We need to be more sparing about when we shout ‘fire’

I was sent the latest cause for handwringing and angst in Christian circles yesterday. Now, I don’t know enough about the issue at hand to speak to it. So I’m not going to say what it was or make any comment about it. I’m in no position to do that even if I wanted to (and, to be honest, I don’t want to anyway) – I just don’t know enough about the matter at hand.

What I do know, however, is Christians. Particularly a certain brand of Christian. They rarely need much encouraging to get all in a lather about something. And it is especially easy to work them up if you mention ‘the government’ or ‘law’ in the same sentence. Any supposed government plan to do almost anything inevitably leads to shrieks and horror.

Now, the reason why I don’t want to mention the issue is because those shrieks and cries might well be right. This could well be government overreach. It could well be a serious, troubling issue that we should be getting angry about. It could well be a real problem that requires some concerted pushback. All that might well be true – I haven’t yet managed to do any of the work that would help me make that judgement – but they might well be right. This time.

The problem is, much like somebody who continually shouts “fire” in a block of flats, they might well be right sometimes. There may well be a fire this time. But being right this time doesn’t do anything to overcome the continual shrieks and cries of fire that came before. The source has not always proven trustworthy. So, whilst we acknowledge there may be a fire, we reserve judgement until we see some evidence of smoke because the number of times they’ve shouted before have proven to be less than reliable.

The fact is, there are some Christians who see government overreach everywhere. There are some who see freedom, and frankly, right-wing libertarianism, as some sort of Christian virtue. I’m not saying you can’t or shouldn’t hold that view as a Christian such as you believe it to be sound, but that it is often (and shouldn’t be) equated close to being biblically sanctioned. Which very often means whenever the government so much as sneezes it is read as ‘an attack on Christian liberty’ when, more often than not, all that is happening is the government isn’t outright right-wing libertarianism and therefore doesn’t apply such principles throughout society. Government overreach, by its very nature, is in the eye of the libertarian (or otherwise) beholder, isn’t it?

My point here isn’t that Christians ought to hold any given political position. I have my position – I base that on a number of factors, taking account of what I think the biblical data speaks to and what it doesn’t – but I don’t think mine is the scriptural one. I simply don’t think scripture outlines a specifically ‘biblical’ political view. Christians can and do legitimately come to very different political positions, and that should be entirely okay. If you love Jesus, you believe the same gospel and hold the same essential doctrine that I do, what does it matter whether you are socialist, centrist, libertarian or liberal? I think the beauty of the local church is put on display when people across the political spectrum can sit together and love one another because of their shared faith in Christ. Jesus may have something to say to our politics, but he doesn’t tell us exactly what our politics should be. So, that’s not what I’m pushing towards here.

My point is that we have to be careful that we aren’t always too quick to shout ‘fire’. We need to be careful that we aren’t always insisting that such and such is ‘an attack on Christian values’ or is necessarily government overreach that will impact believers when it isn’t always so. It may be an attack on our particular political values, whatever they happen to be. It may just be not what we would hope the government would do. It may be that it isn’t really an ‘attack’ on anything at all. But we will have problems if we are always sounding that alarm.

First, we will have problems with fellow believers. Fact is, I want to believe other believers. I want to take them at face value. But I must admit, the more I hear shouts and scream of government overreach and attacks on Christian values the less inclined I am to believe this actually is one. I hear those things bandied around an awful lot. Whilst I reserve the right to agree, and recognise governments might from time to time do what could legitimately be call ‘anti-Christian’, the sheer amount with which some people insist such things are going on make them very hard to believe. When everything is painted in terms of opposition to the gospel, anti-Christian values, the world attacking the church – and more often than not it is nothing of the sort – it makes it that much harder to take seriously next time it is thrown around. We should be wary of what we shriek in the public square for the sake of our fellow believers.

Second, we will have a problem with the world. We want to be characterised as people of truth. We want the world to listen when we say there is a gospel message they need to hear. We already believe we’re starting on the backfoot. Why would we want to add extra barriers by being perceived as hysterical every time a government so much as cross their legs?

If we are seen in the public square as those who are convinced everything is an attack on the church, on the gospel, on Christian values when that may be demonstrably not the case, we aren’t going to have a great deal of traction when it comes to our gospel. If we are thought to be hysterical on these sorts of matters, we are that much more likely to sound hysterical when we plead with people about matters of eternity. If we are seen to be measured and reasonable most of the time, won’t our pleading over serious matters be more likely to be treated with the seriousness it deserves? I’m not suggesting this will mean we will get a hearing and see mass conversions, I am simply saying we are creating extra (potentially unnecessary) barriers for ourselves when we insist everything is anti-Christian when may well, if anything, just be something some of us don’t like much.

This latest issue might be a genuine fire. A real issue we should be concerned about. But some of us are in danger of making every issue into one of those so that it’s harder to take seriously when a real one comes along. We need to be mindful of that.