Challenges Facing the Catholic Church #3

 

Title: Challenges Facing the Catholic Church #3

Text: Jeremiah 1:7-8, 9-10, 17

Time: October 8th, 2013

Well it’s been months since the new Catholic Pope Francis took office, but already he’s making the news almost every day with some comment, speech, interview or pronouncement. Earlier this year I gave two messages outlining challenges the Roman Catholic church faces. As a Protestant Christian and not a member of the Church of Rome, I’m still interested in the fate of Christianity’s largest branch of over one billion members. That’s why I try to keep up on everything happening in respect to the new pope, and the reaction of the church and the world to his activity. To be honest, I’m a bit puzzled by Pope Francis’s perspective because it’s definitely different from the last two popes – John Paul II and Benedict XVI. He seems to be saying to the church and the world that while he’s a loyal and faithful son of the Catholic church, he’s also going to approach the challenges facing the church from a different perspective. For example, he’s given interviews where he’s said that Catholics don’t always have to talk about abortion, gay marriage and divorce. Now that’s understandable since Christianity is so much more than opposition to these things. But it’s also odd because as Christians we’re supposed to be the “light of the world” and the “salt of the world” as Jesus Christ taught his disciples. So in other words, we’re supposed to be prophetic and speak truth to the world whether it’s popular or not. But what the present pope seems to be saying is that while he continues to hold firm to catholic teachings on these issues, he isn’t interested in talking a whole lot about them in public. As a Protestant Christian, and especially as an evangelical Christian in the United States, I’ve heard and seen this angle taken by church leaders before – by the mega-church pastors and denominational leaders. They too claim to hold faithfully to the spiritual and moral teachings of the Bible, yet they too share a distaste for speaking publicly on these controversial issues. For example, mega-church pastor Rick Warren is a member of the conservative Southern Baptist Convention and holds to all the points of the Baptist Faith and Message statement of faith; yet he also tries to avoid taking any public and highly visible stand on the more controversial issues of the day in order to avoid being unpopular or causing offense. Other mega-church pastors and denominational leaders take the same approach. It seems that Pope Francis is following this same game plan in speaking with the press about issues. Now I have to say I’m not a big fan of this strategy in Christianity because it squanders opportunities we’re given as Christians to bear witness to the truth before a watching world. It also smacks of cowardice and the absence of one’s courage of conviction. Rather than dodge controversial spiritual and moral questions, why not answer them frankly? This is a more faithful and consistent biblical approach. Let me explain what I mean in three areas.

First, Christians should keep talking about the sin of homosexuality. Jeremiah 1:7-8, “But the Lord said to me . . . ‘You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you,’ declares the Lord.” The Christian church needs to continue to talk about the sinfulness of homosexuality because the world keeps on challenging the church on its convictions. I agree with what the Bishop of New York, Timothy Dolan, said – “It’s not so much the church is talking about these things as much as people asking the church about these things.” It’s clear that the prevailing opinion in popular culture favors homosexuality and same sex marriage; so then it’s obvious that the church will be questioned and challenged about its opposition to homosexuality and same sex marriage. That’s what is happening. It’s not the church that’s fixated on this issue; it’s the sinful world. So when secular, modern people come knocking on the church’s door asking for comments on same sex marriage, should the church simply say, “No comment?” That wouldn’t be right, nor would it be faithful to the command of Christ to teach God’s truth to all people. Christians have a teachable moment during the present same sex marriage debate to bear witness to the truth of heterosexual marriage. I’m not sure what the present pope is proposing, but it sounds like he wants to avoid the conversation, dodge the controversial issues, and take a low profile position in order to not offend people. For example, he says concerning homosexuals, “Who am I to judge?” But this misses the point. It’s not Christianity or Christians that “judge” homosexual behavior as much as it’s God’s Word that teaches against it. In teaching the Word of God are Christians “judging” homosexuals? No. We are called and commissioned to bear witness to the truth of God in the world, whether the truth is received favorably or disfavorably. We can’t just opt out of the conversation because we might offend some people by the position we take on controversial issues. Sure, we can gain popularity points by keeping quite or not commenting on gay marriage, but we aren’t bearing witness to the spiritual and ethical truth of God on the matter. I think the current pope, as well as high profile Protestant leaders, need to rethink there “no comment” or “low profile” approach in respect to controversial public moral issues. One of the reasons our culture is in such bad shape morally is that these things haven’t been taught properly. Instead of retreating from legitimate Christian truths, we need to stand firmly and teach more clearly the moral standards of God. I strongly disagree with the approach of backing down from taking a clear, strong moral stand against homosexuality, particularly gay marriage. We need to do the opposite – continue teaching against it even more.

