Q&A on Witnessing

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QUESTION: I have a friend who is a member of a WELS church, but is pretty liberal on the subject of transgender and other subjects. I would like to speak to her but I don’t want to start an argument. I would appreciate a simple explanation and would like to know the church’s stand on this.

ANSWER: It is a tough and crazy world out there and it seems to get more complicated with each passing day.

Let me try to break this down to help address your concern:

A WELS Member Who May Not Be In-Step with WELS Theology

She is not alone. I have been a WELS pastor for over 35 years, 30 of which have been in this role as the National Director of Christian Life Resources. I have served two congregations as their pastor and have served as a vacancy pastor a couple of times over the years. It never ceases to amaze me how clearly we can preach Scripture and yet how often the clarity is not realized by some listeners. It is not only that we are not good listeners. Each of us has a battle raging within us between “seeking God” and “rejecting God.” All of us, including us preachers, have floundered in being consistent in our allegiance. Perhaps that is why I so like reading the writings of the Apostle Paul. When he wrote Romans 7 it was like a mirror of my own experiences – wanting to do good, and yet endless fighting the desire to do bad.

Morality issues, in our culture, stand out in particular. Indoctrinated with the “freedom of speech” ideology, we have long passed the stage where modesty prevents most from speaking of shameful things done in secret (Ephesians 5:12). We have been groomed in our culture on a daily basis with notions of equality and autonomy for all. Hence, we have the “My body, my choice” mentality applying to just about every lifestyle choice that can be made.

Again, our culture has conditioned us this way. I found it revealing when, at the February 2019 annual meeting of the United Methodist Church, as they were poised to adopt accepting gay preachers and marriages, an African preacher shifted the tide when he said, “We Africans are not children in need of Western enlightenment when it comes to the church’s sexual ethics.” (The Rev. Jerry Kulah, dean at a Methodist theology school in Liberia). Yet, this is our culture and we are bombarded with its perverse values 24/7 – in sharp contrast to the relatively minuscule instruction we receive in the Word of God each week.

I mention all of this so that you understand that people are at different points in their spiritual life. I learned long ago that being WELS, enrolling kids in our Christian grade schools and schools of higher learning often did not distinguish us very well from an unbelieving world. People get drawn in, they formulate opinions and then filter information so that it supports their opinion – and ignores information which challenges them.

Your friend is all too human. We may see (or suspect) the inconsistency of her confession with her attitudes about morality matters, but if we pursued with equal vigor the views of all of our members (including ourselves) on other matters referenced in Scripture, we may all find ourselves in a scandalous position. So I say all of this to encourage patience.

Conforming Actions and Attitudes with Faith

It is our tendency to be issue-oriented. The reason for that, I suspect, is because issues require opinions and the one thing we are all experts on is our own opinion. Generally, we like to talk about things we know something about. When it comes to our opinions we are the experts – more so than anyone else. There is no one who could possibly be more expert on my opinion than me. Of course, how we formulate our opinion – the foundation or principles upon which our opinion is built – is central to this issue. Most people, however, do not think that deeply. Rarely do people ask themselves why they feel a certain way or why they form the opinion they hold. That is why starting a discussion with the “issue” is frustrating. Those discussions are often more emotional and far less logical. Just listen to most political debates!

Our allegiance to God’s will on matters of morality has been cultivated over many years – perhaps even long before we were born. Examples that influences our forefathers left their impression on our parents, grandparents, and community. The manner in which morality has been taught leaves an impression. Our own experiences with moral issues leave an impression. Most people, even Christians, form an opinion before they ask themselves, “What does God say about this?”

Think about it for a moment. How many of us were pro-life before we asked the question, “What does God say about this?” We like to cuddle babies. We are charmed by them. Our opinions are entrenched often long before we find out what God says about it. It is a relief to find that God’s Word agrees with our opinion because we groomed our opinion mentally and emotionally over many years.

That is why I fear when we start with “the issue,” we often begin in the wrong place. All too often even “strong” Christians began their moral journeys at the wrong spot. Ask yourself this question: “How do I feel when I believed something and later discovered from Scripture that my belief was wrong?” As an example, suppose you feel capital punishment is wrong, cruel, primitive, and barbaric. And then you read Genesis 9:6 where God permits capital punishment. Often our first reaction is disbelief. We then start negotiating with our understanding of God’s Word – convincing ourselves that maybe our understanding is wrong or that those words are not applicable any longer.

Now, why do we stick it out with our church and our faith when it challenges us so deeply? Often people will quit a church when they object to the hymnal they are using, or the kinds of services they conduct, or the color of the carpeting they put in. What makes you stay when you find that God’s Word challenges what you thought was the right position? Because you are moved by something far deeper and more compelling than even the most controversial moral issues of our time.

Always Start With the Central Message of Our Faith

The central message of our faith is this: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16) By the power of the Holy Spirit, we are convinced that we need a Savior and that we cannot save ourselves (Ephesians 2:8-9). Ultimately, our allegiance to God emanates from the conviction that he sacrificially loved me, an undeserving sinner. From that realization, we are compelled to ask, “What would you have me to do?”

Because Jesus saved us for eternity we are not looked up to earn our salvation. Rather, we are moved from a heart of appreciation and love to reflect his will. It is our way of giving thanks. It is our way of loving God in return (1 John 5:3; 2 John 6).

Your friend can only find the drive to walk in accord with God’s Word once she understands the love shown for her. If Jesus indeed lived, died and rose from the dead, then we should be listening to everything he said. If it is just a myth or clever story, then we should ignore everything he said.  That essentially was the point the Apostle Paul made in 1 Corinthians 15:12-20.

The resurrection of Christ is very real and it is the reality that changed our eternity. For that reason, Christians are not so quick to jump ship when their notions have been challenged by the Word of God. In other words, it takes time and patience.

So Many Words

I know, why do I have to use so many words? In summary, I suggest you do not start debating the points of morality on which you differ. Rather, look for ways to mature in the truth. It will take time, patience, and instruction for people to resist the daily indoctrination they get from society. Be an example of hope at times of hopelessness, of patience at a time of frustration, and commitment at a time when others would give up.

When we do these things people wonder about us. They wonder why we are different – why we are so long-suffering, so devoted, so sacrificial. And they will often envy us. That is what Peter was talking about when he said: “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)

It is the unexpected in a world where the love of most is growing cold (Matthew 14:12) that will make you a light of truth amidst the darkness of lies that we often live with. It will prompt people to want to talk to you about getting through, surviving the moment, and persevering. In those moments you can start with the simple story that you love as you have been loved by God in Jesus.

The Apostle Paul wrote this: “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:12–14)

Christian living is not an event but a process – often a process of trial and error. When I am tempted to give up on people I am reminded of how incredibly patient God is with me. How dare I be less patient and loving towards others? (1 John 4:19).

Do not let your passion for the truth overshadow your concern for souls. There is much sin in this world – and plenty of error to correct. But our real goal is not to win every moral argument but to be God’s instrument of showing love and sharing his love in Christ. Do not endanger a relationship to make a point of truth. Rather, nurture the relationship so that in time she seeks the clarity so that she, too, can communicate to God her appreciation for salvation.

I apologize for all of these words but even for us who know God’s love in Christ, we must remember, not everyone – even those within our congregation – are on the same page. We must give them time to grow and be his instruments in feeding them.

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