By / Jul 24

American culture is quickly evolving. Christian witness is now met with increasing resistance. The social compact that held together a fragile civil religion has been broken. In this new paradigm, many young Christians are looking for models of faithful cultural engagement.

To meet this need, Owen Strachan, author, professor, and scholar, offers an unlikely candidate: the late Chuck Colson.

For one generation of Americans, Chuck Colson was remembered only as Richard Nixon’s “hatchet man,” willing to “walk over my own grandmother” to ensure his boss’s reelection. For another generation, those familiar with his powerful conversion and decades of post-prison ministry, Colson was a leader in a renewal of Christian worldview. However, most millennial Christians are are likely unfamiliar with Colson’s life story or his work in the public square. It is Strachan’s desire, then, to introduce this titanic figure to a new generation of evangelicals. In his book The Colson Way, Strachan presents the life and work of Chuck Colson as an enduring model for those wishing to apply the gospel of the Kingdom to moral and ethical issues.  

In the marketplace of ideas, Christians have often resigned themselves to playing defense and have been reluctant or unable to articulate a positive vision of humanity. Recognizing the public square as the place where spiritual, political and cultural questions are debated, Chuck Colson’s approach was to play offense, engaging the most difficult arguments with persuasion and winsomeness.

Although not a comprehensive biography, Strachan nonetheless offers an abbreviated chronology of Colson’s life, highlighting foundational experiences, such as service in the Marine Corps and an Ivy League education at Brown University. Both military service and academic preparation would serve Colson well throughout his career, specifically as he engaged worldview conversations. Pre-conversion, pre-Watergate experiences are often overlooked in Colson studies but are vital for understanding his later work.

Strachan’s book serves a twofold purpose; it is both descriptive and prescriptive. It is descriptive, detailing the major moments, relationships and accomplishments in Chuck Colson’s life. It is prescriptive in offering a compelling vision for contemporary evangelical cultural engagement. To fully live out the gospel, followers of Christ can’t afford to adopt a pietistic approach, privatizing their faith to Sunday mornings. The people of God must advocate for human dignity, family stability, and religious liberty.

Strachan sums up Colson succinctly: “We must not privatize our convictions. We need to out our faith in the rough and tumble of a fallen world. Let us make this as plain as we can: more evangelicals, many more, need to get plugged into the momentous public square issues of the day” (139).

Chuck Colson possessed a model of public theology that outlived him. And Owen Strachan presents the best of the Watergate hatchet-man turned evangelical intellectual in an accessible format for a new generation. He details Colson’s friendships with leading theologians and pastors, and shows how these great thinkers influenced Colson and helped prompt his intellectual engagement.

Owen Strachan’s newest book is the first treatment of Chuck Colson’s life and legacy since Colson’s passing in 2012. It sets the record straight on Colson’s Watergate involvement and documents the Prison Fellowship ministry that now exerts worldwide impact. Perhaps most important for Christians, it also sheds light on how deeply transformed Chuck Colson was by the Gospel. Strachan explains: “Chuck Colson was not ruined by Watergate. He was ruined by the gospel of Jesus Christ, which hunted him like a hound of heaven and claimed him when he was at his most vulnerable” (34).

The Colson Way articulates a prophetic message through the lens of a modern day prophet. Colson’s contra mundum pro mundum (against the world, for the world) template for cultural engagement is instructive for believers looking to influence their culture. This is especially true for a generation of Christians fed a steady diet of antagonism toward a previous generation’s cultural witness.

The best biographical books examine historical figures, explain their significance, and inspire others to emulate them. Owen Strachan’s The Colson Way accomplishes these aims at a crucial time for evangelical cultural engagement. Christians will be inspired live out the gospel with kindness and conviction in the tradition of William Wilberforce, Martin Luther King Jr., and most recently, Charles Wendell Colson.

By / Jun 26

Americans now find themselves on the other side of the same-sex marriage debate. The Supreme Court has ruled, and ruled against an understanding of marriage supported by the Bible and all of human civilization. How did we reach a point where an institution older than recorded history could be redefined and altered by an idea unknown before the year 2000?

