Secret Christians.

by K.W. Leslie, 03 May

Most of the time, this particular teaching of Jesus has the effect of getting Christians to quit waffling and publicly declare themselves Christian. ’Cause Jesus doesn’t want secret followers.

Matthew 10.32-33 KWL
32 “So everyone who agrees with me before people: I’ll also agree with them before my heavenly Father.
33 But those who disown me before people: I’ll also disown them before my heavenly Father.”

Though y’might notice there were secret Christians in Jesus’s day. Nicodemus of Jerusalem and Joseph of Arimathea were two rather obvious followers… but give ’em credit; they did out themselves by entombing Jesus. Jn 19.38-42 We don’t have Jesus’s comments about them, but since they rather publicly got involved “before people” when push came to shove, I seriously doubt Jesus is gonna disown either of them at the End.

Thing is, there are a number of people who secretly, privately, personally believe in Jesus. But they don’t have the balls to step forward and publicly say so. Maybe they’ll say so in private… but sometimes not even then. “My religion is none of your business,” is their usual cop-out. “Religion is private.”

True, some religious practices are private, or certainly should be. Like prayer. But identifying with Jesus of Nazareth? Not so much other fellow Christians; we can be awful, so I get that. Still, denying Jesus? You realize Simon Peter still gets crap for doing exactly that. And rightly so; it was a dick move. As it is when anybody pretends they don’t know him when they do.

Which is precisely why Jesus makes this kind of deal about it. If you love him, you’re gonna acknowledge him. You’re gonna defend him to people who don’t think so much of him, or don’t think so much of anyone who puts their trust in him. You’re gonna stand up when it counts. Even when it might mean you’ll suffer consequences. Especially then; it’s hardly a significant gesture when there aren’t any consequences.

And yet we still have such creatures as incognito Christians. Who sometimes show up when we really need ’em, like Joseph and Nicodemus; but who more often cave under pressure, like Peter that one time. And to Peter’s credit, it’s a mistake he never made again.

Good deeds don’t preach the gospel as much as you imagine.

The authors of Matthew, Mark, and John knew Joseph’s deal, and said so in their gospels.

John 19.38 KWL
After these things Joseph the Aramathene, who’d been Jesus’s student in secret, fearing the Judeans,
asked Pilate if he could take Jesus’s body. Pilate allowed it, so Joseph came and took his body.

But interestingly, Luke didn’t choose to identify Joseph as a student. This was all the description he provided:

Luke 23.50-52 KWL
50 Look, a man named Joseph who had senatorial rank, a good and righteous man,
51 who didn’t collaborate with the senate and their action—
this man Joseph, from Arimathea, Judea, who was waiting for God’s kingdom,
52 this man Joseph, going to Pontius Pilate, asked for Jesus’s body.

It’s a good description, but y’notice it leaves out the fact he followed Jesus. He “was waiting for God’s kingdom,” and recognized Jesus as King of this kingdom. But Luke chose not to say this. Maybe something made Luke doubt Joseph’s affiliation. Maybe the fact Joseph had spent so long in hiding it, and the one publicly Christian thing he ever did was to embalm Jesus and put him in his sepulcher.

But while that’s a pretty meaningful act to us Christians, it’s that’s not necessarily a Christian act.

Seriously. ’Cause the LORD commanded the Hebrews to bury anyone they’d executed on the day they were killed. Dt 21.23 Sinner or not, enemy or not, they’re humans made in God’s image, and you don’t want the dogs to eat ’em. (’Cause they would.) So Joseph’s act could been interpreted as an act of love for Jesus, and that’s how Christians tend to take it. But it could be interpreted as an act of love for God, despite contempt for Jesus… ’cause after all, Joseph had never said who Jesus was to him.

There’s an old quote which people claim St. Francis of Assisi said; it doesn’t really sound like him, but whatever: “Preach the gospel, and when necessary use words.” Properly interpreted, it means the same thing Jesus did when he told us to let our good deeds shine before others. Mt 5.16 But secret Christians like to spin it like so: Don’t preach the gospel. Don’t say anything about Jesus whatsoever. Just do good deeds. That’ll count.

As you can kinda see in Joseph’s case, no it doesn’t count. Any pagan can do good deeds. Most pagans do! Does it mean they’re Christian? No; it means they’re good. (Good enough for God’s kingdom? No, ’cause we don’t get into the kingdom by karma.) Being good doesn’t prove anyone is Christian; it only proves they’re capable of meeting society’s ideals. In public, anyway. In private they might be as depraved as they come… and the reason they’re good in public is to hide their depravity, or karmically make up for it. You don’t know.

