Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Representing Christ Wisely

The following describes how one Christian in a position of secular authority in the academy stewards the place God has assigned him. What do you think of his approach?

“Dr. Matteson, will you please say ‘grace’?”

All eyes turned toward me (the chairman) when Sharon, my new staff member who had coordinated the departmental Christmas potluck, asked this. I paused and glanced around the room at the faces of students, faculty, staff, and visitors assembled in the commons room for our annual festivities.

I saw Christian brothers and sisters, but there were many others who were Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish, or who held no formal faith at all. Sharon knew I had no qualms about practicing my faith as a believer on campus. But I knew better than to lead a public prayer in this instance.

I replied, “I am not at this moment Sam the person you know as your friend but rather Mr. Chairman, the representative of the State of Texas.” I addressed the crowd, “Welcome to you all. We are indeed grateful for you and for this bountiful meal. Now, enjoy! The line forms to the right.”

I have reflected many times on this incident. In various administrative roles over the past decade I have had to judge what is an appropriate and wise exercise of my faith and free speech -- and what is over-reaching. Wisdom is the gift of knowing what is appropriate at each moment.

Our civil government is predicated on tolerance of divergent opinion. In my role as an administrator I don’t espouse a particular religious viewpoint, but I also don’t suppress the expression of faith by others, or by me in other appropriate venues.

So it is not political correctness but Biblical instruction to assure that the Christmas ham does not share the plate with the chicken so that our Muslim students are not offended. Or that the cheese is kept separate from the beef in deference to our Jewish colleagues. Or that a vegetarian alternative is provided for our strict Hindu delegation. As Paul told Titus, we are “to be peaceable and considerate and to show true humility toward all men” (3:1).

It is equally as appropriate to explore religious matters as it is to discuss the weather. I have hanging in my office a print of “The Puddle” by Escher showing foot prints in the mud and a reflection of a beautiful forest. Next to it I have both in Hebrew and English a verse from the Psalms “A person’s steps are directed by the Lord” (37:23). Recently a student came to my office and, while scanning the room, remarked, “Your office is so much FUN!” We then talked about the special meaning that each image and verse conveyed to me. The discussion that followed was totally appropriate and welcome.

For me the “razor” that decides what is appropriate is the answer to this question: “Who am I in this moment?” “Am I the agent of the state or am I ‘Doc,’ the friend and conversationalist?” The Golden Rule rarely fails to inform: How would I feel if I were a Christian student in Indonesia and the Islamic authority figure (my alter ego) were to act as I? Knowing what to do requires wisdom, clearly. But we have a resource: our Father who is all wise is never stingy with His counsel if we ask Him in humility. He will even strop our razor for us if we ask.

- Sam Matteson, Professor of Physics, University of North Texas


Anonymous said...

I'm conflicted by this. Are we not supposed to be representatives of Christ at all times?

I can assure you from personal experience that most (not all) Islamic authority figures would not have acted as he did.

I see an unfortunate contrast between Islam and Christianity. Muslims have no qualms about zealously speaking out for their "god". A lot of Christians (including myself sometimes) seem to be the reverse. They want to keep their God in their pocket. I read in a book recently about this, that God eventually becomes "just a magic genie whose bottle we rub from time to time to ask Him favors".

The scripture he quoted is a good one, but what about the commission that Christ gave all of us, to be fishers of men? American society has become so rife with "tolerance" that it has spilled over into mainstream Christianity as well.

Yes, Christ gave the lawyer two rules: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. But doesn't being a Christian come with some circumstances of inherent intolerance? (homosexual relationships, etc.)

In my opinion you are either a representative of the one true God, or you are not. There is no middle ground, at least none that I've encountered in the Bible thus far, and I will admit I am still in a juvenile status in my walk with Christ, but in that situation, what would Christ want me to do? In a way, I'm reminded of the denial by Peter when I read this story.

thefourwinds said...

Are we now allowing anonymous comments on this blog?

thefourwinds said...

I can understand the conflict expressed by anonymous above. I have been in similar situations where I was not quite sure how to proceed. But I'd have to say I lean the way Dr. Matteson did.

Why? Because our answer can't be based on what the Muslim would do. Scripture doesn't really call us to make our decisions by asking how an unbeliever would act in a similar situation. Rather we are expected to assess complex situations with a rich examination of the Scriptural principles, hoping to come to some wise course of action.

If there's one thing Jesus DIDN'T come on earth to do, it was to use positional power to bring people to Himself. He came as an infant, enrobed in a body of death he didn't deserve (as powerless as he could have been). As an adult, he came into the public awareness from a nothing town ("Can anything good come from Nazareth?"). And when he was finally arrested and put to death, he withheld from using any of the power and ability He had to prevent His gruesome, but God-ordained, death.

