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What if you could travel back in time a hundred years?

The early 1900s were a time when technology was progressing by leaps and bounds. The age of science and reason had stirred up a sense of optimism across North America. New methods of studying the Scriptures had become popular, with critical analysis now applied to the Bible.

Let’s say you dropped in on a meeting with a pastor and a theologian discussing how the gospel would best spread in the 20th century.

As you listen in, you hear the theologian say something like this:

“Christianity is in trouble. The Bible is full of supernatural events and miracles, and we can’t expect people in our scientific age to believe in these stories without question. The idea of the virgin birth is simply astounding to educated people in our time.”

The pastor responds:

“What are you saying? That we should abandon these truths? Christians have always believed these things.”

“No, no,” comes the reply. “I’m not saying we deny these miracle stories altogether. But surely we could downplay them. Why not avoid aspects of the faith that may embarrass educated Christians in our time?”

“Are you sure this would help our mission?” the pastor asks.

“I believe so,” says the theologian. “After all, the miracles aren’t the center of Christianity. What is truly breathtaking about our faith is its emphasis on bettering the world—the moral truths that show God as our father and all mankind as brothers. Let’s focus on the morality of Christianity, not the miracles. Otherwise, we are causing unnecessary offense and hindering our mission.”

Conversation That Made Sense

This conversation from a hundred years ago made sense to a lot of people. The Christians in that time wanted to reach as many people as possible. They wanted to faithfully embody the gospel. It makes sense that some would think the best way forward was to avoid the unpopular aspects of Christianity, such as its emphasis on the miraculous.

If I could travel back in time, I’d interrupt the conversation between the pastor and the theologian. I’d tell them:

“A hundred years from now, people will be talking about how the fastest-growing movement within Christianity is Pentecostalism—a movement of Christians who emphasize miracles and healings in the present. And the churches that downplayed or denied the supernatural claims of Christianity are now in a massive numerical freefall.”

I can imagine their surprise. You mean the groups that didn’t downplay but actually reveled in the supernatural grew the most? And the groups that downplayed the miracles have nearly disappeared?

It’s easy to think that the best way for Christianity to grow is to emphasize the palatable parts for a culture and avoid the offensive. But surely the last century shows us that the very claims that were most embarrassing to a scientific age became the most attractive elements of Christianity.

From Controversy Over Miracles to Morality

Today, pastors and theologians are in a similar conversation. Miracles aren’t under the spotlight. Christian morality is. The goodness and beauty of Christianity’s sexual ethic reserves sexual expression for a man and woman within the covenant of marriage, and says no to all other sexual behavior and lust, whether it be pornography, or sex before marriage, or adultery.

A hundred years ago, some said we should focus on morality apart from the miracles. Today, some say we should focus on miracles apart from Christian morality.

It makes sense, doesn’t it? I have single friends in their 30s and 40s who have chosen to live according to Jesus’s teaching and pursue chastity. They say people think they’re strange, backward, and repressed for their views. Sexual abstinence is harmful in the eyes of a society that sees sexual expression as the pinnacle of human flourishing.

Strategically, it would make sense to shift the Christian vision of sexuality and marriage, wouldn’t it? Why focus on these embarrassing aspects of our faith? Why not deny the historic Christian teaching (as many revisionist theologies do, to align with the ideology of the sexual revolution), or at least downplay these teachings (as many pragmatic ministries do, to keep people from turning away)? Wouldn’t that remove obstacles that hinder Christianity’s flourishing?

No.

If the lesson from the last century is any indication, ground zero for explosive gospel witness is the place where we are most likely to run afoul of the cultural authorities.

Ground Zero for Explosive Gospel Witness

What if, a hundred years from now, the Christians who have exploded in growth and passion across the world are the ones that sought to reaffirm and embody the historic Christian teaching on sexuality and family? What if we are on the verge of a 21st century of attractive Christian witness because of our morality, not in spite of it?

One of the chapters in This Is Our Time is called “Sex Rebels” because it makes the case that Christians in our generation will be known for dissent. In the 1960s and ’70s, the sexual rebels were the hippies who wanted to throw off moral restraints in favor of “free love.” In the 21st century, the sexual rebels will be Christians who dissent from sexual revolution dogma.

But even in dissent, there’s no reason to be gloomy about the task we have before us. If we’re going to be outcasts and dissenters, let’s be the kind of rebels that don’t just expose the lies of the sexual revolution. Let’s answer the longings of our society by offering an entirely different vision of sex and marriage. Let’s declare what God is for. And let’s trust that a hundred years from now, the Christian truth will be as solid as ever, even if the cultural challenges have changed.


