A Higher Allegiance
To wear or not to wear, that is the question.
For a couple of years, we have thought, talked, and maybe even argued about masks at church. But I first contemplated mask-wearing at church about ten years ago, before the pandemic and for a very different reason. While leading a class called “Christianity Explored,” I had noticed a participant with lots of questions and some suspicions. As we developed trust, he confided that, when he first came to church, he considered wearing a mask, because he thought the church may be piping in a belief-inducing drug through the ventilation. Why and how else would people believe in Jesus?
He eventually became a Christian (praise God!), but many obstacles had to be overcome. He perceived the church to be a place of hostility rather than hospitality. And he is not alone. Many people are culturally and relationally distant from the church. With this in view, at the National Association of Evangelicals, we connect and represent evangelical Christians to unite in faithful witness to the transformational gospel.
Freedom for Faith
Robust religious liberty provides fertile soil for the gospel to flourish. Indeed, Scripture testifies to such a commitment. When Moses and Aaron went before Pharaoh, they pleaded for the freedom to worship the Lord according to divine revelation and community conscience (Exodus 5:1-3). The redemption of God’s people from Egypt was an act of religious liberty that birthed a nation.
Robust religious liberty provides fertile soil for the gospel to flourish.
In New Testament, the apostle Paul vigorously argued at his trial – first before the governor Felix and then before Festus and King Agrippa – for his release as a Roman citizen to proclaim Jesus. However, the legal case was not the main point. King Agrippa soon realized that Paul’s aim was not to secure his physical freedom but to secure the spiritual freedom of others. So, the apostle concludes, “short time or long – I pray to God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am, except for these chains” (Acts 26:29). What a model for us today!
Margins not Middle
As America becomes increasingly pluralistic and secularized, followers of Jesus will need to lead from the margins rather than the middle. Christianity is less at the center of cultural power, and for many, this new social position is unsettling. Nevertheless, although ministries, institutions and organizations can no longer assume a common vision of society, the need to construct our national life together remains.
In Christ and the Common Life: Political Theology and the Case for Democracy, (Eerdmans, May 7, 2019) Luke Bretherton, professor of moral and political theology at Duke Divinity School poses a fundamental question for Christians as citizens in society: “in loving my neighbor, how can I keep faith with my distinctive commitments while also forming a common life with neighbors who have a different vision of life than I do?” Rather than lamenting the loss of cultural power, leaders can see that leading from the margins presents a new missional opportunity.
Faith not Fear
Such leadership requires faith. Our common humanity does not automatically lead to unity. To the contrary, our national discourse has often stoked fear about others, about what is or what will be. It is precisely amid fear that we have the call to live by a faith full of conviction and generosity.
For years, evangelical Christians have used the NAE’s booklet “For the Health of the Nation” to apply gospel principles to complex issues of public concern. And increasingly, those outside of the evangelical tradition are noting the comprehensive scope and civil tenor of this guiding document. As a resource for discipleship, it articulates thoughtful principles to navigate complexity with biblical clarity and encourage a posture of winsome gospel charity.
Witnessing not Winning
While the contesting of religious liberties present challenges, we must remember that we are in the world but not of it. Just as Jesus responded to Pilate, “my kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36), and Paul declared to the Philippians, “our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil 3:20), we belong to a different kingdom.
Our higher allegiance is our greatest strength and defining characteristic.
Our higher allegiance is our greatest strength and defining characteristic. This enables us to advocate for religious liberty, not primarily as a matter of securing our rights but fundamentally as an opportunity to bear witness to the gospel. Our goal is not to win an argument but to win people. And so, whether our liberties are secured or eroded, we can join with Christians throughout the centuries who, even though bound in chains, found and offered freedom in Christ.
Dr. Walter Kim became the president of the National Association of Evangelicals in January 2020. He also serves as teacher-in-residence at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Charlottesville, Virginia, after ministering for 15 years at Boston’s historic Park Street Church. He has spent nearly three decades preaching, writing and engaging in collaborative leadership to connect the Bible to the significant intellectual, cultural and social issues of the day. He serves on the boards of Christianity Today and World Relief, and on the Advisory Council of Gordon College. Kim received his Ph.D. from Harvard University in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, his M.Div. from Regent College in Vancouver, and his B.A. from Northwestern University, and he is a licensed minister in the Conservative Congregational Christian Conference.