Article May 11, 2015

Are we preparing our people for a post-Christian reality?

The Supreme Court of the United States just heard oral arguments on gay marriage. If they rule, as most court observers expect, to legalize gay marriage in all 50 states, pastors and church leaders will face a new reality.

Two wrong approaches to culture

As discussion and debate on gay marriage has played out in the larger culture and in the church, there are two equally wrong approaches among Christians. First is the retreat from biblical orthodoxy, either explicitly through hermeneutical gymnastics or implicitly by pretending that if we offer a nicer, easier Christianity, our conflicts would melt away.  

Secondly, there is an equally wrong approach that frames the issue solely in terms of “taking our country back from the elites,” as if this is simply a matter of winning a few elections and rolling back the progress gay rights advocates have made in the last decade. I’m a believer in good government and think Christians should be active at all levels, both working and voting for good leaders.

But neither retreat nor recovery reflect an honest view of culture as it is today. What’s more, I’m afraid pastors who adopt one of these two attitudes are failing their people.

Developing an exile theology

This reality has become more acute to me in the last few years, especially as I’ve been engaged in focused study on the New Testament and church history. I’m particularly arrested by the book of 1 Peter. Here the Apostle, sensing a cultural shift that (history tells us) eventually led to increased marginalization, persecution, and even death for Christians, prepares his people for living as exiles or sojourners.

I wonder if Christians are ready for this kind of reality. For so long, we’ve lived under the protective umbrella of religious freedom and in a majoritarian Christian environment. We are not used to living as a distinct minority—as the Church has existed for most of its history and as the Church exists in most places around the world.

I’m not cheering for a post-Christian society. I think this sets up negative structures that imperil human flourishing. Because I love my neighbor, I will continue to work for good marriage and family policy. I’ll still fight for justice for the unborn, the trafficked, and the economically disadvantaged. I’ll still work to help equip and influence civic leaders who apply the gospel to public service. As citizens of a representative republic, we must steward well our role as citizens who shape government.

But if pastors, ministry leaders, and lay leaders take their role seriously, they need to rethink the way they talk about the culture to the people they lead. If we are not teaching a proper “theology of exile” as Peter gives us in his Holy Spirit-inspired letter, we’re not obeying Christ’s command to “feed the sheep.” We’re giving them sour milk instead of meat, tickling their ears with what they want to hear instead of telling them what they need to hear.

Viewing our culture correctly

We fail by acting as if the cultural skirmishes are all a big misunderstanding, by genuflecting at polling data that tells us about the unpopularity of orthodoxy. If people leave church thinking that if they would just be a little nicer, their neighbors would not think biblical sexuality so strange, we’re setting them up for a confusion and failure that harms gospel witness.

Jesus perfectly articulated truth and grace and was rewarded with an ignoble crucifixion. The Apostles preached the gospel and were martyred. The early church fed the poor, cared for the diseased, and forgave their enemies—and were still fed to the lions. Christians should be civil and kind because this is a gospel trait, but not because they are under the illusion that their civility will earn them intellectual points from the culture.

We also fail our people by clinging to a nostalgic view of America that longs for a return to some halcyon days of old. A biblical anthropology doesn’t allow us to think the New Jerusalem came and left in the 1950s. Mankind has always been depraved; it’s just that the sins took different forms. Earlier generations rightly valued marriage and family but were tragically wrong on race.

This utopian longing won’t be met by looking at history through rose-colored glasses. Heaven is not in some American time capsule. Our future, as it has always been is in a city whose builder and maker is God (Heb. 11:10). Until then, the Kingdom breaks through in small doses, as God’s people live out the gospel in their communities and as the Church reflects, in part, a full reality we see in Revelation.

So Christian leaders should do as Christian leaders have always had to do: prepare their people for faithful gospel living in a culture that won’t understand a worldview that has, at its center, a dead man who rose again and is at the right hand of the Father in Heaven.

It is this worldview that helps us go into the world and make a difference, succumbing neither to a hand-wringing outrage nor a backpedaling capitulation. Instead, we go out in the joy and power of the Spirit, realizing we are not called to minister in the culture we want, but to the culture that is.