That’s the problem with secret Christians: When they do good deeds, we don’t know their motives. We might be able to deduce them because we see some rather obvious fruit of the Spirit in their attitudes. Various people at my workplace have been able to deduce I’m Christian before I ever tell them, and I hope it’s because my attitude has the Holy Spirit written all over it. But they’re just guessing, and they might just as often guess a kindly Muslim is a Christian, or a generous Buddhist, or a friendly atheist. They don’t know to look for fruit, y’know. (Heck, many Christians don’t know to look for fruit either.)

The reason Jesus used words to preach the gospel? ’Cause it takes words. Deeds get people’s attention, but don’t tell the whole story. Words tell the whole story. Use words!

The fear of losing status.

Why’d Joseph hide his Christianity? Because he was a senator. Mk 15.43 He figured if he followed Jesus publicly, he was gonna hear it from the rest of the Judean senate. So he kept it quiet… till he realized it was no longer appropriate to hide his affiliation.

But while Joseph realized it was no longer appropriate, fact is it’d never been appropriate.

Had Joseph spoken up, he might’ve got a little pushback from some of his fellow senators. Like the Sadducees, who didn’t believe in Messiah and thought the head priest was Judea’s rightful king. Like certain Pharisees who took grave offense at Jesus violating some of their favorite traditions. Back in those days before freedom of speech and religion, someone might have tried to assassinate him. (But far more people tend to be assassinated by crazy people.)

Americans frequently use the excuse, “I can’t tell people at work I’m Christian; it’s forbidden.” Untrue. Workplaces can have dress codes which forbid religious imagery, and can forbid people from proselytizing—and should, ’cause not only is it inappropriate Christian behavior, it’s annoying when your coworkers will simply not shut up and quit pressuring you to join their religion, whether it be Christianity, atheism, veganism, Herbalife, etc. But of course you can inform people you’re Christian, that you’re religious, that you go to church. Not as a warning—“So don’t sin around me”—but only so they know why you behave as you do. And it’d be nice if you do behave as a Christian should, and be gracious, forgiving, patient, loving, kind, generous, and self-controlled… unlike those self-described “Christians” who use their religion as an excuse to be jerks.

Nope. Where we can, and how we can, our Christianity shouldn’t be secret. So why was Joseph’s Christianity a secret? Fear.

And in my experience, fears tend to be entirely unfounded. Our brains, or the devil, play on those fears, exaggerate ’em out of proportion, and convince us to not take risks. Even useful, necessary, valuable, significantly rewarding risks. Comfort is such a useful temptation.

Joseph’s public stance would’ve made clear there was one senator who took Jesus seriously. It might’ve brought other senators who were secretly Christian, like Nicodemus, out of the woodwork. It might not have stopped Jesus from getting killed; it might’ve done nothing more than stall his trial a bit. But all the more people might’ve paid attention when the apostles stood up at Pentecost and announced Jesus is now at the Father’s right hand.

Okay, now what if Joseph had been out of town when Jesus was killed, and never had the opportunity to entomb Jesus? What if the one good deed he’s known for in the bible, never happened? What if he never did publicly acknowledge his Master? You think Jesus would’ve stuck to his statement and disowned him?

I say Jesus is extremely generous, but it’s entirely possible. Because they valued their comfort and status over God’s kingdom. So they’d hardly be the people to stand by Jesus when he invades. Probably won’t even stand up and object, “But Lord, we did such-and-so for you…” Mt 7.22-23 because they totally didn’t, because they were in hiding.

Those who claim they don’t wanna embarrass Jesus.

In some cases people are secretly Christian for… well, let’s play along with them for the time being, and call this reason noble. See, they honestly don’t act Christian. So rather than tarnish the label “Christian,” they simply won’t claim it.

Fr’instance most Christians object to nonmarital sexual activity. Well, certain Christians wanna indulge their urges, don’t wanna do it within any confines of any monogamous relationship, so they do as they please. Sometimes they feel guilty about it; sometimes not. Either way they still agree with their fellow Christians—and the scriptures—in that promiscuity is a work of the flesh, and not appropriate Christian behavior. Ga 5.19 But rather than flee promiscuity, 1Co 6.18 they simply flee the label “Christian.” They don’t wanna tarnish the title by publicly being a misbehaving Christian.