Was Christianity blessed by the power Constantine used to make it an "accepted" religion? Has America truly been blessed by the fact that most non-Christians have been bombarded with the premise that George W. Bush was God's representative for Christianity on earth?

I can't stand it when I'm trying to witness to an American unbeliever and they can't get past politics. Since when is effective evangelism done from the position of political/positional power? It seems to me preaching the gospel is described in the Bible as foolishness. When I am weak, I am strong. His strength is made perfect in weakness.

Dr. Matteson's response is very similar to a track I took, and it opened doors for me (with individuals) to preach the gospel to them, to give a defense of the faith, and to create and sustain ongoing relationships that have made this possible repeatedly, rather than shutting the doors on relationships that hadn't even begun yet.

Anonymous said...

I posted anonymous because I have no other accounts to post from, nor do I blog. I was sent to this website by the blog's author and merely wanted to comment on what I read.

I brought this subject up in my Bible study tonight and got mixed replies.

Did Paul let the threat of imprisonment or death deter him from spreading the Gospel?

Do you not believe that God gave this man the very job he holds? That, coupled with the fact that he was specifically asked to say grace (over a CHRISTMAS MEAL even!!) makes it all that more intriguing as to why he chose not to. I mean let's get real here, are we watering down Christmas now too so as to not offend anyone partaking in the meal celebrating the birth of Christ? The man even admits that he's got "no qualms about practicing my faith as a believer on campus". I believe, at least in this instance, he did have qualms.

Had he given thanks to God for the meal and pressed on, only later to find out he was being punished (in whatever way, obviously hypothetical) for being "insensitive to other religions", then so be it. Again, the meal (at least the way I read it, I could be completely out in left field here) was a Christmas meal. God put him in that position for a reason. I fully believe that He puts us in the paths of others for a purpose.

What about the people he himself describes as holding "no formal faith at all"? What if this man was the only person some of those people were to ever encounter a Biblical message from? Even those who practice the heretical faiths of islam, hindu, etc. What if God put that man there for that specific purpose? Who are we to decide whether we should or should not publicly display our faith? This wasn't a case of him being a missionary in China and facing execution had he prayed, and had it been, even THEN I would say he should have prayed. I would rather represent the God who saved my eternal life with dignity and love than pretend that societal secular political correctness is more important.

End game: God put that man in that job, there is no arguing that fact. Using that knowledge, if the ramifications of saying grace over a meal meant losing that job, that too would be God's will, and trusting in the Lord and doing what's right in his eyes, in a loving manner, is more important than what others may have felt about it.

Another possible end game: Who does this man fear most in this situation? God, or man? Did he have a moment of weakness and fear of the reaction of man and later hide it under the hat of professionalism? Who knows. I want to strive to err on the side of fearing (revere, awe, amazement, etc) God than the side of "peer pressure", otherwise defined as fear of man.

Just my two pence.

Nicole said...

"For me the 'razor' that decides what is appropriate is the answer to this question: 'Who am I in this moment?' 'Am I the agent of the state or am I ‘Doc,’ the friend and conversationalist?'"

Aren't we first and foremost, above all else, and at all times Christians, ambassadors/representatives of Jesus Christ, and citizens of His kingdom (Hebrews 11)?

Eph 6:19-20 and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, (20) for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak.

If I had witnessed this situation, I would have left thinking that Dr. Matteson was ashamed of the gospel. I believe he also missed a great opportunity for giving reason of the hope within him.

Rom 1:16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.

1Pe 3:14-16 But even if you should suffer for righteousness' sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, (15) but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, (16) having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.

thefourwinds said...

There is an assumption made by the previous two posters that Dr. Matteson was driven by fear of persecution. From what is given in this account, I don't think we can accurately assume that one way or the other.

I know personally for me, what drove me in similar situations was not fear of being persecuted, but a desire not to have people immediately turned off by their perception of the false gospel that is so common in the American culture: moralistic heavy-handedness. What kind of gospel message could he really have gotten across in one meal prayer among many non-believers? On the other hand, if he allows the door to remain open with people who don't know him so they can get to know him, he has much more of an opportunity to share a deep gospel message (tailored directly to that person) that cannot be easily brushed off as a power play. This is an opportunity to be all things to all men (that is, to adjust who people may see me to be in order that I may reach them with the gospel (rather than just slap them with something their hearts have not been prepared for)).

