BY RICHARD BERBERIAN
“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” (Matt. 5:11)
If you’re like me, your ears perk up whenever you hear Christians discussed in the media. Perhaps you’ve seen Jesus Camp or Joel Osteen being interviewed on television. Frequently, this coverage is negative. Or maybe you’ve heard more than a few disparaging comments about Christians from your professors. Should we care? Should Christians be concerned about what those outside the church think of them? Should our reputation with the world matter? I will argue that, while in some sense we shouldn’t be concerned with finding approval in the eyes of cultural opinion-makers, the Bible does instruct us to care about our reputation.
We sometimes forget, in our American context, that we were promised persecution. “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account” (Matt. 5:11), Jesus says in his Sermon on the Mount. Clearly, we are to expect some mockery if we identify with Christ. Pick up a recent book like Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great, and you’ll find your intellectual integrity reviled. This is to be expected, even welcomed. Jesus and Paul were challenged, and we should be ready to answer as they did, wisely and winsomely. More seriously, in many parts of the world, a profession of Christian faith leads to death. “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul” (Matt. 10:28), Jesus says. We are called to give reasons for our faith and be ready to die if necessary. We are not called to please gainsayers and persecutors.
Still, modern evangelicals should note that they are instructed in Scripture to reflect on their reputation in the world. When the media comments on what a Christian has done or said, is it because we are being “fools for Christ” or just fools? Paul instructs us to “live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may live properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one.” (1 Thes. 4:12). Jesus also urges us in the Sermon on the Mount to let our “light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matt. 5:16) One of Paul’s qualifications for pastors is that they “be well thought of by outsiders” (1 Tim. 3:7). This is a point we all too rarely consider. Yes, people who believe the Bible is a fairy tale are going to think you are mentally deficient. But don’t we sometimes give them reason to? If we claim to speak for God, but then go beyond his Word and say something foolish, isn’t our condemnation deserved?
After 9/11, some evangelicals made comments that this was God’s judgement on the nation’s sin, allowing homosexuality and abortion to run rampant. Jerry Falwell in particular, who later apologized for his comment, received public criticism for such a comment. A friend of mine in church rallied to Falwell’s defense. He thought Christians should stand by Falwell. It’s us versus them. The worldy media against those standing up for righteousness. But was Falwell’s comment true? Was he “speaking the truth in love” or “speaking grace to the hearers”, as Scripture instructs? There is not space in this brief article to discuss the serious theological problems with Falwell’s statement, but suffice it to say Falwell was not “speaking grace.” On an occasion when the world needed to see Christians loving those who were hurting, and offering hope in Christ, they heard insensitive comments motivated by a social and political agenda. Falwell was rightly condemned and rightly apologized. I hesitated in giving this or any other examples because we must all learn to exercise discernment in this area and judge for ourselves. Christians may disagree about particular cases, but our general approach should be the same. I chose this instance because, in my mind, it is a striking example where the focus was taken off the gospel and where we should be ready to criticize ourselves for this kind of sentiment rather than defending a foolish mistake.
In conclusion, we most definitely should be concerned with what others think about us as individuals and as a Christian community, not out of a narcissistic need for approval, but because we bear the name of Christ and our deeds should give glory to him. If we are known for being hard-working, honest, anti-materialistic, generous people with a peculiar predilection for talking about how Jesus came to redeem sinners, we represent our Savior well. If, on the other hand, we are primarily known for our stances on political issues and for making and defending extreme social statements that go beyond Scripture, we have distracted people from the gospel. Christians are sinners too. We’ll say and foolish things from time to time. But rather than being defensive when we are criticized, let us hear what is true in the criticism and shift the focus back where it should be, on the redemption found in Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.