If you ask conservative Christians what their biggest obstacle is when sharing the Gospel, they might say it is the non-Christian or today's anti-Christian culture. But if you ask a non-Christian the same question, he or she might point to the messenger. So the question for us conservative Christians becomes, what is our biggest problem in evangelizing.
The difference between these two perceptions for Christians is that one is a threat and the other a weakness. A threat occurs when the source of our headaches exists outside of us; here it exists with the audience, the Gospel itself, our culture, and perhaps with laws designed to prevent us from witnessing--though the last reason does not apply to those witnessing in America.
If the problem is with the audience's reaction to the Gospel is the Gospel itself, then there is nothing we can do. For if we change the message, we lose. The Gospel must remain a constant in our sharing regardless of how people react to it. If our problem is with neither the Gospel nor the messenger, then we can make adjustments to how we share.
But if a big problem people have in hearing the Gospel is with the messenger, then we must identify our weaknesses. Here, we are not talking about the personal flaws of any individual Christian. What we are talking about are common traits or beliefs that us Christians hold on to that are inconsistent with our faith.
In last week's post (When Squeezed, Is The Church "Wimpy, Wimpy, Wimpy"), we talked about 3 beliefs that American conservative Christians might insert into their faith, and thus their message. This can cause them to compromise the message of Christ. Here, we will isolate one of those convictions and show how it also hurts the listener.
Conservative Christians who are capitalists or patriotic do not offend others especially as long as they are willing to listen. But once they too easily brush aside the views of others, then their beliefs in capitalism and/or patriotism, though very apparent, are not the issue. What is the issue is the refusal to listen and reason.
This brings us to authoritarianism. Christians have a more complex relationship with authoritarianism than what first appears. What is most visible is the fact that so many of our relationships involve living under or exercising authority to various degrees. These relationships include the God-believer relationship, the husband-wife relationship, the parent-child relationship, the believer-church relationship, the employer-employee relationship, and the government-citizen relationship. In each of these relationships, the Bible includes the authority of one party over another.
The Christian's problem becomes how to turn off that authoritarian relationship switch when it is not called for. Since the Bible stresses authority in so many of our relationships, it is easy for many of us Christians to believe that it is called for in every relationship. Thus we can have problems when we interact in a democratic society. Here, many of our relationships are between equals, not superiors and subordinates. And this equality is not a problem until we find ourselves with fellow citizens who have different values.
When we find ourselves in serious disagreement with non-Christian equals over morals, we look for that authoritarian security blanket to save the day. At this point, it is a short trip for the conservative Christian to assume a state of moral superiority, because his or her values have been enlightened by God's Word, and this ends any exchange between peers. Now, in the eyes of the believer, one person has everything to teach while the other has everything to learn.
This last phrase should sound familiar to those who are well versed on Martin Luther King for he stated something identical regarding the West and why they were in Vietnam. In a speech in which he criticized the American war in Vietnam, King said the following:
The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.
Having everything to teach and nothing to learn is how the authoritarian conservative Christian can come across to the unbeliever. And the conservative Christian has a parental type defense for being heavy-handed; it is for the unbeliever's own good. This pertains to when conservative Christians try to control the morals of the nonChristian--we are referring to personal morals that that do not infringe on the rights of others. Here, the conservative Christian is trying to parent the nonChristian in spite of the nonChristian's ingratitude. Kids!
We should not be surprised by this authoritarianism with a parental concern being displayed by American conservative Christians especially if such Christians also value patriotism and capitalism. This Paternalism is what drove European, including American, colonialism during the past few centuries. In America, assuming the superiority of one's own culture helped carry out Manifest Destiny. The self-image of settlers who took land from America's indigenous peoples framed the theft as an attempt to bring civilization to the land. Of course, Europeans with their history of peace were the ideal candidates to bring enlightenment. So, what those who conquered thought of themselves differed from what those who were conquered thought. A similar line of thought was the reason given for why we colonized other lands such as the Philippines and Guam.
There is another way in which authoritarianism hurts conservative Christians in how they share the Gospel with others. Here, we are talking about how conservatives learn and determine truth, scientific and otherwise. Those who are authoritarian focus more on the credentials of the speaker/writer than on the fact and logic of an argument.
The heavy use of credentials by the conservative Christian in learning and determining truth becomes a very exacting filter. Those who have "bad" credentials are almost always automatically discarded while what is said by those with good credentials is often uncritically accepted. Here, the conservative Christian unknowingly participates in a virtual book burning for his religiously amish-like community. He or she does not have to exercise much critical thought when listening to or reading speaker or writer on the good list but he or she can ignore those who are on the naughty list which, in turn, prevents those on that list from earning their credibility wings.
Again, such authoritarianism kills the message of the Gospel in the ears of many unbelievers. The same attitude of having everything to teach and nothing to learn will rightfully offend the nonChristian but is taken for granted by the Christian. And the tragedy here is that such authoritarianism is not just unnecessary, it is wrong.
Not knowing when to turn off the authoritarian switch is killing a significant part of the Christian witness in America. It can come from misreading the plethora of authoritarian relationships outlined in the Scriptures into all of our relationships. But I believe it is more than that. The desire to control, whether it is our of ambition or out of fear, is also a driving force here. It makes the Gospel something not just to be ridiculed, but to be resented as well. This is something American conservative Christians must address before they share the Gospel in these turbulent times.