Thursday, November 25, 2004

Why the world wants believers to shut up — and why we mustn't

The blessing of upright men exalts a town,
But by the mouth of wicked men it is torn down
(Proverbs 11:11, my translation)

The interpretive key to understanding many of the Proverbs from 10:1 and on is in knowing the nature of Hebrew poetry, which does not tend to rhyme sounds as much as thoughts. That "rhyming" can be synonymous, or it can advance or complete the thought, or it can be contrastive. In this case, the "but" clues us that it is contrastive. Solomon is giving us two contrasting pictures.

That will help us understand each line. "The blessing of upright men," itself, could mean the blessing they receive, the blessing that they themselves are, or the blessing that they speak. Any of these could be true, if the line stood by itself.

But the second line is not so ambiguous: "by the mouth of wicked men [the town] is torn down." That clearly indicates what they speak, write, communicate. As it is a contrast to the first line, then, we understand that "the blessing of upright men" is what they say, write, communicate. Upright men exalt a town by the blessing communicated in what they say; wicked men tear it down by what they say.

Seen this way, the verse has many echoes in Proverbs and elsewhere. In Proverbs 10:11, we read that "The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life, but the mouth of the wicked conceals violence." Again, in Proverbs 13:14a, "The teaching of the wise is a fountain of life." By contrast, "With his mouth the godless man would destroy his neighbor" (Proverbs 11:9).

The Bible is very clear on the power that resides in the tongue, seen as the organ of communication. "Death and life are in the power of the tongue," we are told (Proverbs 18:21a). I don't think anyone has ever crystallized the matter as forcefully as James did, in the third chapter of his letter:

3 If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. 4 Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. 5 So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! 6 And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. 7 For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, 8 but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9 With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. (Cf. James 3:1-11)

What does any of that have to do with Christians shutting up?

Since "evangelicals" (whatever that means, anymore) and generally the religious had such an impact in the last election — thank God! — there has been an uptick in the noise on the role of "the religious" in society. Some well-known Christian leaders have advocated that Christians not be politically involved, but focus instead on evangelism. Others clearly advocate a Christian presence in the affairs of state.

Now, let me say first and clearly that the very best thing a Christian can do for the health of his nation is to grow in godliness, and to disciple others to Christ for all he's worth. I know that without a doubt, because that is a natural outgrowth of what Jesus singles out as the two greatest commandments: love God with everything we've got (which necessarily will mean growing in godliness), and love our neighboras as ourselves (which necessarily will mean pointing those who do not know Him to the Lord Jesus; Matthew 22:36-40).

But by this same token, this will also necessarily mean Christian involvement in politics.

Why? Because God isn't segregated. Because He has something to say about every area of life. Because, if we love Him, we will keep His commandments, which necessarily means learning to think His thoughts after Him in every area.

What is politics about? Is it not about justice, personal wealth, freedoms, responsibilities, values? Is it not about the poor, the sick, the weak? Is it not about life and death issues?

Does God have something to say about personal wealth? Does God have something to say about justice, the poor, life and death? I've read the Bible a few times, and I'd have to say... Duh! He has a great deal to say about all those issues.

So what is the Christian to do? Is he to clutch those truths to his breast, and let his country go to Hell? Is that love for his neighbor?

"But," one will say, "promoting values alone without Christ is mere civil religion, it is works-righteousness!"

And here's the problem: that facile bifurcation. Why is it an either-or? When we preserve a Christian framework, are we not building the sort of society that will afford us the greatest opportunities for preaching Christ? Besides, who is advocating anything like "Repeal Row v. Wade, and you will go to Heaven!"?

Here is the bottom-line. Our lost peers do not know what to think of life. They do not know what to make of values. They don't know where riches fit in, or how to care for the poor. Worse still, they do not know that they do not know.

But God does know, and He has spoken. Some listen to Him, most don't.

Do those who by His sovereign grace alone have indeed heard Him bear any responsibility to their still-lost neighbors? When their neighbors cry, "What do we do about the unborn?", do we respond, "Well, I know, but I won't tell you. Instead, let me share the Four Spiritual Laws. Meanwhile, vote however you want on that one"? Is that loyal to God? Is it loving to our nature?

Now, the wicked are set on destroying their city. They may mean it consciously, they may not; it does not matter. God knows, and He has spoken. Their path seems right to them, but it leads to death and destruction (Proverbs 14:12; 16:25). It is ours to stand athwart that path and say, "Stop! Go this way instead!"

Hating and not understanding Christians, and seeing in us only that we stand between them and their (ultimately ruinous) desires, they will tell us to shut up. They will tell us to go back to church, and leave the steering of society to them. Hitler said this, and many German pastors acquiesced. Liberals said this at the start of the 20th century, and great sections of the American church acquiesced... and we are living in the backwash of that miscalculation today.

Told to shut up, we must respond, "Thanks for the suggestion, but no." We have the Constitutionally guaranteed right to speak up and be involved (First Amendment), and we have a responsibility from God to do so.

Rescue those who are being taken away to death; hold back those who are stumbling to the slaughter. 12 If you say, "Behold, we did not know this," does not he who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not he who keeps watch over your soul know it, and will he not repay man according to his work?
(Proverbs 24:11-12)


chaddjohnson said...

I think the world wants believers to shut up because all too often they impose on others in an unasked-for manner.

Is it not better to live an example rather than merely preaching? Is it not better to work with people in their own time and answer questions when _they_ in _their own time_ ask them?

DJP said...

Interesting reaction.

Now read the post (which anticipated and responded proactively to your reaction), and then tell me what you think.

chaddjohnson said...

To me, it seems ambiguous what this post means by "speaking up." Does it mean that the Christian community should aggressively defend their beliefs (as opposed to either doing so in more of a loving manner or simply not saying anything if they cannot do so in a loving manner)? Could you touch on this a bit more?

For instance, I've come to the conclusion that--from my own personal experience--it is better for the both parties and communities in general to discuss ideas openly, honestly, humbly, and non-arrogantly with their "opponents" rather than through sarcasm and seemingly ad hominem approaches. It seems to me that many communities these days--non-Christian and Christian alike--have succumbed to this, and I think this is just as bad and dishonest.

My point is, I personally think it would be better for Christians to rest their focus on their own examples rather than going around and acting defensively.

Do you have any thoughts on this (I'm open :) )?

Moon said...

Amen Dan!

Moon said...

As for Skeftomai I think if you re-read the post carefully your question will be answered.
As for us imposing anything on them, I often hear that "stop imposing your beliefs on us" just because a Christian is defending the Truth (which is not relative). But they are imposing their "beliefs", their ideas, etc. It's not a matter of imposing anything on anyone it is a matter of standing up for what is right and true. If you see someone heading straight to a cliff you don't just stand there and pray they change their minds, you run to them and tell them they're about to fall off a cliff.
Anyhow..I suggest you re-read the post carefully and you'll get your answer.

Moon said...

I didn't realize how old this post is...Skeftomai probably will never read my comment :(