Once upon a time in a snugly enclosed world, the white conservative church nestled happily in approbation, applause, approval, and apparent affection from its society.
But something was wrong: The racist culture did not hate her.
In fact, the establishments promoting the Deep South worldview, its rites, and social styles, saw most white Bible Belt churches as allies. Many of them had policies forbidding the entry of black people to their worship. In the turbulent 1960s, some church leaders assumed that any African American wanting admittance to a white church was there to drag churches into the civil rights protests.
For a major Birmingham congregation this assumption was disproven when a nine-year old black child came forward one Sunday asking for baptism. The child had been reached through a literacy ministry the church sponsored in an apartment complex across the street from the church’s majestic nineteenth century edifice.
Ultimately the church fired the senior pastor and most of the staff, and split.
Younger generations of church leaders began to be troubled. After all, Jesus had said that a mark of His authentic church was that it would be loathed.
“All nations will hate you because you are My followers,” said Jesus at the outset of His ministry in the world. (Matthew 10:22 NLT) Toward the end of His work on earth, the Lord prayed to the Father for His followers, “the world hates them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.” (John 17:14)
Therefore, if the church is authentic it will be hated by the “world” and its socio-cultural definers and shapers.
If the church is not hated for the right reasons, is she real? Is she truly virtuous? The word used in the New Testament often refers to “moral excellence.”
Why is virtue so important anyway? God has called His people to “virtue.” (2 Peter 1:3) Virtue is linked with the Holy Spirit’s anointing and power to do the work of God. (Luke 8:46) Virtue thus ought to be a major character pursuit for a church and her people. (2 Peter 1:5)
In short, the church is to continue the incarnational ministry of Jesus Christ in the world, and can only do this through the power of the Holy Spirit, which is quenched where there is a lack of moral excellence, or virtue.
This is where it gets tricky. The moment a church becomes smug and proud of being hated by her society and culture her virtue is quashed by pride. There is no virtue in being hated for the wrong reasons. the authentic church will be hated “virtuously” for the right reasons.
For example, there is no virtue in being hated when we are religious frauds. God speaks powerfully to His non-virtuous people — and especially their corrupt leaders through the prophet Amos 5:21-24 (NLT):
“I hate all your show and pretense —
the hypocrisy of your religious festivals and solemn assemblies.
I will not accept your burnt offerings and grain offerings.
I won’t even notice all your choice peace offerings.
Away with your noisy hymns of praise!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.
Instead, I want to see a mighty flood of justice,
an endless river of righteous living.
There is no virtue in being hated for practicing exploitation. There is no virtue in being hated when we function as the splinter-detectors of the societal eye and ignore the logs in our own eye. (Matthew 7:1-5)
On the other hand, according to the words of Jesus Himself, there is virtue in being hated when that hate is because of our identification with Christ through His name. There is virtue in being hated when we are hated for speaking prophetically (Matt 5:11)
There is virtue in being hated when we are separated from the world’s value system and live as citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven. There is virtue when we tell the truth that Jesus Christ is “the way, the truth, and the life” and that “no one comes to the Father” but through Him (John 14:6) even if we are accused of “exclusivism” and hated for it. There is virtue when we bring Christ’s light into the world, piercing into the shadows where evil tries to hide. (John 3:19-21) There is virtue in being hated because we refuse to conform to contemporary worldviews, their values, and standards. (Romans 12:1-2)
Contemporary culture has its strategies for dealing with churches it hates. As I have written here previously, It goes through these steps:
- Marginalization – Secular culture is passionate about pushing the church out to the edge of society, labeling it as “non-essential.”
- Caricaturization – This is the effort to depict conservative Christians especially as deplorable buffoons and hypocrites.
- Vilification – Through this strategy the church haters seek to show that the church is the perpetrator of “hate” for people whose characters or lifestyles are alleged to conflict with the Bible.
- Criminalization – Contemporary church haters sometimes accuse Christians as being the source of the “evil” they say they fight, to the point they are a menace to society and should be jailed.
- Elimination – The ultimate aim of many church haters is to eliminate the church and its scriptural worldview altogether.
G.K. Chesterton wrote a biography of St. Thomas Aquinas, a big bear of a man who irritated many in his day. Chesterton observed that “it is the paradox of history that each generation is converted by the saint who contradicts it the most.” Aquinas was hated by some as an irritant, but noted Chesterton, he was actually an “antidote” to a sick society.
Pastor Nicolas Martin Davis says that
“if the world hates you, make sure it’s for the right reasons. Make sure it’s because you are following the way of Jesus. That’s worth being hated for because it’s not a theology of power... it’s the theology of the cross...”
Wallace Henley is a former pastor, White House and congressional aide, and author of more than 25 books. His newest is Two Men From Babylon: Nebuchadnezzar, Trump, and the Lord of History, published by Thomas Nelson.