Fear of death is not a Christian virtue

I’m going to start right up front with the disclaimer that this is 1) not a claim to speak for the Forney church of Christ or Focus Press, for whom I preach and write – thus why I’m writing on this website, under my own name and 2) a personal opinion on what the Bible teaches on this matter, yet one of which I hope to persuade you.

The point of this article is not to debate the risk level of the coronavirus, or really to discuss the virus at all. My point in this article is not dependent on the dangerousness of the virus. On the contrary, my point is that the danger of the virus is irrelevant in the face of Biblical commandments.

I’m writing to posit two Biblical truths and apply them to our situation.

First, Christians are not to fear death.

Paul wrote in Philippians 1:21, “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” While I’m here, I am to try to follow Christ’s footsteps, but death, whenever and however it comes, is to be viewed as gain. Do we believe that? Do we act like we believe it?

In a letter to a sickly woman named Mary Willis Shelburne, C.S. Lewis shared these thoughts on the matter of death for those in Christ:

“Pain is terrible, but surely you need not have fear as well. Can you not see death as the friend and deliverer? It means stripping off that body which is tormenting you… What is there to be afraid of? You have long attempted (and none of us does more) a Christian life. Your sins are confessed and absolved. Has this world been so kind to you that you should leave it with regret? There are better things ahead than any we leave behind.” (Emp. added.)

One of the most beautiful blessings about Christianity is the knowledge that death is not the end. I suspect the cause of our confusion on this issue is that we have neglected to ground ourselves in faith that we will be far better off on the other side.

I am not running toward death – I wear my seatbelt, drive the speed limit (or… thereabouts, you know), work out and try to eat reasonably, etc. I would very much like to see my children grow, and care for them and my wife, serving God all the way. But neither am I going to live my life in fear. To die is gain.

Arguing from a different angle, James wrote that our planning for the future must be done with an important fact in mind: “You do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away” (James 4:14). While we put off religious duty and wait for the virus to disappear, or a vaccine to eradicate it, or whatever else may save the day, we aren’t guaranteed that we’ll be here to see the other side.

Aside from the COVID deaths themselves, over 2 million Americans have died of other causes this year while waiting on life to return to normal. You aren’t guaranteed that you will be able to fellowship and share the body and blood of the Lord with God’s children a year from now. But you can this Sunday. Jesus told us not to worry about tomorrow, but instead to seek first the kingdom of God (Matthew 6:33-34).

Fear of death is antithetical to our faith. We are a religion founded on resurrection, practiced by millions who cower in fear of death. This should not be.

Second, we have work to do.

It was wrong of us to determine our course of action based on risk rather than on Biblical command. If God told us to do something, we are to do it and let Him work out the details. Preaching the Gospel has routinely gotten people killed throughout church history. No, persecution is not a direct equivalent, but it establishes for us that obedience – even in the face of great risk – is required. Even when Paul escaped Damascus in a basket to avoid persecution (Acts 9:25) he did so to go somewhere else and preach, not to go home and hide and wait for favorable conditions.

While we wait for our favorable conditions, the work remains waiting for us. Christian service cannot be accomplished in a setting in which we are not seeing each other face to face. When’s the last time any of us obeyed 1 Peter 4:9 – “Be hospitable to one another without complaining”? How long are we going to be okay with blowing off Acts 2’s example of gathering together, praying together, learning together, and serving each other together? Were we “loving our neighbors” by isolating them into depression and possible suicide?

The reason it was so easy for most of us to accept “virtual church” and continue on without the assembly is that our concept of church is so small and powerless. (Somebody should write a book about that.) Other than the preacher or a select ministry team, just about everybody else is interchangeable in many cases. You come to them and get what they’ve provided for you.

What happened when the lockdowns began? The preachers went to the buildings and recorded their sermons, and everybody else stayed home. If we had a biblical view of church, in which we need each and every member growing to maturity in Christ to strengthen each other (Ephesians 4), the idea of everyone doing “church at home” would have been a complete oxymoron. There’s no such thing as church at home.

Biblically we’re supposed to be evangelizing, discipling, praying together, being hospitable to each other, serving each other, and the list goes on. Very little of that can be done over a phone call or a Zoom, particularly for 9+ months.

So, to be clear, I’m not just arguing about getting back to Sunday worship. I’m arguing for going far beyond that, to practicing community as a Christian family. And while many (if not most) have continued to see their biological families through these months, we accepted isolation from our spiritual, eternal family indefinitely. Do we mean it when we call our church family our “family” or not?

God gave us work to do (Ephesians 2:10), and it’s my contention that we need to keep on doing it. You are free to disagree, but the burden of proof is then on you to show where we have the authorization to abandon that work, and how long we’re allowed to go without doing it.

Anticipating a few commonly raised objections:

“‘Love your neighbor’ means not exposing them to risk.” Yes, I know that “love your neighbor” was trotted out, as always, as the old reliable argument we can bend to mean whatever we want (sexual liberation, doctrinal compromise, political point scoring, and whatever else the moment needs). The Bible itself defines what loving one another looks like, though, and there is no sense in which all of us avoiding one another for a year fits into that definition.

