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The Cross Or The Sword?

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"I came to know Christ soon after this, but it only took one semester in college as a philosophy major to destroy my newfound faith. I went back to being an atheist. But this time, I was a miserable atheist because I knew there was something else. Eventually, by God's grace, I pieced my faith back together."




The Cross or the Sword?


Gregory Boyd's radical approach to faith and politics has taken him where few American pastors have dared to go—and he's got the empty pews to prove it.


By Carla Barnhill


Pastor Gregory Boyd isn't afraid to voice his convictions, even when he knows it will make him unpopular. You might not agree with him, but you feel compelled to hear him out. Take, for example, his latest book, The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power Is Destroying the Church (Zondervan). In it, he lays out a vision for life in the kingdom of God that is not only compelling, but quite controversial.


The book is based on a set of sermons Boyd presented to his 5,000-member congregation at Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, Minnesota, in the fall of 2004. In the months leading up to that year's presidential election, Boyd became increasingly uncomfortable with the pressure he felt to use the pulpit and his pastoral position to steer his congregation in the "right" (i.e., Republican) direction. "It wasn't overt pressure," says Boyd, "but more of a constant urging to get out a specific message. I'd get mailings from different groups, hear it on Christian radio, get the nudge from colleagues and parishioners. I came to the conclusion that I needed to clearly articulate something I'd been thinking about for years: How the kingdom of God is radically different from the kingdom of the world."


The Challenge


So Boyd began a sermon series called "The Cross and the Sword." In it, he encouraged his parishioners to look beyond labels like "Democrat" or "Republican" or even "American" and instead consider what it means to be a follower of Jesus in today's world. Over the course of four weeks, Boyd suggested a radically different way of thinking about issues like political power, war, military service, and government. Boyd's message was that we are to be people of a kingdom where power looks like servanthood, not force, where peace triumphs over might.


On paper, most of us would agree with Boyd's belief that we are to be people of peace. But this view is hard to hold on to when we try to translate it into action. In this age of terrorism, war, and daily violence, it feels necessary to fight back. In a country where we face increased crime, debates about abortion, and the issues surrounding homosexuality, it feels right to stand up against those who promote a lazy moral code.


In The Myth of a Christian Nation, however, Boyd asks us to consider the radical life of Christ and the kingdom He ushered in through His life, death, and resurrection. "The kingdom of God looks and acts like Jesus Christ," he explains. "It looks and acts like Calvary. It looks and acts like God's eternal, triune love. It consists of people graciously embracing others and sacrificing themselves in service to others, whether they be friends or 'enemies.' It consists of people trusting the power of self-sacrificial love to change people's hearts, rather than acquiring power to control people's behavior."


The Fallout


While Boyd believed this was a message God had put on his heart, it wasn't received as positively as he had hoped. Though many church members appreciated his radical message, many others didn't. He was called everything from unpatriotic to heretical. Over the next few months, 20 percent of his congregation—some 1,000 people—left Woodland Hills.


Boyd says, "I knew there would be rumblings, but to be honest, I was a bit disappointed by how much of a stir it caused. I think I assumed my congregation was significantly different from churches that buy in to various political agendas, where people don't want to hear disparate ideas. Looking back, I think this was arrogance on my part. I had misread who we were and how far people were willing to go with me."


In the face of this gradual attrition, Boyd's board remained supportive. Still, there was a steep price for the church. The loss of so many people meant the entire budget had to be reworked. As a result, seven staff positions were cut. And, of course, there was the emotional and spiritual fallout.


Still, nearly two years later, Boyd knows he made the only decision he could make. "As a church we have always said that God calls us to plant and to water, but that God alone is responsible for the increase. We should never adjust our message because it might not be popular. Jesus preached and people left (John 6:66). He wasn't shooting for the lowest common denominator to make sure He attracted people. He counted the cost of saying what He needed to say. Over and over, we see Jesus laying His cards on the table, even if it made some people angry. It grieved Jesus, but He never compromised for the sake of a crowd."


