In June of 2017, our church hosted Gracia Burnham, a widowed missionary who spent a little over a year kidnapped by Muslim extremists along with her husband Martin. Gracia recounts many of the details of her harrowing experience in her book In the Presence of My Enemies, including the death of her husband Martin, who was tragically killed during the firefight that led to her rescue.
Her story is an incredible example of the gospel of Jesus Christ lived out. She has forgiven her captors and even visited them in prison and shared the gospel with them, letting them know that God is ultimately their Judge and the One they need to ultimately seek forgiveness from through the cross work of Jesus.
As she shared her story with a packed crowd that night, she made a statement that has stuck with me ever since. As they processed the shock and trauma of being ripped from their vacation hotel in the dead of the night by terrorists, being on the run in the jungle and watching some of their fellow captives die or negotiate for their release, they were in constant danger of succumbing to lies regarding their situation.
Recognizing this, Martin wisely told Gracia whenever he could, “Remember, Gracia, the men that are feeding us, protecting us, guiding us, and sheltering us are our captors and not our friends. And the Philippine army, which periodically catches up with us even as our captors do their best to avoid them and shoots at us whenever we do meet, are our rescuers”.
In the middle of a crisis, it is easier to get things turned around, to forget truth, to call friends foes and vice versa, and to elevate non-essential things to essential status. Thus, especially during this current crisis, we must always remind ourselves that those who may agree with our politics, our stance on various items related to the response to COVID-19, or our stance on freedom of choice and bodily autonomy yet do not agree with us on our status as sinners in need of the only Saviour, Jesus Christ, are not brothers and sisters in Christ.
Conversely, those that may not agree with our politics, our theological positions, our stance on various items related to the response to COVID-19, or our stance on freedom of choice and bodily autonomy yet do recognize that they are sinners before a thrice holy God and have repented of their sins and received forgiveness through the shed blood of Jesus are our brothers and sisters in Christ.
In other words, we have infinitely more in common with true followers of Christ with whom we vehemently disagree on non-gospel issues than we do with unbelievers with whom we wholeheartedly agree on those same non-gospel issues.
Our Current Crisis
I have contended since COVID-19 first hit that it did not create issues nearly as much as it exposed pre-existing ones. One such exposed crisis is the deep divides that exist throughout our nation among those that claim to all be a part of the family of God through Jesus by the Spirit. This burgeoning tribalism has been recognized by numerous analysts and authors prior to COVID-19, and while much of the focus has been on our fellow Christians south of the border, we Canucks may have been even more deeply divided.
Some of the division is because of our geography, some is undoubtedly due to our history, and a case could be made that due to our smaller population density division is more noticeable. But the same disunity has unfortunately plagued Christianity since shortly after Jesus’ prayer in John 17. It certainly infected the Canadian Christian landscape well before a pandemic hit our shores.
By and large, the pre-COVID divisions focused primarily on theological differences, but once COVID hit those divisions shifted rapidly to the various responses fellow Christians had to the handling of it. Since there already seemed to be some confusion before COVID as to who a brother or sister in Christ was, the friendly fire was quick and continuous.
This has led to the grievous situation that has continued to sadden me throughout these last almost two years – we have begun to believe that those who agree with us on non-essential issues are our brothers and sisters, and we have turned on and treated our actual brothers and sisters as enemies.
Lest anyone think this is one-sided, this applies to anyone who has spoken or written derogatorily, whether directly or through supposed justified avenues such as satire, towards a fellow brother or sister in Christ who disagrees with their views on the handling of COVID-19.
A Biblical Case Study
Other than Peter, James, and John (and Judas Iscariot, albeit for different reasons), most of the rest of the original twelve disciples of Jesus do not receive much attention. Perhaps one of the disciples we know the least about is Simon the Zealot (Matthew 10:4, Mark 3:18, Luke 6:15, and Acts 1:13), whose name appears four times in Scripture without any further description other than “the Zealot”.