If you consider Paul in the book of Acts, other than when he went into the synagogues (religious gatherings), he was interacting with individuals and small groups in the marketplaces, in daily lives, and the main times he addressed large groups was when it was foist upon him by uproar after having already communicated the gospel to smaller numbers in that city. This was a position of weakness, not of power, similar to what I mentioned in my first post.

If our reasoning is, "God gave this man his position," shouldn't we castigate Moses' decision to leave the household of Pharaoh? What does Scripture say about Moses' decision: He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward" (Heb 11:26). By using the reasoning, "But God put Moses in the household of Pharaoh, a position of power," we ought to say that Moses made the wrong decision to choose identification with the Hebrews.

If anything, using my reasoning, one might ask if we rather should actively shun positions of worldly authority. I have actively sought this in my own life (though I don't claim that every Christian ought to). Now I am self-employed, so that my interactions in the business world are almost entirely with people that I have no earthly authority over, and therefore I have the freedom to witness to them when the relationship is ripe, I can pray with them when it seems that God is opening the door to their heart, rather than, again, slapping them across the face with a message they've never been prepared for, and in our culture may very well interpret as a false gospel (because that false gospel is so prevalent in our society).

thefourwinds said...

Sorry, just saw Vince's comment. Some of you may not know my screenname.

Greg D.

Nathan Pitchford said...

Hi Greg (et al),

I'm just going to weigh in quickly, and then I'll have to cut and run -- I have deadlines constraining me on several sides right now, so I hope you'll understand if I can't keep up the conversation.

Personally, I'm largely in agreement with the other two, and I think you're missing the point when you suppose that they're driven by the assumption that this guy was afraid of persecution. On the other hand, though, I am very sympathetic to your point about distancing yourself from the false moralism and heavy-handedness of much of modern American pseudo-Christianity.

But the way to do this is not to refuse to pray at a time when Christians have always historically prayed, even when asked to do so, for fear your motives might be misunderstood. The Romans accused the early Christians of cannibalism because they claimed to eat the body and blood of Christ. Should they therefore have abstained from the eucharist for fear of being misinterpreted as real cannibals?

I agree that we should not use political authority to force Christianity on anyone. But do you really think that if, when someone asks a Christian to pray at a Christmas potluck, esp. when Christians have historically prayed publically both at Christmastime and before meals, that to do so would be interpreted as forcing Christianity on everyone else? Christians prayed before Christmas meal for hundreds of years. Does that mean that all of them thought George W. Bush was God's representative on earth?

When I was in a Muslim country, and I knew it was the muslim custom to pray five times a day, when the call came from the mosque and someone stopped in front of me to pray, I did not think that was a sign of his forcing Islam on me. But when the call came and the people in front of me kept on walking, I did think their Islam was only nominal. In private they're Islam, but in public they're secular. But I don't think any real devotion can be marginalized or kept solely to "‘Doc,’ the friend and conversationalist," when it is excluded from the same man as "the agent of the state".

Consider the case of Daniel. It was his custom to pray at set times, they commanded him not to pray, and yet he did anyway. What if they had requested him to pray at that time? Would he have refused for fear of seeming too pushy? If he prayed when he was told not to, I'm sure he also would have prayed if he was asked to. Yes, he was a politically powerful person -- but that's not the point. At times of expected prayer, he prayed. If the man above was asked to pray at a time in which Christians customarily pray and he refused, tell me how he is not giving the message, "My Christianity is less important to me than my political prestige. I will pray in private, but in public I am first and foremost an American, and only secondly a Christian."? I know that's exactly the conclusion I drew with professing Muslims in similar situations, when they let secular social priorities change typical practices of Islam. And I know that's the conclusion I would have drawn with the person being discussed.

At work, I bring a bible and read it during my spare time. I find it helpful in keeping my thoughts focused on eternal truth. Should my attitude be instead, "The razor is, am I currently Nathan the conversationalist or Nathan the CNA? As long as I'm a CNA and not a Christian, I shouldn't do things obviously motivated by common Christian practice. After all, there are people here from all kinds of religious backgrounds."? No, if I'm a Christian conversationalist I'll be a christian CNA too, and do those things common to Christianity no matter where I'm at. I have no use for a Christianity small enough to be compartmentalized as a part of private life but not a part of public situations. I'm not going to try to convert the residents with the point of a sword, but I'm not going to refuse to do the things that I delight to do as a Christian, things such as praying and reading my bible, just because I fear others will think of those things as heavy-handed.

