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Is Christianity bad for society?

Back to all sermons Living the mission of God: the book of Acts

Date: November 4, 2018

Speaker: Eric Stillman

Series: Living the mission of God: the book of Acts

Scripture: Acts 24:1–26:32

We are continuing this morning going through the book of Acts. In the previous chapters, Paul has been turned over by the Jews to the Romans. In this passage, he goes on trial before three Roman leaders: Felix, Festus, and Herod Agrippa. We’re not going to read the whole passage, which is three chapters long, but we’ll start with 24:1-21 in order to understand what Paul is being accused of.

 

Acts 24:1-21 - Five days later the high priest Ananias went down to Caesarea with some of the elders and a lawyer named Tertullus, and they brought their charges against Paul before the governor.  2 When Paul was called in, Tertullus presented his case before Felix: "We have enjoyed a long period of peace under you, and your foresight has brought about reforms in this nation.  3 Everywhere and in every way, most excellent Felix, we acknowledge this with profound gratitude.  4 But in order not to weary you further, I would request that you be kind enough to hear us briefly.  5 "We have found this man to be a troublemaker, stirring up riots among the Jews all over the world. He is a ringleader of the Nazarene sect  6 and even tried to desecrate the temple; so we seized him.  7   8 By examining him yourself you will be able to learn the truth about all these charges we are bringing against him."  9 The Jews joined in the accusation, asserting that these things were true.  10 When the governor motioned for him to speak, Paul replied: "I know that for a number of years you have been a judge over this nation; so I gladly make my defense.  11 You can easily verify that no more than twelve days ago I went up to Jerusalem to worship.  12 My accusers did not find me arguing with anyone at the temple, or stirring up a crowd in the synagogues or anywhere else in the city.  13 And they cannot prove to you the charges they are now making against me.  14 However, I admit that I worship the God of our fathers as a follower of the Way, which they call a sect. I believe everything that agrees with the Law and that is written in the Prophets,  15 and I have the same hope in God as these men, that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked.  16 So I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man.  17 "After an absence of several years, I came to Jerusalem to bring my people gifts for the poor and to present offerings.  18 I was ceremonially clean when they found me in the temple courts doing this. There was no crowd with me, nor was I involved in any disturbance.  19 But there are some Jews from the province of Asia, who ought to be here before you and bring charges if they have anything against me.  20 Or these who are here should state what crime they found in me when I stood before the Sanhedrin--  21 unless it was this one thing I shouted as I stood in their presence: 'It is concerning the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial before you today.'" 

 

Why have the Jews brought him to the Romans to be put on trial?

 

5 "We have found this man to be a troublemaker, stirring up riots among the Jews all over the world. He is a ringleader of the Nazarene sect  6 and even tried to desecrate the temple; so we seized him.  7   8 By examining him yourself you will be able to learn the truth about all these charges we are bringing against him." 

 

They are accusing Paul of being a troublemaker and of sedition – speech or conduct that incites people to rebel against Roman authority. Essentially, the Jews want him dead because of his ministry to the Gentiles, and they try to convince the Romans that he is a danger to the Roman government. Paul defends himself, claiming that he is a good and loyal Roman citizen who believes what the Jews believe but also believes in Jesus as Lord and Savior. He worships God and hopes in the resurrection of the dead. The Roman leaders don’t find any basis for the charges against him, but he appeals to Caesar, and so he will eventually go to Rome. Incidentally, the record of church history proclaims that Paul went to Rome and was eventually executed by Nero, the Caesar at the time, during Nero’s persecution of Christians.

 

I want to consider this morning the charges of Christians as troublemakers, the perspective that the Jews took in this passage and that many take today, that Christians are a problem, and that more broadly, religion is the problem, instead of being a force for good in the world. Times may have changed since Paul’s day, but the charges remain the same when culture turns farther away from God. How are Christian seen as the problem in our society? Three ways:

 

  • Christians try to force their morality on others

 

Nine out of ten outsiders found Christians too "anti-homosexual," and nearly as many perceived it as "hypocritical" and "judgmental." Seventy-five percent found it "too involved in politics." (UnChristian, Kinnamon & Lyons)

 

Most prominently, people would accuse Christians of forcing their view of sexuality and abortion upon the culture. Despite trying to force their morality on others, many Christians are not necessarily seen as more moral, but are also seen as judgmental and hypocritical, trying to push their agenda in such a way that judges and shames others who are different, all the while being blind to their own failings, their own lack of love and moral living. Christians are seen as judgmental hypocrites, forcing their morality on others instead of letting people live in a way that is right for them.

