You’ve Been Invited to a [Fill in the Blank]: Should You Go?
As the culture descends further into post-Christianity and even the memory of Christianity fades in the minds of most Westerners, Christians will find themselves facing many of the same questions faced by the Christians of the first and second centuries. Many of us are probably finding ourselves in a circumstance where we're being invited to attend homosexual weddings, the ordination of persons who are not biblically qualified for office, a cultic/pagan/non-Christian ritual, or some other event that is equally problematic.
How should we respond? There are two things that we must do: communicate our genuine love for those involved and our resolute commitment to honor Christ and his Word in every circumstance. Let’s start with the latter. How do we honor Christ in a difficult circumstance, when by saying “No” we may seem to be unloving and thus perhaps judgmental, uncharitable, and even unchristian? The answer is that if we act on biblical principles we honor Christ even when it is painful to do so.
For Freedom Christ Has Set Us Free
As Christians we are free to do a great number of things. In Galatians 5:1 Paul wrote, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery (Gal. 5:1).” To the Colossians, who were being falsely taught and thus tempted to the spiritual bondage of man-made rules (Col. 2), e.g., “do not touch, do not taste…” the Apostle Paul re-asserted the Christian’s liberty to enjoy God’s good creation within the bounds of his law, in the freedom of the gospel.
In 1 Corinthians 8, Paul defended the Christian’s freedom to eat meat offered to idols, even when others think that we should not. Nevertheless, there are things we are not free to do. We are not free to do things that may cause a brother or sister stumble back into paganism, unbelief, or into gross sin. Some believers understand that pagan gods and idols are nothing but figments of the imagination.
Not all, however, possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. (1 Cor. 8:7–8; revised from the ESV)
We are also free not to eat if the exercise of the freedom to eat will cause a brother or sister to stumble. We are free to eat until that eating becomes a competing communion. The moment our pagan host says, “We offered this to the gods” then we must say, “Thank you for your kind invitation but I cannot participate.”
Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry. I speak as to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. Consider the people of Israel: are not those who eat the sacrifices participants in the altar? What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he? (1 Cor. 10:14–22)
Believers are already in communion with the Lord. Just as the Israelites (infants and adults) were baptized into Moses, and just as they communed in the wilderness between redemption and the promised land, so we have been identified with Christ and are sojourning between redemption and consummation (1 Cor. 10:1–13). So, too, we’ve been initiated into Christ’s covenant community (the visible church), identified with his death in baptism. We have made a profession of faith and have eaten his ascended, proper and natural body and blood not by the mouth (John 6:53; Belgic Confession Art. 35) but by the mysterious work of the Holy Spirit through faith. Our loyalties have been bought with a price. Therefore we honor God with our bodies (1 Cor. 6:20).
“All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor. Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience. For “the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.” If one of the unbelievers invites you to dinner and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience. But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience—I do not mean your conscience, but his. For why should my liberty be determined by someone else’s conscience? If I partake with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of that for which I give thanks? So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved. (1 Cor. 10:23-33)
As Paul says, we are free from the opinions of men and from bondage to the same, but we are not free to damage brothers and sisters by leading them back into sin and we are not free to participate in rituals which rival those instituted by Christ. On this principle Reformed folk have historically refused to participate in the Masonic Lodge and related and parallel societies, their youth auxiliaries, and the like. On this principle Reformed folk have refused to commune in a Roman Catholic mass (see Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 80).
Limits to Our Freedoms
Paul is clear that it’s not that we must withdraw from the world (1 Cor. 5:10) but there are limits to our freedoms. We cannot participate in a competing religious ceremony or communion.
Whether attending an ordination service constitutes participating in a competing communion is a judgment call, but it’s hard to attend such ceremonies (e.g., a homosexual wedding) without signaling approval. If something is really wrong, then to do it is to act against truth and conscience. We know that the Apostle Paul would not participate in a meal in which the host said, in effect, this meal is no longer purely common, it is a religious meal.” Would he attend the ordination of a homosexual male or of a female of any sexual orientation?
Uncomfortable as it makes late moderns (and, according to surveys, Millennials in particular), the Apostle Paul categorized both homosexual orientation and behavior as sin. It’s hard to imagine that he would sanction a homosexual wedding with his presence—not because he was a prude but because his conscience is bound to the Word of God.