If your BS detector has gone off by now, good; it’s working.

In high school I indulged in plenty of fruitless behavior, and kept my Christianity on the downlow because I claimed I didn’t want my behavior to reflect on Jesus or Christianity. When word leaked out I was Christian, my excuse was, “I’m not a very good Christian; I don’t act Christian.” Sometimes I’d admit I should act Christian, but obviously I didn’t mean it enough to reform.

And gradually I discovered most kids were the very same way. Turns out most of my high school friends went to church, and actually thought themselves Christian. Turns out most adults think the very same way: They picked up the behavior in their school-age years, and never stopped.

Hence I’ve met people in various unsavory career paths who behave this way. Like musicians who like to sing naughty lyrics, or drug dealers, or sex workers, or politicians. No, that’s not a jab at politics: They truly recognize their political positions and tactics are incompatible with Christianity, so they hide their Christianity. They really do imagine they’re sparing Jesus embarrassment.

Obviously what they’re truly doing is indulging their flesh, and putting off Jesus.

So are they even Christian at all? Well that’s kinda up to Jesus. But since he calls us to a lifestyle of repentance, Mk 1.15 and these folks have clearly never repented, aren’t pursing God’s kingdom in any form, and aren’t producing any fruit, hate to tell you: I don’t see how, at this rate, they won’t wind up on the wrong side of judgment. I don’t see how they’re not pagans.

Those who feel embarrassed by Jesus.

Some secret Christians are hiding their Christianity, not because they don’t wish to embarrass Jesus or other Christians, but because they don’t wanna be embarrassed. They’re ashamed of their religion.

Sometimes these are the folks who are embarrassed by the misbehavior of our fellow Christians. They’re tired of the overzealousness, the politics masquerading as devout behavior, the anger and rejection disguised as purity—the hypocrisy in general. Which I get; we can be awful. Considering how often Jesus objected to the Pharisees doing such things, I’m pretty sure that embarrasses him far more than run-of-the-mill sinners.

And sometimes these are the folks who are embarrassed by just how backwards Christians can behave. In other words, we’re not “cool” as they define coolness: They figure society oughta hide its religious practices more than it does. So when we pray in public, quote bible, say “Amen” all the time, talk to strangers or volunteer to help the needy (or volunteer them to help the needy), or bring up miracles and the supernatural, it irritates ’em. They prefer private religion. So private, you can’t even tell it exists.

Ostensibly this is because they consider religion to be very personal. But that excuse is crap. Everyone’s religion, if we really do base our lives upon it, is very personal. If it’s impersonal, if we don’t really mean it or feel it, that’s hypocrisy. Any true relationship with God is gonna be personal.

Likewise any true relationship with God is gonna be private in some areas. But these personal and private revelations should be so significant, they leak into our public lives and transform them. No matter how private one’s religion should be, in every Christian we should see fruit. If we don’t, we’ve got faith without fruit. Faith without works. Dead faith.

The reason people hide their faith isn’t because it’s personal. It’s because it’s not there, and they’re trying to disguise their irreligion as deeply-felt religion. It’s just more hypocrisy.

Christianity embarrasses them because, frankly, they don’t have Christ. When all their Christian friends express joy and excitement about Jesus, they feel nothing. And that bugs ’em. As it should; there’s something wrong with them. But denial gets ’em to turn it around: “I’m not the one with the problem. They are. Religion should be private.” And other such self-deceptions.

The secret pagans.

Self-deception is very much at the heart of the secret Christian. They’re trying to tell themselves they really are Christian, they really do have a relationship with Jesus, they really are saved, they really are going to heaven. That their godless behavior doesn’t matter, because God is gracious. That once-saved-always-saved.

And other such things which keep ’em from repenting, and keep ’em in the dark when they should be going into the light. Jn 3.19

In reality, many “secret Christians” aren’t Christian at all. They’re pagan. They have no relationship with God—or their relationship is so distorted by all the hiding and lying, it’s not a relationship that’ll get ’em into God’s kingdom.

As you can tell from the fact their lifestyles are indistinguishable from that of pagans. You can’t tell ’em apart. They vote the same, shop the same, dress the same, consume the same media, have the same rate of divorces and abortions, have the same rate of murders and rapes and suicides. They’re just as friendly, but just as fruitless. They act and live as pagans.

Doesn’t matter what they go on telling themselves.