Second, Christians should keep talking about the sin of abortion. Jeremiah 1:17, “Get yourself ready! Stand up and say to them whatever I command you. Do not be terrified by them, or I will terrify you before them.” God’s message to Jeremiah and to us Christian believers today is this – “Stand strong and dare to say what I command you to say. Don’t consider the consequences or the outcome. Be brave and tell the people the message from God.” What God says to people today is, first, homosexuality is still sinful, so obviously, same sex marriage would be wrong as well; second, abortion is still a sin, and so as children of God we need to continue to tell the world that it’s wrong. But that’s not what seems to be coming from the new pope in his speeches, talks and interviews. He seems to be saying that even though these moral issues are being talked about a lot in popular culture, he’s not interested in talking about them if it would be controversial or difficult. How is that not cowardly? Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI talked about homosexuality and abortion, and they gave the church’s spiritual and moral teaching on these issues. Pope Benedict, the former Joseph Ratzinger, never turned away or shied away from answering questions on any subject matter, which is why I particularly liked him. He not only answered questions, but he’d go into detail in his answers, giving you more than you bargained for with your question. This got him into trouble on occasion, but at least you understood what the Christian teaching was on the subject! The present pope seems reluctant to answer certain questions because it might alienate him from reaching out to all people. Well, a Christian answer to certain questions just might alienate him from certain people who already have their minds set, but that’s the risk any teacher takes when they answer any question. People will disagree. The only way to avoid possibly offending people is to not answer questions or simply say, “No comment.” But is that really a Christian option, especially in light of the Great Commission command of Christ to teach God’s Word to all people? Hardly. The pope says Christians don’t always have to talk about abortion, but I don’t think Christians do always talk about abortion – that’s a mischaracterization of the secular media, unfortunately repeated by the pope. But Christians certainly shouldn’t avoid opposing abortion, because after all it’s still murder, it’s still a criminal act, whether it’s popular to say so or not. Again, I have to disagree with the attitude of the present pope. Instead of talking less about abortion, Christians need to talk more about it, and take a stronger and more vocal stand against.

Third, Christians should keep talking against divorce. Jeremiah 1:9-10, “Then the Lord reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, ‘Now, I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.’” The prophetic role is sometimes to tear down or speak negatively towards something that is sinful or harmful; but sometimes the prophetic role is to build up or speak positively towards things in order to encourage their growth in society. It’s the same with the Christian church. Sometimes God will call Christians to speak in opposition to things that are sinful, evil and wrong. Homosexuality is sinful, and gay marriage is wrong. Christians should speak out against these things, even if it comes across negative in a sinful culture. Abortion is wrong also. Christians are called by God to bear witness in society that abortion is murder, even though this is a negative message and stirs up controversy. Cohabitation is sinful and wrong. Christian must oppose it in both private and public conversation. Divorce is wrong. The Bible says God hates divorce (Malachi 2:16), therefore, Christians must try to discourage divorce as best they can, even though it might come across as judgmental or negative. That goes with the job of being a prophetic voice in society. But it’s not all negative, there’s the positive prophetic witness as well. Christians, while opposing same sex marriage, affirm and encourage heterosexual marriage. While they oppose abortion, Christians encourage adoption and help for single mothers. And at the same time teaching against divorce, Christians offer help for those who are divorced. So I really don’t think we need to follow the advice of Pope Francis to not talk about controversial ethical and moral issues. We need to talk about them just as much, if not even more so in the days ahead, because that’s just what a prophet is called to do. To do anything less is to abandon our calling from God and our mission in the world. If anything, though, we need to make sure that we don’t only talk negative about things, or be against things, because that would make our overall message negative, which it’s not. Our overall Christian message is positive, what we are for, what is a blessing from God. I think that’s what the present pope is really trying to say, that he wants to talk about more positive things, which is perfectly fine. But he needs to be careful in not discouraging Christians from maintaining their prophetic stance in the world today. Will our overall Christian message be taken as negative by the secular press? Maybe, but there’s not a whole lot we can do about that. How people hear us is largely based on the perspective they bring to the conversation. We just need to pray that God gives people an accurate understanding of the Christian message in the world today, despite media distortions.

The Catholic church isn’t the only Christian organization that deals with media distortion. Like I said before, mega-church pastors and denominational leaders have been trying to emphasize the positive Christian message while avoiding any negative stereotypes in the media for decades now. Unfortunately, the results of avoiding controversial issues by Christians aren’t encouraging. As Christian pastors and denominational leaders have carefully avoided coming across judgmental on moral and ethical issues, the culture has steadily declined in morality. Some Christian leaders avoid talking about topics such as abortion, cohabitation, divorce, and homosexuality for fear of offending people or raising controversy. The result is that the Christian church has nearly lost its witness on these issues in culture where society is falling apart morally and ethically. The solution is not, as the present pope suggests, not to talk about these things as much. But rather, as I’ve said before, Christians need to talk about them more – more clearly, more intelligently, more tactfully, and more courageously. The problem is that these issues are also mixed in with politics, which further confuses the situation. If you start expressing an attitude against gay marriage or abortion, then people start thinking you’re getting political. To make the matter worse many Christians mix their faith with politics and begin to defend not only traditional moral values, but also a whole slew of other positions that have little or nothing to do with Christianity.  Now often times it can’t be avoided. Abortion is both a moral and political issue; so is homosexuality. But as Christians we need to do a better job, a more careful job, distinguishing between our core spiritual and moral convictions from merely political or economic issues. We should bear witness to the spiritual and moral truths from God, but we shouldn’t promote other political or economic issues with the same conviction and zeal as we do our core Christian teachings. To do so confuses our true priorities. Maybe the secular world sees Christianity as having more of a political agenda than a spiritual or moral agenda because Christians themselves have confused the two. We need to be careful that what we are bearing witness for is truly from God and not just a political point of view. We have nothing to be ashamed of, nothing to run away from, nothing to avoid in bearing witness to God’s truth in our society today. We don’t need to speak any less of truth, but what we need to do is speak more intelligently and more tactfully. If that is what the present pope means, then I agree.

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