I’m tired of the culture wars, I often hear Christians say. I sympathize with that sentiment. Everything in modern life seems to be politicized, from our favorite sports to our bathrooms to the kinds of food we eat. If by being worn out of Christians endlessly arguing over superficial issues and bad-faith and uncivil attacks on people who disagree, then I join in being tired of these kinds of fights. Too often, we willingly disobey the command to both love our neighbor as ourselves and to speak well of our brothers and sisters in Christ. Too often, we pretend as if the encouragements toward kindness and civility in Scripture are suggestions rather than commands.
Still, we suffer from the myth that we can live in a fallen world and not see our faith conflict at all with prevailing ideas of the age. This has always been the case in every age since Pentecost. Jesus himself promised that to be a disciple would, at some level, position you against cultural norms (John 15:18-25). James, the brother of Jesus, knew this well as a pastor in the first century. He said that to be a “friend of the world” is to be an “enemy of God (James 4:4).” Tough words. Jesus and James seem like ... culture warriors.
Of course, it matters the way we oppose or are opposed. Peter, writing to a marginalized first-century church, the Apostle urged God’s people to constantly evaluate themselves, to see if the friction with their neighbors, with the state, with the culture, was warranted or as a result of their own sinful behavior (1 Peter 2:20). This is a sober warning for all of us. Peter, no stranger to conflict, also urged believers to wrap their apologetics with kindness and gentleness (1 Peter 3:15).
But Jesus warned, and the Apostles understood that the most winsome, careful, wise approach will still sometimes engender fierce pushback, sometimes opposition, and sometimes persecution. Kindness is a posture, not a tactic. Jesus never sinned with his tongue, and he was rewarded with crucifixion. The Apostles were much more measured than we, and yet almost all of them faced martyrdom. A Christianity that does not reckon with the possibility of persecution, with the reality of suffering, is not New Testament Christianity.
In every age, there will be places where our Christian faith conflicts, sometimes deeply, with the prevailing social norms. For the first century church, it was the bizarre idea that an itinerant preacher from Nazareth not only rise from the dead but was ascended to Heaven and was Lord of all the earth. It was the refusal of the Christian sect to worship Jesus as just one in a pantheon of deities. It was the strange social posture that had Christians both practicing a monogamous sexual ethic between men and women and also intentionally serving the most impoverished in society. None of this made sense. All of this disrupted the Greco-Roman way of doing things.
To be a Christian in the first century would cost you something. Probably friends and family relationships, perhaps your job, and eventually your life. Some Christians saw this as the cost of following Jesus, a chance to be a part of, as Paul describes, the “fellowship of suffering (Philippians 3:10).” But others were not so strong. They departed the faith (1 Timothy 4:1). I’m sure there was pressure on those who suffered to back off a bit, to maybe nuance the strict demands of the gospel, to maybe stop being so ... well, at apparent war with the culture.
There are some culture wars that are petty and stupid, dumb and useless fights that Christians have about issues that don’t matter. But there are many other points at which, no matter how kind we are, our faith will conflict with the world around us. We shouldn’t go out of our way to provoke conflict, but we shouldn’t avoid it either. We shouldn’t be afraid to be different.
And in some way, everything we do in step with the Spirit of God, every action we take to apply the gospel to the world around us, from fighting abortion to helping deliver meals to the homeless, to alleviating suffering in our communities, to believing what we do about marriage, to speaking up for the most vulnerable—every single thing we do is in some ways at war with a fallen culture. It’s the sign of God’s new creation, which has dawned in Jesus and will come in full at the end of the age.
The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Christian Headlines.
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Daniel Darling is the Senior VP for Communications at National Religious Broadcasters (NRB) and served for six years as VP of Communications for the ERLC. You can find more from Dan at DanielDarling.com.