 

I was listening to a podcast recently where the host was discussing his opinion that churches are places that shame people, telling people that they are bad or that there is something wrong with them. I have listened to others recently accuse the church of causing of exacerbating mental illness through their teaching by how they lift up the standard of perfection and cause people anxiety as they try to reach those heights and never know if they have measured up to God’s standards. 

 

The first accusation is that instead of just letting people live as they want, according to their own moral standards, Christians try to impose morality on others, and that this is a harmful thing for society.

 

  • Anti-scientific, anti-intellectual

 

Acts 26:22-24 - But I have had God's help to this very day, and so I stand here and testify to small and great alike. I am saying nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen--  23 that the Christ would suffer and, as the first to rise from the dead, would proclaim light to his own people and to the Gentiles."  24 At this point Festus interrupted Paul's defense. "You are out of your mind, Paul!" he shouted. "Your great learning is driving you insane." 

 

“If the president of the U.S. started talking about how Saturn was coming into the wrong quadrant and is therefore not a good time to launch a war, one would hope that the whole White House press corps would descend on him with a straitjacket. This would be terrifying – to hear somebody with so much power basing any part of his decision-making process on something as disreputable as astrology. Yet we don’t have the same response when he’s clearly basing some part of his deliberation on faith.” Sam Harris

 

Christians are seen by many as a problem because they are anti-scientific and anti-intellectual in their thinking. Many of them reject evolution and insist on teaching creationism in school. They oppose stem cell research when it involves causing abortion.

 

Faith is “belief without evidence, pretending to know things that you don’t know.” – Peter Boghossian, A Manual for Creating Atheists

 

Many would argue that we should keep religion out of the town square, away from politics. The second charge is that Christians are dangerous because they are making decisions based not on rationality but on their beliefs derived from a book written thousands of years ago.

 

  • Trying to convert others instead of letting people live

 

Nowadays, it is argued, it should be clearer than ever that there are many religions, many beliefs, many paths to God. To try to convert others to your particular religion is a terrible thing to do. It’s disrespectful and dangerous. Religious exclusivity leads to strife, division, conflict, and war. This is the third charge against Christians, that by trying to convert others, they are troublemakers.

 

What do we say to these charges, that we are troublemakers, dangerous to our culture?

 

The first thing we need to admit is that there are ways in which these charges are true. Religion can be all of those things. For example, read Sam Harris once again:

 

Since the publication of my first book, The End of Faith, I have received thousands of letters and e-mails from religious believers insisting that I am wrong not to believe in God. Invariably, the most unpleasant of these communications have come from Christians. This is ironic, as Christians generally believe that no faith imparts the virtues of love and forgiveness more effectively than their own. Please accept this for what it is: the testimony of a man who is in a position to observe how people behave when their faith is challenged. Many who claim to have been transformed by Christ’s love are deeply, even murderously, intolerant of criticism. 

 

There are many examples: Priests abusing children. Televangelists stealing money from gullible people. There are churches that do shame people, that have caused many people to turn from God because of their judgmental spirit. And yes, I believe there are Christians who use politics as a means of enforcing morality on people, to the detriment of the cause of Christ.

 

We should take no pride in being accused of being bad for the world if that is how we are indeed acting:

 

1 Peter 2:20 - But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God.

 

As a Christian, you will likely experience some rejection or judgment, but there is nothing commendable about being called out for doing wrong.

 

Let’s address these one at a time:

 

  • Christians force their morality on others

 

If you believe that you are saved by your goodness, by your morality, then it is very likely that this outlook will affect you in negative ways. It will cause you to hide your weaknesses in order to appear better than you are. It will likely cause you look down on others as less moral than you. It will lead to pride if you think you are better, or despair if you don’t measure up. You will try to make people moral, believing that this is what makes them acceptable to God.