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13 thoughts on “The Future of Christianity May Be Different Than You Think”

  1. Philmonomer says:

    Time will tell.

  2. Doug W says:

    “Let’s answer the longings of our society by offering an entirely different vision of sex and marriage. Let’s declare what God is for.”

    An often overlooked impetus of the Reformation was Luther’s bashing of celibacy and emphatic promotion of marriage in its place. This had the tendency to empty the monasteries and convents of the day. Luther started a sexual revolution. In marriage the passions of the men and women found legitimate expression. This sexual aspect added tremendous force to what we commonly look at today as a simple doctrinal event. It is sad to see that there is a strong movement again toward the promotion of celibacy among Christians.

    The Song of Songs is noted for its explicit portrayal of erotic sex between a man and a woman. It is not even clear if this couple is married. The emphasis is not on the marriage ceremony but instead the erotic love. Perhaps the Song’s emphasis is the sole reason our Creator providentially placed it in our bibles, to counteract our tendency toward the opposite.

    That said, it is doubtful we will ever see a powerful resurgence of the Gospel without a corresponding resurgence of erotic Christian marriage; marriage that in addition to hot sex, produces children to replicate these romantic relationships.

    This is what Christ will honor.

  3. Colin says:

    Amen!

    I like your ending. “Let’s declare what God is for.”

    Let’s declare God’s love by loving one another in the church. Without this morality becomes legalism. The world sees that in the church today and runs away.

    May God grant us grace to portray His kingdom by loving one another as Jesus said.

  4. Kevin says:

    Concerning the miraculous, I am currently reading “Miracles”, an 1100 page scholarly work by Craig Keener. He documents the roots of the anti-supernaturalism from the so-called Enlightenment and asks us how we compare with what we are seeing in, what he calls, the Majority World. According to his estimation, there are 300 million people in the world who have witnessed some form of miracle or, as Keener calls it, and I agree, Divine causation. In his book (I’m about 1/4 through it) he documents literally hundreds of healings done on the basis of prayer (though not exclusively) of which many of them, though not all, have correlating medical documentation.

    This also reminds me of Nik Ripkins’ book “The Insanity of God” where he ventured out to find out how Western Christians could help the persecuted church and his conclusion was that it is *us*, not them, who need the help. I am no charismatic, and I strongly doubt I will ever be one, but I think that we miss out on a good bit of the joy that the New Testament talks about when we limit God because David Hume says so.

    With these two books alone I get the strong feeling that those of us who are Western Christians are not even aware of how we’ve parched our spiritual landscape. It is to our shame that we have done so.

  5. doug sayers says:

    Great thoughts here, Trevin. It seems that we are “always reforming” because we are always drifting.

    Thanks.

  6. Jeff Rickel says:

    This and your earlier article, Morality vs Miracles referenced above are excellent. God is Holy and makes us Holy. He is also wholly supernatural and interacts in our lives. What is this either or stuff? Our salvation rests on a relationship and two way interaction with the creator of the universe. When we seek to make it less than that it becomes merely another religion, and we must never descend to this level. How can any scientist claim there are no unknown or unseen forces in the universe? The voyage into the unknown and unexplained is what science is all about.

    John 17:3
    Now this is eternal life: that they know you,the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent

    Psalm 50:14-15
    “Sacrifice thank offerings to God, fulfill your vows to the Most High, and call on me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you will honor me.”

    Psalm 27:1-6
    The Lord is my light and my salvation — whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life — of whom shall I be afraid? When the wicked advance against me to devour me, it is my enemies and my foes who will stumble and fall. Though an army besiege me, my heart will not fear; though war break out against me, even then I will be confident.
    One thing I ask from the Lord, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple. For in the day of trouble he will keep me safe in his dwelling; he will hide me in the shelter of his sacred tent and set me high upon a rock. Then my head will be exalted above the enemies who surround me; at his sacred tent I will sacrifice with shouts of joy; I will sing and make music to the Lord.

    Psalm 103:1-5
    Praise the Lord, my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name. Praise the Lord, my soul, and forget not all his benefits— who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases,
    who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion, who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

    1 Peter 1:3-5, 13-15
    Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.
    Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming. As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.”

  7. DCal3000 says:

    This is a very encouraging piece. I’m grateful to see The Gospel Coalition continuing to adhere to Christian orthodoxy on morality.

