Christians Should Choose Their Fights Carefully

“A dog can whip a skunk,” the old-timer said, “but it just ain’t worth it.”

Some fights ought to be called off; they’re not worth the trouble and if you win them, you haven’t got much.

Just north of New Orleans lies the bedroom community of Slidell. Earlier this year, the courthouse there became ground zero for a contest between the ACLU and the political establishment as well as the religious right, all because of a picture of Jesus hanging on the wall. Defenders of the picture spoke of the Lord’s being our Lawgiver, of the debt our society owes to Him, as well as the worthiness of the painting from the standpoint of art and antiquity. The ACLU, to no one’s surprise, wanted it down, period. They said the picture was violating the well-known rule against blending religion and public life in a pluralistic society like ours.

The courts got involved and were equally divided. Then, as the ACLU folks fumed and threatened, the Slidell people did something rather brilliant. They left the picture up, but added some more. I’m not sure who’s images are now adorning the wall in addition to the first one, but presumably they were founders of other religions and other noted lawgivers.

Just like that, the furor died down and the controversy went away.

This Christmas season, like the last several, we’ve been treated to the spectre of Christians speaking out against greetings which omit “Merry Christmas” in favor of “Happy Holidays” or the like. Now, I’m a conservative, almost-but-not-quite-right-winger–the type who would love to have Mike Huckabee as president, for example–but I am really amazed at this controversy.

It’s probably not necessary to remind my brothers and sisters in Christ that this season of the year is not just for Christians. Everyone has the same calendar and every sect in the world has its own celebrations. In America at this time, the Jews have Hanukkah and our African-American friends have Kwanzaa.

Frankly, that’s fine with me, although…

I have been told that the celebration of Hanukkah was never more than a minor blip on the Jewish calendar until Christmas got to be such a big deal in this country, and the folks down at the synagogue decided they needed their own event to compete with it. And I certainly have no trouble with any descendant of Africa, in America or elsewhere, deciding to celebrate his heritage. Everyone knows Kwanzaa is a specially created emphasis and supposedly not a religious but ethnic thing, although I’m uncertain why they decided it should go on the calendar at Christmastime. Perhaps someone who reads this knows.

But even so, it’s just fine. After all….

There is not one word in Scripture telling us to install Jesus’ pictures on courthouse walls or have big celebrations for His birthday. Not one. And that ought to tell us something.

It tells me either that God did not want it or did not think it was all that important. At best, these things are optional. If you celebrate Christmas, fine, but do it right in a Christ-honoring way. Otherwise, it’s okay to skip it altogether.

How does that line go: “A legalist is someone who knows that God did not require a certain rule, but is confident He would have if He had thought of it.”

You get the impression that some of our brothers and sisters think God really, really wants His picture hanging on walls, His commandments displayed in courtrooms, His prayers spoken in classrooms, His words engraved on coins, and His birthday to be made a big deal over, even by those who do not know Him or honor Him.

I’m all for waging war against what the Bible calls “spiritual wickedness in high places” (Ephesians 6:12). But I wonder if we are using up all our resources fighting trivial battles over meaningless symbols. I wonder if we will recognize the real enemy when he shows up and be prepared to do significant battle, or if we will be exhausted from striving for symbols.

Granted, some symbols are important. The cross is a symbol. We sing of it, glory in it, and spread its message. But whether a stone in the shape of a cross adorns my grave–or anyone else’s–makes absolutely no difference as to the eternal destiny of the person underneath. It’s just a symbol.

I’m not sure how far I want to go with this. I’m torn on some of these issues.

In recent years, many of my colleagues have made a big deal over public prayers offered in the name of Jesus. Personally, I have turned down tickets to sporting events and invitations to government functions where someone wanted me to pray politically correct prayers, meaning simply to leave Jesus’ name out of it. If I’m asked to leave His name out of it, it becomes a question of conscience to me, and I quickly decline the invitation.

However, having said that, let me urge my brothers and sisters in Christ to read your Bibles, particularly the New Testament. There are prayers all through that are not offered “in Jesus’ name.” In fact, the greatest prayer of all, the one we call “The Lord’s Prayer,” does not mention His name at all.

That should tell us it’s perfectly fine for believers to offer up prayers without the formula “in Jesus’ name,” or something like it. We know from Scripture that Jesus is our intercessor and mediator and that our prayers are offered through Him. We may mention that in our prayers from time to time, but nothing our Lord ever said made it a rigid requirement without which our pleas are turned away by Heaven.

There are plenty of causes in this world and in our particular communities worth fighting for, issues on which God’s people ought to take a stand. But when there are disagreements over minor points or man-made symbols, we should move carefully and wisely before turning the full forces of the church family in that direction.

I keep thinking of two things along this line.

First, a scripture. In Isaiah chapter 1, the Lord is rebuking the Israelis for their hypocritical worship. They were endlessly traipsing in and out of the temple, piling offering upon offering, holy days upon holy days, and yet their lives were ungodly and their testimonies lousy. So, the Lord said:

“I have had enough of burnt offerings of ram and the fat of fed cattle. I take no pleasure in the blood of bulls, lambs or goats. When you come to appear before me, who requires of you this trampling of my courts?”

