Editors’ Note: During the last few decades books such as The Gagging of God by D. A. Carson and No Place for Truth by David Wells spoke prophetically about the church’s response to changing cultural trends. The Gospel Coalition’s Theological Vision for Ministry affirms the need for such wise assessment, because “we want to be a church that not only gives support to individual Christians in their personal walks with God, but one that also shapes them into the alternative human society God creates by his Word and Spirit.” So TGC editors asked several writers to identify the cultural trends currently challenging the church to be faithful Christians in the world and suggest how we might we respond.
There might be only one thing harder than uniting Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant church leaders: uniting liberal and conservative Catholics. The Obama administration managed to do both by requiring Catholic institutions to provide contraception, which violates church teaching. The united front eventually split when President Obama announced insurance companies would foot the bill instead.
Even among most Catholics, contraception is hardly more controversial than Aspirin. Evangelicals, for the most part, don’t share the same qualms over the Pill as the Vatican. So why the alarm? Why do more than 300 religious leaders agree, “This is a grave violation of religious freedom and cannot stand”?
Sexual ethics dramatize the dispute. But this is bigger than even abortion. Christians sense an imminent, serious threat to their Constitutional right to freely exercise religion. They see the looming threat from courts that don’t think churches should have equal access to meet in public schools. From city councils that ignore federal legislation and prevent churches from building. From universities that require Christian ministries to admit members who openly reject biblical standards.
Same-sex marriage appears to be the next great threat to Christians’ rights. As our fellow Americans continue to find new rights in this 18th-century document, we discover that some of these rights conflict with our biblical convictions and commission. We dare defend our old rights against their new ones! Or do we? Not if the cost is our witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. And that’s what we often sacrifice with adversarial arguments intended to defend our rights to practice Christianity according to our conscience.
What They Did to Jesus
To be clear, I support Christians pursuing political and legal means of defending their constitutional rights. This is our responsibility as citizens of a republic built on the foundation of the U. S. Constitution. We do not rebel and thereby violate Romans 13 by protesting the President, Congress, or Supreme Court, who swear to abide by and defend this social contract. When Jewish leaders plotted to kill the apostle Paul, he appeared before Festus, governor of Judea, and appealed on the basis of his Roman citizenship to Caesar. Paul understood and exercised his political rights (Acts 25:1-12).
I give thanks, then, for statements such as the Manhattan Declaration, which informs the public about their rights and encourages government officials to abide by the Constitution. “We will fully and ungrudgingly render to Caesar what is Caesar’s,” the declaration says, following the teaching of Jesus and the apostles. “But under no circumstances will we render to Caesar what is God’s.”
The declaration rightly roots religious freedom in the example of Christ and human creation in the image of God. Indeed, Jesus is the King of the universe, but he did not come to earth and assume power as a tyrant. I wonder, however, if we’re learning all the right lessons from Jesus’ life. After all, he won our redemption by submitting to political execution. His followers, many of whom likewise perished at the hands of the state, turned the world upside down by trusting God and enduring every hardship, not by exercising what few rights they could claim.
The Bible, then, suggests we dare not trust in our political rights but God alone to advance the kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. While thankful for our rights to worship God according to our conscience, we don’t need them; by the power of the Holy Spirit we’ll endure any trial. Governments can do nothing worse to us than they did to our Master.
Irony, Tragedy, Possibility
Few Christians—certainly not the drafters of the Manhattan Declaration—would argue otherwise. For Jesus taught in Matthew 10:28, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” We fear not presidents or bureaucrats but the God in heaven who made them in his image and will judge us all one day. So why does politics scare us into a defensive posture? We can’t be commending the gospel with our doomsday scenarios, the stock and trade of any successful advocacy group today that depends on fundraising. Does anyone see our complaints and thereby associate us with the Jesus of his revealed Word?
Again, I am not saying political action and gospel ministry are mutually exclusive. I am concerned, however, that we Christians have fallen prey to our political culture’s self-destructive ressentiment. James Davison Hunter describes the meaning of this French word, borrowed from Friedrich Nietzsche, in his book To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. You don’t need me to explain the definition. Just turn on your preferred cable news network or tune your AM radio dial, and you’ll feel the suffocating sense of injury born from a sense of entitlement. Ressentiment makes our culture go ’round with endless stories of perceived slights by enemies. The resentful feels powerless to act except by exacting his revenge against call-in show hosts and blog moderators. Christian media hardly differ from secular counterparts in attracting and perpetuating such venom. This response from Christians neither commends our faith to unbelievers nor bolsters our trust in the sovereign God.
“The tragic irony is that in the name of resisting the dark nihilisms of the modern age, Christians—in their will to power the ressentiment that fuels it—perpetuate that nihilism,” Hunter writes. “In so doing, Christians undermine the message of the very gospel they cherish and desire to advance.”
Endowed by the Creator
Those of us who live in democracies give thanks that we can be involved in the political process and shape policies out of love for our neighbors. But we seem to be fighting a losing cause of late, at least in the United States. Our vision for the common good is being eclipsed by a new order that seems not to understand Western culture’s debt to the Christian vision for humanity. Contrary to appearances, this new vision does not support a “live and let live” ethic. Religion continues its centuries-long retreat into the private sphere. Christians replace gays in the closet. Our future feels tenuous, so we appeal to help from the state. But we haven’t yet determined if the state is friend or foe.
“For democracies, like all governments, are based on affirming and supporting certain values and visions of reality, and proscribing others,” D. A. Carson writes in his new book The Intolerance of Tolerance. “But when the values and visions of reality that sustained such democracies in the past shrivel away, in the domains where the shriveling takes place the only über-value is the new tolerance, backed up by the coercive power of the state.”
We may have only a few reasons for optimism about the difference we can make in coming days. But neither should we fall prey to faithless pessimism. Though embattled, thousands of evangelical churches thrive across the country. We can learn from the example of congregations worldwide that maintain a vigorous witness where Christian rights have been restricted most severely. Or we can look back to the body of beleaguered believers encouraged thus by the apostle Peter: “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers,they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation” (1 Peter 2:12).
Though slandered and scattered, these believers trusted that God would glorify himself among unbelievers through their good deeds and patient endurance. That’s the ethic captured in The Gospel Coalition’s Theological Vision for Ministry. Notably, this document says nothing about our rights. But it does hold out hope for significant cultural influence if we seek service rather than power. And it warns, “But if we seek direct power and social control, we will, ironically, be assimilated into the very idolatries of wealth, status, and power we seek to change.”
We dare not defend our rights if this defense assimilates us into the culture of ressentiment. State-sanctioned persecution would be a better fate. But there is a better way, laid out by Carson at the end of The Intolerance of Tolerance. Let us practice civility toward our neighbors, believers or not. Preach the gospel and watch seeds of faith sprout. Be prepared to suffer—“For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12).
All the while, trust and delight in God. No one can snatch your joy from the Father’s hand. But you can squander divine delight and squelch the witness of the Spirit by fighting for your rights while forgetting the sovereign Creator who endows them.
Also in “The Church and the Cultural Challenge” series: