In this week’s Two Ways News I’m flying solo, my regular co-pilot (Phillip Jensen) having been grounded with a nasty bug.
My subject connects with a number of themes we’ve been discussing over the past several episodes. Given the increasing marginalization of Christianity in our culture, is it going to get more difficult to preach the gospel? Or perhaps easier?
If God’s gospel is going to run free—unchained and powerful and changing people’s lives—how is that going to happen if we are increasingly being silenced?
Hope you find my thoughts on these questions encouraging. And as always, please get in touch and let me know what you think.
How is God’s word unchained?
Will there come a time in the not too distant future when to speak the word of God in our society will be to risk prison?
Perhaps? But surely not. Then again, maybe.
I flip between these reactions. When I see the insane over-reaction to Posie Parker’s meetings in Australia and New Zealand—her rallies consist of a microphone and an invitation for women to speak about what they want to speak about—I wonder whether a baying mob like that will surround a Beach Mission tent one day soon, with activists screaming and holding signs saying, ‘Minimites is child abuse!’.
Whatever the future holds, it’s certainly true that the preaching of God’s word is restricted in all kinds of ways today.
There are now many public forums within our society where Christians are systematically excluded. Christians are still allowed to appear on TV interview panels or to write columns in newspapers or to feature on drive-time radio, but only so long as we refrain from clearly and unambiguously preaching the gospel. If we say what we actually think, we won't be invited back. It's a banned topic.
Even in church, there are things today that preachers feel they cannot or dare not say. We may still say them when the word of God drives us to, but we will say them softly. We will cover our embarrassment with a shroud of qualification and apology.
When we get to this point, there is no real need for them to lock us up; we have saved them the trouble by posting a guard on our own lips.
I suspect that this is the political purpose of the loud and violent protests that attend any attempt by people to speak their mind against the prevailing orthodoxy. It’s not so much to shut down one small event, and the tiny number of people who may may have spoken at it, or even heard its message. It’s to create a dramatic media moment that sends a very clear message: don’t even try to voice an alternative opinion. We’ll do this to you as well. It’s just not worth it.
Little wonder, we’re tempted to keep our mouths and our heads down. And if someone does dare to stand up and preach in a blunt, bold way that draws the ire of the mob, we quietly edge away.
Kind of like Phygelus and Hermogenes and ‘all of Asia’ did to Paul in 2 Timothy 1. I’ve been pondering the opening chapters of Paul’s letter recently, especially in light of the increasingly marginal place that Christian teaching has within the politically acceptable sphere of our society.
The verse I’ve been especially mulling over recently relates to the gospel being chained up or restricted by the oppressive structures of society:
… (as preached in my gospel) for which I am suffering, bound with chains as a criminal. But the word of God is not bound! (2 Tim 2:9)
I suppose I have always regarded Paul’s feistiness in this verse mainly as a defiant assertion of his trust in God’s power. You can lock me up and silence me. You can treat me like a criminal. You can exclude me from every platform and opportunity for preaching the gospel (and even then I’ll evangelize my fellow prisoners and guards).
But God can’t be locked up. His word is unchained. It will run free and prevail because God has his purposes and they will not be thwarted. The words of Spurgeon come to mind: “Defend the Bible?! I’d as soon defend a lion. You don't defend the Bible; you open its cage and let it roar!”
All the same, I can’t help thinking: how exactly does the word of God continue to be unbound, if its proclaimers are in chains? How can we publicly preach the gospel, if public platforms are denied to us? How is the gospel going to win, if its preachers are locked up, or locked out, or de-platformed, or cancelled, or censored?
I think Paul’s own answer to this question is found in the previous paragraphs of his letter.
He has passed the one, true gospel onto Timothy, and he is urgently pressing Timothy to stay the course. Others have deserted, says Paul, but you, Timothy, must be strong, and join in the suffering that comes from being a preacher and an apostle and a teacher (1:8,11-12). Don’t be ashamed of me, or my gospel. Don’t be like Phygelus and Hermogenes. Be like the admirable Onesiphorus, who supported and refreshed me.
In other words, Paul may be in chains, but Timothy is not. The continued guarding and spread of the gospel is now in his hands. But not just in his hands.
Timothy is to pass on the message and the task to others as well—to the famous ‘faithful men’ of 2 Timothy 2:2:
… and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also.
The word of God is unchained because Paul is not the only link in the gospel chain (to mangle the metaphor). There’s Onesiphorus (and the rest of the apostolic band). There’s Timothy, Paul’s spiritual son and successor. But there are also those to whom Timothy passes it on. And those to whom the ‘faithful men’ also commit the message and mission of the gospel, through their teaching.
All of them, and all of us, are called to the same basic work of the gospel, which is fourfold:
to be faithful to the gospel (to steadfastly guard its truth and to live out its truth);
to speak the gospel (to teach and preach and communicate the word of God to those around us through whatever opportunities God provides);
to suffer for the gospel (because speaking and living the gospel will always bring opposition and trouble);
to teach and train and equip others to do the same (to pass on this same gospel life and mission to others).
God’s word continues to spread and do its work through a gorilla army of faithful gospel servants. They can’t lock us all up. And they can’t keep us all quiet.
If they exclude us from TV, we’ll start a radio station. If we’re locked out of radio, we’ll start a podcast. If Apple kicks us off their podcast platform, we’ll build our own. Christians have always invented new ways of communication, or subverted existing ones, in order to keep preaching the gospel.
But more importantly, if every conceivable means of print and electronic communication were somehow to be denied us, we’d walk the streets and knock on doors. We’d gather in homes and garages, and invite our neighbours to join us. We’d launch underground churches, and be ready to be taken away by the authorities when they find us (as our brothers and sisters in China and other parts of the world have done for decades).
God’s word is unchained because it doesn’t depend on the human authorities of our world, which are always, and have always, been opposed to God. The gospel is spread by God’s people as they engage in the worldwide gospel mission together.
This has always been our advantage as Christians, although we sometimes forget it. We love people, and gather people together, and work together as brothers and sisters. We build learning communities (called ‘churches’) that teach and guard and spread the gospel. We reach out to friends and families; we build connections with local communities; we see spiritual deserts where the gospel isn’t known, and we go and live there, so that we can plant and water.
Our real strength is the people that God continues to gather and grow by his Word and Spirit. Our strength (to use a metaphor someone once used somewhere) is in the vine not the trellis. If the authorities shut down or destroy parts of our trellis—say the ability to communicate through electronic media—we’ll just build another one of some kind, because we know that the life and the growth is in the vine.
We shouldn’t be downhearted when the rulers and authorities lock us up, or lock us out. We should rejoice, in fact, because that’s how they treated our forefathers. It’s certainly how they treated Jesus and the apostles and those that followed them.
Our challenge, like Timothy’s, is to not be ashamed of the gospel, but to proclaim it, to join in suffering for it, and in particular to keep teaching and training others to do the same. God has his elect and will draw them to himself through the ministry of his own people as they speak his word. And this, as Paul says, is worth suffering for:
Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory.
Thanks to those who’ve been sending in questions and comments, particularly about our recent discussion of the place of ‘desire’ in evangelism. To listen to an answer to a particularly thoughtful question on this subject, have a listen to the podcast audio above, starting at 14:45.