In June, 2006 I desperately needed a friend of mine to help me keep my mouth shut.
We’d just arrived in town for a major annual religious convention and were awaiting our turn at the hotel’s reception desk when I noticed the t-shirt of the pastor in front of me. It was a red, white and blue ichthus (fish symbol) with the words JesUSAves underneath. My friend saw my temperature rising and wasn’t sure whether to prod me to the point of explosion or stage an intervention and save this unsuspecting Patriotic Pastor from a torrent of “righteous indignation.” Fortunately he chose the latter, allowing the pastor to cluelessly bound on his jolly way while probably saving me from job termination.
The pastor’s transgression? His (as well as many prominent people in my denomination and evangelicals across America) elevation of Jesus Christ to position as Chief Patriot of the United States – a significant demotion from His position as “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.”
I’d forgotten about that encounter until last night when it was dragged from my subconscious while watching the movie Luther. There is a scene in the movie when a former professor and zealous supporter of Martin Luther’s, Andreas Karlstadt, is portrayed as a driving force behind the Peasant Wars of 1524-25* (see note at bottom). Supposedly Karlstadt launches a crusade to purge the church of icons and images of any kind, waging holy war against priests and any other formal church representative. In the movie he says, “Stand with the righteous or be cut down, with the others. There is no middle ground!”
The movie is fundamentally correct, despite some minor historical gymnastics. Luther, a former Catholic priest, came to see the church’s practice of indulgences as hypocrisy, he preached against salvation through the church and for salvation through faith in Christ alone. It sparked what we now call the Reformation.
The movie and the Patriotic Pastor intersect at the point where Christians seek to build Christ’s Kingdom in any manner other than the proclamation of the Gospel. Truth is we’ve been trying for centuries to establish God’s Kingdom through our misdirected theology. The crusades were an attempt to do God a favor and drive “infidel Turks” from Jerusalem, re-establishing the city as “the City of God.” The burning of witches at Salem was an attempt to purge the culture of godless influences and maintain a “Christian nation.”
Truth is, America has never been a Christian nation – and most certainly is not now. America was a nation shaped by biblical ideas and by men who were influenced by Scripture – several of whom were followers of Christ but many others who were deists. In fact, four of our most influential American “fathers” – Washington, Franklin, Jefferson and James Madison (“Father of the Constitution”) – believed in a Supreme Being proven by human reason with no need of faith. Our country has been a moral nation influenced by biblical precepts but there is a massive difference between morality and Christianity.
Too many high profile Christian leaders today (and many a good Patriotic Pastor) push and leverage for change through imposing biblical principle on society through attempts to legislate morality. I find it laughable and an utter waste of effort/money. God Himself established the Ten Commandments – moral law – knowing in advance that the hearts of men are not changed through the keeping of law. At best the law keeps immorality in check and does NOTHING to establish the reign and rule of Christ’s Kingdom in the hearts of mankind by liberating sinners from the tyranny of morality through the external righteousness imputed to us through a sinless Savior.**
Moreover, our pastors and leaders too often stand in pulpits and pour out their moralistic tomes on sinners – as if pointing out their sins does anything more than drive the nails into dead men’s coffins. They seemingly say, “Stand with the righteous or be cut down, with the others. There is no middle ground!” How is that helpful? Dead men are dead already. Instead of preaching liberation through forgiveness found in the Good News that Jesus died in their place to pay the penalty for their sin if they will believe in Him, the objective too often appears to be reclaiming some fallacious idea of a Christian nation by shaping our nation’s laws to make sinner’s adhere to biblical law.
The evangelical church in America will never find its bearings if its pastors and leaders don’t revisit Scripture passages like John 18:33-38 and repent of trying to usher in Christ’s Kingdom through political, legislative or by any other means.
Jesus is NOT America’s Chief Patriot. He is the Savior of the World.
*This is an inaccuracy in the movie and Karlstadt was not the instigator in real life he is portrayed to be in the movie. His teachings were much more civil and in fact was given refuge by Luther during the Peasant Wars.
**I firmly acknowledge that Christians should fight evil in the world by every means possible but we spend more time using the courts rather than the tools described in Ephesians 6.