Christians in Public

These days Christians whose work calls them to engage in the public arena face conflict and potential penalty, not only from non-Christians but from our own brothers and sisters in Christ.  Engagement in the public square can be a dangerous proposition.

And yet, here at IWU we are dedicated to the mission of making the world a better place by engaging the world as faithful followers of Jesus Christ.

We refuse to withdraw.  We refuse to accommodate our witness to the winds of cultural change that do not accord with God’s Word.

Instead, we prepare ourselves to engage faithfully, irenically, graciously, with a heart to serve the greater good.

This commitment raises questions that we need to consider.

What does faithful engagement in the public square entail?  What does it feel like to do this?  

How do we engage faithfully when our culture no longer values our witness?  

How do we decide what constitutes faithful action when Christians do not agree with each other? 

How should we treat those with whom we sincerely disagree?

These aren’t idle questions.  In recent days we’ve been called upon to remove Dr. Ben Carson as a member of the IWU Society of World Changers because of a position that he took in the political arena with which some members of the IWU community strongly disagree.

Now, several members of our community have expressed grave concerns about our invitation for Indiana’s Governor Mike Pence to speak at an IWU commencement ceremony.  They strongly disagree with his and the Indiana Legislature’s decisions on several political issues of the day.

I value the authentic, respectful way in which these concerns have been expressed to me.  As president of a university as large and diverse in viewpoint as IWU, I am almost never in a position to make decisions that satisfy everyone.  But I do value and wish to give an honest hearing to all who raise such concerns with me.  I am intent on creating a culture at IWU that is both faithful to Biblical truth, and gracious with all who make up our community.  Listening carefully and respectfully is one of our strongest expressions of these commitments.

In both cases, these two men, and other women and men like them, are living their Christian lives in public.  Their work requires them to take positions and make decisions that bring intense scrutiny and criticism.  In our current polarized social and political climate, it can be hard to know how to relate to people whose decisions we view as wrongheaded and even harmful.

Is it possible to stay in relationship with them even if they are fellow believers?  

Is civil discourse itself a form of compromise? 

Here are four principles that I believe should guide the relationships our IWU community takes with fellow Christians who are seeking to engage in faithful action in the world.

First, as a Christ-centered academic community, rooted and grounded in God’s Word, faithful to our own identity in Christ, we offer Godly hospitality to people who hold positions and beliefs different from our own.

Second, within our own IWU community and across the body of Christ, we recognize that faithful Christians hold genuinely different convictions and positions on many of the political questions of the day.  For every IWU person who may be uncomfortable having Governor Pence speak at our commencement ceremony, there will be several others who will look forward to hearing his testimony.  As a Christ-centered academic community, we listen to each other’s opinions, evaluate our own positions critically, and offer our thoughts to each other honestly and charitably.  In the end, we submit ourselves to the authority of God’s Word.

Third, as a learning community we remain open to learn from our brothers and sisters who are living their faith as servants of the public good, even though we may disagree with them on particular issues.

Fourth, in all these matters we hold ourselves accountable to act in ways that make Christ-centered civil discourse not only possible, but enjoyable and beneficial.  We do not use our convictions to bully, jeer, or berate those who differ from us.  Instead, we pray for Divine wisdom and the grace of God’s Spirit to help us win the hearts and minds of those we believe are in the wrong.  Our goal is not to rid ourselves of enemies.  Our goal is to gain brothers and sisters.

Let me say just a bit more about our invitation to Governor Pence.  Governor Pence and his wife are genuine followers of Christ who have visited IWU on numerous occasions.  I invited him to speak at IWU almost a year-and-a-half ago.  I have met with him twice in recent months, and have interacted closely with a number of people who work and attend Bible study with him.  I am asking him to speak about his journey of faith, and about the way he lives out his calling as a public servant who is a faithful follower of Jesus.

Serving in the public arena is difficult work.  Engaging requires us to make decisions and take positions that open us to criticism and attack by both the world and the church.  There are times when particular conversations, or conversation partners, may be difficult and even hurtful for us.  It is never our goal to create hurt or offense.  But it is our goal to learn and grow.

This is what we are called to do.  IWU is a Christ-centered academic community where we are all learning each day how better to follow Christ, to understand truth, and to prepare ourselves to help make the world a better place.