But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect. – 1 Peter 3:15
This upcoming ministry year we are focusing our life as a congregation on the theme “Public Faith: Sharing the Hope That is Within.” As a result of this year we pray that more and more people in our congregation will have identified themselves to their friends, co-workers and neighbors as Christians and will be more actively engaging in genuine friendships with those who don’t share our faith. We believe that, because the gospel is the news of Jesus Christ dying and rising again on the public stage of human history, it will always “go public” when it truly takes a hold of a life.
In our culture today, the idea of Christianity as a public faith seems strange at best and ominous at worst. Many who see religion as a personal and therefore completely private affair can’t understand why a faith would insist upon being publically discussed. For those who see religion primarily as driving a political agenda, a public Christian faith seems threatening and coercive.
But we need to think about a third category that is distinct from the categories of “private” and “political.” That third category is what we are terming “public.” Here’s a helpful way to think about it.
When it comes to things that are “private,” the discourse that we use is the language of preference or opinion. In this category, everyone is entitled to his or her opinion and to insist that one’s opinion is the only correct one would rightly be seen as unreasonable and intolerant.
When it comes to things that we would categorize as “political,” the discourse that we tend to use is the language of coercion. Collect enough like-minded voters and the rule of the majority will use its power to coerce policies they support.
When it comes to talking about the Christian faith, neither of these two ways of speaking is helpful. If we speak of the Christian faith using the language of preference (the “private” category), it implicitly makes Jesus out to be just one option among many. Most Christians would say that that is a grave mischaracterization of their faith and so that language fails us. But if we were to speak of Christianity using the discourse of coercion (the “political” category), it would suggest that the Christian faith is essentially about using state power to coerce others into beliefs and values that they reject. This is clearly not the case.
What we lack then is this third category of “public, not political” and a third language. In this category, we do not use the privatized language of preference (“Jesus is my way”) or the politicized language of coercion (“Jesus will be your way whether you like it or not”); we use the public language of persuasion (“Can I show you how Jesus is the way?”) This is the language that ought to characterize our civil society. It is also the language we use when we have become convinced that something is true and we want to help others to see its truthfulness for themselves. 1 Peter 3:15 puts it most succinctly when it says that we ought to be prepared to share the hope that is within, but we must do it “with gentleness and respect.”
When we speak of Christianity as a public faith, we are saying that it is a faith that cannot be privatized or politicized without altering its very nature. As such, it is a faith that has always insisted on being public, using the language of persuasion. Because Jesus did in fact rise from the dead on the public stage of human history, that is enormously important for us all, regardless of what we believe. And we want to be a congregation that is known in New York City for speaking of this decisive public event with our neighbors “with gentleness and respect.”