I have heard people argue that faith is solely a private matter – something that is only personal, only a matter of individual piety. I’ve heard Christians argue this, which is, frankly, shocking.
Because if faith is only private, then what is the point of it? Faith as solely something private means that a person doesn’t want faith to affect them, or transform them. Faith as something solely private means there is not change in one’s outward behavior or how one deals with others, or has an impact on how one uses the money they have, or have an impact on policies they advocate for, or how they respond to someone in need, in poverty, or when they are experiencing injustice. Faith as something solely private is a waste because it has no real impact at all on a person.
And while I could go on with this line of argument, I’d like to shift to something a bit more impactful – the public impact of saying that faith is solely a private matter. Because if that’s the case, then we need to change a few things in our society.
First, let’s start by removing any public references to God. We’ll need to change our money – can’t have “in God we trust.” Of course the debate around this is what is the statement of faith in putting such a line on money? Good question. It is a public acclimation of faith though. However, we don’t seem to follow through with what it means to have trust in God – especially when it comes to the very money that we print those word on. What would change for us related to our money and how we use it if we really did in God we trust?
If faith is solely private, I guess we need to remove other public expressions of faith – like statues of the 10 Commandments, Christmas trees in public spaces, etc. These are visual expressions of faith in very public ways in public spaces.
If faith is only a private matter, then what do we do with the history of religion and religious figures? Especially those figures who advanced education?
If faith is only private, then it makes certain debates on difficult topics much easier since faith would have no consideration – it’s private after all.
Faith being solely a private affair comes with consequences. You can’t have your faith as a private cake and eat it publicly too.
If faith is solely a private matter, then why do we have churches at all – there shouldn’t be a need for a community of believers since it is strictly a private matter.
In addition, there’s no need for churches to do any acts of charity. Of course we could also eliminate any advocacy that faith institutions and organizations do on behalf of the poor, the exploited, the oppressed, and the outcast.
We can get rid of Christian hospitals, universities and colleges too.
And finally we’ll need to take an editing marker to Scripture itself since there are numerous references to faith being not solely a private matter, but having a public impact too. They will need to be wiped out so as not to conflict with the belief that faith is only a private matter with no public impact.
I understand the sentiment of faith being a private matter. And in some respects it is. And that is not a bad thing. yet, if we stop with faith only being a private matter, while accepting all of the public impact that faith has, then we aren’t seeing the whole picture.
Maybe the real hang up has to do with a couple of things – 1. There are Christians who do public displays of faith that are quite disturbing. They don’t match what we know our faith calls us to. In fact, some of these public displays of faith make us question if we are of the same faith at all. And when we see these things, we don’t want to be associated with that type of Christianity. I get that. 2. We are concerned about the cost. We aren’t sure how costly publicly expressing our faith (in a healthy manner) really will be. Will we lose our job? friends? family? These are real considerations. It’s easy to read Scripture and hear Jesus say that the cost of discipleship is the cross. It’s quite another to live into that.
This is why it is important for Christians to see healthy examples of public expression and impact of faith. These expressions give others encouragement to live out their faith in helpful ways. A public expression of faith is not going around declaring who is “in” and who is “out.” A public expression of faith is not public arguments about who is right and who is wrong and condemnation of opponents. A public expression of faith is not a declaration of who doesn’t deserve God’s love and who will burn in hell. Those aren’t public expressions of faith. Those are public expressions of judgement which help no one.
Rather a public expression of faith is taking what God has been calling on followers to do all along and doing them. Feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, welcoming the stranger, caring for the sick, visiting the imprisoned. Public expressions of faith are about freeing people from bondage, ending abuse and abusive systems, stopping oppression and exploitation, moving towards shalom. Public expressions of faith are about seeing the image of God in others – especially those who are more unlike ourselves. Public expressions of faith are about loving our enemies, loving our neighbors, and praying for those who persecute. Public expressions of faith are working for peace and transformation of society, not to impose some draconian way on people, but to free people from violence so they can experience thriving life. Public expression of faith is housing the homeless, listening to stories of people, and allowing God to change how you use your money. Public expression of faith is about welcoming people of all types. It’s about ending racism, white supremacy, and Christian nationalism because these things are destructive and deadly.
Public expression of faith is about participating in the unfolding kingdom of God in our midst, proclaiming that how things are do not have to continue – that there is another way, and inviting people into that new way of being. And rejoicing in it.