Monday, May 10, 2010

A kingdom perspective on the recent ruckus over the National Day of Prayer

Franklin Graham was not the only evangelical leader "disinvited" from a government-sponsored National Day of Prayer event last week. Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council was also booted from an event at Andrews Air Force Base for committing the unpardonable sin of criticizing Obama's plan to overturn the military's policy of prohibiting openly "gay" soldiers. Also clouding the annual observance was an ill-informed decision by a Carter-appointed federal judge declaring the National Day of Prayer unconstitutional.

Such exhibitions of government stupidity and incompetence are cause for concern, but, as Gary DeMar observes, not for the reasons being suggested by some of the principles involved in the recent ruckus.
Now here comes the fly in the ointment. James Dobson had Perkins and Graham, as well as Alan Sears of the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), on his May 6, 2010 radio show to discuss these anti-Christian measures coming from our government. One thing concerned me. Both Dobson and Graham saw prophetic significance in these events. They were claiming that the return of Jesus must be around the corner. How could it be otherwise? I was thankful that Perkins and Sears did not join in the end-time speculation.

Christians could turn this nation around in less than a year if they had the will to do it. But with big-name evangelicals telling them the end must be near, why bother. The early church had fewer hopeful examples of continued growth with the death of Stephen at the hands of the Jews (Acts 7:54–60) and the death of James the brother of John by the local tyrant Herod (Acts 12:2). At the end of John’s Gospel, Jesus tells Peter that he is going to be martyred (John 21:18–19). The book of Acts ends with Paul under house arrest (Acts 28:30). Paul sums up what life was like for him as a disciple of Jesus Christ, a turn-coat Jew, and later as an enemy of the Empire:

Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I. Are they servants of Christ?—I speak as if insane—I more so; in far more labors, in far more imprisonments, beaten times without number, often in danger of death. Five times I received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, a night and a day I have spent in the deep. I have been on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea, dangers among false brethren; I have been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure (2 Cor. 11;22–27).

Then there was the expansive nature of the Roman Empire and the coming persecutions of Christians by Nero. Consider Paul’s words to the young pastor Timothy:
“Now you followed my teaching, conduct, purpose, faith, patience, love, perseverance, persecutions, and sufferings, such as happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium and at Lystra; what persecutions I endured, and out of them all the Lord rescued me! Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:10–12).
According to Paul, who’s on the losing side? “But they will not make further progress; for their folly will be obvious to all, just as Jannes’s and Jambres’s folly was also” (v. 9). If the enemies of the gospel do make progress, it’s because we let them, through indifference, disobedience, and escapism. It doesn’t help that prophecy pundits are claiming eschatological certainty that our generation will see the “rapture” because all the signs point to the supposed (but fictional) glorious event. The church needs to grow up, gain some historical perspective, and study the Bible through its own interpretive lens rather than the lens of the Scofield Reference Bible, Left Behind, or any prophetic system that does not pay attention to the time texts, first audience relevance, context, and the Bible’s own way of making its points. Yes, Paul would die at the hands of the Romans, but notice how Luke ends his book: “And he stayed two full years in his own rented quarters and was welcoming all who came to him, preaching the kingdom of God and teaching concerning the Lord Jesus Christ with all openness, unhindered” (Acts 28:30–31). Paul wasn’t preaching the any-moment rapture; he was preaching the kingdom of God!

American evangelical leaders have the unfortunate tendency to read "prophetic significance" (i.e. "the end is near") into every real or perceived slight which places them outside the realm of this-worldly political power. That may just be a polite way of saying they tend to whine every time they are removed from the place of honor at the great banquet table of civil religion. There is a certain degree of smugness in the myopic view that the plight of Christians in America is some kind of unique indicator of the relative imminence of Christ's return. The current climate of official hostility toward public expressions of the faith is deplorable and contrary to the founding principles of the nation. But it is not to be compared with the life and death struggle faced daily by believers in Nigeria, Somalia, Sudan, and numerous other countries living under the shadow of Islam and other false religions. Ironically, the church is growing and the kingdom of God advancing most rapidly in those countries where outright persecution is a fact of everyday life, not just an occasional annoyance.