In several different contexts recently I’ve been compelled to contemplate the difference between seeking to effect change for good through peaceful means versus more radical challenges to existing popular notions or governmental directives. For example, what should a parent or community leader do when it appears that the public educational system is being used to teach human sexuality in a way that is contrary to Christian beliefs? Or, suppose the government, as in Canada this year, will not provide supplementary student-employment funding for organizations that do not explicitly support the idea of abortion. When should we simply pray, “let sleeping dogs lie,” “turn the other check,” and seek to influence change through peaceful means? On the other hand, is there a time for Christians to actively challenge what they see as something destructive to the society in which they live?
It seems to me at the heart of this discussion is one of the biggest challenges of all for Christians — how to communicate the good news of God’s salvation in Christ. Close attention to the subject of evangelism will lead the perceptive student of the Bible to conclude that evangelism entails both a positive and negative element. Essentially, evangelism, based on the original meaning of the word (i.e. “good news”) is all about telling one who is not a Christian about the life that God has offered in Jesus Christ. From a biblical and Christian perspective, the gospel is the most wonderful news in the whole world. Properly understood and believed, it means that anyone can experience salvation from the judgement of God upon sin and an eternal relationship with the God of the universe through oneness with Jesus Christ and the infilling of the Holy Spirit.
But there’s a negative element to all of this. For in order to truly hear the good news a person has to be willing to believe that there is a need for good news — which may be understood as bad news. A person will likely not have an appetite for God’s good news unless they are first willing to concede the sad reality of their own spiritual and relational poverty. The hardest part of evangelism is to communicate the reality of our need for good news — in the words of the Bible, that we are lost without God (Luke 19:10), that like sheep, we have all gone our own way (Isaiah 53:6), and that the human heart is actually very wicked (Jeremiah 17:9). Evangelism will likely not be very effective or meaningful unless the listeners first appreciate their desperate need for God’s good news.
It follows that some Christians believe evangelism is best accomplished through a demonstration of God’s love in expressions of kindness, patience with people, and simply doing good deeds for others in Jesus’ Name. The idea in this notion is that in providing this kind of treatment, over time, the uninitiated will ask questions that can lead to an explanation of who Jesus is and what He has done for the human race. This approach has popularly come to be called, “Friendship Evangelism.” I for one, heartily endorse this approach to evangelism, especially toward family, friends, and neighbours with whom we are compelled to have a long-term relationship. However, the weakness of friendship evangelism is that listeners are not readily led to see the seriousness of their sin in relation to God, and therefore, the significance of Jesus’ atoning sacrifice. Friendship evangelism tends to lack an important element we call repentance. Repentance entails an acknowledgement of offense and, in the process, the reception of God’s more-than-adequate forgiveness in Christ as one chooses to turn away from sin toward faith in Jesus Christ. The “bad news” (and hard part) of evangelism is making someone aware of the seriousness of their offense toward God — so that they might gladly welcome the good news of His forgiveness.
This reference to the nature of evangelism, I think, illustrates so well what is fundamentally involved in an appropriate response to ideas and practices in our culture that are contrary to Christian virtue and ultimately destructive. On one hand, it’s true we should always seek to relate to people of differing persuasions with love and compassion, seeking change through peaceful co-existence and reason. But it seems wrong to assume that this is the only means by which to effect change. Too often the softer approach has been prompted by the idea of “peace at any price” only to end with costly compromises that negatively affect the lives of many people. In fact it seems to me that peaceful coexistence tends to be the default approach in our current postmodern society — a tendency to be emotionally sensitive, non-confrontational and compliant.
I think it’s important to remember that God’s engagement with the nation of Israel, and in turn, Israel with its neighbours, was often confrontational. And though the New Testament emphasis on grace may incline us to think that God effects change only through love, Jesus’ own ministry often demonstrates that He was also confrontational. Though He is the sacrificial Lamb, He is also the Lion of the Tribe of Judah who was willing to challenge the self-righteous, His own disciples, and at times even the ruling powers of the day. Therefore, we should not conclude that the only way to manage evil intention is to be nice to its promotors.
Though all of our relationships should be conducted with a sense of grace, it also seems clear from the Scriptures that consistency in following Jesus may also require our willingness to pay the price of very real conflict. Sometimes, as in the case of Trinity Western University in defence of its right to offer a recognized degree in law, for example, we may have to be willing to face our challengers in a court of law. Surely, in God’s grand scheme of things, this too is a way in which to “overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21).