The Bible says:
There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under heaven:
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal (Eccles. 3:1-3a).
In the past month or two, some people have decided that this is a time to kill. First came the murder of a college student in Laramie, Wyoming. The young man was bludgeoned beyond recognition and left to die in the countryside. Media reports say he was targeted because of his openly homosexual lifestyle.
Another murder was committed near Buffalo, New York. This time the victim was a doctor routinely involved in performing abortions. As he stood in his kitchen with his family, he was hit by an assassin’s bullet, leaving behind four sons.
Since these deaths were murders, and since murder is a violation of God’s law (Exod. 20:13), they ought to be deplored by all Christians everywhere. Yet some people who call themselves Christians have given the impression that anyone who kills a homosexual or an abortionist is doing God a favor.
There was, for example, the church group which picketed the funeral in Wyoming, carrying signs proclaiming that God hates homosexuals. Although their numbers were small, they were given maximum media exposure. There was also the minister who proclaimed that whoever murdered the abortionist in Buffalo is a hero.
Since the killings, we have learned that several organizations maintain a hit list of abortion doctors. Their computer websites include personal details, such as the doctors’ names, photographs, license plate and Social Security numbers, even the locations of their children. Although none of these groups are properly Christian at all, many of them quote Scripture or otherwise identify themselves with the Christian church.
Perhaps is not surprising, therefore, that some people have tried to blame the church for these murders. They say that when Christians speak out against homosexual sin or abortion, they are inciting violence. This smear campaign has been damaging to the cause of Christ. Churches and other groups have been hindered from promoting sexual purity or protecting the unborn in Christian love.
This is a good time, therefore, to think about how the church should address moral issues in public life. Many Christians know what they are against, but they do not know how to be against it in a biblical way. There almost seems to be a mean streak in the evangelical church. So a couple of reminders are in order.
The first is that judging sin is ultimately God’s business. If God desires to judge an individual for sexual sin, that is up to him. If he decides to punish a doctor for performing abortions, that is also up to him. When and how he does it is for him to decide, not us. “It is mine to avenge,” says the Lord, “I will repay” (Deut. 32:35a).
No one has the right to appoint himself judge, jury, and executioner over another human being, which is what the murderers of these two men have done. God has given the power of the sword to the state, but not to private individuals.
Nor has God given the power of the sword to the church. This is the lesson Peter learned in the Garden of Gethsemane. When Jesus was arrested, Peter drew his sword and sliced the ear off one of the high priest’s servant. It wasn’t much of a counter-attack, but Jesus was opposed to it in principle. What he said to Peter still applies to the church: “Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Matt. 26:52).
The reason the church does not bear the sword is because the church is not engaged in conventional warfare. Problems such as abortion and homosexual sin are spiritual problems. They come from the human heart that wants what it wants rather than what God wants, especially when it comes to sexual license.
Since these problems are spiritual problems they require a spiritual solution. Ultimately, we do not seek a change in the law or a change in behavior (although these things have their place), but a change in the heart. Our goal is not to condemn sinners, but to see God convert them, as only he can do. If we use any weapons at all, they are only the spiritual weapons of prayer and the Bible.
When I say the Bible, I do not mean an angry slogan slapped onto a poster. Shouting at people is no way to invite them to a new life in Christ. It is impossible faithfully to present the biblical message of God’s love in the middle of a shouting match. Some of the methods Christians use to address abortion, for example, quickly turn spiritual matters into political matters, which is what
many people suspect Christians are really interested in, anyway.
There is a place for preaching against sin, of course. But only where the sinner is treated as a fellow-sinner, and as a human being, with respect and compassion. A good example of this approach is the prophet Jeremiah, who faced many of the same issues in his culture that we face in ours.
Jeremiah discovered, for example, that parents were performing child sacrifices in the Valley of Ben Hinnom (Jer. 7:30ff.). It is important to notice what he did not do. He did not assume the right to carry out God’s judgment against this sin. He was content to leave that up to God. He did not go out and kill a pagan priest. Nor did he organize a rally to protest the sacrifices.
What he did do was speak God’s word against sin and offer people God’s grace and forgiveness for sin. And he did it with real compassion, often preaching with tears in his eyes. Jeremiah understood, as we must come to understand, the difference between a time to kill and a time to heal.
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Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By Phil Ryken. © 2020 Tenth Presbyterian Church. Website: tenth.org