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By Their Applause, Ye Shall Know Them

Updated: Jan 30

What brings your congregation to their feet?


What should?


In the current issue of The Atlantic, Tim Alberta writes of his puzzlement when the congregation in his father’s Michigan church would rise to give a thunderous standing ovation to any member of the armed services who showed up on Sunday in uniform. Alberta thought it was strange to be so enthusiastic about the military—especially in peacetime.

His puzzlement, however, turned to dismay when the same Christians would render what he called a mere “golf clap” to . . . missionaries: people putting themselves on the line every day for the gospel.


A friend recently returned from a church conference in North Carolina and witnessed the same phenomenon. In the midst of a week-long focus on the theme of the Holy Spirit growing rich spiritual fruit in the lives of the faithful, the conferees got more excited about pulpit mentions of the US military than they did about spiritual warfare.


I have friends among the armed forces of both Canada and the United States and it has been my privilege to teach a number of officers along the way as well. I am not a pacifist and I appreciate our men and women in uniform as much as anyone can who has never served his country in this way.


Still, it’s just plainly true that most of those military folk showing up in uniform are generally not in imminent danger and doing heroic things. Meanwhile, every cop and every firefighter faces the possibility of life-threatening circumstances in his or her job every single day.


Consider also that psychologists, psychiatrists, EMTs, social workers, psychiatric nurses and orderlies, and most pastors spend more time in the heart of human darkness in any given month than most of us have to encounter in our entire lives.


And while we’re at it, single parents, poor folk, and homeless people live under relentless pressures the rest of us really cannot imagine.


Why, then, are Christians so eager to applaud military servicepeople so loudly when other people who also work hard and long and suffer day after day stand beside them unacknowledged?


Here’s why. Nationalism has been stoked to an extraordinary level in the United States these days, a level previously unknown in peacetime.


Military folk in uniform symbolize the country and particularly its projection of power. The armed forces force other people in other places to behave the way we want them to behave, without equivocation and without delay. And a lot of people who are frustrated that not everything is going their way these days clearly love the idea of direct action advancing America’s interests.


Again, I salute our women and men who serve our countries in the armies, navies, air forces, coast guards, and national guards. But a Christian doctrine of vocation salutes everyone as called by God and a Christian understanding of real life affirms that everyone has a hard way—if he or she is truly following Christ in daily taking up his or her cross.


Moreover, while affirmation of one’s national identity and delight in one’s national culture are themes the Bible occasionally celebrates—as when the kings of the earth are pictured in prophecy presenting the best of their nations to the Lord in the age to come (Isa. 60:11; Rev. 21:24)—the dominant teaching of the Bible is that all human beings are to be one people under God, our divine Maker, Sustainer, and Sovereign.


Nationalism is not an absolute good. It is a loyalty relativized, as all earthly loyalties are—even family ties—by our allegiance to the Lord Jesus Christ. And, like those other loyalties, the sinfulness of human beings entails that we keep a weather eye open for abuses of our trust, betrayals of our loyalty, as nations, like families, seek their own interests instead of the Lord’s.

Human institutions always contain unholy elements and agenda. And they usually fail—sometimes massively. They do not deserve our unqualified support, let alone our vociferous approval.


Politics is not just important but essential to human life. Political success, however, must never be our supreme value, never become what most quickly gets us on our feet.


If we’re more excited in church about clapping for soldiers than for missionaries, we’re literally in the wrong place, behaving according to the values of another deity. As another election season heats up, may the Word of God take supreme place among us, and not the Constitution nor any other merely human ideal . . . or idol.


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