Tuesday, 15 May 2007

What Good is Faith?

(James 2:14-20)

I have spent the best part of the past twenty years trying to equip the church to deal with the cults. I have come to the conclusion that my time might have been better spent equipping the cults to deal with the church. I have found much to be thankful for in the counter-cult community and have had dealings and formed friendships with many caring, patient and truly Christian people.

That being said it seems that there are two extremes of behaviour and attitude that are ubiquitous and depressing. The first is the one in which the cult member is regarded as having no intrinsic worth unless and until they convert. Before that happens they are fair prey for anyone who fancies chancing their arm at a bit of witnessing, that witnessing usually involving a lot of shouting, finger pointing, denouncing, ridiculing and ‘casting out’. It is the sort of conduct that, I understand, can be witnessed at Temple Square in Salt Lake City around conference time and I deplore it. It is something I see myself from time-to-time and it always embarrasses and angers me.

The other extreme is as bad, if not worse, however. It is that liberal attitude that ‘respects’ other faiths, new religions etc. such that there are no meaningful differences between them. There is no objective truth, no way to be lost, no way to be saved, no faith for which to contend. In short no light in the darkness just a bunch of people scrambling around in the failing light politely repeating, ‘after you’, ‘no, after you’ as they defer to one another all the way down to hell.

What is the answer? Surely it is in the words of Peter:

In your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behaviour in Christ may be ashamed of their slander (1 Peter 3:15-16)

Christians have a hope and it is uniquely founded upon Jesus Christ. There is one hope and one reason for that hope. We are to tell of that hope and that reason. There is a clear injunction to evangelise those who don't have this hope. But it is to be done with gentleness and respect for others and care for the good name of the One on whom that hope is founded.

My experience of the two extremes has seen some so bent on telling the reason that they fail to model hope and forget their responsibility for the reputation of Christ. They turn nasty and vindictive and cherish the idea of Mormons vilified, embarrassed and burning in an especially hot part of hell.

Others, however, are so determined to nurture a good reputation (usually their own is uppermost in their thinking, "see how enlightened I am?") that they dare not risk offence even though the Bible makes clear that the Cross is an offence to those that are dying. These take every opportunity to find the good in Mormonism, downplay differences as experimental rather than fundamental, and reinforce in Mormons the false notion that they really are part of the wider Christian community and have something positive to offer. Such an approach would have robbed me of my salvation and I do not appreciate it.

Personally, I despair not so much of the counter-cult community, that at least makes every effort to reach those lost in deceptive and destructive cults, as I do of the church in general that fails consummately to understand its responsibilities for those lost in false religions. Allow me to illustrate.

Get out of My Light

The story goes that when a colleague asked Isaac Newton what he might do to help the great man Newton replied, "Get out of my light." Christians, it seems to me, are often the greatest obstacles to the cult member seeing Christ and coming to faith and if I was asked that same question I would reply, "get out of their light!"

I don’t wish to be rude and certainly don’t want to discourage Christians from witnessing to people from other faiths. I am concerned about what kind of witnesses Christians so often are. I am all-too-aware of Christians that preach victory on a Sunday singing, "The Battle belongs to the Lord", then hide in the bathroom on a Monday when Jehovah’s Witnesses come to call. We preach grace on a Sunday singing, "Just as I am, with not one single plea", and on Monday stand at the door berating the Mormon for not being fit for human company let alone the company of Christians, much less the company of God, haranguing him as we might the devil himself.

Why do we do it? This attitude to the cultist is a learned behaviour - we learn it from other Christians when we become Christians and would not have dared behave so crassly before we came to Christ. Indeed, we would fear to behave so badly in any other social setting because we know that such conduct might deservedly find us conducted to the nearest accident and emergency unit.

When the Mormon or Jehovah’s Witness does come to Christ we find it nigh on impossible to change our attitude toward him, treating him with caution as though we never fully accept that he is truly converted. We don’t fully trust that he has left "all that" behind entirely. And anyway how can you fully trust anyone who could have fallen for that stuff in the first place?

Disgust and disapproval are so reassuring. They anchor our moral sentiments and feel instinctively like a moral proof. To abandon our sense of disapproval seems to have the effect of cutting at the very foundations that support our innate sense of right and wrong. Yet, if we are to be effective witnesses for Christ then grace demands that we overcome our instincts and look at the world aright, not according to our feelings but according to what is truly in front of us.

What the former cultist needs

The new believer coming out of a cult faces challenges of his own. He has made a huge decision, the magnitude of which the Christian surely fails to appreciate. He has left behind friends, often relations, changed loyalties, lost status perhaps, reputation and standing in the community that, until recently, was his world. He comes with a mixture of excitement about the Good News of Jesus Christ, questions and understandable doubts about his decisions and hope that they have been right.

The best advice the new believer can have is to spend the next few years establishing firm Christian foundations in his life. This is so vital and yet the new believer, perhaps flattered by invitations to ‘share your testimony’, is often tempted to throw Himself into "ministry" and help others come out. He doesn’t need this right now and it won’t help Him become a fully born again Christian, with a knowledge of Christ that will take Him through life. Much needs to be unlearned and much to be learned and the best place to learn and grow is not the public platform. There is also often a subconscious agenda behind this eagerness to minister and help others ‘come out’, i.e. it reinforces the decision he has made and proves Him right. If others agree with you it is so affirming.

The Christian attitude to the former cultist so often re-enforces this ill-advised ambition as the former Mormon/JW finds he has to prove his bona fides to everyone he meets by taking every opportunity to tell his story, publicly reject his past and work against his former friends. He is cast into the role of an "ex-Mormon/JW" and is forever known by what he was and not by what he has become or what he is becoming in Christ.

To put his roots down and establish a firm Christian foundation he needs to be welcomed and encouraged as would any other convert. His views and contributions need not be constantly treated with suspicion. When he struggles with issues, disagrees with people, questions things, or otherwise proves increasingly confident in his new found freedom it shouldn’t automatically be attributed to his background for which Christians, all-too-often, and all-too-often inappropriately "make allowances".

If he speaks warmly of his old friends and associates he need not be treated with suspicion, as though he were an un-rehabilitated cultist. His old friends were probably very nice human beings and, in light of the role his new Christian friends have thrust on him, he might be missing just a tad his old friends who simply accepted him for who he was.

What good is it if a man claims to have faith?

The bottom line is that it takes joined up church and grown up Christianity to make it possible for a former JW/Mormon to find a home amongst Christians and too many Christians, leaders included, seem to just play at it. We ‘believe’ in the doctrine and sing with gusto the songs but need to realise that ‘faith without works is dead’. With James, I say, ‘show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do’.

  • If you truly believe in victory don’t go to the door in fear.
  • If you believe in grace don’t go to the door in judgement.
  • If you truly trust God then go to the door trusting that he has given you an opportunity to demonstrate assurance and share grace.
  • If they come to faith encourage them to come all the way and not simply the safe distance that gives you comfort and assurance.

Otherwise don’t open the door because you will only make things worse.

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