Norman Hamilton writes – Are evangelicals and evangelism on a slippery slope – even a slide into a cultural no-man’s land?
The answer, I suggest, is a definite maybe!
Maybe evangelicals have become so obsessed with issues of sexuality, gender and ‘traditional’ values that they are doing little else other than react to the agenda set by the prevailing secularised culture, and so have lost sight of their primary calling to make disciples of Jesus Christ.
Maybe however, they are simply being called to stand up for Biblical values in public life, and a God honouring lifestyle in personal life. In doing so they find themselves in the unusual position here in Ireland of being mocked, misunderstood and marginalised. Jesus of course, had exactly the same experience in his day – so we should not be surprised or dismayed at the state we are in (though we can be incredibly ham fisted in the way we handle discussion and debate in the public square, and so bring some of the dismissiveness on ourselves).
I suggest however, that whatever the realities, we are in a situation where there are too few statesmen or stateswomen for God here in Ireland, North or South. That is emphatically NOT to demean or denigrate any believer or any Christian group or denomination. It is however to say that we are desperately in need of a contemporary group like the men of Issachar in 1 Chronicles 12 who ‘understood the times and knew what Israel (the people of God) should do’.
It is a cliché – but nonetheless true – that culture eats church for breakfast. It is certainly not pleasant to be gobbled up, scrambled or fried in full public view. The most common tactics we use are to ignore the most demanding teachings of Scripture such as those on social justice, or the call for righteousness in public as well as personal life, or to so emphasise the personal nature of our faith that we effectively privatise it as well. To use the Biblical metaphor, we may find respite or even safety in hiding our light ‘under a bushel’.
We can hardly be surprised if, having decided to often ignore significant themes of Scripture, we find ourselves largely ignored. Some examples may suffice. When has the church of Jesus Christ – or Christian people – spoken out clearly in this island on immigration policy, which is often so dehumanising? Or on corruption in so many high places? Or contributed to debate on human rights – even though we claim that we are made in the image of God and so merit proper treatment? What role do we believe that forgiveness has in person-to-person relationships or in bringing reconciliation to fractured communities? What are the likely benefits – and drawbacks – of Brexit for the gospel in Ireland? And why are we so silent when our politics so often display meanness and even vulgarity. Our silence is most certainly not golden, for most of the questions flow from our understanding (or lack of it) about the central importance of valuing people in our modern democracy.
Christian humility probably means that few will see themselves as Christian statesmen / women. But that is to misunderstand what it means to be used of God. Most of the great leaders we read about in the Bible were acutely aware of their shortcomings, and some were far from leading a blameless life. But each was still committed to being God’s man / woman for the times and in the culture. They were not gripped by fear all the time. Nor were they looking over their shoulders at what others would say. They were not averse to being in trouble with the religious leaders of the time. They did not deal in spin nor seek to protect any of the ‘institutions’ around them. And they were certainly not interested in drawing attention to themselves or their ‘ministry’.
I suggest that the statesmen and women we are so desperately in need of today are NOT often found at the centre of Christian groups and denominations, but are to be discovered elsewhere. They are often the ones who make wise and discerning comment, oil the wheels of communication and understanding, think deeply and communicate carefully, pray readily and live wholesomely and winsomely. Like the prophets of old they need to be listened to very carefully.
Status does not automatically bring wisdom with it; authority is not always accompanied by grace and humility; even vision for the future can be used as a decoy to cover past or current failings.
Evangelicals, like everyone else, are in real danger of losing their footing and their focus in the swirling tides of modernity. We would do well to have a coherent answer to the question posed in Psalm 11.3 ‘When the foundations are being destroyed – what can the righteous do?’
+++Very Rev Dr Norman Hamilton is a retired Presbyterian Minister and former Moderator of the General Assembly.