Arguably, the same is true for the question of the ordination of females. There are writers whose work I really like—outstanding female scholars who are also ordained ministers. I appreciate and value their persons and their work without endorsing their ordination or their defense of the ordinate of females. Try as they may, the advocates of the ordination of females to the ministry have not been able to make 1 Timothy 2 disappear from Holy Scripture:
I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve… (1 Tim. 2:12-13).
S. M. Baugh has effectively refuted the argument that Paul was responding to a particular kind of feminism in Ephesus—with the consequence that Paul’s prohibition in 1 Timothy 2:12–13 no longer applies today. As my dear friend Don Treick always says, “It’s in the Bible.” Indeed, as a practical matter, life would be easier if it wasn’t, but it is and it’s there for a reason and this is one of those pressure points that will continue to cause friction between Christians and the broader culture. If we allow 1 Timothy 2 to be swept away for the sake of getting along, then the rest of Scripture must necessarily go by the boards.
As the liberals long ago caved in and evangelicals have conceded the ordination of females, those who resist will be regarded with even greater suspicion: “What’s wrong with you? Why won’t you go along with the program?” At that point, it’s clear that the real issue is no longer: what is the truth, what does Scripture teach, how has the church historically understood this passage, what do we confess? Now the question is why some stubborn folks won’t conform.
That’s exactly the challenge faced by the early Christians in the 2nd century. As in the martyrdom of Polycarp, the Romans weren’t typically asking Christians to believe that Caesar is a god—they were only asking us to say that he is. They weren’t typically asking us to stop believing in Jesus. They were only asking us to renounce Christ outwardly. They were asking us to conform outwardly. Those who refused paid for it with blood. We’re not there yet but we don’t have to look far to see it, do we?
According to 1 John 4, there is a connection between words and what they signify. They signify spiritual realities with spiritual consequences. Therefore there are limits to what we may say and sometimes we are called upon to confess the faith in the face of moral and theological error, even when it is uncomfortable to do so.
How to Disagree Without Being Disagreeable
Above we considered the problem created by movement of the prevailing culture away from Christian-theistic assumptions and the associated descent of the culture into neo-paganism. How do Christians respond to the pressure to conform to social and religious events and other gatherings that are contrary to Christian ethics?
The first thing we must do is to understand the antithesis between belief and unbelief and when we must stand on and assert that antithesis. The second question before us is how to respond when we find ourselves in a state of confession, i.e., when our non-Christian friends, relatives, co-workers, or others ask us to or even seek to require us to do that which the moral law of God does not permit.
We are not the first believers to face these questions and challenges. The first Christians faced them in the first several centuries after the ascension of Christ and well beyond as Christianity moved beyond the Mediterranean to Western Europe, where it again came into contact with paganism. We did not always navigate these seas well.
Sometimes we assimilated pagan ideas and practices into our theology, piety, and practice. Sometimes this happened in the attempt to communicate the gospel to pagans and sometimes it happened out of desire to be accepted by pagans, as a way of minimizing the friction between Christianity and paganism.
After Scripture, which we considered in part 1, one of the more helpful guides to these question is the Treatise to Diognetus. This document was written sometime in the mid-2nd century (c. AD 150) by an author who called himself simply “the disciple” (Mathetes). Scholars disagree about who the author probably was but my favorite suggestion, defended brilliantly by Charles Hill, is that it was most likely Polycarp.
Whoever “the disciple” was, he gives us a wonderful pattern for engaging our non-Christian friends, neighbors, relatives, and even civil authorities in a winsome way. Like Christians in northern Nigeria, throughout the Middle East, and the Far East, the Christians of the 2nd century were under increasing pressure to conform to the prevailing paganism and sometimes that pressure to conform came from the pointy end of a sword. In his appeal for toleration, Mathetes wrote the following:
For Christians are not distinguished from the rest of humanity by country, language, or custom. For nowhere do they live in cities of their own, nor do they speak some unusual dialect, nor do they practice an eccentric way of life…For while they live in both Greek and barbarian cities, as each one’s lot was cast, and follow the local customs in dress and food and other aspects of life, at the same time they demonstrate the remarkable and admittedly unusual character of their own citizenship. The live in their own countries but only as nonresidents, they participate in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign country is their fatherland, and every fatherland is foreign. They marry like everyone else, and have children, but they do not expose their offspring. They share their food but not their wives. They are in the flesh, but they do not live according to the flesh. They live on earth but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the established laws; indeed in their private lives they transcend the laws. They love everyone, and by everyone they are persecuted.