 

But the gospel changes everything. If the bottom line is Jesus dying on the cross for his enemies, salvation by grace alone, what does that lead to?

 

Humility. I am better than no one. All are made in the image of God and worthy of respect. I am not the judge; my job is to love and to trust that God can sort it out. I love my enemies. The gospel makes me a good citizen, the best neighbor.

 

James 4:12 - There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you-- who are you to judge your neighbor?

 

Ephesians 2:8-10 - For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith-- and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God--  9 not by works, so that no one can boast.  10 For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

 

Because of the gospel, we love our enemies, we serve those who are different than us, and we don’t act in violence or oppression.

 

Matthew 5:43-45 - "You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.'  44 But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,  45 that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.

 

We should be the best of all neighbors in how we love each other.

 

  • Anti-scientific and anti-intellectual

 

Faith is out of the realm of scientific – can not be measured and tested. There can be a blind faith that is anti-intellectual. But the gospel is both rational and historical. Consider what Paul said in Acts 26:22-26:

 

22 But I have had God's help to this very day, and so I stand here and testify to small and great alike. I am saying nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen--  23 that the Christ would suffer and, as the first to rise from the dead, would proclaim light to his own people and to the Gentiles."    24 At this point Festus interrupted Paul's defense. "You are out of your mind, Paul!" he shouted. "Your great learning is driving you insane."  25 "I am not insane, most excellent Festus," Paul replied. "What I am saying is true and reasonable.  26 The king is familiar with these things, and I can speak freely to him. I am convinced that none of this has escaped his notice, because it was not done in a corner. 

 

The resurrection did not happen in a corner, as Paul said. It happened in history, and the king knew it, even if Festus did not. Our faith is based on a historical event, the resurrection of Jesus.

 

20 Or these who are here should state what crime they found in me when I stood before the Sanhedrin--  21 unless it was this one thing I shouted as I stood in their presence: 'It is concerning the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial before you today.'" 

 

He rose from the dead. The tomb is empty. The disciples were transformed. It’s the only explanation that makes sense for how a crucified criminal could become worshiped as the eternal Son of God.

 

Start there. Read a book like Tim Keller’s The Reason for God or Making Sense of God to better understand the intellectual argument for the faith. Christianity is not anti-intellectual. It is no different than the epistemology used by atheists – a mix of historical evidence, reason, and faith in things that can not be proven. Even atheists have to take leaps of faith to believe what they believe.

 

  • Christians try to convert others

 

What about the charge of trying to convert others?

 

The gospel does make me a witness, and as a witness, I will be subversive to the culture. I will challenge culture. Look at Paul trying to share the gospel with the Felix and Drusilla in Act 24:24-25. It makes them uncomfortable.

 

24 Several days later Felix came with his wife Drusilla, who was a Jewess. He sent for Paul and listened to him as he spoke about faith in Christ Jesus.  25 As Paul discoursed on righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come, Felix was afraid and said, "That's enough for now! You may leave. When I find it convenient, I will send for you."

 

They are uncomfortable about the ethical implications and the possibility of judgment. Like many today, they just want the inspirational parts, not the challenging parts. And then look at Paul with King Agrippa:

 

27 King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know you do."  28 Then Agrippa said to Paul, "Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?"  29 Paul replied, "Short time or long-- I pray God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am, except for these chains."

 

The third charge is true. We are trying to convert people. And that’s okay. If we found the cure to AIDS, the moral thing to do would be to try to compel everyone infected to take the medicine. In the same way, the moral thing to do is to tell everyone infected by the sin virus to come to Jesus.

 

But the truth is that everyone is trying to convert. Those who say we should not convert are trying to convert us to their point of view. They are saying that their view on reality is correct and we should adopt it.

 

In the end, we can’t convert anyone. Only the Holy Spirit can do that.

 

You are a witness. Your beliefs and theology will impact how others see Christ. Live in such a way that you are the best possible neighbor, and be a witness in such a way that you point people to Christ.