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Respect for all rights, including religious freedom, contributes to the good of all people.

Q Does religious freedom trump other rights?

A Tensions are growing between the right to religious freedom and other human rights such as rights to equal treatment for women and nondiscrimination in public services. Some who are concerned about religious freedom treat it as a higher right than others; they press for religious freedom as the top priority when it is threatened, but are silent about other rights.

International human rights conventions are based on the indivisibility and integration of all rights, but the mechanisms to resolve disputes between rights claims are weak in most states and international bodies.

If all people are created by God and called to image God, then all human rights are important for Christians, not just religious freedom. Respect for all rights, including religious freedom, contributes to shalom and the good of all people. This is a different approach to rights and their counterpart responsibilities than personal self-fulfillment rooted in individualism.

If Christians advocate for the full range of rights, our concerns about religious freedom will seem less self-serving. That includes speaking up when religious freedom is misused to violate other rights, such as the use of religious freedom to justify forced early marriage of girls.

A shalom perspective can play an important role in mediating the tensions between different rights claims. Perhaps the Reformed branch of Christianity, with its emphasis on a holistic approach to life, has a gift to help resolve competing claims without a trump card.

—Kathy Vandergrift teaches public ethics to university students and advocates for the rights of children.

Q In our church we spend most of our energy on internal programs. What is our role toward everyone else in our community—that is, nonmembers?

A This is a challenge every congregation faces: how much focus and energy to spend on its internal community—individual members and families—and how much on its external community—neighborhood or city.

We are certainly called to build one another up in Christ, to help one another reach maturity and growth in our lives of faith, to teach our children, to care for our older generations, to hear the preaching of the Word, and to administer and receive the sacraments. All these are vital for the health of any church community.

Yet is this all? I’ve heard it phrased this way: “If we as a church were to close our doors tomorrow, would anyone in our neighborhood notice?” If the answer is no, perhaps it’s time to start thinking about that other community—your neighborhood and surrounding area. What is the church’s responsibility toward them?

I would say it is to work for the betterment of the neighborhood, to help create a space in which life can flourish, to share and embody the gospel.

The way in which this happens is unique to each church and each neighborhood. Some notice a need for mentors for children and supply volunteers to spend time with children in this capacity. Others notice a shortage of healthy food options and open a food pantry or start a community garden. Or they identify a need to learn English as a second language and offer free classes.

Every church can find ways to walk alongside, be present with, and pour themselves out on behalf of nonmembers.

A body of water that doesn’t flow anywhere eventually becomes stagnant. So too with a body of believers. If we are flowing outward, even as God pours his life and grace into us, we will be healthier, and so will our neighborhoods.

—Bryan Berghoef is a church planter in Washington, D.C., and is the author of Pub Theology: Beer, Conversation, and God.

Faith Formation
Q Am I too soft-skinned for ministry? I love my calling; it’s a privilege to preach the Word every Sunday. But there is one gentleman who considers it his sacred trust to critique every sermon I preach. Usually I try to steel myself when I see him coming, but too often his words completely deflate me. It makes me wonder if I’m too soft-skinned for ministry.

A Thirty years ago an elder told me that his calling was to serve as a “watchman on the walls of Zion.” He was a lot like your critic. The saddest result of his self-appointed role was that it only served to build huge walls around his heart, and he was unteachable. He died an angry man.

I suspect you’re not too soft-skinned; you’re just like the rest of us. So this response really needs to address the church.

People of God, the church of Christ needs an army of encouragers—men and women who know how to be Barnabas. I have a mentor whose life motto is, “It’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.”

I’ll never forget teaching our youngest how to catch a baseball. Every time he dropped it, I’d point out what he’d done wrong. Finally in exasperation he blurted out, “Dad, tell me what I’m doing right!” Ministry wrings one’s soul; it needs to be surrounded by loving encouragement.

Are you someone who is constantly critical? If so, you need to know that you have a spiritual issue to work on. A good place to start is a prayer discipline called “100 B’rakhot” (check Google).

—Syd Hielema is a professor of religion and theology at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ontario.

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