Have you ever been at a party where your friend says something really stupid?
What was that? you think. Please repeat. But you regret this thought, because, yes, he really did say something that insensitive or ignorant or downright offensive.
Your first reaction is to walk away. You want to disappear, to make it clear that Hey, I’m not with this guy.
But how can you do that? How can you abandon your friend, despite the poor image he’s casting — the one that is, if only slightly, being reflected onto you.
At bottom, you have a few options.
1. You can defend. But even as you defend him as a person, you can never justify what he said, because it was damaging and pitiful and wrong.
2. You can leave. But this feels like treachery. After all, he is your friend. You’ve been through things together, you’ve got a bond that goes impossibly deep, and you know — at least, you hope — he won’t leave you in the lurch when you make the same mistake.
3. You can pretend nothing happened. But this is risky, because silence is compliance. Doing nothing puts you in danger of being lumped in with the schlemiels. You’ll be pinned with the badge that reads STUPID or NARROW or HYPOCRITE, and you don’t want that.
4. You can step into the gap. You can insert yourself into the awkward void, taking a higher road of love and grace. This may mean embarrassment, even guilt by association, but it may also mean bridging the gap between friend and foe. It may mean demonstrating the way of reconciliation. (Note: this doesn’t mean flaunting your own position; rather, it means tolerating, loving, and, if necessary, forgiving the other.)
* * *
On a couple occasions lately, I’ve been frustrated with other Christians. Even ashamed.
Even before it aired, I was discouraged by Ken Ham (young-earth creationist and founder of Answers in Genesis) who felt it strangely appropriate to debate Bill Nye (famed 90s “science guy”). This is the sort of thing that is unnecessary and almost entirely unhelpful. It solves no problems; it entrenches people in their radical bubbles; and, most destructive of all, it detracts credibility from Christians. Don’t you get it, Ken? You’re putting my reputation on the line here, too.
Without getting into the science, the debate made all Christians look less reasonable. It makes the whole Church less appealing to engage with.
Part of me wants to tell Ken Ham to just chill his bill. He may be affirming the faith of like-minded believers, but he’s not attracting any seekers. He’s not someone nonbelievers will look at and think, Oh yeah, I want to be like that.
In a different way, I was recently disappointed in the renowned Christian author, Donald Miller (Blue Like Jazz, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years). He blogged something that seemed to undermine the importance of the Church. Writes Miller: “So, do I attend church? Not often, to be honest. Like I said, it’s not how I learn.” (Read the full post for context.) Basically, Miller said he doesn’t get much out of sermons and doesn’t particularly enjoy the singing. He said his time of worship, when he feels closest to God, is when he’s working, “when I build my company.”
He just wrote a follow-up post responding to backlash, but it still rang a bit hollow. Miller stuck to his guns that, while he has a soft spot for traditional Church — “I love it like a foundational part of my past, as though it were a University I graduated from to join a much larger church” — he’s moved on to a new kind of worship. After all, Miller says, “[God’s] not calling us to be sanctified through dutiful boredom.”
I won’t get into all the points of disagreement here, but let’s just say I think Jesus, scripture, and history all suggest that traditional Church — biblical fellowship, communal worship, preaching, sacraments — are very important in any Christian life, and cannot simply be replaced by divine intimacy through work or anything else.
Ham and Miller have not only said things I disagree with; they have, in my opinion, actually harmed Christianity as a whole — not irreversibly, of course, but harmed all the same. To me, Ham undermined some of the credibility of the faith (damaging for non-Christians), and Miller undermined some of its spiritual infrastructure (damaging for Christians).
Sometimes I just want to put my head down. “No, no, no,” I want to say. I want to ditch this party, like I don’t know these guys.
* * *
But disowning isn’t exactly a teaching of Christianity. Stepping into the gap is. We are called to love, with mercy and grace, despite our disagreements.
Whether you agree or not that Ham’s or Miller’s recent words have done no favors for the Church, certainly you will agree that there are Christians out there who aren’t attracting the attention you’d like. It’s likely, in fact, that you and I, at one point or another, have done such harm.
So, with all these faith-vandalizing Christians on the loose, why would anyone want to join the fold?
Our good friend Gandhi points to the problem and solution when he says: “I like your Christ; I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
The problem is that Christians are, oftentimes, poor examples of Christianity. To offer a brief list of people you should not look to to find the best representative of Christianity: Ken Ham, Donald Miller, Tim Keller, Pope Francis, Mother Teresa, C.S. Lewis, Paul, Ann Voskamp, Karl Barth, St. Augustine, John Calvin, Kevin DeYoung, Mary, Rob Bell, your pastor, me, any Christian you’ve ever met.
All fall short of the high standard of God. Even the cool ones.
The solution is finding the One. The only one who is a literally perfect example of Christianity. Redemptive, compassionate, strong, merciful, confident, self-sacrificial. You know who it is, just from those descriptors, no name required. And the winner in the category of Christian Ambassador of All Time, the one who lived the truest and best and fullest form of the faith is, actually, dun-dun-dun… not a Christian. He’s a Jew. And his name is Jesus.
* * *
It must be said, of course, that there needs to be something different about those who call themselves Christians. We should be striving for — and approaching — holiness. If we are not being sanctified day by day, if we are not known by our love (not, as some would like it, our knowledge or lack thereof), then we have failed to realize the transforming Light of Christianity.
I hope there are lots of Christians you admire. For me, God has used my parents, siblings, friends, professors, and preachers to teach and guide. But I only try to mimic them as far as they mimic Jesus.
That’s why I’m a Christian, despite Christians. Because I know Jesus. Because I want to live like him. Because his Spirit empowers me to do it.
And that’s why I step into the gap when it would be easier to run away or deny any association. Because these mortal wrecking balls are also my brothers and sisters. Because it’s exactly what Jesus did for me and you. He interceded. He stepped into the breach between me and God, between the imperfect and the perfect, and said, in spite of everything, “He’s with me.”