Responding to the conclusion of my series In Defense of Marriage, there were some who expressed concern that I was advocating capitulation or withdrawal from the culture, which, of course, I am not. I appreciated the thoughtfulness with which many of you responded and the gracious manner in which you expressed your disagreements. This is healthy and—let’s be honest—we’re not dealing with essential doctrines of the Christian faith, so there should be room for disagreement, debate, and discussion. That is precisely what I hope to encourage. Otherwise, we can remain blindly entrenched in old patterns of thinking and conduct that render the church and its message irrelevant as the culture around us changes. The faithful Christian will always wrestle with the execution of his calling in a changing cultural context (see 1 Cor. 9:22).
Let me say up front, I offer no absolutes on this point. Hopefully you’ll see mine as a thoughtful opinion, but again, I am not dealing with Christian orthodoxy as much as I am methodology. More specifically, I am grappling with the church’s posture when addressing difficult moral and social issues in a post-Christian cultural context.
As one who lives on the forefront of pressing Christ in the culture, I am wrestling with my own understanding as I seek to balance challenging the moribund morality of the culture with proclaiming the gospel. (I believe this, too, is healthy.) I simply think we need to carefully reconsider our approach to these moral and social issues, given our rapidly changing context. So I search the Scriptures, putting aside my own cultural assumptions, biases, and opinions. I know better than to trust in my own understanding. Believe me, my nature is to go to war (teeth, hair, eyeballs!), but I know better than to put confidence in the flesh and rely upon my nature.
One problem, as I see it, is that we tend to look to the past—namely our American past. We long for the time when America was nobler and its citizenry more virtuous. It is from there we seek to reclaim what is being lost: the glory days of our founding, for example, when people weren’t as selfish and narcissistic, when morality was not mocked, and civility was the norm. Debates over homosexuality, abortion, euthanasia, stem-cell research, and the like would have been inconceivable. However, we should also be careful not to romanticize the past into something it wasn’t.
Nonetheless, this attempt to restore what once was fails to consider the unprecedented post-Christendom reality of today. The cultural hegemony of the last 1600 years that the church once enjoyed is no longer present anywhere in the West. This twenty-first century condition presents never before seen challenges to the American church that demand serious thought. In light of this, we are moving more toward similarities with the church in China more so than the church of eighteenth-century America. I think this is the first paradigm that must be overcome.
Our tendency, it seems, is to recall the prior social and cultural impact of Christianity and the profoundly positive influence it has had on the formation of the nation, our government, culture, and society. Even when the church was weak, the social and cultural consensus, or worldview, was still largely Christian up until the Enlightenment. This does not mean that everyone in America was individually Christian; they weren’t. But Christianity was the consensus worldview. However, this was prior to Darwin, Marx, Nietzsche, and others, not to mention modernity, the sexual revolution, rampant consumerism, and postmodernism.
Ideologically speaking, the world was a very different place from the one that confronts us today, and these factors must be considered when trying to understand how to effectively engage the culture. Although this past influence is undeniable, it occurred under very different circumstances and thus the manner and means by which former Christians engaged culture may not be relevant to today. While knowing this historic influence is important to knowing where we came from, I would argue it offers little in the way of where we are going and how the Christian community is to live in these emerging conditions. The cultural changes that now confront us are not abstract and minor; they are very real and monumental. I fear we have been slow to either recognize or accept this fact.
Under Christendom, the church held a position of cultural and social authority, which went largely unquestioned. But over time this has changed. Our culture no longer labors under a Christian worldview. Pluralism, radical individualism, relativism, multiculturalism, and the like have destroyed any notion of a single overarching truth available for discovery. The church has no authority in the culture; we’re not welcome in the public square and more and more we are finding Christian ideas barred from our most influential cultural institutions. However, we tend to speak and act as if we still posses this authority, as if the people to whom we’re speaking still believe in truth—and this, it appears, has proven harmful to the mission of the church. Our “conquering spirit” materializes and the love of Christ is obscured, at best, and at worst, we are seen as anything but Christlike.
The fundamental question is this: is the “problem” in America spiritual or political? Of course, the answer is spiritual—so why do we continue to put so much stock in political solutions? It may be that the political route appeals to our desire for power and control. However, as Christians, we must remember that power and control are left to God; we trust in Him to dispense these according to His good will and pleasure. This does not mean that we become passive and withdraw from society, politics, and cultural engagement. Again, the issue is one of posture and method. In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus draws a sharp contrast between the methods of the world and those of the kingdom of God. Throughout, Jesus is addressing the attitude and disposition of those who would follow Him. As followers of Jesus, we function in almost complete contradiction to what the world understands and expects. Jesus exalts the poor in spirit, the meek, the merciful, the pure, the peacemakers, and the persecuted. Jesus forbids retaliation, calling on those who are oppressed to “not resist the one who is evil,” and to love our enemies.
The church is not a revolutionary instrument (this would be the extreme politicization of Christianity) but a transformative instrument that draws its strength from the Living God. We trust in Him, giving thanks in all things, including persecution. First Peter is filled with statements that challenge the church to this effect. In fact, when chapter three speaks of “the end of all things” being near, Peter encourages the church to be “clear-minded and self-controlled so that you can pray.” He doesn’t say organize and fight. He doesn’t even say resist. Instead he goes on to say, “Above all, love each other deeply…offer hospitality…without grumbling…serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in various forms.” He is describing the contradictory kingdom life of the church. He follows this with his passage on “rejoicing in suffering.”
Of course, this doesn’t mean we stop sharing Christian truth with those we meet. We most certainly do. But this is different than politicizing Christian values and trying to press them through collective political coercion.
© 2008 by S. Michael Craven
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S. Michael Craven is the founder and President of the Center for Christ & Culture
Michael lives in the Dallas area with his wife Carol and their three children.