lost this same concern for having a good reputation with non-believers. Now, this doesn’t mean that we should pander to them or compromise the truths and exclusivity of the gospel (as some do), but neither does it mean we should swing completely the other way.
Rather, we should take our cue from Paul, who explains, “we want to avoid any criticism…. For we are taking pains to do what is right, not only in the eyes of the Lord but also in the eyes of men” (2 Cor 8:20-21).
What does this mean for us?
Well, it means that we need to be acutely aware of the fact that non-Christians have a lot of prejudices against Christianity (or what they perceive to be Christianity), and this affects anything we might want to tell them. It means that as soon as you try to tell someone about Jesus or the fact that you’re a Christian, there is a serious chance they have already pigeon-holed you. A lot of people have rejected Christianity without even understanding it.
So what should we do? Here’s a few suggestions, but this is by no means exhaustive.
1) Be Aware
Just be aware of the fact that many people hold these prejudices and preconceived notions about Christianity. Raising our self-awareness on this issue is certainly the first step in helping us to address it.
2) Do your homework.
Understand what you believe, and try to make yourself aware of some of the major issues that people have with Christianity. For example, take the article that I linked to above. If one of your friends or colleagues brought up these objections in a conversation with you, what would you say to them? You don’t have to be an expert apologist, but it is definitely a good thing for any Christian to be able to engage on some level with the some of the big objections that we face.
3) Actively watch your behaviour & speech
Assume that people assume the worst about Christianity, and seek to lovingly show those assumptions wrong. For example, a lot of people get the impression that Christians hate same-sex attracted people, that they see them as extra-bad sinners, or can’t be Christians, or whatever else (and to our shame, it’s no shock that they have got this impression). Seek to show people that this isn’t true.
If we don’t take the time and effort to prove these misconceptions wrong, then many people will assume that we believe them too. And that is going to seriously affect the way they view Christianity. We should be careful about the way we speak up into controversial issues, and while we certainly shouldn’t compromise on truth, we need to be very careful that we aren’t harsh or unloving.
Is the Gospel offensive, or are we?
It should concern us that God’s name is held in disregard by those who don’t know Him. To be sure, the gospel and the teaching of the Bible is offensive, and many will reject God simply from their own rebellion against Him. But let’s not use that as an excuse to be careless in the way we interact with non-believers.
The gospel is offensive because it reveals our sin, it tell us that we are wrong, and it strips us of our perceived self-dependence. It is offensive because it calls us to humble ourselves, and because it doesn’t fit with our way of thinking. We’re told in the Bible that “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing” (1 Cor 1:18).
But just because the gospel is offensive, it does not follow that we should be offensive too. God forbid that we should add to the offence of the gospel by the way we live our lives, that we should use the offence of the gospel as an excuse to be offensive ourselves.
In Romans 2:24, Paul scolds the Roman Jews: “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” Just think about that for a moment. Could there be anything worse than to have God’s name blasphemed and held in low regard because of the behaviour of those who follow Him?
Yes, the gospel is offensive, and people will continue to be offended by its truth. But let’s not add anything to the offence of the gospel by the way we live.