Asking the Big Questions


Knowing that Boyd is not afraid to stand apart from the crowd, it's no surprise his journey toward a life of faith took some unusual turns. He grew up Catholic, but by the time he was a teenager, he'd given up on church, started taking drugs, and dabbled in Eastern religions. By his junior year in high school, Boyd was essentially checked out of school, out of religion, out of life.


But then something changed. "I remember we were discussing the play Our Town in my humanities class. Something about the discussion caught my attention, and I—quite uncharacteristically—began to passionately participate. After class, my teacher pulled me aside and said, 'Greg, you're a philosopher. You have a knack for seeing things other kids don't see.' She was the first teacher to ever to affirm my potential—and it changed my life. She pointed me toward some philosophy books and I found out I wasn't the only one thinking about the weird things I always thought about. I started reading Kierkegaard and other philosophers asking the big questions about life and meaning and existence.


"I came to know Christ soon after this, but it only took one semester in college as a philosophy major to destroy my newfound faith. I went back to being an atheist. But this time, I was a miserable atheist because I knew there was something else. Eventually, by God's grace, I pieced my faith back together."


That journey showed Boyd that, for him, there are very few definitive answers. "I am too aware of life's complexity and ambiguity," he says, "so I've never been comfortable with the idea that Christianity is a package deal where we have to have everything figured out. For me, that perspective doesn't give God a chance to change me, to move me to new places."


One of the "new places" he's gone came in 2005 when Boyd voluntarily stepped away from the pulpit for two months. "I've had a covenant with the congregation that I would always be honest with them. Over a period of time, I completely bottomed out. I just didn't feel like I had anything to say to the church." So one Sunday, he stood before the congregation and told them as much.


"Whenever you're the leader of a group, there's a pressure to conform. Over a period of time, the group doesn't want you to change, but you do change. You need to step out of the stream every now and then to know what's real in your life, to know what's true. You have to get rid of all the ulterior motives. I honestly didn't know if I was going to come back."


But he did come back, and he remains committed to following the Holy Spirit, even to uncomfortable places.


Kingdom Vision

Boyd readily admits the message of The Myth of a Christian Nation is a tricky one to deliver in today's polarized political culture. "It seems that many American Christians think it's their job to come up with the Christian way of resolving political issues," he says. "So many of us think the church needs to run the nation, but the church just needs to be the church. Our only job is to be Jesus to the world. I want people to get a vision for the beauty of the unique kingdom of God. I believe the clearer you see the kingdom, the less trust you put in politics."


The solution, says Boyd, is for us to recapture the mind and heart of Christ, and to move "beyond the stalemates and tit-for-tat conflicts that characterize the kingdom of the world."


He says, "The picture I get of God's kingdom is of people—tax collectors, prostitutes, fishermen—following Jesus. If we understood that our one job is to replicate the outrageous humility of Calvary, I think we'd begin to see the world in a different way. Instead of other people being our enemies, we would see them as the very people we are called to serve."


Boyd believes the unity of Christ's body should be strong enough to encompass the differences we often deal with as Christians. "I know I have to be open and humble to correction," he adds. "I know I have to be willing to take objections seriously and prayerfully consider the validity of what I say. But I also know that it is better for me to lose my position or my popularity than to ignore God's leading. We are only free if Christ alone is our life."


Carla Barnhill is the author of The Myth of the Perfect Mother (Baker). She and her family live in Minnesota.


Discussion Starters


Boyd believes the American church has become too politicized. Do you agree? Why, or why not?

Do political issues come up very often at your church? If so, how does it make you feel?

Boyd wants Christians to recognize the difference between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of the world. Read Mark 10:13-15 and John 18:36. What are some characteristics that define God's kingdom?



Copyright © 2006 by the author or Christianity Today International/Today's Christian magazine.

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