Anyway, that's my take. As I said previously, I won't be able to get back to this, but feel free to carry on the discussion without me. On a final note, I think that everyone here is motivated by the same things -- none of us wants to see the gospel slighted in this world, and it is incontestable that popular American moral, political heavy-handedness has slighted the gospel, shown it to be something that it is not. But I don';t think the answer is this guy's solution. I think that's just another action that will obscure the greatness of the gospel.

Brad said...

I'm trying to imagine a guest at the party, we'll call him "Bill", having a heart attack and being rushed to the hospital. In the aftermath Sharon asks, "Dr. Matteson, will you pray for Bill?" Would his reply be "I am not at this moment Sam the person you know as your friend but rather Mr. Chairman, the representative of the State of Texas.” Then would he have addressed the crowd, “Thanks for coming everybody. We are indeed grateful for you and for our friend Bill who is on the way to the hospital. Please try to enjoy the rest of the evening. I'm sure Bill will be just fine."?

thefourwinds said...

Hi Nathan, Nicole, Dale and Brad,

I think this is definitely a worthy discussion to have, and I'd like to flesh out a few of these points.

1. Comparisons to Muslim culture in this respect are highly suspect, in my opinion, because the Muslim culture is exactly built on the notion that
civil authority and religious authority are one and the same. This is factually untrue of Christianity and it's also supposed to be untrue of this
country's form of government (which was one of Dr. Matteson's points). I am aware that God sovereignly acts through ungodly civil authorities, but
they are unaware accomplices, and can certainly not be credited with consciously acting out God's agenda.

2. In light of point 1. above, it's important to see into this situation a little more thoroughly. This was a "departmental Christmas potluck."
I attended numerous similar events while an officer in the Air Force, only they were called squadron Christmas parties. These types of dinners are
notorious for one thing: although there cannot be any official consequences for not attending, there are almost always unofficial consequences for
not attending. So no matter whether the person is a Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, whatever, they are for all practical purposes expected to attend
this dinner; they are compelled. So in this atmosphere of compulsion, is this how we intend to spread the gospel? I think that's one of the worst
aspects of the heavy-handedness of our society and its profound negative impacts on the spread of the gospel. Can you honestly say it's historical
Christian practice to pray at secular events (which this "Christmas" party really was)? And even if it is, when has this ever advanced the gospel?

3. I believe some of the other analogies that were given fail on a couple of levels. First, the analogy given about reading your Bible at work in
your spare time is not at all the situation Dr. Matteson was in, and he made it clear those types of individual one-on-one situations are very much
like the sessions he has in his office in which he has numerous scriptures prominently displayed. It was my similar practice as well to read my Bible
in my office, but that's entirely different from the situation given at the dinner.

Second, Brad, thanks for the analogy about the hypothetical guy having the heart attack. This leads to my next point about evangelism that I think
our culture and even many of our Bible colleges, seminaries, and "evangelism" ministries have been heinously guilty of: not discerning one's

Is it important to discern one's audience? Yes. Did Paul preach to the Athenians on Mars Hill (Acts 17) the same way Peter preached to the Jews
gathered in Jerusalem on Pentecost (Acts 2)? No. Why not? Peter was preaching to Jews. They knew the Scriptures. They knew who God was. They
knew what sin was, and they knew they were supposed to be waiting for a Messiah. They just missed the Messiah God sent (that's why the Cross is a
stumbling block to them). The Greeks in Athens, however, didn't know the true God. They didn't have the Scriptures, they didn't know sin, and they
had no understanding of a Messiah. So the Cross was foolishness to them. That's why Paul, instead of just preaching, "Repent, you sinners," as
Peter had, took them all the way back to Creation to define for them all the important points. He discerned his audience and tailored his gospel
presentation to them. He didn't water it down, in fact, he had to be more thorough. But this takes more time, more effort on our part, more prayer,
significant wisdom, and we have to be willing to deal with the results Paul had rather than expecting the results Peter had. A few mocked Paul, a
few were converted, and some said they wanted to hear more.

So Dr. Matteson discerned his audience: here are all these people of numerous belief systems, attending under semi-compulsion. How prepared are their
hearts for the gospel? What kind of gospel message can I really deliver here?

On the other hand, Brad, God often brings circumstances into people's lives to soften their hearts for the gospel. Often He uses crisis situations.
In that context, such a crisis of a heart attack could easily be God's means of softening them to make a gospel message much more readily received in
hearts. Similarly, after I had gotten to know many of the people that worked directly under me in the Air Force, and after they had gotten to know
me and my character, when they came to me with concerns about their personal lives, I began to ask them at the end of our conversations if I could pray
with/for them. Every single one of them was receptive. Would they have been as receptive at the beginning and/or en masse, and when I was just some
other random authority figure? I doubt it.

Greg Demme