It was Jesus who said that his followers would be a light to the world and a city on a hill. Jesus envisioned his church to be a wildly diverse yet compellingly unified multitude of aliens and strangers. This multitude would not crawl into a corner, but would enter every corner of God's world, the City of God penetrating the City of Man.
Jesus' multitude would be countercultural, and yet for the culture, not against it. They would be known as those who, as theologian N. T. Wright has said, "surprised the whole world by coming forward from the future into the present." They would do this by proclamation and demonstration - words of grace and truth coupled with life-giving deeds. They would gain power, not as a religious majority but as a life-giving minority. They would lead the world in acts of love and justice. They would be the best bosses, employees, neighbors and friends. They would also be the best enemies, returning insults with kindness and persecution with prayers. They would stay true to their biblical convictions, and would also love, listen to, and serve those who don't have their convictions.
Madeleine L'Engle wrote, "We draw people to Christ not by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it."
Yet today there are many who don't recognize Christianity in L'Engle's words. To them, Christians come across as everything but a light so lovely. As Gandhi famously said, "I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians."
Skeptics like Gandhi do have a point. Need we rehearse history? The Crusades. The genocide of Native Americans. The implicit endorsement of and explicit practice of slavery in the United States. The "God Hates Fags" and "Fags Burn in Hell" signs at funerals.
In spite of such behaviors falsely perpetrated in Christ's name, I remain optimistic about Jesus and his multitude. I am optimistic because these stories aren't the full story. Moreover, they aren't the real story—because for every poor representation of Christ, there are a thousand lovely ones. History is marked by the light so lovely spoken of by Madeleine L'Engle. History is marked by a Christian orthodoxy that is beautiful.
Redeemer Presbyterian Church pastor Timothy Keller says that the City of God is in our midst when citizens of the heavenly city become the very best citizens of the earthly one. Similarly, C. S. Lewis said that if we read history, we find that those who did the most good for the present world were the ones who thought the most of the next. To be heavenly minded is to be more earthly good, not less.
Throughout history, Christians have embodied the best of science (Pascal, Copernicus, Newton, Galileo, Koop), the arts and literature (Rembrandt, Beethoven, Dostoevsky, TS Eliot, Tolkein, Fujimura, Cash, Bono), the academy (almost all the Ivy League Universities were founded by Christians), and mercy and justice (Wilberforce with abolition, Mueller with orphan care, Martin Luther King Jr. with civil rights).
Contemporary observers are also taking note of how orthodox Christian belief, in its purest form, spawns beautiful lives. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, an avowed agnostic, has written at least twice on how Christians are the first to come, the last to leave, and have the deepest pockets every time he covers poverty, natural disaster, or some other horrific event. Gay activist Shane Windemeyer, so moved by the kindness, humility, and friendship of Christian businessman Dan Cathy, "came out as a friend" of the man whose business he once protested. Closer to home, there's the abortion provider who recently told a member of our church, "I want your God, whoever he or she is, to be my God."
I don't know about you, but this is the kind of orthodoxy I want. Beautiful orthodoxy. The kind that electrifies the light so lovely. The kind that gives a tired, sometimes cynical world a reason to pause and consider—and to start wishing it was true.
Scott Sauls is senior pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tennessee and author of Jesus Outside the Lines: A Way Forward for Those Who are Tired of Taking Sides. You can find Scott on Twitter at @scottsauls or on his blog at scottsauls.com.