In this passage (from chapter 5) Mathetes does two things: He acknowledges that we do, in fact, have things in common with unbelievers, and he asserts the anthesis, i.e., the reality, that when it comes to ultimate matters, Christians have loyalties and commitments that transcend our commitments to this world.
Notice his rhetorical strategy. He did not appeal first to the antithesis, that which separates Christians from non-Christians but to that which we have in common. One mistake that new Christians (or sometimes those who have newly discovered the Reformed confession) is the temptation to deny that Christians and non-Christians have anything in common whatever. This is understandable.
When we first come to faith we see how blind, how ignorant we were, that we lived in moral and spiritual darkness. Now that, by God’s free, sovereign favor, we see what we were and what we are and who Christ is and who he is to us—our Savior and the Lord of all!—it’s tempting to think that we no longer have anything in common with our unbelieving past or our unbelieving friends, relatives, or co-workers. That’s not true. We do.
Both of us, believers and unbelievers alike, continue to live in God’s world together. In that respect nothing has really changed. What has changed is that, by God’s free favor in Christ, by the work of the Spirit in us, by which we were granted new life, we now see things differently but Christ was Lord all along. Our coming to new life and faith and union with Christ did not make him Lord. He was. We just see it now.
We were God’s image bearers before we came to faith—even though the image was defaced and we were busily trying to deny that reality and to suppress the knowledge of God that all image bearers carry (Gen 2). Our non-Christian friends et al are also image bearers. They are in rebellion to the Lord, but that rebellion doesn’t change the facts. It just adds to the chaos and confusion of this world.
Because we share a common, shared status as image bearers, because believers and unbelievers live together under God’s general providence (he makes the rain to fall on believers and unbelievers alike; Matt 5). Recently, in San Diego County, we endured some unseasonable wildfires. Many acres have been burned so far but, thanks to God, relatively few homes or businesses have burned. Did God spare only Christians? No. He spared Christians and non-Christians, and likely both Christians and non-Christians lost homes.
We live in God’s world together. We stop at the same traffic lights. We experience the same weather. We eat the same food. We wear the same clothes (although we may we them a bit differently sometimes). We speak the same language. We drive the same cars. We use the same phones. We obey the same laws.
So, as we try to communicate to our non-Christians friends why we cannot join them in their celebration, we should be sure to begin with that which unites us, which we have in common. One of the things that has always irritated non-Christians most about Christians is that it has seemed to them that we have nothing whatever in common with them, that we are “special,” that we are exempt from this affairs of this world. From those places where we must separate from the world or distinguish ourselves from it, unbelievers sometimes (perhaps often) infer that we do so because we are intrinsically better than they, that we think that God loves us (and not them) because we are good and hates them because they are bad.
This is because the natural impulse is to relate to God on the basis of works (being good). We were made to relate to God on the basis of works (Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 6, 9). We confess that we “were made in righteous and true holiness that we might rightly know our Creator, heartily love with him” and, upon completing the probation, “live with him in eternal blessedness” because we had obeyed what the Belgic Confession (ch. 14) calls “the commandment of life.”
Unfortunately, sometimes those who profess the Christian faith give unbelievers reason to think that is how the world works, that we really do relate to God on the basis of our personal obedience when the truth is quite opposite: after the fall we are accepted only and ever on the basis of Christ’s perfect righteousness earned for us and imputed to us and received through faith (resting, trusting) alone.
Of course, unbelievers may be misinterpreting our assertion of the fundamental spiritual (and consequently epistemic) difference between believers and non-believers as a claim that we have nothing in common. Perhaps, however, have we unintentionally given the impression that we have nothing in common? Sometimes Christians (and even some in the Reformed community) sometimes speak about the antithesis in a way that gives that impression.
There is a most profound difference between believers and unbelievers. It is the difference between spiritual blindness and sight, between spiritual life and death. The only reason the dead come to life (Ezek. 37) and the blind are made to see (Matt. 11) is the free, sovereign Spirit of God who raises the dead and grants sight to the blind. The dead have no prior claim on God and he does not give sight to the blind because of any quality in them or even because of the quality of their faith. Therefore, we must not ever ascribe the difference to anything but God’s free favor and sovereign good pleasure.
Nevertheless, as humans made in the image of God, as fellow sinners as judged by the law of God, as fellow recipients of God’s general providence and mercy by which he gives gifts and restrains evil, we do have genuine areas of community. As we try to articulate our differences and our convictions, we do well to begin with those things we have in common.
