By Levi Secord
One tired argument aimed at rowdy Baptists (and Presbyterians) is the need to protect our witness. As the reasoning goes, Christians should wear facemasks, not reopen before the community is ready, and submit to unlawful closures of churches all in the name of protecting our witness. I wonder if those making such arguments have much of a witness? If so, what is the content of that witness? Several observations have crystallized for me throughout this discussion. First, the modern church is easily steered by cultural influences, and second, critical thinking is rarer among Christian leaders than I had hoped.
Is this really the best way to shape our witness? Is submission to worldly reasoning and unlawful secular authority the hallmarks of a faithful testimony? While Christians making these arguments may care for the souls of the lost, they may also just be afraid of what the cool kids will think of them. What message does our submission send? And to whom does this witness really appeal?
As I watch the news stories come in, it is clear many people fall on both sides of this issue. In our country, there are likely millions upset at the current governmental overreach and curtailing of civil liberties. People across the country are marching on capitals and governor’s residences almost daily. What about the church’s witness to these people? Do they not count?
Of course, conservatives who love limited government and God-given rights are the political lepers of our day. They are uneducated, deplorable, and just plain embarrassing to society’s elite. What could be a better Christian witness than avoiding lepers, especially when influential people are watching? But in all seriousness, almost every argument Christians put forth for wearing masks and obeying illegal edicts could be applied to why Christians should do the exact opposite.
For example, it is argued that wearing facemasks shows Christian love for those who think masks helps. By sacrificing our right to personal freedom for the preferences of others, it is argued, we are practicing Christian love. Fair enough, but couldn’t I also argue that Christians who desire everyone to wear masks should also sacrifice their right to safety for the benefit and preferences of those they disagree with? If we cower behind face masks, it will not mean much to then point to the courage and surety the resurrection offers Christians, especially to those who see the cultural insanity driving much of the COVID-19 response. The sword cuts both ways.
Again, we are told not to defy the unlawful orders from governors that ban church gatherings while other businesses are open because it will ruin our witness in the community. But again, this assumes uniformity in our community, which is not accurate. Millions across the country are concerned about the loss of civil liberties. What about our witness to them? Should not the church lead in the fight against systemic oppression from the government? In recent years, evangelical leaders have breathlessly told us that defending the poor and oppressed is a gospel issue, but apparently, that argument only applies to approved issues. As governors illegally seize power, take away God-given rights, target churches, and force individuals into poverty, all of a sudden, the Christian witness requires silence. We are now to submit to oppressors. Justice is no longer the rallying cry. It is hard not to believe that it is the progressive agenda that steers much of the Christian response. We need to repent of caring about what the cool kids think of us.
So what about our witness to conservatives? Our refusal to consider our witness to this demographic either comes from some form of cultural embarrassment or an equally dangerous belief that conservatives are all saved. In our politically charged day, everything the church does will alienate someone. Moreover, submission to draconian policies handed down from on high will not win faithful Christians a hearing with liberals. For that to happen, we’ll have to commit much more heinous betrayals of Christ. The questions before us are moral and ethical, not cultural. We will offend someone, that is a given. Churches need to do what is right, not what is perceived as the best witness according to the standards of the unregenerate. Truth is vital to a faithful witness.
Paul is an excellent example of this. As he is on trial before the Jewish leaders, he makes a shrewd political move—he appeals to the resurrection (Acts 23:6). This move sets off a violent debate between the Sadducees and the Pharisees because the resurrection was at the heart of their division. Paul uses this division to his advantage. Didn’t he realize that such a move would ruin his witness to the Sadducees? How unchristian of him! What mattered is that his witness spoke truthfully.
Some would protest by pointing out the resurrection is an essential doctrine, which is true. Whether to wear a facemask or not is not on the same level as the resurrection. Nonetheless, the sovereignty of the church over herself, under the lordship of Christ, is tied to Christ’s ascension. The ascension is an essential doctrine, one that necessarily follows Christ’s resurrection. These two doctrines build the foundation of the risen Christ’s lordship. The lordship of Christ is the very foundation and result of the gospel message; if we abandon it, we lose the gospel. Our Protestant forefathers understood this truth.
More examples from Paul’s ministry could be provided. In Ephesus, his preaching led to people burning their spell-books, which caused a riot (Acts 19). Surely his witness was also ruined among the pagans! Paul’s ministry teaches us that through faithful conflict and contrast with society, the church’s witness shines brightest. If our witness is not at conflict with the spirit of the age, then we are not faithful witnesses. Jesus warned us that his message brings division, not peace (Matt. 10:34-36). To put it plainly, a faithful witness includes a certain level of division and conflict.
This brings us to the heart of the matter—what is our witness? If we only think and act as the world does, then we have no witness, for there is no distinction. Such a faith is salt with no saltiness. Churches must not make critical decisions based on what others will think of us. Our witness must be based on content, on the truth. No matter our circumstances, the church must live out and declare the lordship of Christ. While it is often hard to know what is actually true in this ever-evolving situation, the truths of Christ’s ascension and resurrection must inform our witness. Death and Caesar are not new foes, but the lack of courage among Protestants may be.
The question boils down to this, “What is the right thing to do before God?” Not, “What will my neighbors think?” We cannot replace God with man. Is it God-honoring to concede the church’s innate authority to the state? Is it loving to our children and grandchildren to not oppose tyranny, even if it is only a temporary tyranny? As I wrote elsewhere, the Bible defines the basics of love as protecting the rights of others. While we talk about laying down our right to freedom, so others feel safe, our Protestant forefathers abandoned their safety to find and fight for religious liberty. It is easy to look at people like Luther, Calvin, and many others and admire them, but it is much harder to follow their examples in our own context. The church needs to proclaim that we answer to Christ alone, no matter what any petty tyrant would say. This will naturally offend some, but it also gains us a hearing with others. It may even prompt people to ponder why Christians neither fear death nor Caesar. The answer is our faith in the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. That is our witness.
Levi J. Secord serves as a pastor at Riverview Baptist Church in West St. Paul, Minnesota. He earned a Master of Divinity from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary where he is currently pursuing a doctoral degree. Levi, his wife, and their three boys live in St. Paul, Minnesota, where they spend their time slaying dragons.