It has always taken courage to be a Christian because Christian spirituality poses a threat to the ways of the world. Without courage Jesus could not have endured to the end. He could not have turned away from temptation, confronted the Sanhedrin, or stood firm in the court of Pontius Pilate. Courage goes hand in hand with honesty and integrity. These are the cardinal virtues of a righteous soldier and essential armour for the pilgrim. “Stand firm then with the belt of truth buckled around your waist,” Paul tells the Ephesians (6.14). Standing firm is part of the same imagery as the rock of faith, the idea of never being moved in your belief. It takes courage to stand your ground, but when you know you have something which is irrefutably noble, you must be prepared to stand firm for it.
The history of the early church is a history of militancy and courage beyond the comprehension of a modern Christian. For us today it is courage to face the ridicule of non-believers, for the second century Christian it was the jaws of lions he had to endure. To be prepared to go to your death for what you believe is one of the noblest things a man can do, but when your belief is rooted in all that is good, it is not only noble but essential. Because men were prepared to imitate Christ for His sake and go to their deaths defending their faith, Christianity survived and flourished and became the most powerful force on earth, more so than if Jesus had mustered an army against the Romans.
Later, with the Crusades, a new era of bravery dawned. The robust chivalry of the knights was redirected against the mighty Saladin. Islam, the new religion, was seen as the modern threat to Christian values. Though the Crusaders themselves were less than chivalrous on these expeditions to the holy lands, very often overtaken by greed and bloodlust, the principle of dying for their faith held true. When they fought, they fought for the glory of Christ.
In time, the principles for which men were prepared to die became more ambiguous. Many thousands were martyred throughout the Middle Ages for their theology. Thomas Becket and Thomas More are two of the most famous examples of men who stood up to the egotism of kings in order to prove that the power of God could not be borrowed for the exclusive use and whim of monarchy. This was part of the dangerous struggle between God and state by men who understood that the spirituality of one had to remain separate from the politics of the other.
When the Reformation came, again Christians had to display courage but of a different order. The split of the church meant that Christians supporting one doctrine were fighting with Christians of another. The Roman Catholic Church wanted to remain loyal to its roots, while the Protestants wanted something new. Courts of Inquisition were set up to root out heretics, with death as the penalty. Christians tried Christians. This is radically different from the integrity shown by the early martyrs, who were standing against paganism. Suddenly Christians are dying for the sake of particular interpretations of the Word, and, worse, being killed by other Christians. It is not so easy to see how this reflects the message of love Jesus stood for.
What we see here is that questions of courage, honesty and integrity vary according to opposing theologies and lead to conflict among groups who continue to share Jesus as their common denominator. There are times when Christians show boldness when perhaps humility is the better option. Courage can lead to confrontation, whereas humility leads to a backing off, to a stepping down, a turning of the cheek.
These days, Christians might feel they are being courageous when they protest publicly against abortion or voice concerns about homosexuality. Standing up to the accepted norms of society takes courage. But, by the same token, other Christians might feel that it takes more courage to do nothing and show a far more tolerant approach to the wrongs of others. Both sides can claim Jesus as their model, since Jesus protested publicly against some things and showed tolerance towards others. The recent appearance of actor Steve Baldwin on the UK show Celebrity Big Brother offered him the opportunity to proclaim his religious beliefs on a stage watched by millions. This took courage and no doubt won him brownie points in heaven! But some might have said that he was wasting his time “throwing pearls to swine” and inviting ridicule from viewers who did not understand him. The right time to show courage becomes a matter of discernment, which is one of the gifts of the spirit.
Jesus was called a man of integrity (Mark 12.14) as was David (Psalm 78.72). It is a quality that is linked to righteousness. “Righteousness guards the man of integrity” we are told in Proverbs chapter 13, verse 6. Integrity is a confidence in your personal morality, but in order to be confident in your morality it is important that you have an absolute core of values which cannot be challenged. Nobody could question Jesus´ values because he possessed perfect morality, but David, despite his greatness as a man of God, frequently sinned and had his weaknesses. This did not prevent God from favouring him. Integrity then, or morality for that matter, is not about being free from sin but about being right with God. It is rightness with God, which gives us the courage to stand firm.
So the relationship between honesty, integrity and courage is a complicated one. To be brave in action when you have a weak case can be regarded as foolishness. It is possible to be confident in your own beliefs, but to have flawed theology. The quality of honesty does not take up a lot of space in the Bible compared to other virtues. Truthfulness is far more important. Being guided by Truth is not the same thing as being guided by honesty. Truth relates to the fixed laws of God´s universe, honesty is truth as one individual sees it, partial and incomplete. Again discernment is important in establishing boundaries.
The Christians who died being fed to the lions by heathen unbelievers had no problem identifying the difference between right action, which required courage, and wrong action which would have been deemed not only as cowardice but a betrayal of their faith. But Thomas More in his cell would have been racked by doubts because he was protesting against not paganism, but an opinion of Christianity that disagreed with his own. In his own way More directed the course of Christianity as much as the first Christians did, but it required a far more sophisticated understanding, and a wiser discernment, of what it meant ”to do the right thing.” He was relying on his conscience to tell him that Henry VIII´s ambitions were wrong. Once, in the time of the crusades, it was perfectly acceptable to declare war on Islam as a whole, since people regarded it as the latest example of devilish heathenism. But following the tragedy of 9/11 it was imperative that the President of the United States declared war not against Islam, but against Islamic terrorism. Our sensitivities have changed, our attitudes as Christians evolved. Greater discernment is called for than in the past.
There are still cut and dried examples of Christian courage, even today, and all the indications are that they will increase in the future. There are many parts of the world even today where it is dangerous to be a Christian and evangelizing is treated as a crime. Brave missionaries continue to do God´s work in these regions, under cover if necessary. This is exactly how the apostle Paul interpreted the instructions of Jesus, disciples endangering their lives for the sake of their beliefs.
But we don´t have to travel to far flung regions to display Christian courage. As religion becomes increasingly marginalized in society with more and more people demanding the “stripping” of religious symbolism from public areas and secular institutions, it is becoming harder to declare our own allegiance without attracting hostile attention. The history of Christianity is coming full circle and bringing us to an age when once again declaring our loyalty to Christ demands an act of courage. Even while different Christian factions continue to search their consciences for correct theology, a much greater threat is looming on the horizon, the return of paganism on a universal scale.
To the pagan there is no difference between the evangelical and the orthodox, there is only what he sees as the threat of moral absolutism. The non-believer wants to reinstate his own version of liberalism which has no room for God´s laws. It is foreseeable, and scriptural, that in the future the world will be divided into just two camps, just as before, Holy Jerusalem and Pagan Rome. Then it will be time for real courage. It will not be the subtle nuances of theology that divide us, or the difference between modern faith and orthodoxy, it will be the difference between a world with Christ and a world without. When that happens Christians will be tested again as they were in the early years and be forced to choose between the material comforts of society and the divine reassurances of righteousness.
We can take comfort from Paul´s words to the Hebrews when he told them to fix their thoughts on Christ (chapter 3). “Christ is faithful as a son over God´s house. And we are his house, if we hold on to our courage and the hope of which we boast.” (Heb 3.6)