How to Communicate Our Differences
So far we have looked at Paul’s teaching to the Corinthians about the limits of their ability to relate to non-Christians and his defense of Christian freedom in the same. We have also looked at the defense of the faith by a certain Disciple (Mathetes; c. AD 150) and the part where he explained briefly what Christians have in common with non-Christians and what they do not.
As we try to explain to our non-Christian friends, neighbors, and loved ones why we cannot join them in their event, we need to by express the antithesis that exists between belief and unbelief. Paul says:
Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said,
“I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them,
and I will be their God,
and they shall be my people.
Therefore go out from their midst,
and be separate from them, says the Lord,
and touch no unclean thing;
then I will welcome you,
and I will be a father to you,
and you shall be sons and daughters to me,
says the Lord Almighty.” (2 Cor. 6:16-18)
Before we express the antithesis we need to try to communicate our genuine appreciation for those who have offered to include in a significant event in their lives. Though they know, in their conscience (Rom. 1–2), that God is and there is something wrong and that they are ultimately accountable to God, they are also busily suppressing that knowledge. They do live in real darkness (Eph. 2). Their affections are misdirected and confused. They, as we before God graciously gave us new life and opened our eyes, hate God and do not want to submit to his creational order and moral law. Yet, as image bearers, in the general providence of God, they can be genuinely kind. None of us is as evil as we might otherwise be without the restraining hand of God.
We need to say to those who’ve included us in their lives, “We love you. We care for you as a fellow image bearer and as a friend/neighbor/co-worker/family member. We genuinely appreciate your invitation to participate in [fill in the blank]. We appreciate how important this event is to you and how important it is to you to have your friends and loved ones present.”
It would be good to articulate what it is in particular about your non-Christian friend that you value—as I’ve mentioned before, we ought to value folk not just for their potential to become Christians, for then they become mere notches on one’s evangelistic belt—but rather we ought to love them for what they are (fellow image bearers) and who they are to us.
We have good warrant for thinking and speaking this way. God loves sinners. Jesus, God the Son incarnate, loved sinners—the very sinners, for whom he came to obey, die, and for whose justification he was raise. He loved those who turned on him in a mob, the same mob that shouted for Bar-Abbas out of spite.
After we have expressed our affection for those who’ve sought to include us in their lives in this way, we should also explain why we cannot participate. It is not because we are morally superior or without sin but because we are not our own. We’ve been bought with a price (1 Cor. 6). We may be relatively autonomous with respect to civil authorities and others in this world but relative to God we are servants—we are slaves. We are to “have this mind” in us that Christ Jesus had (Phil. 2). Even if we might otherwise be minded to it, because we have been purchased with the precious blood of Christ (1 Pet. 1:19) there are limits, there are things we may not do.
The limits of our participation in are determined by our dual citizenship. We are free to do a great many things but insofar as our heavenly citizenship (Phil. 3:20) limits us there simply are things we cannot do. As Americans (or where ever the reader might be) we love our country but we love another country, a heavenly city-state (Gal. 4) even more, and we are ambassadors from that place to this. We must live before our unbelieving friends, neighbors, and relatives as if we represent the heavenly kingdom because we do.
The Ambassador for Whatevertania might like to appear before the president in flip-flops and sunglasses but he dare not because he is, with respect to his office, a public person. So it is with us. We live fully in this place and time, under the Lordship of Christ, but, as Mathetes says, our heavenly citizenship prevents us from sharing our wives, from putting our (unborn and born) children to death, and from indulging in sexual immorality and from sanctioning that which is contrary to the creational pattern—a pattern which is binding upon all image bearers.
Some people ask about Christian liberty in these matters. Yes, of course, there is liberty (1 Cor. 6:12) but that liberty is circumscribed by God’s moral law, and when not limited by law it is limited by wisdom. Even if, under God’s law, you might believe yourself to be free to do this or that you should still ask yourself: “is it wise? Is it profitable?” I understand the temptation to react to legalism but not all limits are legalism.
R. Scott Clark is professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary California (Escondido, California) and the author of Recovering the Reformed Confession (P&R, 2008).
This article is adapted from "You've Been Invited to a [Fill in the Blank]: Should You Go?" at rscottclark.org.
Recovering the Reformed Confession: Our Theology, Piety, and Practice by R. Scott Clark
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