Good news: A Philadelphia judge late last month dismissed felony and misdemeanor charges against members of "Repent America" (RA) arrested for marching into a gay gathering and allegedly inciting a riot (See WORLD, Jan. 29). Judge Pamela Dembe said that free speech extends to Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan, so it also extends to RA, a Philadelphia-area organization: "Messages may be repulsive and offensive but people are allowed to make them."
Bitter news for evangelism: The word goes out, Nazis, KKK, Christians-all repulsive, but we have to put up with them.
I've waited for the obviously over-the-top charges to be dismissed so I can discuss (without criticizing well-meaning folks while they're in jail) what this experience should teach us. But maybe pastor and radio evangelist Peter Lillback, along with many other Philly Christians who criticize RA, have already said it for me. As Urban Family Council head Bill Devlin put it, RA's tactics are "a classic case of the messenger getting in the way of the message."
What tactics should Christians use in communicating to homosexuals both God's holiness and God's grace?
Exhibit one: Michael Marcavage, the leader of RA, reports on its website his April 24, 2003, success at a gay demonstration: "As soon as we arrived at the protest, I placed my wooden chair in the medium strip facing the protesters. Then, I stood upon the chair and held the Christian flag high. Almost immediately, the crowd across the street turned, surrounded me, and began chanting and taking pictures."
Question: Were they taking photos to aid their memories when they ran and told neighbors about the wonderful person who had come into their lives, as the Samaritan woman did in Chapter 4 of John's Gospel?
Exhibit two: Last Oct. 10 Mr. Marcavage and 10 other RAers showed up at Philly's OutFest, a big annual homosexual gathering, this time carrying a megaphone and signs, including one decorated by flames, telling gay revelers that they're going to hell.
Question: How does that show Christ's compassion?
I posed such questions to Mr. Marcavage. He said, "In this nation most people are proud, self-righteous, and arrogant. They don't want to hear what the Bible says. . . . A proud, self-righteous sinner needs the preaching of the law before the preaching of the gospel."
He argued further, with good evidence, that "the gospel presented in many modern-day churches isn't biblical. They miss the message of repentance and shy away from mentioning hell and judgment."
Mr. Marcavage also said, "The Bible says Christians are a peculiar people. That's what gets reported on." Concerning criticism of RA, he argued, "It doesn't matter what we say. This is what we should expect from the world. They killed all the prophets."
Hmm: Can that be a self-fulfilling prophecy, so that unless we win the "repulsive" label we think we've failed? And actually, while the ancient Israelites regularly killed prophets, some prophets outside of Israel-such as Jonah and Daniel-survived, through God's grace.
This returns us to the key question of what it means to be strong and courageous in today's America. I appreciate the willingness of RA folks to put their freedom on the line in the cause of Christ, but it still seems to me easier to use a megaphone than to love our neighbors quietly and one-by-one, so that we have the credibility to communicate difficult truths to them.
I don't have a problem with open-air preaching, since it certainly was common in the Bible, but it seems to me that pastors and protesters are more effective when they say "we sinners" rather than "you sinners." Mr. Marcavage, however, told me that since he is saved he is no longer a sinner. He seems like a sincere young man, but we should pray that he will consider more the effect on others of actions that seem self-righteous.
Last year I asked students at the first meeting of my regular University of Texas course on Journalism and Religion to give on paper their top-of-the-head responses (while I read the roll) to this question: "How do Christians act?" Here are typical answers: "Fanatical. Cram religion down others' throats. Trying to force others to do everything their way. Bossing, not helping, others."
That's not the reputation that leads people to listen to the gospel of grace. We are to love God not only with all our heart, soul, and strength, but also with all our mind. That means constantly reexamining our own understanding and tactics.