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Monday, August 10, 2009

The Stigma of Christ, Part 1: Risk

I'm not talking about the stigmata of Christ, a Latin term meaning "puncture wound," which has long referred to Christ's post-resurrection scars, particularly those holes made by the nails in His hands and feet. I'm referring to the "stigma" or disgrace and disrespect associated with Christ and those who practice Christianity.

Almost six years ago, someone I knew chose the unfortunate word "stigma" to explain what he feared would happen if he broadcast his specific religious beliefs in a public forum. No, it didn't bother him at all to tell others that he called himself a "Christian," but he didn't want the public to know what exactly he believed beyond that--for instance, what Christian denomination he was, or the doctrinal beliefs associated with it.

At the time, it was what I would call a defining moment in my personal faith. Exactly what do Christians risk by broadcasting their personal beliefs? Is it worth the "stigma"?

Somehow, until then I had coasted through my faith, without any real challenges to it. I had always hung out with a crowd that was primarily Christian; they all regularly attended church, talked about their faith regularly and openly, dressed and spoke in a manner meant to please God rather than men, and never doubted their freedom to publicly mention the name of the church they went to. When someone made a derogatory comment about Christ, Christianity, or even the denomination I was raised in, the Assemblies of God, I always had chalked it up as "their problem," and dismissed it. I never really felt "exposed" or "at risk" for being the person I am, and believing what I believe. Well, until that comment.

I guessed at the time that perhaps this individual meant that some people object to certain doctrines of the Pentecostal movement, such as speaking in tongues. Well, I already knew that if you mentioned those things, some people would dub you "weirdo" and avoid you from that point forward. Honestly, it never really bothered me, and I have pretty-much always had friends who believed differently on those issues. I have also ventured to say (to Baptists, for instance, if they brought it up) that their concerns that such doctrines can be misquoted, misused, and twisted to cover over sinful and destructive behavior are valid concerns. But enough of that. Doctrines particular to the Pentecostal movement, as time passed, never came up for discussion. They weren't the "stigma" referenced.

Unfortunately, I eventually learned that, among young people in my own denomination and others, the referenced "stigma" of being a Christian is that any particularly dogmatic kind of Christian has a "unpleasant" habit of telling people that they are wrong, sinful, unable to solve their own problems, and headed to Hell. Generally speaking, openly-professing Christians, by just stating what they believe, or even by quietly living what they believe, make people feel "bad." And that stigma, the mark of being an "unpleasantly dogmatic" person, should be avoided at all costs.

I want to make it publicly clear, now, that I have nothing personal against this individual, or any others, who feel this way. In fact, their belief breaks my heart. It forces me to be "unpleasant" toward them by explaining why I know that the Bible doesn't support their beliefs. I'd much rather they be happy and comfortable, but instead, I have to put my whole relationship with them on the line just to correct a dangerous error in their thinking.

You see, Christ left us with no "safe" alternatives. He defined how Christians should act, what they should believe, and what they shouldn't. He left no room for ambiguity or "making nice" with those who are offended by an honest and gentle statement of the facts.

As I've said, stigma is an interesting word, because it can be used both as a descriptor of Christ's suffering and rejection, and the suffering and rejection mankind can get from mankind. I understand that people are bullied, hunted, and killed in all parts of the globe, just for publicly admitting that they follow Christ and all of His teachings--including the "uncomfortable" doctrines, like Hell, sinfulness, and the divide between God and man that Christ was sent to bridge. Just face it. Calling yourself a Christian ties you in with such people. It should mean that you have an opinion that you are standing by; it should galvanize the crowds around you to either love you or hate you. It should label you and even mark you for trouble. At the crux (pun intended) of the matter, a profession of Christianity should put you at risk of being "stigmatized."

To run from this risk is basically to try to be Christ's friend, agreeing with Him and supporting Him, unless the going gets too difficult. If you believe this, are you really Christ's follower? Do you really love Jesus, or are you calling yourself a Christian because you think it makes you better than everyone else?

I'm posing the question because I was forced to ask it of myself when I heard that admitting my beliefs would mark me with an unpleasant "stigma." In response to the question, dozens of forgotten memory verses rose up from my memory to challenge me:

"Then he [Christ] called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: 'If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.'" (Matthew 8: 34 NIV)
"But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven" (Matthew 10: 33 KJV)."
"Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name. For it is time for judgment to begin with the family of God; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God?" (1 Peter 4: 12-17 NIV)
And, finally,
"I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me" (Galatians 2: 20 NIV).
In case you hadn't already figured it out, I chose to accept the risk, and it changed my life and my faith forever. Before, I loved Christ, but now, I joyfully suffer shame because of Him--because there's really nothing to be ashamed of.

Do you love Christ enough to take the risk?

2 comments:

Esthermay said...

Good. I think that if we choose to view the "stigma" of being a Christian as a negative thing (even a little), we will carry some shame. To instead see this earthly phenomena of being labeled a "Christian" as a crown that will only truly make sense when eternity comes -- allows us to joyfully suffer the what might otherwise be called shame."

Rachel M. said...

Yes. I think the key to gladly enduring that "shame" is to keep what some call a "Heavenly perspective." If we are only thinking about this present life, it doesn't make sense to risk everything for a Savior we cannot see. If we remember our eternal reward (and that this present life is not all we have to hope for) we can joyfully endure. Only then can we see that the shame is on those who cannot see.

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