I am reading The Bondage of the Will, by Martin Luther. It isn't the first book I would have picked up to read; I probably would have passed over it until I was at least 120. But a friend, one of the elders in our church, gave it to me, not because he had read it; it was new and he hadn't. I'm not sure why he wanted me to read it. But I'm almost halfway through it and one thing I can say: It is easy to see Luther's God-given passion for that which he believes and of which he is convinced. He is assured, unflinching, adamant, passionate. Erasmus has written a book on behalf of the Catholic Church (who Luther so thoroughly offended with his 92 theses), urging Luther to make peace with the head honchos there, and essentially saying that these issues are not worth the division that they bring. The weird thing about this book is that Luther's passionately argumentative style does not remind me of any Christian I know; it reminds me of my sister, who went on and on for pages in a letter once because she thought that from a passing remark I made that I don't like animals. (I don't mind animals; I just am glad not to have any.) She could be so passionate and attack me for pages over such a trivial issue; we as Christians on the other hand are entrusted with the mystery of the Gospel and the responsibility to care for one another. We have all the more reason to be passionate, and yet the Church today is pitiful in its weak and cowering attitude toward any opposition the Gospel brings.
Luther's writings show me how much that passion has gone from our Christianity. We know the truth (thanks in great part to Luther and his passionate stand for Bible truth: "Here I stand; I can do no other"), but most of us at best would give a flimsy sentence or two to anyone who opposed an issue that was central to our faith. Those of us who say more can expect to be called intolerant troublemakers, and divisive. This is one harm in our American Christian culture that definitely needs to turn completely around: the indignant opposition to biblical correction, admonishment, or exhortation of believers; it will cause us to miss out on a huge potential for growth and strength in our walk. The Church as a result can only expect to be poorly equipped when times of real persecution actually come. We seem to think that it is only God who should have the privilege of correction and admonishment, but this view only confirms our biblical illiteracy. The Scriptures are replete with passages that clearly exhibit God's desire for us to correct and be corrected in matters of the faith.
Christianity that is lived out elsewhere or which is historically evident and biblically prescribed differs so much from our American version. The differences are striking: Christians in other countries and throughout history have endured much more persecution and difficulty than we generally do; they face a very real possibility of dying for this faith that requires a clear and unflinching witness; because of these things, their Christianity is more surely authentic and their growth in faith and faithfulness is probably a far less gradual thing than here as a rule. I expect that people in other places and times grasp the harder lessons of the faith and have the passion to live a life of pleasing God and denying self. Part of this comes from the Scriptures, where people sold their property and gave the money and other belongings to the church so that no one had any lack (Acts 4:32-37), or sang when imprisoned (Acts 16:25), or shared the Gospel as soon as they were free (Acts 4:19-20, 5:42); where the witness of Christians results in thousands turning to Christ in one event (Acts 2:41). I know that wherever a believer lives, the struggle with sin and self-protection continues regardless of nationality. But persecution sifts the wheat from the chaff. Who is going to live casually or inauthentically for Christ in a hostile culture if living for Christ quite possibly means dying for Him?
Even though the American Christian doesn't generally have to fear much persecution, we are immersed in a narcissistic, private, self-protective, individualistic culture. So we don't readily welcome any inquiry or correction about ourselves, our sin nature (even though we all have it; that's one universal trait we have in common) and how we live our lives. Suggest to an American Christian that there's something amiss in their lives and their indignation and pushback is almost guaranteed. This isn't how the Scriptures paint the right response to correction. We are urged to address sin in others who claim Christ as their own; we are urged to welcome correction--both because speaking the truth can save a person from greater error and from wandering from the faith. I wish this were taught and encouraged more in the church. I wish it were expected and embraced among believers. It isn't, from my experience, and that will be to our harm and if it were possible, to diminish the glory that we are equipped to bring to Jesus Christ.
It appears in Ephesians that God put vocal people in the church to build it up, to raise new believers to maturity, to help put aside deception. We are to speak the truth to one another in love in order that the Church may grow into a functional whole:
Ephesians 4:11-15 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.
It isn't just the pastor's job, or the Holy Spirit's job, to speak into the lives of the believers around us:
Hebrews 3:12-14 Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God.13 But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. 14 For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end.
If we say something to someone that might turn him around in repentance, or correct a misconception about the faith, the results can be huge. This is definitely prescribed in the Scriptures:
James 5:19-20 My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, 20 let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.
It takes courage to speak up, especially in this culture. Courage and boldness are basic requirements for effective ministry. We need to pray that like Luther, we all are courageous and bold; pray for your friends and have them pray for you, so that the truth might be addressed in your times of fellowship, so that the Church as a whole might grow strong and true, as God intended.