Saint Stephen’s Option

There comes a time in every Christian’s life when we must decide how to move forward, how to be salt and light, how we will relate to the world around us. As I’ve outlined previously, theologians and ethicists categorize our options into a few different groups (and more abound than in my earlier post). Today, though, I want to skip the helpful nuances and present you with a black and white, heads or tails choice with precisely two options for our cultural engagement.

Option One: we give up. This choice is exactly as it sounds. We just give up, roll over, and call it a day. We admit we lost the war and adopt positions which mirror the secular-humanist philosophy of our unchurched peers. Marriage? Well, the law is the law, so let that one go. Open the doors of our worship spaces and let all gays, lesbians, and transgenders wed. Go a step further and unite them at our hands, invoking the blessings of a largely apathetic (if not outright non-existent) God upon the union. Abortion? It’s a clump of cells, barely alive, and certainly sub-human. Expel it from the uterus, crush its skull in the birth canal, just get rid of it. After all, you might be inconvenienced by having to care for a child, particularly if you’re not married. But if you’re not, that’s fine. Living together is the “in” thing, after all. Commitment is outdated, and since sex is only about your own pleasure (not even your partner’s, but yours) and has zero spiritual or mystic dimensions, have fun. Be yourself. Oh, and don’t fret about staying in your marriage if you’re already hitched. Marriage, like sex, is only about your personal happiness. Leave whenever you like for any reason whatsoever. I mean, some people just don’t get along, and it’s hard to make it work.

To support these changes, we’re going to need to give up a lot of other things, too. No more talk of sin. No cross, no atonement, as these require sin. Miracles are anti-science, so none of those. Oh, and let’s toss any theology argued from creation, as creation is a silly, antiquated idea from the mythic age; we’ll need to get rid of Paul, and the Pentateuch, some psalms, the last chapters of Job . . . well, honestly, the angry Old Testament God is pretty problematic (the concept of judgment is a bit woolly these days), so let’s only go with the New Testament with the aforementioned omissions. Be sure to skip Revelation, too, though, as there’s a lot about people not being saved, hell, and lakes of fire.

Really, Option One changes every facet of worship. Most (all, if we’re being careful with our lyrics) of our music would be inappropriate in such a setting. Sacraments convey a sense of “in” and “out,” so let’s skip those. Prayer might be a bit, well, pointless at this stage, so give that a miss, too. And since there’s really nothing left to preach, we may as well leave out a sermon. Someone can give a rousing talk or a self-improvement seminar, but leave sermonizing out of this.

As you can see, the first of our two options ends in simply closing the doors of the church. It would be superfluous (as so many think it now), unnecessary reinforcement of the cultural norms (as so many churches have already become). The church would stop being called out from among the world — the literal definition of the church — stop being weird, stop being alternative and counter-cultural.

In the spirit of fairness, I want to paint Option Two (remaining steadfast) with an equally exaggerated treatment. This second of our two possible choices is the opposite of the first. Instead of giving in, we redouble our commitment to our current positions. We declare sex belongs only in marriage and marriage is one man and one woman for life. We call abortion murder, the willful and deliberate taking of another human life. We preach sin, hellfire, judgment, and damnation. We sing songs about the cross of Christ and the atonement made to cover our personal sins. We teach stories of a creator God who loves us and disciplines us. We say “you shouldn’t do that” as well as “I encourage you in this,” whichever is appropriate at the time. We initiate believers by baptism and serve them the body and blood of Jesus Christ in our Supper. We promote peace and human flourishing, not hedonistic, individualistic self-destruction.

The truly radical part is how we can do all this while suffering for it. I never want to diminish the persecutions faced by my brothers and sisters in other countries, but even here we face insults, protests, and people crying out for our destruction. In the eyes of our culture, Christians are increasingly being painted as villains. But we endure it all. We don’t change our proclamation, opting instead to willingly face the consequences.

I call this the Saint Stephen Option. St. Stephen was one of the first deacons of the Church — and its first martyr. As his story goes in Acts 6-8:1, Stephen was seized for preaching the gospel. In his defense before the Sanhedrin, he simply recounted salvation history, ending with a vision of Jesus. He was stoned to death, his last words crying out to God to forgive his killers.

His is the example I propose we follow. I say we draw the line in the sand and hold to it. We don’t budge. We don’t jettison unpopular doctrines. We cling to them more than ever. We preach and teach the fullness of the gospel. We do so in love and because of love. If we are robbed or killed or spoken of evilly or forced from positions of influence or ignored entirely, we bear it in grace. We willingly suffer for proclaiming Christ and him crucified, realizing the salvation of souls is worth any sacrifice we may be called upon to make. It is our turn now; Saint Stephen has passed the baton to us. Our sacrifice, our blood will be the seed of the church. Future generations will say of us, “the world was not worthy of them” (Hebrews 11:38). But only if we hold the line.

Option One is untenable. Of these two, only the Saint Stephen Option will work. Only our continued witness to and critique of our culture will do it any good. Only if the Church maintains its status as an alternative community will it continue to exist at all.

The gates of hell will not prevail against us (Matthew 16:18). Don’t open the doors and let it inside freely.

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