To most observers not accustomed to monitoring every cultural debate, the pace at which same-sex marriage has advanced throughout American society can easily be characterized as breathtaking. We now find ourselves less than fifteen years removed from marriage’s electoral dominance and stand on a major precipice of marriage’s continued erosion.

Yet, when we examine the academic arguments made, cultural attitudes cultivated, and court rulings issued over the last four or five decades, how we’ve arrived at our current destination is not altogether surprising. Rather, like a domino effect, the culmination of marriage’s redefinition represents a troubling and logical sequence put in place long ago and carried out quite consistently as the result of academic, cultural, and legal revolutions targeting marriage and family life.

In general, a “redefinition” occurs when the composite structure of an entity’s essence or nature has been altered, added to, or subtracted from. What does “redefinition” mean as applied to marriage? In the case of marriage, a redefinition occurs when the goods of marriage are removed from the marital union itself and experienced elsewhere in a substitute, and cheapened form. A “good” is an irreducible feature that is good for its own sake and stands on its own. This will be explained further below. Once the goods of marriage are capable of being actualized apart from marriage, marriage’s composition and poise retain less attractional pull. For the sake of this article’s argument, let us assume that marriage’s goods are threefold: Romantic union, companionship, and procreative capacity. As this article will argue, once these goods were all de-coupled from the bounds of marriage, the likelihood of marriage’s further devaluation and redefinition were inevitable.

Sex as  non-marital

Though precise dates are debated, starting in the 1950s and 1960s with the introduction of industrialized access to hormonal contraception, America began its sexual revolution. For the first time in American culture, sexual intercourse could be experienced recreationally. As a result, sexual activity as something non-conjugal, i.e., non-marital, became an increased reality. Now, it would be both ignorant and naïve to assume that up until this era people who were not married were somehow all sexually abstinent. This surely was not the case. Rather, what occurred starting in the 1950s and 1960s was the idea that sex need not occur strictly within the confines of marriage. Over time, social taboos around promiscuity lessened, such that the formerly sacred assumption that sex be reserved for marriage is now itself a taboo. Whether one calls it “pre-marital sex” or “fornication,” the idea that sex was a privileged commodity reserved only for spouses became outmoded.

No longer was the marital act—what Scripture calls “the one flesh union” (Gen 2:24)—believed necessary to occur only within in marriage. From a natural law perspective, once sex is removed from the marital boundary in which it is assumed necessary, commonplace, and proper to experience, marriage and the goods that comprise it, namely intercourse, becomes de-linked from one another. This notion of intercourse being inherently conjugal (as related to a husband and wife) is echoed in the Apostle Paul’s admonition in 1 Corinthians 6:15-17 to flee sexual immorality. According to Paul’s argumentation, and one that also comports with natural law reasoning, to sexually join one’s self to an individual not your spouse is to engage in an act assumed to be strictly marital in nature. To this line of thinking, a sexual act is a conjugal act and therefore a marital act.

Thus, once sexual intimacy is severed from marital intimacy, a redefinition of marriage and what it is reserved for has already taken place.

Sex as non-procreative

The act that seals or bonds the marriage union is the same act that brings forth life. Through the sexual union of a husband and wife, the potential for children and the common task of caring and providing for any children, are united. Though contraceptive devices vary, and indeed, while some forms are more morally problematic than others, contraception by its very nature acts to disrupt or thwart what would otherwise be the logical and teleological purpose of sexual intercourse—new life. While related to the question of fornication and de-linking sexual intercourse from marriage, the impact of contraception forged a new paradigm of sexual activity: childless sex. Once the effects of sex can be cut off from the premises of sex, it would not take long until sexual activity would be misused (and at no small harm to women and children as a result).

Now, as a Protestant Christian, I do not personally hold to a prohibitionist position concerning contraception. I have grave concerns about the contraceptive worldview taking root as a way of conveniencing one’s sex life and disavowing the blessing of children, but with respect to my Catholic friends, I do not believe contraception in all forms is itself immoral. My concerns with contraception are its effects in introducing and radicalizing sexual autonomy in general; and the aftereffects of de-linking children altogether from the sexual bond.