  8. Curt Day says:

    It isn’t the Christian sexual ethic that is being criticized as much as the Christian practice of marginalizing some who don’t follow that practice. In particular, the Christian practice of marginalizing the LGBT community.

    We have to remember that we are in Post Modern age. In that age, truth is determined by whether or not it has been misused to exploit or dominate others. And remember that science and reason are suffering the same fate as Christianity and other faiths.

    In addition, the Christian rejection of Science when it talks about climate change and its lesser rejection of the social sciences sometimes puts us in the same league as the Post Modernists who reject the objective truths of the Scriptures.

    1. Alistair says:

      Curt, I think your framing of the issue is interesting, but ultimately wrong. Yes, the presenting cry is that Christians have marginalised the LGBT community and others, but the issue is more that Christianity declares homosexuality and extra-marital sexual intercourse to be wrong. It is that declaration that is reframed as “marginalising” in order to play the Bible’s sexual ethics against the Bible’s social ethics. It’s a clever trick, because it forces Christians to self-critique using alien criterion, leading them to choose one side or the other.
      The need -which slowly being filled – is to make explicit the biblical theology of sex, gender and family that up until recently was taken for granted. But, like the Pentecostals, it may not happen through theological discourse, but recovering lived experience in a piecemeal fashion and playing catchup with God’s own work.

      Good article, Trevin. I enjoyed it. Thanks.

  9. Curt Day says:

    Alistair,
    What in the world compels us to have society punish people for engaging in unbiblical sexual practices between consenting adults? See, having society punish people for such sexual practices is what marginalization is all about. And that kind of action seems to be outside of Paul’s concern in I Corinthians 5: 12-13.

    Yes, we should preach against unbiblical sexual practices. And we should ensure that our church members are not engaged in such practices. But to have society punish people is not only not promoted by the NT writers, it has done much to unnecessarily dishonor the Gospel. Of course, we should note what those in the LGBT community suffer from such efforts.

    1. Alistair says:

      Curt, you seem to be having a different conversation from me. I did not even mention society punishing people. But, since you brought it up…
      It is certainly not the Church’s responsibility to punish anyone, but to proclaim the gospel. However, a consequence of the gospel taking hold in a society may be that certain sins are outlawed and punished. I am confident that you can think of sins that you are happy to see legally and societally suppressed. The difference with the sin of homosexuality is that it has undergone a public relations revolution, so that even faithful Christians see no harm in it as long as it involves two consenting adults. It just happens to be a sin that, if not repented of, will make you subject to God’s judgment, but that does not mean we should offend people.

      The problem is, the bible does not present this sin in such inoffensive terms. While the public relations revolution would like us to think that any criticism of homosexuality is a marginalisation of the person, the Bible makes clear that the person is of incredible value, and so we don’t make peace with the sin. We do not marginalise an alcoholic when we do not accept their alcoholism. Nor do we marginalise an obese person when we state that their weight is a problem (I speak as an overweight person myself).

      These biblical categories of love for the person and rejection of sin have been over-ridden by the dominant identity categories and black and white thinking present in our society. Homosexuality is a sin and should not be dealt with as anything less for the love of those involved and those watching.

      That is not marginalisation.

  10. Doug says:

    Curt,

    You seem to be isolating Paul from what he says about the non-Church role of Government in Romans 13, which is to protect society from the permeation of evil, specifically by punishing evil doers.

    These verses: “For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside.” (1 Corinthians‬ ‭5:12-13‬ ‭ESV‬‬) should be taken together with Romans 13 where Government is stated to be God’s minister of wrath: “Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” ‭‭(Romans‬ ‭13:2-4‬ ‭ESV‬‬)

    We must rightly distinguish between the role of the Church and the duty of Government.

  11. Curt Day says:

    Doug,
    I fully agree that we must distinguish between the duties of Church and the duties of government. And I think Paul’s attitude expressed at the end of I Cor 5 helps us understand the distinctions that must be made.

    If the only difference between the duties of government and those of the Church is in the kind of punishment each one can hand to wrongdoer, then the government is doing nothing more than being a supplemental disciplinary arm of the Church. And the Church would be ignoring Jesus’s warning not to lord it over others.

    Now if the above is not the only difference between the two, then what other differences should exist? That is why I cited I Cor 5 and one could include what Jesus said when He talked about church discipline. For one of the most important factors here is issue of how we should share society with unbelievers. And in sharing society, should we rightfully expect the government and the Church to use the identical standards for judging evil. Or do the standards used by each show further distinctions between the duties of government and the duties of the Church?

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Trevin Wax


​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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