Since the contentious 2016 election, many have publicly questioned whether evangelical support for Donald Trump “hurts the Church’s witness.” Others assert that to vote for anyone but Donald Trump warrants excommunication. Over the last two years of the pandemic and all its associated controversies, some have confidently proclaimed that if Christians choose to not wear a mask or not be fully vaccinated they’ve harmed the cause of Christ. Others announced that to wear a mask or be vaccinated is to compromise the cause of Christ.
Whenever cultural flashpoints are used to judge the faith of others, the same script tends to be followed. An appeal is made to the Church’s witness and reputation in the wider world.
Of course, the Bible is clear that Christians bear responsibility for how our faith is both perceived and received by those inside and outside the Church. After He washed His disciples’ feet, Jesus told them that by loving each other in that way, “all people will know you are my disciples.” When He prayed in the garden on the night before His crucifixion, Jesus asked God to unify His followers so that “the world may believe that you have sent me.” When people see our good works, Jesus said, they may “glorify your Father which is in heaven.” In other words, Jesus clearly tied together the love among fellow Christians with the plausibility of the Gospel message to the wider world.
What’s clear from these verses, and throughout the Bible, is that we bear responsibility for our reputation both inside and outside the Church, and that stewarding the Gospel message means protecting both the integrity of the message and demonstrating its impact on our lives and the world around us. The Gospel is both plausible and compelling, and we ought never do anything to make it seem less so.
However, what the Church is not (and cannot be) responsible for, is the reaction a world will have, particularly a world that is unbelieving and even hostile to either Christian morality or Christian truth claims.
“Loving our neighbor,” for example, will mean very different things to someone depending on their definition of love. According to our constantly shifting, culturally dependent definition, an act of love can seem like intolerance or even hate. In the same way, we are not responsible if someone perceives the good news of the Gospel message as bad news. We are not necessarily at fault when it is rejected or hated, or when it offends as Jesus predicted it would offend. The good news, though, is that when the Gospel is believed, embraced, or heeded, the success belongs to God, not our clever methodology or presentation.
According to Scripture, what “hurts our witness” the most is disunity. And this doesn’t mean that unity comes at the expense of church. But what we’re told “hurts our witness” the most in this cultural moment is violating the new moral consensus about sex, politics, or controversial public figures. So, in an effort to “protect the witness,” we spend an inordinate about of time policing each other’s behavior, often publicly, about matters prioritized within a wrong set of values.
I’ve no doubt that much of the concern over the Church’s witness is genuine and well-intentioned. We are responsible to live as if what we say we believe is real. At the same time, Jesus didn’t rebuke the Pharisees for being “mean,” but for being hypocrites. Whenever our well-intentioned concern for the Church’s witness becomes a dressed-up purity test, what we’re really saying is “You can’t be a Christian and do that thing.” And that misunderstands the Christian faith altogether.
True belief always leads to regeneration, and sanctification takes time. Salvation is not forfeited every time a mistake is made or a theological error is committed. The patience and grace we extend to each other, even when a fellow believer makes a decision we disagree with, is a way of loving one another and advancing the witness of Christ to a watching world.
In fact, imagine how compelling the Church’s witness would be today if we prioritized forgiveness. Our wider culture has absolutely no time for it, and many of those most vocally concerned for the Church’s witness have little time for it either. To forgive, is considered complicity in evil. To accept any apology as sincere, or to extend grace for even the benefit of the doubt is completely unacceptable.
Christians should be different. We shouldn’t just take different sides of an issue: We should take our sides differently. We might find out that forgiving easily and assuming the best of one another will compel a watching world to ask us for the reason for that kind of hope. We might find that forgiveness, not a purity test, is the best thing for the Church’s witness these days.
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