It was one thing to accept “15 days to slow the spread” in the name of loving our neighbor. But if at that time it had been pitched to us as “staying home and abandoning Christian fellowship for months with no defined end point to slow the spread,” I suspect we would have been far more reluctant to view it as a loving gesture.

“If it saves just one life, it’s worth it.” If one life is the standard, we can never meet again. Every single year we have the potential to inadvertently spread the flu to an elderly, immunocompromised member. Every single week we all take the risk of getting into a car to drive to worship. Staying home would eventually save one life in both of these cases. Are these equivalent to COVID? Of course not. But I’m not the one who came up with the “one life” standard, I’m merely arguing according to its logic.

“People stay home to keep from spreading germs all the time.” You are fully capable of discerning the difference between one sick person isolating (typically for a short, defined period) and everybody – sick or not – isolating indefinitely, and have no need for me to explain why the two aren’t equivalent. The same goes for staying home for a Sunday when the weather makes assembling dangerous.

You can see the frustration in my tone, I’m sure. Week after week of bare minimum Christianity can have that effect. We simply are not being the church if we are not making disciples and fellowshipping with one another. Our response has robbed us of our identity and told the world that we’re just as focused on this life and afraid of death as they are.

With a knowledge of how beautiful and horrific eternity can be, a world at risk should motivate us to far greater activity, not lesser. Worship is too important. Fellowship is too important. Evangelism is too important. Disciple making is too important. Service is too important. It’s time to get back to work.


A quick postscript:

While everything thus far has been in the realm of opinion, this is not: if you’ve gone to restaurants, traveled, and/or gone into other people’s homes yet still are holding out on the Sunday assembly or other church gatherings, repent and get yourself in there. What that says is that you’re willing to accept at least some level of social risk, but being with the church is not high enough on the priority list to be worth that risk.

And, if that logic tracks with you, I’ll leave it to you to weigh up the same arguments as they pertain to going to the grocery store.

The church of Christ invented cancel culture

Of all the wonderful things the internet has given us, there have been a few that make me wonder if it’s all worth it. One of those negatives is what has come to be known as “cancel culture.” Cancel culture is that thing you hear of in the news where the internet mob gets a hold of some wrong action or social media post and does everything in their power to ruin that person’s life.

When they find one such person, they want blood. They work to get people fired from their jobs. They try to get the person’s friends and family to shun them. They want their target buried to the point where they can never come back. No amount of apologizing can ever save a person once they’ve been canceled.

The first instance I can remember involved a woman named Justine Sacco. She posted a couple of admittedly offensive, racist tweets while getting on a plane to Africa. By the time the plane landed, hundreds of thousands of people had banded together to get Sacco fired from her job. This all occurred in 2015, and since that time canceling has entered our vernacular and become a regular part of internet life.

Unfortunately, the church had a cancel culture long before the Twitter rage mob ever got a hold of Sacco.

For decades faithful Christians have been canceled over all kinds of things. The online mob stands ready to leap to action any time someone takes the wrong side on the Holy Spirit, heaven vs. renewed creation, whether drinking alcohol is a sin, or what holidays a person celebrates, or any other number of issues. Ironically, I’ll probably have some people canceling me over this article.

I’ve had people try to contact my congregation and demand I be fired over an article I wrote. I’ve had people pay for Facebook advertising to warn people that I’m a false teacher. My experiences pale in comparison to what others have dealt with, though. Some have been fired from ministry jobs, losing their ability to provide for their family over a slight difference of opinion. Some have had longtime friends turn on them seemingly overnight. Some have had it made clear to them that they are no longer welcome in buildings and events they use to frequent.

How can this be so when unity is one of the most emphasized attributes of the New Testament church? How is it remotely Christlike to cancel people without discussing your differences and giving them a chance to explain themselves? Where is grace when the slightest misstep is enough to instantly cut ties with each other?

Two considerations should be made:

First, when the time comes to take a firm, unwavering stand, it must still be done in love. And, despite what some claim, just because you’ve told the truth it doesn’t make you inherently loving (as 1 Corinthians 13:1 teaches us). Canceling someone is anything but loving.

Second, we have to be careful where we draw the line. Every Christian makes a distinction between non-negotiables and secondary matters. If we make everything (or 99.9% of everything) a non-negotiable, our standard is that there is no room to be wrong about anything. Matthew 7:2 must be kept in mind – our standard is the standard that will be used against us. If you’ve ever changed your mind on even the slightest thing, that “holding a single wrong belief makes one a false teacher” standard should be a chilling thought. We must always have the humility to be able to say “I could be wrong.”

Yes, there is such a thing as a false teacher, but we should use the term with extreme caution. Someone who disagrees with me is not automatically a false teacher. Someone who is wrong about something is not automatically a false teacher (see Apollos in Acts 18). The New Testament saves the term for those who teach foundational errors like works based salvation or denial of Christ’s deity. Additionally, we’re told that a false teacher will be known by their fruits (Matthew 7:15-20). Their character will show that they are not obedient, Spirit-led people.