On the assumption that sex is (wrongly) no longer reserved for the marital union coupled with the introduction of childless sex, yet another redefinition of marriage has taken place. Once the idea is introduced that sex must no longer be procreative or allow for the possibility of bringing forth new life, one will see how overstating contraception’s contribution to marriage’s redefinition cannot be emphasized too strongly.

Once sexual intimacy is severed from procreative capacity, a redefinition of marriage and its inherent connection to family life has taken place.

Marriage and Cohabitation

In recent years, the practice of living together prior to marriage, or in place of marriage altogether, has become routine and often assumed as standard practice amongst the young adult population. Its popularity is widespread and considered yet another step in the path toward relationship success.

The phenomenon communicates something very clearly: deep, life-long commitment that only marriage was once believed to offer individuals is now available through a pseudo-form of marriage known as “living together” or, more technically, cohabitation. Singles unsure of whether their potential mate meets all the criteria, so they think, utilize the practice to test-drive what they’re eyeing as a long-term investment. This is, of course, silly, and cheapens marriage by reducing it to a pre-nuptial agreement based on preferences on whether and how badly their potential spouse impedes on their idea of a perfect spouse. Foregoing living together refines those who commit to make their marriage work, regardless of whatever unpleasant habits one spouse discovers in another.

Once sexual intimacy and life-long companionship are severed from either a legal or covenantal marker, a redefinition of marriage and its inherent connection to companionship and fidelity has taken place.

Marriage and divorce

Prior to the 1970s, one party had to admit fault in order to obtain a legal divorce. Whether adultery, abuse, or abandonment, simply walking away from a marriage out of inconvenience was not a reality allowable by law.

While obtaining a divorce was always a legal possibility prior to the advent of No-Fault Divorce (NFD) laws, the law upheld marriage as an institution assumed permanent; and divorces as an exception. While hard to pinpoint a definite correlation and causation relationship, one would have to think that it is not by coincidence that NFD arrived on the American landscape right around the time of hormonal contraception. The de-linking of sex from childbearing, the opportunity at recreational and non-committal sex, and the easy dissolution of soured marriages work together too strongly to simply be accidental.

Today, no phenomenon has helped to calcify and atrophy marriage and cause relationship burnout more than the prevalence and availability of divorce, and not without enormous social costs in its wake. From economic hardship brought on by single parenting to the emotional turmoil by those involved in a severed marriage, divorce has fundamentally altered the family make-up of the American experience.

If marriage is no longer a bedrock of permanence, the possibility of its dissolution and abandonment amounts to redefinition.

Marriage and its imitators

We now find ourselves at what seems like the culmination of marriage’s redefinition: same-sex marriage. How did we arrive at this point in time where persons of the same-sex deem themselves eligible for marriage? Because, once again, the goods of marriage that are so enticing and inherent to marriage are now assumed widely available apart from the conjugal union of a husband and wife. Once the connection between marriage and family life is severed; once sex is believed to function non-procreatively; once companionship is esteemed and valuated apart from a bond of permanence, it is necessarily logical that the gay community will desire to imitate what heterosexual marriage once exclusively fulfilled in its own bounds. Thus, arriving where we have at this stage in modernity, it should be no surprise that once the goods of marriage have collapsed beneath the weight of heterosexual revision, attempts by gay persons to experience not only the goods of marriage, but the essence of marriage, will occur as well.

Same-sex marriage represents the height of irrationality that attends to marriage’s breakdown. The logic of same-sex marriage presents no limiting principle in itself that won’t further chip away at marriage’s intelligibility. There’s no inherent principle attending to same-sex marriage that explains why loosening marriage of its complementary structure won’t also lead to its loosening of exclusivity and permanency as others grounds of marriage’s intelligibility. Those of us engaged in the debate about family structure in America have been predicting this for some time, often to the laughs and jeers of our opponents. But if any principle can stand true amidst the sexual revolution, it is this: Give it enough time, and anything is possible.

