Yesterday, I started teaching a new series to my adult Bible study class on 1 Thessalonians. As part of the introduction to this Pauline epistle, I attempted to explain to the class the kind of real persecution these early Christians suffered from the Roman Empire and the surrounding pagan culture. And I noted that American Christians, who live in a distinctly Christian culture, have no comprehension of the kind of persecution the early church faced.
Then I went home and opened my email to find a scathing letter from a reader who wanted me to know that Pastor Greg Locke of Nashville knows true persecution for his faith and I am apparently one of his tormentors. Locke, by the way, is the pastor we reported on who will not allow worshipers to wear face masks, denies the threat of COVID, believes Donald Trump won the 2020 presidential election and helped stoke the fire that led to the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol — among other astonishing things.
The letter I received via email begins: “I just read the very dismissive sneering woke hit piece on Pastor Locke and understand now why the church in America is so dead and divided. You people are why.”
Rather than attempt to summarize the content of this email, let me just publish the rest of it verbatim here:
“Instead of actually listening to his sermons (you hear only his politically incorrect statements), you judge him, smear him, hold his past against him (to which he’s admitted), condemn him, and most laughable of all, agree with the world about ‘white male supremacy’ driving his motives!!!
“Are you kidding me? You actually think his skin color and sex are what motivates him?!! Do you even realize how UNCHRISTIAN you sound by aligning yourself with the lost world of WOKE-ISM?! Are YOU showing the love of Jesus to this man?? Are YOU not stoking hatred toward him??
“It’s actually because of Laodicean churches and teachers like you and your magazine (which has capitulated to the world by the articles I see) that are causing the faithful to flock to his strong, unadulterated 100% Jesus messages. He puts you to shame with your flabby weak pseudo-‘Christianity.’ You are following the world, not the Lord.
“He is the 1st Century church; you are not. As you recall the early church was persecuted by the religious leaders of that day. Be careful what side you are on.”
“Fundamentalists and many conservative evangelicals must always believe they are facing persecution like the first century Christians faced.”
The email ends nicely, however, with the simple salutation, “Regards,” followed by the sender’s name.
What’s important to note here is the writer’s comparison of her conspiracy-theory-promoting pastor to the persecuted Christians of the first century. I have no doubt that the author actually believes this, but such an assertion is as unhinged from reality as her pastor’s preaching.
Yet she illustrates an ever-present truth about Christian fundamentalism: Fundamentalists and many conservative evangelicals must always believe they are facing persecution like the first century Christians faced. Despite our faith’s privileged status in American culture, this branch of Christianity always insists it is being mercilessly persecuted by a growing secular culture and by apostates like me.
The perceived persecution takes many forms: The teaching of science in public schools, the requirement that we respect people of other faiths or no faith at all, being kind toward LGBTQ persons, seeking the welfare of the underprivileged, reading books that expand our knowledge. In short, anything that challenges these folks’ calcified point of view gets labeled as persecution.
This is not coincidental. Such extreme fundamentalism requires a persecution complex as the air it breathes. Without an opponent — and not just an opponent but a secular aggressor — fundamentalism loses power. This movement only knows how to define itself as being against other people and other ideas.
“This movement only knows how to define itself as being against other people and other ideas.”
In my introduction to 1 Thessalonians, I also pointed out the importance of the greeting from Paul, Silas and Timothy to the believers in Thessalonica: “Grace to you, and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” It is ironic to me that Greg Locke’s brand of Christianity — just like fundamentalism as a whole — traffics in neither grace nor peace.
“Grace” is derived from the Greek word charis, which means joy, pleasure, delight, sweetness, charm, goodwill, loving-kindness, favor. God’s grace to us brings joy and unmerited forgiveness. And “peace” from the Greek eirene speaks of quietness and rest, exemption from the rage or havoc of war, tranquility, harmony.
Ironically, modern-day Calvinism also twists the meaning of charis by calling its view of predestined election or damnation “the doctrines of grace.” I’m still struggling to understand where there’s grace in predestining some people to eternal damnation.
Today’s brand of neo-Calvinism and the larger world of fundamentalism in which it resides cannot function without identifying something or someone as their persecutor. This is why COVID-19 has further cemented the heroic stature of John MacArthur, the California pastor and author who has defied reasonable public health restrictions during the current pandemic. This is why parents are lining up at school board meetings to demand that their children not be required to wear face masks at school or be taught about America’s racist history.
“Fundamentalism breeds mean-spirited pastors and people who think they are being persecuted.”
Fundamentalism breeds mean-spirited pastors and people who think they are being persecuted when, in fact, they are the persecutors of anyone who threatens their beliefs.
A study of 1 Thessalonians offers an easy way to tell the difference between the true faith of the first century church and a modern-day persecution complex: Does the faith we espouse promote grace and peace?
Unless you redefine both “grace” and “peace,” Greg Locke’s kind of fundamentalism fails both tests. That is the 100% unadulterated Jesus message.
Mark Wingfield serves as executive director and publisher of Baptist News Global.
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Pastor Greg Locke is all over the internet spreading conspiracies; here’s why you shouldn’t believe him | Analysis by Rick Pidcock
One simple way to tell real persecution from persecution complex (and why we have to get this right) | Opinion by Corey Fields