That distinction in Matthew 7 is key. Jesus starts by teaching us to be very careful in our judging. However, He then tells us how to judge. So, if you’re reading this and asking, “how do we distinguish between a brother who is sincere but wrong and someone who is actually a false teacher?” just read Matthew 7. The first section teaches us to give grace to those who are mistaken. The later section teaches us to beware of those who are clearly false teachers by their fruits. The problem with cancel culture is there is never room for the grace that gives us time to determine the difference.

So, the next time somebody writes or says something that seems wrong to you, hit the brakes before throwing out the “false teacher” term. Before you cut someone out of your life, ask if they are truly in the wrong, or if you simply have a difference of opinion. If you’re one of those people who actively tries to harm those who disagree with you in any way, repent of your pride and spirit of division. Leave the canceling to our corrupt, graceless, Godless culture.

3 words you should never say to your preacher

Three little words that might seem harmless to you but are so damaging to your preacher:

“People are saying…”

Sentences that start this way (or similar ways, like “I’ve been hearing some talk around the congregation that…”) are often used to introduce some criticism of the preacher or a desire for a change.

  • “People are saying your sermons are too long.”
  • “Some folks have a problem with your wife and/or kids.”
  • “People are saying you don’t do enough visiting.”
  • “People are really upset with you over what you said about…”

But regardless of the specific message, the general message of “People are saying…” is always one of two things. Either: 

  1. There is criticism and complaining about the preacher going on in the church, and nobody who feels that way is willing to step up and address it with him lovingly, or
  2. The person bringing the complaint is using “people” as a cover for him/herself. Beyond that, they’re making the dishonest implication that the problem is more widespread than it actually is in an attempt to give validity to their criticism.

While I’m sure there are plenty of occurrences of #1, it’s pretty well established in preacher circles that 90% of the time when somebody says “People are saying,” it’s the latter. That kind of dishonesty, especially toward each other, has no place in the church.

Here are 4 reasons why I hope you’ll never use a “People are saying” criticism: 

First and foremost, it’s unbiblical. The Bible offers plenty of advice for dealing with interpersonal conflicts (Matthew 5, 18), disagreements, and differences of opinion (Romans 14). At no point does it say, “Talk behind somebody’s back and hope it gets back to them through a third party” or “Share a criticism that you have by blaming it on other people.” Above all, the command to “love your neighbor as yourself” simply prohibits this kind of veiled criticism. 

It’s controlling and manipulative. What can a preacher do when he receives this kind of criticism? He can’t go talk to the anonymous “people” and explain his side of the story, so he’s left with only two options: comply, or ignore it. But if he ignores it, he has no idea how many “people” are behind the complaint. He doesn’t know if it’s one malcontent or an issue big enough that it could cost him his job. So, he feels enormous pressure to comply.

Whether intentional or not, that’s the position the person who brings the criticism is putting him in, and it’s not fair. The most stressful, painful times of my ministry have been the long, sleepless nights kept up wondering how many of my brothers and sisters truly were unhappy with me as much as I had been led to believe by a “people are saying…” critic. Don’t do this to your preacher. 

It’s discouraging. It lets the preacher know that some of his fellow Christians (or at least one of them) have a problem with him, and they didn’t love him enough to talk to him about it. The core message is “You have to listen to the problems I have with you, and I don’t have to give any reasoning, listen to your side of the story, or answer any of your objections.”It’s already hard enough on preachers that we often feel like employed outsiders, and faceless criticism just exacerbates that problem. Remember your preacher is a person, too. Customers leave anonymous reviews. Brothers confront one another in love.

It facilitates gossip. What the critic is telling the preacher is, “There’s gossip going on about you, I was party to it, and I’m a pipeline for it.” If a brother or sister comes to you with a complaint about another brother or sister, it’s your job to shut it down and let the grumbler know that they can either go talk to the person they’re criticizing or keep it to themselves. Listening to them and passing on their complaints anonymously simply legitimizes their gossip and helps it keep spreading. 

If you feel the criticism is legitimate, offer to go with them and share the concerns. If they won’t talk to the preacher but want to keep undermining him by talking about him behind his back, their sin needs to be confronted and exposed. It should be unthinkable to us that a church be torn asunder by gossip circles and back door politicking. The New Testament makes it abundantly clear that the unity of the church is critically important to our Lord, and it should be just as important to us. 

That’s really what this comes down to, and why it’s so important. The unity of the church and the minister’s ability to be effective are at stake. I don’t think anyone wants to sacrifice either of those things to get their point across.

Naturally, the preacher isn’t above criticism and needs gentle correction from time to time just as anyone else. But how that is accomplished makes a huge difference. When the time comes to offer constructive criticism, please remember to offer it with love. Keep in mind how much of a tough spot it puts the preacher in to hear “people are saying” rather than hearing it directly. And, above all, don’t let gossip have its way in the church.