Conclusion: Defining marriage down

Marriage is threadbare in America. We’ve reached a time where the marriage rates show fewer persons choosing to marry. At the same time, individuals who do choose to marry are doing so at later ages than ever before. While still regarded as a cherished institution due to the attention and flare of the wedding industry, marriage cannot be said to be in a prosperous state in American culture, and throughout must of the Western civilization. What we’re witnessing amidst the redefinition of marriage is the negation of marriage itself. Once the goods of marriage are redefined apart from marriage, and celebrated and heralded as goods located outside of marriage, the prosperity of a civilization and its connection to marriage and family life grow dimmer.

We lament the moment we’re in. But that won’t stop our advocacy.

By / Apr 1

I know a Kansas City resident who could have lived in first-century Rome. He’s not that old, of course, but he knows that much about ancient Mediterranean history and culture. Every time he talks about the New Testament, I learn something new that’s not available in modern commentaries.  

When he handed me a copy of Timothy Savage’s, Power through Weakness: Paul’s Understanding of the Christian Ministry in 2 Corinthians and said, “Brother, you have to read this,” I knew I had to read it right away. So I did and with just the result that my Roman time-traveler anticipated.  

Savage’s work allowed me to see Paul’s letters in a new way; and since then, I don’t think there’s another book that I’ve recommended as often.

We are what the Corinthians were

Therefore, when an invitation came to rave about a significant ethical work, this title sprang to mind. It doesn’t quite fit the profile—not at first, anyway. After all, it deals with 2 Corinthians, not abortion, gay marriage or religious liberty. It’s a work of exegesis, not a treatise on public policy. Yet, I have a theory: if we can see why Paul had enemies in Corinth—people who hated his preaching of the cross—we will face today’s ethical debates with sanctified déjà vu.  

Things have changed since Paul’s day, no doubt; but human nature hasn’t, or at least not enough to make the Apostle’s troubles entirely foreign to us. What the Corinthians once were, we now are. The fit is close enough to be useful.  

Rejecting the cross in Corinth

Savage’s argument begins with an account of Corinthian social life and values, because these factors explain why Paul’s ministry and message would be rejected by unregenerate pagans. The latter were treating temporal goods as ultimate ends, trying to surpass each other in wisdom, eloquence, power, wealth, beauty and victory. Life was a contest, a zero-sum, shame-and-honor struggle, where victory meant everything—especially to freedmen and people of lesser or ignoble birth.  

Thus, we should have expected the Corinthians to despise Paul’s message of the cross, dismissing it as idiocy. Only fools would believe that a crucified Jew, abandoned on slave’s wood, is the Lord and Savior (1 Cor. 1:18). Who could accept this offensive message? How could Pauline weakness—carrying in his body that kind of death—be a conduit of supernatural power? As arrogant social-climbers, the Corinthians rejected Paul and his message, favoring the alpha men who offered to replace the Apostle and preach a cross-free gospel.

But it gets worse. Paul’s gospel implies that love is cruciform and that boasting is allowed only if its object is Christ. We must do more than put ourselves second: we come in last, after the Lord himself and everyone else, too. In this sense, discipleship inverts the world’s core-values, leaving no room for self-regard or pride. Pagans sense this fact intuitively and recoil from Christian morality as something immoderate and unreasonable.  

So we come to today’s ethical scene, with new light from Paul’s letters to Corinth and a living color applied with Savage’s help.

The deeper catalyst behind ethical questions

On the one hand, we know that some arguments in ethical theory involve mostly factual disagreements; and the latter give us plenty of trouble, all by themselves. If life has begun, it shouldn’t be unjustly ended. But when does life begin? If the purpose of sexuality is procreation, then homosexuality is wrong. But is that the purpose of sexuality? Does sexuality have any purpose? People should be cared for until their lives end. But when does someone’s life really end?  

Lost people answer these questions in one way, and we answer them in another. In this sense, some debates turn largely on matters of description, not on judgments of ultimate value. On the other hand, if our culture resembles ancient Corinth—and we can hardly miss the overlap—PTW suggests a darker force at work, one that could intensify today’s struggle between biblical right and secular wrong.

