The present flap over the Manhattan Declaration App, and the way it has been covered in various media outlets, highlights an easily forgotten point about the need for Christian winsomeness in the public square. Look at some of the coverage outside of the traditional Christian blogosphere, or the politically conservative sites at that. See especially this story from PC Magazine–hardly a culture wars outlet. I don’t link to it to criticize their framing of the story, or to criticize the Declaration in light of the coverage it has received.
The Manhattan Declaration is a reasoned, winsome, and ecumenical (even if not in the National Council of Churches sense) document. But when it pops back into the news cycle, even non-polemical outlets use language to describe it that hardly differs from that used to describe Fred Phelps.
My point is not to complain that traditional-minded Christians can’t get a break. My point is that we should not be overly concerned with P.R. and the news cycle.
Put simply: Christians do not need to make winsome statements of biblical truth in order to improve the reputation of the Church. We need to speak winsome words, seasoned with salt, because it is the right thing to do. We should not care if people at large think well of us; we should take care to act in such a way that we do not justly deserve a bad reputation. When Paul prescribes that an overseer should be beyond reproach, he is not ignoring the fact that Jesus promised that we would face the same opposition that He did. Paul is saying that we must choose leaders who do not deserve public censure.
Part of the contemporary American Church’s image problem is richly deserved. We have often acted foolishly, inverting Christ’s command to be as innocent as doves and as wise a serpents. Part of it is a direct result of maintaining teachings that go against the cultural flow. And part of it is an inevitable product of just how many professing Christians there are in the country. In an age where anyone can cause an international incident on YouTube or Facebook, or where sensational local stories sell big on a nationwide scale, effective image control for a movement with 70 million members is pretty much impossible.
There would be one easy way to be seen as blameless, and to make sure people know what good deeds we are doing for the poor and the lost: We can have trumpeters and banner-carriers accompany us when we give money or volunteer for deserving causes. But Jesus had something to say about that approach.
Or, we can make sure to duly denounce every publicly noticed lapse in thought, word, and deed. We can make sure to preface all our statements by admitting the frailties and misdeeds of our brothers and sisters in Christ. But our statements would then be all preface, with no room for anything else. Or some beleaguered copyeditor will trim all that to get to the money quote and keep the news story at the correct word count.
No, reputation comes and goes. The Christian Church is a multi-generational project. How it fares with the talking heads this week or next week will neither establish the Kingdom nor thwart God’s purposes on earth. Christ’s fair Church has weathered worse storms, and worse ones will no doubt come before her mission is accomplished. Our duty is to do what is right, to say what is right. To do and to say in the right way, from proper motives, for love of God and love for those who bear His image. To make shrewd use of our talents, our influence, our public voice. But to be more concerned with the One we must answer to in the end.