Having A Public Faith — Dewayne Bryant, Ph.D.

People in our world have a rich variety of viewpoints. This includes people within the same congregation and even the same family. On the one hand, this is to be expected. Every person has a different background, unique experiences, and distinctive personality. Regardless of who we are, every believer is called to live out a faith that other people can observe.

Each Christian is called to express their faith in ways other than merely praying at mealtime while dining in public or reading the Bible openly at Starbucks. It is also more than the kind of pious display we might expect from the typical Pharisee. We do not live out our faith to be praised or to impress. We live it out as part of our calling to make disciples.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus offers a two-part designation that every Christian should strive to fulfill. First, he states that his followers are the salt of the earth (Matt. 5:13). Christians must flavor the world around us. Just as salt enhances the taste of a dish, believers are to improve the societies and communities in which we live. Salt also prevents deterioration, something that Christians must restrain in our world.

Jesus also mentions that his people must be like a light (Matt. 5:14-16). A city would have had signal fires burning at night, making it impossible to hide. Lights exist for a reason. If a person were to light a lamp in a home, hiding it under a basket would be ridiculous. The point of having the lamp would be to bring light to everyone in the house (many houses mainly consisted of one living space where the family would eat and sleep). To put the lamp under a basket would prevent it from accomplishing its purpose. The Bible often contrasts light (representing goodness and truth) with darkness (typically indicating ignorance, falsehood, and iniquity).

Using the imagery of salt and light, Jesus tells us that we must be visible and take actions that make a difference in the world. Since the Enlightenment, Western society has increasingly seen religion as a private matter. Most people seem to regard religion as something that can be freely expressed within the home but should have virtually no public footprint. Yet Christ calls us to go out into the world and make disciples (Matt. 28:19-20).

At the same time, Christians have to be careful that we do nothing that gives the appearance of doing good works to earn the praise of others. The Pharisees did this, and they earned Jesus’ ire for doing so. Later in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus identifies these men as hypocrites, stating that they also love the accolades they receive for their acts of piety (Matt. 6:5). They would stand in high-traffic areas to be seen by the largest number of people (some scholars believe that they might have timed their daily activities to be seen in areas with maximum visibility during prayer time). These men, Jesus says, already have their reward. Christ taught his followers to keep such activities private, no doubt to ensure that pride does not get the better of us, and prompt us to seek public reward for deeds that should be done privately.

Living Our Faith

When it comes to living our faith, Christians have three choices. First, we can hide who we are. A more nuanced way to think of it might be to express our faith only when it might serve some kind of purpose. Some might be tempted to do this because they fear what others will say and do. This kind of defense mechanism is understandable but unacceptable. God stated flatly that Israel was to serve as a light to the nations (Is. 49:6), an expectation Jesus continued for the church in the Sermon on the Mount. It is natural to avoid ridicule, harassment, or retribution for being people of faith (especially in areas of the world where Christianity is illegal or the overall spiritual climate is hostile). However, Christians are still called to combat the false thinking that characterizes the world. Concealment is not an option.

Second, we can go to the opposite end of the spectrum and speak out so loudly that no one can miss us. We might choose to be so outrageous, obnoxious, or annoying that we cannot help but get the attention of others. Is this doing God’s will in the way he desires? Some people enjoy provoking others, but God does not need shock-jock evangelists. Christians must demonstrate a concern for souls and earnestly desire that all people come to a knowledge of the truth, just as our Creator does (1 Tim. 2:3-4).

Finally, we can choose to live a simple, authentic life of faith. We should refuse to allow circumstances to condition how we behave in public. Fear of rejection or humiliation when among non-believers should not cause us to wilt (cf. Rom. 1:16). We should not take differences and disagreement as a challenge that requires a verbal crusade. Instead, we live in such a way that it is noticeable and invites questions from other people. Peter tells us to be prepared for such occasions whenever they arise (1 Pet. 3:15-16).

Living a public faith simply means to conduct ourselves so that others can see the influence of Christ in our lives.  Our actions will be reproach (Prov. 20:11), our speech will be pure (Eph. 4:29), and we will make the best of available opportunities to speak about Christ to those who need to hear his message (Col. 4:2-6).  A privatized faith is unbiblical, as is one that constantly seeks the limelight.

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