Written by Dan Armistead

August 30, 2020

My daughter, Mary, is the best Christian I know. I tell her that often. She never likes to hear it!

Mary describes herself as an agnostic-atheist. She’s not an atheist because she thinks it’s arrogant to believe we can actually know that God does not exist. On the other hand, she thinks it’s arrogant to claim that God does exist. (We are super close, Mary and I, but I’ve never asked her, “So you think I’m arrogant?” Could be I’m afraid of the answer!)

Anyway, back to what I was saying: Mary is the best Christian I know.

Now you may wonder how I could tell an agnostic-atheist what a great Christian she is. Is my fatherly love blinding me from reality? Am I a theological liberal? What gives? I’ll tell you.

I served as a Southern Baptist pastor for thirty-six years. The first twelve years, I served in Texas, the second twelve years in Georgia, and the third were spent in Seoul, South Korea as pastor of Seoul International Baptist Church, where we regularly had twenty to twenty-five different nationalities and multiple Christian traditions. In fact, I used to joke with our congregation that Baptists were a minority in our church.

Thirty-six years divided into three periods of twelve years each.

In the Bible, the number twelve is significant. It is a symbol of completion. There were twelve tribes of Israel, Elisha was called as a prophet while plowing a field with twelve yoke of oxen, the woman with the issue of blood had been bleeding for twelve years before Jesus healed her, Jairus’ daughter was twelve years old when Jesus brought her back to life, Jesus chose twelve disciples to serve as apostles, twelve gates mark the entrances to the heavenly city. These are just a few examples of the appearance of the number twelve throughout the Bible.

Maybe you’ve seen the movie Signs. Mel Gibson plays a former Episcopal priest by the name of Graham Hess. My favorite scene in the movie is when Hess describes the two kinds of people in the world: those who see life’s events as happenstance or luck, and those who see them as signs.

I’m a signs-kind-of-guy. And I believe each of the twelve-year periods in my ministry was divinely appointed. God used each one to challenge me, stretch me, and grow me into a better human being and a better pastor and follower of Jesus.

I’ll share more about that at a later time, but for now, let me say that one of the most significant things I’ve learned is that following Jesus is not ultimately about the doctrines we believe or the church we belong to if we belong to a church at all. And I know this isn’t going to sit well with some, but I need to say it: following Jesus is not always about saying He is Lord.

How can I possibly say that? Here’s the answer, and to hear, really hear, what I’m saying requires a rethinking of what I believe has become a shallow, superficial, transaction-based evangelical Christianity in America today.

What if discipleship is less about what we say and more about what we do. After all, it was Jesus who, in his famous Sermon on the Mount, said, “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 7:21, NIV)

Before you write me off as teaching works-based salvation, keep reading.

What if Christianity in America has become so identified with political affiliation, individual rights, anti-socialism, and pro-capitalism that to call Jesus, Lord is to pledge our allegiance not only to Jesus but all these other things as well? To put it another way, what if we have created an American Jesus whose message is not about the good news of the kingdom of God but rather about a particular image of what kind of nation the United States should be?

Let me share a story with you, one of many similar stories from my time as pastor of Seoul International Baptist Church.

A young soldier began attending our church while serving on the 8th Army Base in Korea. He made a decision to follow Jesus, and during his time serving side by side with Chinese, French, Germans, Canadians, and Christians from multiple traditions and nationalities, he grew remarkably in his understanding of Jesus as King of Kings (or perhaps we should say, President of Presidents, Prime Minister of Prime Ministers).

He came to see Jesus as Lord of the greatest kingdom on earth, the kingdom of God. A kingdom with no borders or walls. A kingdom of peacemakers and mercy givers, one for the economically poor as well as the poor in spirit. A kingdom described in the book of Revelation as made up of people from every tongue, tribe, and nation. An eternal kingdom that, after all the other nations of this world have turned to dust, will stand forever.

Then he was transferred to another Army base in the United States.

Immediately, he began looking for and found a church. It was a church, like ours in Seoul, that emphasized teaching the Bible. He enjoyed attending his church and making new Christian friends, but when I reached out to him one day to see how he was doing, he shared with me some confusion he was experiencing.

I’m paraphrasing, but he said something like this: “I love my new church, the music is good, the teaching from the Bible is, for the most part, pretty good, but it’s all these other things I’m expected to believe that is confusing me. What do gun rights have to do with being a Christian? Why am I expected to vote Republican? Where is the diversity we had in our church in Seoul? There are lots of non-white people in our city, but we don’t really have any attending our church?”

These were just a few of the things he was confused about and struggling with.

Are you hearing what I’m saying?

Back to my daughter, Mary, the best Christian I know.

Mary grew up in church. I baptized her myself as we welcomed her into the fellowship of believers. She was and is a very tenderhearted person. She is also a very perceptive person. In her later teenage years, she began to hear and see church people, both in and outside the church her father served, whose Christianity was, how can I put this, less about love and compassion, and more about their understanding of the American Way.

I saw these things as well, and experienced a crisis of faith that landed me in Seoul, and brought my own faith back from the brink. I thank God often for that.

Meanwhile, Mary went to college, majored in psychology, and then earned a law degree specializing in immigration law. She spent summers traveling with us on medical missions in Asia. She spent a month in China helping care for babies with health issues who were abandoned by parents. (This is not an indictment on the Chinese. It’s a world-wide problem.)

Like a lot of college students, me included, Mary drifted from church during these years. She has never returned. But she has served in a Big Sister program, worked in soup kitchens, and makes her living as a pro-bono lawyer specializing in human trafficking. She does this in spite of the fact she received full scholarships and graduated third in her class in law school. She also chose her current job over a clerk position working with and writing for state Supreme Court judges, a sure ticket to success.

In 2016, when eighty percent of evangelical Christians not only voted for Donald Trump but defended his history of immorality, greed, and corruption, Mary told me, “I’m watching.”

And she is continuing to watch. Her integrity as a human being will not allow her to compromise her convictions. She refuses to believe that age-old proverb that guides so many Christians in their politics: the end justifies the means. Which, by the way, is what led to the crucifixion of Jesus: Caiaphas, the High Priest, said, “It is better that one man die than the whole nation perish.” (John 11:49) They crucified that one innocent man, and within forty years, the nation perished.

I look at my daughter, who she is, and how she lives her life, and I see someone who I know brings a smile to the face of Jesus. She is taking care of the “least of these.” (Matthew 25:45)

And at the end of the age, when Jesus returns, I believe Mary, like many others, will stand before the Lord and hear his words of commendation: “As you have served the least of these, you have served me. Enter into the joy of your Lord.”

For now, I suggest we evangelicals reflect on these words of Jesus –

“You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces.” (Matthew 23:13, NIV)

“People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God. Indeed there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last.” (Luke 13:29–30, NIV)

My book, Prophets or Patriots: How Evangelicals Are Giving to Caesar What Belongs to God, is scheduled for release on September 15. Also, check out my website, Church on the Edge, for more articles and videos on what it means to follow Jesus.

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