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Saturday, September 6, 2008

A Proselyter's Zeal

I was recently handed a double-folded religious tract  which has this admonition on its front page: "This is not a Secret and You Must Know About it Today. My friend, tomorrow may be too late." The familiar "Sinner's Prayer" was printed on the back page.

As I stuffed the flyer into my pocket, I immediately recalled those times when I used to stand by a corner of an overpass or a street handing out tracts with a beatific smile on my face and a great assurance of eternity in my heart.  Being ignored or avoided by most passers-by did not dampen my spirit for I kept telling myself that it was my small way of sharing in the passion of the Christ.  From time to time, I got encouragement from a few who snatched what I offered or who even exchanged pleasantries with me and/or contacted me later for a Bible study.

My proselyting zeal extended to my schooling.  While pursuing my undergraduate degrees in a Catholic university, I did "underground work." I preached to my classmates as I found opportunity, and studied my KJV Bible while the rest of my classmates pored over Gamboa's Introduction to Philippine Law or  Nolledo's Constitution of the Republic of the Philippines. While some skipped classes for what I saw as their "worldly pursuits," I intentionally missed some classes to do "ninja preaching" in an adjacent university. There, I'd dash in and out of rooms asking for the students' precious "five minutes" during the short breaks between their classes so I could share with them my soul-saving message. My canned sermons included "The Romans' Road to Salvation" and "The Four Facts of Life," each ending with a plea for my hearers to "pray the Sinner's Prayer with me."   Back in my own school, I had always hoped to snatch a few Catholics from the fiery lake mainly by distributing flyers knowing that it was against school policies. I did my ninja moves with these shuriken-like tracts under the noses of the guards but I was  not always quick enough. Once was I caught red-handed by  an alert guard who  triumphantly and promptly brought me to the Associate Dean for Men. Fortunately for me, when the AD got hold of my ID and asked me who my father was he told me that since  my dad was a dear friend of his he was willing to let my subversive activity pass for once.  Before he let me go, he made me swear not to proselyte in the university.  So the following morning, I did my proselyting activities outside the school: I continued distributing some more tracts by the university's main gate.  It was a wonder that I did not find myself kicked out of school for my  anti-Catholic activities at that time.


Sinner. Christian. Gospel. Salvation.

These terms may seem so simple, clearly understood and commonly defined by those who profess to follow Jesus, but from my preaching experience these words can be defined or qualified by believers in different ways according to which theological tradition or ecclesial system they subscribe to. What makes one a sinner or a saint, Christian or infidel, and hell- or heaven-bound in one sect may not be enough for another.  What is gospel to one may be inadequately spelled out when considered by another.

In my case, I had defined these concepts according to the dictates of my church's written and unwritten creed.  As a Baptist, I felt superior to other professed Christians in other denominations.  For after all, we stood as the best representative of the Christian faith.  One of our preachers even contended that since John was  a Baptist and he baptized Jesus, the Messiah must have been a Baptist. And so that oft-referred to "trail of blood" of our martyrs flowed from Jesus to our day.  Our pastor  in the local Bible Baptist  (read: KJV 1611!) church at the time went further by speculating that  when Jesus  establishes his millennial kingdom on earth, Bible Baptist preachers will have the privilege of getting appointed to the higher echelons of power.  Of course, Catholics had no place in this earthly reign for from the very beginning their church system  has borne the Mark of the Beast (according to the film we used to scare "unbelievers" with,  during the "Tribulation Period" the Terminator-like Beast will exterminate all those who refuse to receive the "666" on their foreheads).

When I shifted flags in the mid-'90s and joined the Church of Christ, I embraced a narrower understanding of the terms.  For I became a member of the New Testament Church at last!  The Baptists?  They got closest to the Pattern, sure, but they still needed to shed off their denominational skin so they could be more like us. Contrary to the position of the Baptists who counted the starting point of one's Christian life from the time s/he uttered the Sinner's Prayer, we always argued that one becomes a Christian at the moment of his baptism (and to be valid, this must be an immersion specifically for the remission of sins administered by one of our preachers or members). I shared the conviction of many then that  for churches to be really "of Christ" they must have our external marks  -- a capella singing, weekly giving, multiple cups for the Lord's Supper (and we dare not change the pattern instituted by the Lord: bread must come first before the wine, each preceded by a prayer), plurality of eldership, amillenial view, etc. Any deviation from the established pattern as we saw it was heresy. So only those in our fellowship had the right to be called Christians.  All other believers -- hyphenated Christians -- were  still in their sins, offering a strange fire to God and consequently looking forward to be consumed by the fires of hell as dry wood is fed into a furnace.

A person may go to church regularly, actively promote the tenets of his fellowship, be morally upright in his neighbors' eyes, and participate in civic projects but if s/he belonged to the "wrong" church /he would always be a sinner without the quotes, and a Christian in quotes. And there's just no other way s/he could escape the wrath of God on the Judgment Day but to be one of us.

Oh, and there were those who belonged to our church who also endangered their salvation by violating certain rules of conduct we treasured dearly by, say, being teetotalers or pinikpikan eaters (i.e. those who eat meat that still had plenty of  blood in it when cooked).

Every church has a creed (even those who claim to have "no creed but Christ" do write about the "things most surely believed") to which one must wholly subscribe and with which the subscribers measure and classify the immoral/worldly from the upright and spiritual, believers from unbelievers, Good News from bad news, saved from unsaved.

Consequently, in many cases "converting people to Jesus" actually means pirating genuine Christians from another church -- a shift of allegiance not  really from  the Devil to God, but from one "human kind"¹ to another.

To be fair, I must hasten to add that in many other cases such shifts of allegiance can actually result in genuine moral reform,  intellectual satisfaction, social good, and spiritual fulfillment in the individuals involved.


¹ I am using the term according to how David Berreby defines it in his fascinating opus, Us and Them: Understanding Your Tribal Mind (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2005): Aggrupations or "labels that define more than one person but fewer than all... whose memberships fall between All and One" (14-15).

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