When I began this series, I said the battle to define marriage is not over—and I’m still convinced that is true. However, the issue in America has clearly passed the eleventh hour and I fear the clock has already begun to toll. The outcome of California’s Proposition 8 this November, which seeks to amend the state constitution in order to establish that “only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California”—thus reversing the state Supreme Court’s recognition of same-sex marriage in May—will figure prominently in the future of marriage in America. If the measure is defeated (and barring any intervention by God), I predict it will be nearly impossible to halt the homosexual movement and with it the radical redefinition of sexual morality.
This raises the important question of “What then?” How should the church respond in the wake of such profound moral and social revision? Should we continue to battle with homosexual activists? Will doing so distract us from our true calling and thus undermine the church’s mission and purpose? Should we persist in pressing the point even unto arrest and imprisonment? Is this how we are called to live in a pagan culture? These are the questions we must face. I wrestle with these, as I continue to address the church’s relationship to culture. I suggest that we all need to wrestle with these questions in an effort to find the most biblical answers, given our very real and possible future in America.
In his classic book Christ and Culture, Richard Niebuhr suggests that there are only a handful of postures the Christian can take toward culture. For example, we can emphasize the opposition between Christ and culture, what Niebuhr calls the Christ against culture position. This view sees the customs and advances of the day as inevitable affronts to Christ. Predictably, this position results in a withdrawal or separation from culture—a move that only renders Christianity less relevant and neglects to press Christ’s kingdom in the world. I certainly do not recommend this approach.
At the opposite end of the spectrum are those who feel there is a fundamental agreement between Christ and culture, in which Christ is equated with the apex of human achievement. Niebuhr labeled this the Christ of culture group. Far from simply identifying Christ with culture, it is more the alignment of certain aspects of culture with Christ—such as Western civilization, American nationalism, or conservative politics. With this position, Christ is recast in the guise of that culture’s predominant values. Rather than Christ standing over and against culture as judge and challenge, Christ is absorbed into the culture and appropriated for its ends. So you end up less with Christ than you do with culture. This appears to have been a dominant trend within the American church over the last fifty years, to the point that Christianity has been narrowed to the political realm as best seen in the “culture wars.”
This position has tended to neglect the whole missio Dei, or mission of God, in that it seeks primarily to promote and preserve certain values through civil or political means. While these values may be consistent with Christianity and their advocates may be well-meaning, there is no eternal value in morality apart from faith in Jesus Christ. The values of the Christian faith flow from conversion; they do not convert the lost. Furthermore, this response tends toward an “us versus them” mentality that all too easily operates “out of a conquering spirit or urge to control, vestiges of a former Christendom that no longer lives anywhere but in the impulses of our minds,” according to George Hunsberger (Hunsberger and Van Gelder, eds., The Church Between Gospel & Culture, [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996] 290).
But there is a third stance that can be taken, one that is neither a Christ of culture nor a Christ against culture position. It is a “conversionist” (and, I believe, the biblical) response that sees Christ as the transformer of culture. Yes, human nature is fallen, and culture not only reflects this perversion but often transmits it. Thus the opposition between Christ and culture is real and must be recognized. Yet rather than separation from culture, or accommodation and reliance upon the institutions of culture (such as politics), Christ in this scenario becomes the converter of humanity. This is the role of the church as Christ’s body. This distinct and called community of God’s people therefore lives as God’s instrument and witness to the redemptive work of God—the kingdom. It is from here that we go forth to express the values of the kingdom of God, sometimes by proclamation and at all times by demonstration.
This is precisely what the apostle Peter urged the Christians who were living among non-Christians to do. “Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (1 Peter 2:11–12, NIV). That last phrase, “on the day he visits us,” is not a reference to Christ’s return but to God’s intervention in the world through blessing or judgment. Peter follows this by saying “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution … For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people (1 Peter 2:13–15, ESV). Peter later equates this to a believing wife who wins her unbelieving husband over “without a word” by the way she lives (see 1 Peter 3:1). Matthew underscores this in 5:16: “In the same way, let your light shine before men people, so that they can see your good deeds and give honor to your Father in heaven (NET).
I know this goes against our nature but that is precisely the point: kingdom living always goes against our nature, which is why we require God’s grace to persevere in the faith. The time may be soon approaching when we are forced to abandon our “conquering spirit” and submit to “human institutions” that, while they may suppress our proclamation of kingdom values (i.e., opposition to sexual immorality), can never stop the demonstration of these values (i.e., living sexually moral lives) within and among the faithful community of God’s people. Furthermore, the bearing of hardship because of conscience toward God is pleasing to the Lord (see 1 Peter 2:19–23).
America, under the sovereign hand of God, may be given over to sexual anarchy, immorality, and debauchery but the faithful church will endure in spite of the culture and may, by its life and witness, be the instrument God uses to bring a generation to repentance. This is the mission of God and therefore the mission of His people; I am concerned that our persistence in a moral battle lost may distract us from our true purpose—and this I personally do not want to do.
© 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.