Maybe the today’s antinomians are just selfish, after all, and driven by shame-and-honor priorities. It’s a familiar problem, and no one in this life fully escapes the temptation. We know what it’s like to make idols of wealth, power, beauty, victory and wisdom—to keep score and forget our neighbors. We know what it’s like to demand a reasonable gospel that entails feasible sacrifices. Thus, we should expect to find similar failings outside the church, this time going deeper and doing more damage.  

Why, then, do parents kill their imperfect children in the womb, children developing without limbs or conceived at the wrong time? Why do people get divorced so often? Why do they use their votes to seize other people’s money? Why do they want to define marriage as “state-sponsored PDA”? How did “No” become so offensive? Each question suggests a failure of moral insight in our society, as if the options presented were being judged by an alien yardstick, a radically different standard. But what is the standard?

We have given away the answer already. People may sin, as they do in these cases, because they have ascended thrones, in essence, and feel entitled. They know what the facts are about human life. They know that homosexuality isn’t normal and isn’t right. They know that unborn children are children. They know that the purpose of government is not to achieve by proxy what one would never do in person—e.g., accessing other people’s money without working for it. Parents shouldn’t abandon their children or deprive them of either one by divorce.  

But when these “No’s” are heard, another voice rises to meet it, a voice from ancient Corinth and within each of us, if we yield to it. This second voice says, “I’m entitled.” I’m entitled to a perfect baby, born on my schedule. I’m entitled to smooth skin and a happy, tailor-fit marriage with someone young, attractive and unproblematic. I need a stylish car, sexual gratification, whenever and with whomever. It’s an old lie that stays green all year round, a lie that fools the wise egoist every time. Cross this line, bright one, and you’ll fall for that ancient lie of the serpent: “You shall be as God.”

By / Apr 29

The question for this episode is, “What do you think is the biggest threat to religious liberty, and how should the church respond?”

Well, I mean I think the biggest threat right now when it comes to religious liberty has to do with the sexual issues. In the founding era of the republic most of the problems that our Baptist forbears were dealing with had to do with the government setting up and funding Anglican churches. It really wasn’t about Anglicanism, it was about money. You’ve got an establishment that likes the government money, likes the government power, and they want to run out the competition. That’s what it’s really about.

Now it’s not so much about money. It’s about sex. And so you are dealing with, I’m dealing with, every single day I’ve been dealing all day long with the sorts of issues where for instance you have a Christian who says I can’t by conscience participate in this same-sex wedding by being the photographer or by renting out the hall or something like that—now, being prosecuted, having fines levied against—those sorts of things are happening increasingly. That’s also what is happening with for instance the HHS mandate saying you really don’t have any choice but to fund or empower drugs that you believe to be violating your free exercise of religion.

And then things like Catholic adoption agencies in Massachusetts that aren’t able to be in business anymore because they’re saying we place children only in homes with both a mom and dad. They are not saying we think everybody else ought to be illegal. They are saying that we—and they can’t get a state license to do it. And so that’s where I think right now the locus of religious liberty issues in this country is.

And I think one of the problems too is that for a long time evangelical Christianity at the lay-populous level has had a narrow vision of religious liberty because we haven’t had a lot of threats to it in a real sense. So what has happened is really two things that I think make my job a lot more difficult now is that you have had some people who haven’t thought through that what our Baptist forbears were saying is right—that religious liberty is an image-of-God issue. It’s not a who-has-the-most-votes issue. And so that means we’re the people who ought to be saying the loudest no, no, no, no, we don’t want the mayor and the city council to say that a mosque can’t be in our town. Because a mayor and a city council that can say that, is a mayor and a city council—because it’s a mosque—that has too much power. And the government doesn’t decide that. We’ve got to be the people who are saying that.

And then secondly we’ve had a lot of people who have cried wolf over situations, they’ve cried persecution when there is no persecution, which is just as dangerous as saying peace, peace, when there is no peace—if you say war, war, where there is no war. So you have these kind of fake senses of we’re aggrieved; we’re persecuted because the lady at WalMart says, “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” What happens when that goes on long enough—and it’s every single year the same sort of thing happens—then you wind up with people saying yeah, that’s what they always say. So they don’t pay attention when there really are serious restrictions of free exercise and religious liberty that now are coming upon us.