It is a strange fact of human life that idolatry can become commonplace so easily. Worship of the less-than-worthy lodges in our hearts like shrapnel and becomes painful to remove. So painful, in fact, we often look in every place for any justification to avoid facing the problem.
The old, longstanding idolatries of evangelical Christianity in the United States are our worship of money, celebrity and power, both political and military. We long have justified the worship of these idols in our culture and even in the church by pointing to the great amount of good that can be accomplished with wealth, with the influence that comes with fame, with political clout and with military victory.
It should give us significant pause that our Lord neither used these methods to accomplish his Father’s purposes, nor instructed his disciples to do so. In the pause, perhaps we will hear the Spirit calling us to repent of those idolatries as we seek to do the work of the kingdom of God.
A new idolatry
The fact is, however, those are the idolatries to which we have grown accustomed. Now, a new idolatry has arisen, aided and abetted by the old idolatries. The new idolatry is that the personal character of leaders does not matter to the evangelical church. No, that is not accurate. The new idolatry is that the personal character of conservative political leaders does not matter much to many evangelical Christians in any significant way. The personal character of liberal leaders—however “liberal” is defined—in any capacity matters very much, just as it always has.
Presumably, the personal character of religious leaders still matters. But the idolatry of pragmatism over right attitude and action reigns over the church’s relationship to conservative politics. This idolatry has taken root, even in the church, because of our older idolatrous commitments to money, celebrity, and political and military power. It is in no small part because we can be convinced that a person would better serve those idolatries and the interests related to them that we were willing to excuse and justify issues of personal character.
Excused & justified
It is painful to recognize and remove idols, so the poor personal character of some conservative leaders has been excused and justified in a variety of ways. The most popular methods are (1) pointing to character issues of whoever is opposing the conservative leader and insisting they are worse; (2) insisting that God can use broken people while ignoring the necessity of repentance and accountability; and (3) hoping vaguely God will make things turn out all right somehow.
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Taking each justification in turn:
1. Much ink already has been used to describe the various ethical twists and turns involved in Christians seeking discernment between “the lesser of two evils.” Less attention has been paid to what our responsibility is when only one of the two evils remains.
Discernment here is much simpler. Surely, the answer is not to pretend the lesser evil is now good. Winning does not absolve the winner from being held accountable for his or her speech and behavior, both past and present.
2. When I speak of being held accountable, I mean professing Christians should expect fellow believers to encourage them in righteousness. It is absolutely true that God can use broken, sinful people. I have been blessed to experience this in my own life, as I am sure you have in yours.
But God also makes it abundantly clear repentance is a necessary part of Christian life. You cannot claim to be a Christian without genuine repentance of sin. If this sin has been public, it seems reasonable to expect public repentance. Any professing Christian in any position of leadership who has, for example, been a serial adulterer, owned casinos and a strip club, frequently and publicly used abusive and vulgar speech, and spoken of and treated women as less than co-bearers of the image of God publicly should repent of such behavior.
Repentance is, of course, a very different matter from making excuses, blaming others or changing the subject. It even goes beyond apology. Repentance means acknowledging one’s attitudes and actions have been sinful, asking for forgiveness of sin from God on the basis of Jesus’ atoning sacrifice, seeking to make things right between the sinner and any he has sinned against, and turning away from such sin and toward righteous behavior. Anything less is not repentance.
The Christians who serve as such a person’s co-workers or advisers have the responsibility to make that an issue of highest priority, lest the name “Christian,” and even “evangelical Christian” be linked further to massive hypocrisy. As Christians, we have the responsibility to urge our fellow believers in such positions of national leadership to hold one another accountable.
3. Our hope as Christians is not vague. Our hope is specific. Our hope has a name, and we have the privilege of addressing our Hope each time we pray. Let us pray specifically for what we hope God will do in our nation, in our churches and in its leaders. Let us pray for one another in these times of idolatry and pray all idols would be thrown down and all praise go only to the One who is worthy.
Patrick Adair is pastor of Central Baptist Church in Marshall.