Is faith only a private matter? I hear arguments from some Christians that say that their faith is only a private matter, that it is only a matter of personal piety – how one acts privately.
But I find no Scripture to support such a claim. And I find many elements of this argument lacking on many levels. It seems like faith is a waste. If faith is only a private matter, then what’s the point? If faith is only a private matter, then how exactly is it transformative?
Scripture tells a different story. Jesus sends the disciples out to proclaim the Good News. That’s not a private piety. It has a public impact.
Jesus eats with sinners and tax collectors. That’s not a private piety only. It has a public impact – the Pharisees and Sadducees comment on it and criticize it. It impacts them. And it impacts the lives of the people Jesus ate with. It gave them dignity.
Matthew 25 records Jesus telling us about how the nations will be judged. That’s certainly not a private piety matter – it’s very public. It has public impact.
Jesus is labeled many things – Messiah, King of the Jews, King of King, Lord of Lords, Son of Man (or humanity if you think in the broader sense), and many more. All of these titles have public implications, not matters of private piety.
Jesus wasn’t crucified because of his private piety. He was crucified because of his public ministry and what it meant. It was having an impact on people’s lives in very public ways – affecting the status quo and all that supported and defended the status quo. And what was the status quo? Simply put, the status quo was oppressive, exploitive, deadly, and destructive. Jesus was a threat to all of this. If all he wanted to do was private piety, he would have not had a public ministry at all. He would not have had disciples. We would not have traveled through the land. He would not have been resurrected. He would not have appeared to people after the resurrection. He would have been completely forgotten in history because he would have had no impact on anyone.
That’s what an emphasis on private piety leads to.
That’s not to say that piety is unimportant. It is important. But that’s not where faith ends. It’s only the beginning.
Here’s how I know that faith is meant for more than just private piety. Sin isn’t just a private matter.
Sin is the brokenness of relationship. In order to have relationship, there needs to be more than just the self. There is an other. Sin breaks the relationship with the other – this makes it public. Sin has implications on the rest of creation – hence it has a public impact. We read this in the story of the Fall in Genesis 3. Because of sin, the ground is cursed too. When sin persists, the entire world suffers. Sin exploits and oppresses, it kills and destroys. It has a very public impact.
And faith exists to counter sin. How can faith do that though if it is only a private matter? It can’t.
Both sin and faith are public matters ultimately. As much as we would prefer to not face the reality of the public nature of sin, we are called too. We are called to name sin where it exists and to live out the faith we have been given – publicly. Sin is like a stain. We can choose to ignore the stain and pretend that it doesn’t exist. But we are only fooling ourselves. Faith is the oxyclean that comes in and knocks the stain of sin out – making things right again. Really right. Not, “let’s pretend we can’t see what’s obviously there” right. That’s just avoiding conflict because we are uncomfortable with conflict.
Living out this kind of public faith isn’t easy. There will be critics – those devoted to sin and the lies it tells. There have been many who have died for faith. They paid the ultimate price for fully living their faith. But what’s the point of claiming a faith that you aren’t willing to die for? What’s the point of claiming a faith that you aren’t willing to live out in a public manner? What’s the point of hiding the faith that we have been given because we are soooo concerned with our own safety that we will never speak out when faith cannot be silenced? That’s not faith at all. If faith is only private piety, then it is not really faith. It’s just another form of sin – a self-centered care and concern for one’s own safety and comfort. If faith is anything, it isn’t that.
Sin is both private and public. And so is faith.