Some speculate that this moniker was simply to distinguish him from Simon Peter and points only to his zeal and enthusiasm for Jesus, yet another explanation seems more likely. It is possible that Simon was formerly a Zealot, those that were opposed to Roman rule and were seeking, by numerous means, to fight back against government overreach and oppression.
Alongside Simon, this former campaigner for freedom against government tyranny, was another lesser-known disciple of Jesus, Matthew the tax collector. Matthew had taken the approach of not only submitting to the authority of Rome but had gone so far as to collect taxes from his fellow Jews for their dictatorial overlords. As far as views on politics, it seems unlikely that you could find two individuals on more opposite sides of the spectrum!
Yet, due to their growing love for Jesus, they laid aside their political views and followed Him, rendering unto Caesar what was Caesar’s and unto God what was God’s (Matthew 22:15-22). Did their views on politics change after Jesus called them to follow Him? We are not told, but what we do know is that whatever those views may have been prior to becoming disciples of the Messiah, they were quickly submitted to the supremacy of Jesus.
In other words, as Jesus loomed increasingly larger in their view, these secondary things, formerly deeply rooted and all-consuming, grew increasingly dim in the light of His glorious grace.
Jesus may not have changed their politics, but He was changing them, and it showed in what they valued – Him over anything else.
A Better Way Forward
“Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.” – Romans 14:4
“Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?”- James 4:12
“Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them, the one who also had leaned back against him during the supper and had said, ‘Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?’ When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, ‘Lord, what about this man?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!’”- John 21:20-22
In a crisis, it is easier to find those who agree with you on non-essentials and quickly link arms with them, forgetting that unless they are fellow disciples of Christ they cannot offer you the deep, abiding unity that can only be found among those whom Christ has redeemed.
During the crisis, these bonds may feel strong, but once the crisis is averted, the depth that a common cause seemed to engender quickly dissipates.
This leaves those who are not rooted in their identity in Christ scrambling for a new crisis or new allies along non-gospel lines, all the while ignoring the wide, broad, and beautiful family of those who call Jesus Saviour and Lord, regardless of their politics or views on countless other non-gospel issues.
Why do we find it easier to amplify the disagreements between family members on non-essentials than to embrace the agreement we share regarding our own sinfulness and the surpassing worth of the glorious Lamb of God?
Why do we also find it easier to trumpet our pet peeves and personal views rather than the only One Who can transform human hearts?
Allow me to close with a scenario. Imagine that after months and months of posting charts, graphs, links to our favourite news sites, statistics, YouTube videos, and the like, suddenly, everyone in our sphere of influence completely agreed with everything we’ve ever written regarding the response to the pandemic (including the stuff we contradicted ourselves on).
That family member who was a particular thorn in your side, that one friend who stubbornly refused to see things your way, that annoying co-worker who seemed to find a counter for everything you posted, even if it was from a site almost as obscure as the ones you frequented. Finally!
Everyone you know, happily together, united as one, all thinking the way you do, seeing this crisis as you do, joining together to support, like, and positively comment on all your posts.
And unless they repent and believe in Jesus as their only hope and way of salvation, for all of that, they are still lost and on their way to hell.
Brothers and sisters, as Martin Burnham so rightly saw in the jungle before his death, those that are around you, cheering on your political posts, agreeing with your viewpoints on the pandemic, and matching your zeal for your view of the government, if they are not a fellow believer in Christ, are not true family members, fellow disciples and worshippers of Jesus.
And those around you, who may unfortunately from time to time “shoot” at you, if they are fellow believers in Jesus Christ, are true family members, those that you are united to in Him and with whom you will spend eternity.
Because of Christ, we have a deeper freedom and a richer fellowship.
May we all remember that, and may it show those who do not know Jesus Who and what we truly value.
Jesus above politics, Jesus above pandemic responses, Jesus above government responses, Jesus above all else.
Soli Deo Gloria.
There is some evidence to link Zealots with the Sicarii, a splinter group who took their opposition to Rome to the level of murder, carrying daggers with which to assassinate Roman soldiers or other officials. Regardless, they are not synonymous terms, and there is no evidence that Simon had elevated his distaste for his Roman overlords to this level.