As I wrote in my last post, Bible-believing Christians in America and throughout the West are waking up to the reality that they truly do live in an increasingly hostile, post-Christian culture.
As I describe in my book Why Social Justice is Not Biblical Justice, ideological social justice has supplanted the Judeo-Christian worldview as the reigning belief system among cultural gatekeepers. It dominates our universities and systems of education, much of our federal government, mainstream media, Wall Street, Hollywood, and Silicon Valley. These centers of cultural influence are now working in a coordinated way to impose their belief system, values, policies, and practices on everyone else.
Writing in 2017, Christian social commentator Aaron Renn reflected on how dramatically the cultural status of Christianity has changed in America:
There are three worlds we’ve seen in my lifetime related to the status of Christianity and traditional Christian norms in society.
- Positive World (Pre-1994). To be seen as a religious person and one who exemplifies traditional Christian norms is a social positive. Christianity is a status enhancer. In some cases failure to embrace those norms hurt you.
- Neutral World (1994-2014). Christianity is seen as a socially neutral attribute. It no longer had dominant status in society, but to be seen as a religious person is not a knock either. It’s more like a personal affectation or hobby. Traditional norms of behavior retain residual force.
- Negative World (2014-). In this world, being a Christian is a social negative, especially in high-status positions. Christianity in many ways as seen as undermining the social good. Traditional norms are expressly repudiated.
If “negative world” started around 2014, the speed and momentum it has picked up since then have left many of us disoriented, disheartened, and confused. How do we respond to this new reality? Here are a few thoughts on how we should not respond.
This is first on my list because it appears to be the greatest temptation facing many of today’s evangelical leaders. Increasingly, they are taking their cues on how to think and act from the dominant, secular and postmodern culture.
None of us is immune from the strong temptation to assimilate our faith to conform to powerful cultural trends in order to retain a degree of respectability. The Apostle Paul spoke against this temptation. “Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ” (Galatians 1:10). Aaron Renn writes insightfully on this understandable but ultimately tragic response. He has observed, for example, that many of our high-profile evangelical leaders and organizations…
talk obsessively about two topics today: refugees (immigrants) and racism … I’m not going to argue that they are wrong on those points. But it’s notable how selective these folks were in picking topics to talk about. They seem to have landed on causes where they are 100% in agreement with the elite secular consensus.
Renn notices that those motivated by an impulse to align Christian faith with the elite consensus “try to be completely evenhanded in criticisms of Republicans and Democrats,” are driven to be liked, to avoid conflict, and to be seen as nice, or loving.
I agree with Renn that those pursuing this course are retracing the steps of the mainline churches.
The parallels with the late 19th/early 20th centuries are there and should be studied. Back then, for example, virtually all of the sophisticated intellectual and cultural types – the cultural engagers of their day – sided with the world and became today’s liberal mainlines. Many of the ones who remained orthodox, like Gresham Machen, paid a huge price for doing so – largely inflicted by their erstwhile brethren who assimilated.
There certainly is a price to be paid for countering the elite consensus. It includes a loss of social status and success, of reputation, position, prestige, relationships, money, or power. But there is an even bigger price to be paid for going down the accommodation road–the loss of our Christian integrity and witness. When we become conformed to the fallen world, we have nothing left to offer. We lose our capacity to be salt and light.
So we should fight against the strong temptation to conform to the reigning orthodoxy. As Renn reminds us: “that way leads down the well-trodden roadway to apostasy.” This not only harms the church, it harms the society that the church exists to serve and bless.
This too is an understandable response in the face of the cultural war raging around us. When Peter took his eyes off Jesus and focused on the storm raging around him, he began to sink.
The Bible is replete with admonitions to “fear not,” for in the end, we have only two choices. We can either fear God, or we can fear fallen men, and their power to harm us. The Bible is absolutely clear on which of these is the correct alternative. “In God I trust and am not afraid. What can man do to me?” (Psalm 56:11). “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31).
Our fallen nature wants payback. It wants to return hate for hate, and it is too easy to lash out in anger or hostility when misunderstood, mischaracterized, or mistreated, particularly in this age of social media. This too is a temptation we should fight against.
Instead, we are to remember who our true enemy is, and treat our cultural opponents with grace, humility, and civility. Those who treat us with hostility and contempt are ultimately not our enemies.
Our “struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12). Convinced of this, we can respond to those who wish to harm us with mercy, compassion, and forgiveness. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:43).
“Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord. On the contrary:
‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:17-21).
Despair and Withdrawal
This is also a response that the Bible forbids. I love what John Stonestreet of the Colson Center said to a gathering of DNA leaders a few years ago: The most important thing we can say in response to whatever today’s headline is: “Jesus has risen from the dead!” He is alive and ruling over all powers and authorities in heaven and on earth. He will bring history to its ultimate consummation, and we know that victorious ending in advance.
The times may be shocking and dismaying to us, but they are no surprise to Jesus, the Alpha and the Omega. Furthermore, He chose us for this time, and He has prepared good works in advance for us to carry out in these times.
Our task is to remain faithful no matter the circumstances. We are to fight the good fight, and leave the results in God’s capable hands. We don’t know what the future holds, and though the current trajectory seems dark and hopeless, things can, and often do, change, and change suddenly.
The temptation to withdraw is particularly damaging to our Christian mission to bless the nations. In many respects, it was because the Bible-believing church chose this path in the early 20th century that we find ourselves in our current cultural mess. Where the fundamentalist church withdrew from cultural pursuits in the late 1800s and early 1900s, those holding to false, destructive worldviews didn’t. They set out to transform culture starting with a laser-like focus on systems of education, and in the ensuing decades, they largely succeeded.
We have to come to grips with a simple truth: Somebody is always actively shaping culture. If it isn’t followers of Jesus Christ, it will necessarily be followers of false gods. If we don’t like the way things are in the dominant culture, we ultimately have ourselves to blame. So let’s not repeat the same mistake. Rather, let’s be faithful in living out the truths of a biblical worldview in the various “worlds” we inhabit. Let’s work in hope, and in God’s strength to shape a culture that honors Christ, and is good for our neighbors.
We can start this in our most basic communities, in our families, churches, and through our vocations.
More on that in our next installment.
Really is hard to “fight the good fight” when it’s not even working. Christian leaders complain about mediocre religious media, obnoxious followers, and pointless attitudes all the time, but nothing ever happens. It genuinely makes me think the days of Martin Luther King and William Wilberforce are over. Any effort made is soon dashed to pieces, whatever that may be. Eventually, people just stop. Why sacrifice your time and reputation when nothing comes of it?