Christianity has a PR problem, and if we’re looking for the culprit we have to look no further than our bedroom mirror.
Jesus, of course, warned that an unbelieving world would reject His followers, but He also encouraged His people to be “in the world but not of the world.” To be at odds with the world may be inevitable, but it is not the Christian’s goal.
Our unbelieving friends and neighbors have no trouble naming the things that Christianity is typically against. As a matter of fact, some years ago a group of researchers asked non-Christians to describe Christianity. The top six answers were as follows: “hypocritical,” “judgmental,” “too political,” “anti-homosexual,” and “too focused on getting converts.”
What about you? If your neighbors had to describe Christianity based on what they’ve seen of your faith, what do you think they’d say?
For years we’ve been living with the assumption that Christianity suffers from the baggage of “religion.” So we took strides to re-define ourselves. “It’s a relationship,” we insisted; “not a religion.”
I grew up hearing this. I often found myself saying this. But you know something? None of my non-Christian friends ever bought it. Your mileage may vary, but my friends always heard this as another in a long string of religious clichés. As I’ve gotten older, I find the idea that we should jettison all religion a bit simplistic, and if I’m being candid I’ve often feared that such statements have contributed to a faith deep with emotion yet shallow on virtue. Such faith rarely makes a lasting impression on the world around us—heck, such faith often fades from our hearts when our sincerity runs thin.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul takes time to discuss the nature of Christian conduct. The following section comes immediately after a section dealing with Christians and human government, so it seems quite reasonable to understand this in terms of Christianity in the public arena.
8 Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9 For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. (Romans 13:8-10)
Perhaps the answer isn’t less religion, but deeper religion—a truer, more robust expression of God’s truth. More than anything, Paul says, the Christian life is exemplified by love. Love—not a t-shirt slogan, not a boycott, not a particular posture toward politics—love is what Christians are to be known for.
Paul goes on to help us understand this imperative in light of our place in God’s story:
11 Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. 12 The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. 13 Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. 14 But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. (Romans 13:11-14)
His imagery here emphasizes the coming of the Day of the Lord—that is, the Second Coming of Christ when all will be made whole, and we can truly count ourselves among the “saved.” For Paul—and most of the other writers of our New Testament—this day seemed “soon.” For us, we know that centuries have passed since these words were written, but the day can be just as “soon” for us today as it was then. Paul’s point is that if this kingdom is coming soon, man’s empires pale in comparison. It’s as if he’s saying that if a feast is coming, it’s foolish to gorge ourselves at a dirty taco stand.
Love and character, therefore, form the most elemental basis of Christian discipleship. Christianity is, principally, a set of beliefs—but these beliefs take shape in the life each of us lead as we seek to “put on Christ.”
Our world will always stumble over the cultural expressions of Christianity, with all our boycotts, stale slogans, and “Christianized” forms of music and movies. But wouldn’t it be great if our friends and neighbors saw us for more than that—saw us for men and women of deep character and abiding love? If our world is going to stumble over Christ’s followers, than let them stumble over our love; let them stumble over our character. And let us be there to show them how to walk like Jesus.