The Lord is saying, “I didn’t require all this of you. So why are you doing it?”

That’s a great point to keep in mind anytime we decide to go beyond what the Lord has asked from us. It may be acceptable, but we must be careful not to make it a rule, insist on others obeying it, and fight over its enforcement.

Secondly, a tiny history lesson about the church pouring major resources into a fight not worth waging.

In 1965, the infamous atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair tried to get the Federal Communications Commission to kick all religious programming off the television. The FCC quickly dismissed this nutty request and that should have been that. But it wasn’t. God’s unthinking people had geared up for action and would not be denied.

I still recall the alarm with which I, as a young pastor, began receiving letters from well-meaning Christians calling attention to O’Hair’s attempt to “get God off the air.” We must act now, the letters urged, and bombard Washington with a million letters to let the FCC know we will not stand for this. Along with thousands of other pastors and teachers, I rushed to my congregation and got them to write letters and sign petitions which we mailed off. How noble we felt.

None of us had bothered to check with the FCC to see if this was something they were considering. Had we done so, we could have found out the matter had been thrown out and was no longer an issue. But, no, we were too upset to do something rash like check our facts.

The result of this horror story–and that’s precisely what it is–is that for the next twenty years–think of it, TWENTY!–the FCC kept sending out periodic pleas to the Christian community to stop mailing those petitions. I recall reading once that they had two ladies on staff who did nothing except open these meaningless church letters and petitions. Officials in Washington variously laughed at the foolishness of church members and their leaders while bemoaning the wasted effort, finances, and zeal.

When the internet came along, I remember thinking that this would put a stop to the Madalyn Murray O’Hair petition. Alas, it started showing up regularly on my computer. Every time it arrived, I would return it to the sender with a brief explanation and ask the person to pass this on.

More than one person responded, “Well, it’s good for Washington to know how deeply this matters to us.”

I think Washington got that point forty years ago.

After Mrs. O’Hair was killed, the petition still circulated but changed slightly. It said “the organization which Mrs. O’Hair founded” was suing the FCC to get religion off the airwaves.

Editors of every religious magazine in the country ran regular notices in vain attempts to get the word to church members that this was erroneous, not viable, and a wasted effort. Someone once counted up the wasted cost of postage and letters, not to say man-hours, and it ran into the many millions of dollars.

It’s been a couple of years since I’ve seen that FCC letter, so let’s hope it has finally been put to rest.

There are so many issues in this world that need our voice, our prayers, our action, and our resources. Poverty, child abuse, family breakdowns, corruption in government, AIDS, war, starvation, drought, and of course, the lostness of mankind come to mind.

We need to take stands and we need to speak up. But first, we need to know whereof we speak and then decide if this is a battle worth fighting, a hill worth dying on.

We need the discernment of the Holy Spirit.

4 thoughts on “Christians Should Choose Their Fights Carefully

  1. With respect to sending letters to the FCC or whomever, to protest some imminent secular assault — we still get these sorts of requests almost daily, here in the internet age.

    Before forwarding that sort of thing to 100 of your best friends, it’s always a good idea to check first. If it’s legit, snopes will say so. But if it’s a hoax, or something that outlived its usefulness years agao (but is still being circulated), you can save yourself a heap of embarassment by checking first.

    You’ll be suprised at how many hoaxes you come across.

  2. Joe,

    I have found a kindred spirit! I mirror your sentiments when you state: “…I’m a conservative, almost-but-not-quite-right-winger–the type who would love to have Mike Huckabee as president, for example–but I am really amazed at this controversy.”

    We have created our own Mishnah by raising our personal convictions to the same status as scripture. Reminds me of the article you wrote recently concerning being careful about preaching our convictions.

    Once again thanks for a thought provoking and challenging article.

    How true that we need to pick our “fights” more carefully. We are fast becoming known more for WHAT we are AGAINST rather WHOM we are FOR.

  3. The greatest enemy of Christianity is not those who want prayer and the Bible removed from our lives. We are our own enemy in that we do not live the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We do not follow the example that Jesus set for us therefore the world cannot see Jesus because you have taken u out of Jesus.

  4. When I worked in radio, the O’Hare petition would pop up about every two years. We would know it was circulation because we would get a lot of calls from panicked listeners concerned that the FCC was about to shut us down. While I appreciated their love for our station, I found it frustrating that some of these people would be so insistent about fighting this “danger.” No matter how many times we explained that the whole thing was a hoax, some people could not be convinced, even when we pointed out that we had regular contact with the FCC, plus had relationships with lawyers and professional organizations who would warn of any real threat long before it became critical. It was almost as if these people needed for the petition threat to be true in order to provide some sort of validation for themselves. Would that we would pour so much passion and determination into true evangelism and discipleship instead of jousting at pretend threats!

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